This year  is the 700th anniversary of the birth of Liu Ji (1311-1375), military commander of Chinese forces both on land and on sea and long-time advisor to the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, whom he helped bring to power.
Liu Ji, who eventually became grand chancellor at the imperial court, was a man of protean interests and the author or co-author of books on warfare including comprehensive treatises on the use of gunpowder in firearms (Huolongjing), and, in particular, on the use of the medieval Chinese firearm known as the fire lance. Liu Ji (who is at least as well-known by his honorific or “courtesy” name of Liu Bowen) also wrote works on astronomy, the calendar, magnetism, geomancy, feng-shui, and other subjects skirting the supernatural.
In this latter category, he wrote one book that holds the same fascination for us today as it did for Liu Ji’s contemporaries. This is the Shaobing ge (The Baked Cake Ballad), a collection of prophecies of future events. The predictions are cloaked in a welter of abstract, allusive and arcane language. They seem to be stunningly accurate in their prediction of future events (such as the coming of Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, in 1911). They bid fair to being compared to the prophetic Centuries of Michel de Nostradamus, the French prognosticator who wrote 200 years in Liu Ji’s future.
Basing his calculations on knowledge of cycles covering 50-year periods, this Chinese Nostradamus prophesied that the 50-year period from 1860-1910 would unfold as follows:
Strong nations will seek to subdue weak ones while oppressed nations and people will rise in strife to throw off their unvirtuous rulers. The people in China, likewise, will agitate and revolt against their foreign rulers from the North. The country will be weak and divided as it will be suffering from all these conflicts and other calamities.1
In a discussion of Liu Ji and his prophecies, in Occult magazine, Sybil Leek writes that,
In more specific terms, Liu Ji pointed out that his people would see great floods in the years of the swine (1873), the snake (1887) and the goat (1893) and 1911, another year of the swine. He indicated that within twenty-four years after the greatest flood, the existing rulership of the country would meet with great difficulties and dangers of an overwhelming nature, and the Wise Man in the name of the Moon would arise as the new sage and statesman to act for the cause and destiny of the country. The ‘Wise Man in the Name of the Moon’ is the birth name of Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic.
Leek goes on to explain:
China was weakened by the Taiping Rebellion and the actions of the revolutionaries from 1860 onwards. The great flood took place in 1877, the year of the swine. There were wars with France, England and Japan in 1865, 1884 and 1895, each of which brought humiliation and losses of territory to the Manchu dynasty. The final crisis took place in 1911 when the Chinese revolution broke out to overthrow the once great and long Manchu regime, exactly 24 years after the great flood of the Yellow River. Other important historic events in this 50-year era were: the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905; the Japanese conquest of Korea in 1911; the Spanish-American War of 1898-1899; and the French annexation of Indochina in 1883.2
Does the warrior, politician, prognosticator of the future and explorer of ancient “New Age” lore known as Liu Ji or Liu Bowen have the right to be called “the Chinese Nostradamus?”
There are those who think so. Others contend that, while Liu Ji genuinely was a figure of great power and importance amidst the clashing ideologies, peoples, and life styles of fourteenth-century China, much of Shaobing ge was composed hundreds of years later, after many of the events it “predicts” had taken place, and was fraudulently credited with Liu Ji’s name in order to bestow divine legitimacy on those events. This school of thought traces the inception of the Shaobing ge not to the Ming or even the Qing era, but to the work of fiction writers and the propagandists of anti-Manchu sectarian organisations and secret societies that flourished in the early eighteenth century.3
Some hold there really was a Shaobing ge, composed by Liu Ji and consisting of prophetic messages – but it was greatly adumbrated, added to, and revised in later centuries, becoming the centrepiece of a number of Chinese messianic documents built on, in the words of Barend J. ter Haar, “the concrete expectation that one or more saviours will descend to earth to rescue a select group of human beings from imminent or currently raging apocalyptic disasters.”4
What really happened may be a complex mixture of all the above – including the exciting if uncomfortable fact that Liu Ji may really have produced predictions for the future, some of which have come true in stunning fashion.
