Violence/Order, Transformation, and Immortality: The Root Metaphors of Gold

Vol. 38 No. 4   12/2008    


Violence/Order, Transformation, and Immortality: The Root Metaphors of Gold


Rur-bin Yang









Key words

gold, root metaphor, immortality, justice, violence, order, alchemy


  Gold is one of the Five Phases, basic categories in traditional Chinese culture. Gold has two different meanings. One denotes gold itself; the other meaning includes all metals, but usually refers to bronze. The term gold in this paper covers both. The present paper regards the Five Phases as basic metaphors, which we can call root metaphors. Gold as a root metaphor has three symbolic meanings. One is the unity of the opposition between violence and order: Gold is associated with the smith and the warrior, who make and use bronze-iron weapons to destroy the status quo. Nevertheless, order and disorder are androgynous. Gold always sends a message of war as well as of establishment. The second kind of symbolic meaning of gold is transformation. Alchemy presupposes the transformation from valueless metals into valuable gold, which requires a long refinement process. The third meaning is immortality. There are two branches of science concerned with resisting the threat of time. One is the study of bronze and stone inscriptions (金石之學), and the other is alchemy. The former was established as a permanent repository of history; the latter was believed to make humans immortal. The first symbolic meaning mentioned above is incarnated in the concept of yi (, justice), similar to key concepts of Legalism and the School of War. The third symbol, immortality, gradually transforms its meaning. Matter, including bronze artifacts and diamonds, like the human body, cannot escape the destruction of time. Genuine immortality is believed to exist only in the transcendental plane, like the Great Mind or Human Nature. Thus, Gold becomes a real metaphor.



Author: Rur-bin Yang
Genre: Article