Temporal Form, Ritual and the Sense of Shame: The Symbolic Form of Fire

Vol. 43 No. 4   12/2013    


Temporal Form, Ritual and the Sense of Shame: The Symbolic Form of Fire


Yang, Rur-bin  









Key words

sun, fire, ritual, interior alchemy, courage, shame  


        Among the five elements, the origins of the element fire are the most mysterious. Although the other four elements are connected with heaven in one way or another, their essences are nevertheless rooted in earth. By contrast, the source of fire was thought to be in the heavens; in particular, in the sun and the star called “great fire.” The sun, moon and stars all follow set courses, which constituted the origins of the temporal dimensions of the year, month and days. Time is thus the foundation upon which all experience is established, or what Kant calls “form.” Among the sun, moon and stars, the heat emitted by the sun can be viewed as “heavenly fire,” which was used in reverential offerings to the spirits. Fire also made possible cooked food, which gave rise to both civilization and social order. It moreover kindled the concepts of “heavenly fire,” “sacrificial fire,” and “cooked food,” which were the origins of ritual.
        Fire brought with it illumination and kinetic energy, and as such it was the source of life. One type of subtle life-giving fire was called “refined essence,” and refined essence can fundamentally be read as a synonym of qi. The conscientization of qi was precisely the original mind of the fundamental nature’s refined essence, and similar concepts describing this mind include the “innate knowledge of the good,” the “mind within the mind” and the “great mind.” The original mind’s natural aspect is qi (its appositional phrases include night qi, innate qi, and the mother of qi). Following the Warring States period, individuals began to study this life-giving fire. The dao of interior alchemy is learning dedicated to cultivating the natural aspects of qi; the practical philosophy of the Confucian dao, which seeks to transform the preserved condition of human beings through conscious effort, changes one’s constitution through qi in order to verify transcendence.
        Due to the fact that fire possesses the meanings of kinetic energy and illumination, it imbued the practical implementation of human ethics with a sufficient motive force. The virtues of courage, shame, correcting errors, and the refusal to countenance wrongs were all derived from the spirit of fire. Among the five elements, only fire manifests the power of negativity inherent in self-reflection and self-criticism. It moreover shares points of connection with the notions of repentance and sin found in the great religions of the world.



Author: Yang, Rur-bin
Genre: Article