The Chinese World of the 14th-15th Centuries
A brief look at the tumultuous times in which Liu Ji lived and left his mark may provide the beginnings of an answer.
Late fourteenth-century and early fifteenth-century China under the Ming dynasty saw the last great flowering of Chinese culture before a lengthy period of stagnation that ended only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Paper (100 BCE), the seismograph (132 CE), gunpowder (220 CE), and printing (movable wooden blocks by the sixth century CE, movable type by the eleventh) – all these were only a few of the inventions that China had developed centuries before the West, and it had pioneered such devices as the compass, the stirrup, suspension bridges, canal locks, iron chains, and water-powered mills and looms as well.
Under the Ming, China brought these advanced technologies to the height of efficiency. Art (particularly pottery), printed texts of every sort (a preponderance of them being scholarly), and architecture (both sacred and profane), flourished as never before. Defences, paved highways, bridges, temples and shrines, stupas, tombs, memorial arches and rock gardens were built in profusion. The walls of some five hundred cities were reconstructed. According to a legend that has followed him up to modern times along with that of his prowess as a prognosticator, Liu Ji himself was “an ingenious builder of imperial cities.”5
From 1405 to 1433, the eunuch admiral Zheng He, born four years before Liu Ji died, would lead at least one expedition of 200 (perhaps even 371) ships, some of them the tallest in the world, on a diplomatic and exploratory mission to South-east Asia, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Persian Gulf, the Arab states and the Red Sea. Gavin Menzies speculates, in 1421: The Year China Discovered America, that this fleet, captained by its Chinese Vasco da Gama and carrying a crew of 28,000, even penetrated as far as the west coast of North America.6 To cap the achievements of this era in a literary mode: in 1403-1408 three thousand scholars laboured to compile and copy what is still the longest encyclopaedia ever produced, the Yung-Lo Ta Tien (Grand Encyclopedia of the Yung-Lo Ta Tien Reign-Period) – an astonishing 11,095 volumes, containing 50 million Chinese characters. (Only 370 volumes have survived, scattered in libraries around the world.)7
Who Was Liu Ji (Liu Bowen)?
Liu Bowen was an exemplar of, and helped to mould, this world of vibrant and many-faceted activity. He was born in Qingtian County (modern-day Wencheng County, Zhejiang Province) in 1311. Tall, wiry, eager and precocious, he rose swiftly in the imperial civil service, acquiring the skills of engineer, writer, soldier and administrator, and others. When one of the leaders of the Red Turban secret society, a former travelling monk, grotesque in appearance but highly capable, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398), seized Nanking from the Mongols in 1356, Liu Ji was at his side. Twelve years later, Zhu drove the descendants of the Great Khan out of Beijing and became the first Ming emperor.8 Liu served in many administrative posts under Zhu Yuanzhang. He was a commanding officer in sea and land battles. He studied and wrote on a wider range of topics than any other man of his time, particularly in the fields of warfare and divination.
Joseph Needham writes of him, in Science and Civilization in China (Volume Five, Part Seven), that, “Liu Chi [Ji]… was a striking personality, of remarkable qualities both civil and military. In philosophy he was a skeptical naturalist, interested in all kinds of science and proto-science – astronomy, the calendar, magnetism and geomancy – and a friend of the eminent mathematician and alchemist Chao Yu-Chin. But he was also concerned with administration, and for long an advisor to the first Ming emperor. In war he commanded at battles both on land and afloat, having in one instance (+1363) his flagship destroyed by a ‘flying shot’ (fei phao) just after he had transferred to another vessel.” Needham sums up Liu’s unique abilities: “Liu Chi was the sort of man who could successfully conjure a change in the wind just when the commander-in-chief needed it.”9
Needham’s vivid description of Liu Ji brings out the adventurous side of his life, as no account of this remarkable man can fail to do. This action-oriented dimension of the prognosticator-warrior was exploited in full by Taiwanese TV in a 404-episode mega-series, Shen Ji Miao Suan Liu Bo Wen (The Amazing Strategist Liu Bowen), that aired five nights a week from August 23, 2006, to March 12, 2008. This TV spectacular tells how Liu Bowen’s amazing ability to predict the future helped Zhu Yuanzhang overthrow the Yuan emperor and establish the Ming empire. In actual fact, Liu Bowen’s death in 1375 is shrouded in mystery: his multifarious talents may have incurred the jealousy of Zhu, who, increasingly perceiving his lieutenant as a threat, harassed Liu Bowen so much that he died of sorrow and indignation; the emperor then erased much evidence of the warrior-seer’s accomplishments. The TV mega-series takes advantage of these blank spaces, writing in a passionate love affair between Bowen and Princess Nanfeng, daughter of the deposed Mongol emperor. (Did this high-powered liaison really take place? The best that can be said is that there is no strong reason to suppose that it did not.)
In the early stages of the story, Princess Nanfeng tries to assassinate Emperor Yuanzhang, is blinded for her failed attempt, and seeks refuge in the shop of A Tian, who turns out to be Bowen’s best friend. There she meets Liu and his sister, A Xiu, who is training in the martial arts. When Liu discovers who this refugee is, he tries to restore her sight and keep her from trying to assassinate Emperor Yuanzhang again; Bowen wants to promote good relations between the present Ming emperor and the former Mongol emperor.
A treacherous Ming official, Hu Weiyong, tries, for personal gain, to persuade the Ming emperor to have Nanfeng killed. A battle of wits ensues that pits the noble Liu Bowen against the evil Hu Weiyong. It’s this battle, filled with bloody combat, sizzling romance, and the wrenching encounters of Bowen with the gods from whom he channels searing images of the future, that kept millions of Taiwanese glued to their TV sets for more than eighteen months. At the end of 404 episodes, when the contest is decided in favour of the Ming dynasty, the aid of Liu and his paranormal powers has been indispensable.10
How much truth is there in this TV production, and the depiction of Liu Ji as a man of magical clairvoyant power? Did he really “channel” future-event predictions that, gathered into a volume called Shaobing ge, rival those of Nostradamus in their beguiling obscurity and – when they can be interpreted – their occasional striking accuracy?
Liu Bowen’s Specially Encoded “Moon Cakes”
Many modern scholars, as we’ve seen, tend to think not. Ter Haar writes that in the nineteenth century,
One of the first paragraphs of the 1811 initiation manual [put together by secret societies plotting the downfall of the Manchu dynasty and the resurrection of the Ming in a series of divinely-ordained, messiah-led, apocalyptic battles] states that in 1643 an ‘Inscription by Liu Bowen’ was spit out by the (Yellow) River in Kaifeng… It predicted the return of the Ming under the Zhu family, bringing peace.11
Perhaps not conscious fraud as much as powerful, self-deluding, emotional need – it must have seemed to the members of the society as if they were channelling the document! – wafted Liu Ji’s imprimatur into the ritualised agendas of these anti-Manchu secret societies. Nevertheless, there is a story, with some claim to historical truth, that suggests just how cryptic messages in baked cakes, prophesying China’s future, might have come to be associated with Liu Ji.
The Chinese have a custom, said to date from the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) of eating baked “moon cakes” at yearly mid-autumn festivals. The custom had its origins in the revolutionary times preceding the fall of the Yuan, when the general populace, lashed into fury by the oppressive regime, rose up again and again against their Yuan masters. The messages had to be transmitted in secret so that the insurrectionists could meet at the right time and the right place. Zhu Yuanzhang and Liu Bowen had the idea – or so the story goes – of spreading the rumour among the peasants that a deadly plague was afoot in the land and the only way to prevent it was by eating specially-prepared mooncakes. These special cakes were to be quickly distributed – each containing an encoded message coordinating the Han Chinese revolt for the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month.
The messages were in the form of a simple puzzle or mosaic printed on the surface of the cake. To read it, you had to cut the four mooncakes per package into four pieces each. The sixteen parts would then be put together in the right order to reveal the message. The evidence would be destroyed by eating.
But Yuan government officials were everywhere, and it was almost impossible to send the messages without their being detected.
Liu Bowen devised a new plan: the messages, particularly the critical one of “Uprising on August 15,” would be baked inside the mooncakes. This was done, and the buried-message cakes were successfully distributed. The insurrectionary armies converged on Beijing on August 15, and soon the city fell to Zhu Yuanzhang.
The memory of this conspirators’ device, enhanced by legend and the life story of the charismatic Liu Bowen, could have been transformed into a legend of cryptic prophetic messages from the gods “hidden” inside a book called The Baked Cake Ballad.12
According to legend, the Shaobing Song, as it is also known, predicted the future of China including the 1449 Mongol invasion, the 1911 founding of the Republic of China and much, much more.
To further quote Sybil Leek:
The next era of Liu Ji’s visions was the 50-year period from 1911 to 1960. Liu Ji predicted the Chinese-Japanese war which would come in the year of the ox (1937) and would last for 1,085 days. He did not see the end of the war as a lasting peace. But he foresaw that around 1947 a great statesman would arise to lead the Chinese into an era of peace.
Among other major predictions he made were that a world war would involve every country and that 1917, the year of the snake, would be one of the most ominous dates in the period. He predicted an earthquake in Japan in 1923, the year of the swine; the great world depression in 1931, the year of the snake; and the European war in 1939, the year of the rabbit.
Other interpreters believe that the Shaobing ge contains cryptic allusions to the rise of the great eunuch admiral of Ming times, Zheng He, the establishment of the Quin dynasty, the Opium Wars, and the first Sino-Japanese War, along with the founding of the Republic of China in 1911.13
Another Text Accurately Forecasted China’s Future
Liu Ji was not the first Chinese prognosticator of the future to be spoken of in the same breath as Nostradamus. In the reign of Emperor Tang Taizong (599-649 CE), Li Chun-feng and Yuan Tian-gang wrote a book that seems to contain a startlingly accurate forecast of China’s struggle against Japan in World War Two.
This strange and ancient text, called Tui bei tu (“Back-Pushing Sketch,” apparently an allusion to the sixtieth, final, and farthest-in-the-future prophecy in the book), has never been translated into English. Dr. Yow Yit Seng writes in Chinese Dimensions: Their Roots, Mindset and Psyche that this prophetic work consists of
sixty illustrated diagrams [called ‘surreal drawings’ by other commentators], each with lyrics and descriptions in a cryptic style. Each scenario uses a ‘Celestial Stem and Terrestrial Branch’ used in [the] Chinese calendar, as well as a scenario from the I Ching. Each scenario seems to have accurately predicted events in Chinese history from the Táng dynasty onwards. It accurately predicted that there would be twenty-one emperors in the [Tang] dynasty from the [Li] family, with one of them from outside the family. It also foretold the rise of Empress Wu Zetian, the only ruling empress in the history of China.
To illustrate the difficulty of translating the Tui bei tu into English – or any language – in intelligible fashion, Dr. Yow provides a rough translation of Scenario 39, which depicts a bird standing on top of a mountain, with the rising sun at the bottom of the picture.
The lyrics run somewhat as follows:
Bird without leg, moon in the mountain.
The sun rises, everyone cries.
Disharmony in mid-December.
Sparrows to the south of the mountain, traps to the north.
One morning cries from metal rooster is heard.
The sea is lifeless, the day is over.
Dr. Yow writes that,
the Chinese character of a legless bird with a mountain is the character ‘Island’. Hence the event refers to an island nation. The island nation is linked to the rising sun; hence, Japan. When a million soldiers invade China with unprecedented cruelty and inhumanity, everyone cries.
In December of 1941, the Japanese talked peace in the United States, while secretly attacking Pearl Harbour. [This] fits the description ‘Disharmony in December’.
There are sparrows (small birds) south of the mountain, referring to small nations in South East Asia being captured. In the picture there is certainly an eagle that could trap it, coming from in the North, symbolising the United States. (Incidentally, the word luo is also the first word of the Chinese name for President Roosevelt, the US president who subdued Japan.)
Japan surrendered in August 1945. This corresponds to the Chinese calendar year of [the] rooster. The month of surrender was August, a ‘metal’ month.
The sea is lifeless when Japanese troops surrender unconditionally. Ri refers either to the day, or in this case to Japan (riben).
Dr. Yow concludes: “While the earlier scenarios depict events from the various dynasties, the later scenarios could probably describe events outside China.”14
The Tui bei tu, like the Shaobing ge (though in its vastly expanded form as the youthful adventures of Liu Bowen), had its moment in the television sun. From April 16, 2007, to May 11, 2007, Chinese TV aired in twenty instalments a serial called A Change of Destiny about two young men who hope to change their destiny by making use of the scenario-diagrams of the Tui bei tu. One tricks the other into buying a fake set of diagrams. This is straightened out; but the hopes of the two for an extraordinary future are dashed when they see that, every which way they interpret the scenarios, courting the future with the help of the Tui bei tu is always to court disaster. The future is our own responsibility, and not that of sixty predictive drawings. The 20-episode Change of Destiny series was extremely popular all across China, and shows the hold that divinatory practices still have on this country now embracing cut-throat capitalism.15
So odd and cryptic are the predictions of Shaobing ge that there are no translations, into any language, that are not to some extent creations of the translator almost as much as they are creations of Liu Ji and whatever gods, if any, communicated his predictions to him.
Below are a few lines of text from the Baked Cake Ballad, in a translation so rough, so raw, and obscure, that it is virtually impenetrable. To try to interpret it is to be left fending for yourself in a forbidding if provocative jungle of words that are seemingly stand-alone because they seem to be completely unconnected.
Yet a translation like this is so rough that it can never really mislead, even while it illuminates only with the greatest difficulty. Perhaps these words are worth trying to interpret, though, if only to catch a mention of what’s going to happen in 2012, in China and in the world.
World hunger and cold are strange, the pillars of Germany by the baby dragon.
10,000 Sun sub-stack layer, (Wanli descendants) ancestral mountain shell clothing line.
Wu Zi Ji-Chou tangled everywhere, people are not at home, occasional famine bandits hair, safe guarding the good sweet-scented osmanthus.
Chaos to the former pro-Western thief, no one dared to Zhongliang admonition, glad to see descendants of shame see the day, recession gas transported back to heaven, lack of ears on Kyrgyzstan in the middle and a Machine made to go West, East.
Red Head Boy and Girl are bleeding, upside-down triple the total before I go, shall be synthesized Sichuan pages, (predicted emperor) eighteen wins between the fire and water.
1. Leek, 42; 2. Ibid; 3. ter Haar, 154; 4. Ibid, 163; 5. Needham, Vol. 1, 144; 6. Seng, 100; 7. Needham, Vol. 1, 145; 8. Roberts, 444; 9. Needham et al, Vol. 5, Part 7, 25, 232; 10. Wikipedia: Addicts, wiki.d-addicts.com/Shen_Ji_Miao_Suan_Liu_Bo_Wen; 11. ter Haar, 158; 12. Liu Bowen and the Moon Cakes, history.cultural-china.com/en/47H2345H11800.html; 13. Leek, 43; 14. Seng, 252-254; 15. Wikipedia: Change of Destiny, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Change_of_Destiny
Sybil Leek, “Sybil Leek’s Psychic Notebook,” Occult: New Dimensions of Life in the Field of Psychic Phenomena 5 (3) (October 1974): 42-45+.
Liu Bowen and the Moon Cakes on Mid-Autumn Festival, history.cultural-china.com/en/47H2345H11800.html
Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, New York: HarperCollins/Harper Perennial, 2008.
Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 1, Introductory Orientations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954.
Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen, Lu; Ping-Yi, Ho; and Ling, Wang. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7, Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
J.M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the World, London: Penguin Books, 1980.
Yow Yit Seng, Chinese Dimensions: Their Roots, Mindset and Psyche, Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: Pelanduk, 2006.
Barend J. Ter Haar, “Messianism and the Heaven and Earth Society: Approaches to Heaven and Earth Society Texts,” David Ownby en Mary Somers Heidhues, Eds., “Secret Societies” Reconsidered, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1993, 153-176.
Wikipedia: Addicts, wiki.d-addicts.com/Shen_Ji_Miao_Suan_Liu_Bo_Wen
Wikipedia: Change of Destiny, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Change_of_Destiny
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