“Tui bei tu:” An Illustrated Prophecy Book


The title Tui bei tu (An illustrated prophecy book), literally translated as “The back-pushing drawing,” is attributed to two Tang-dynasty astronomers and historians, Yuan Tiangang and Li Chunfeng, during the reign of Emperor Taizong (627‒49). The work is a Chinese classic on prophecy, written in one volume, with no juan designation. This copy from the National Central Library is a color-painted Qing-dynasty album. The last few pages are slightly damaged; nevertheless, it is a rare and valuable copy. The title Tui bei may have originated from the last drawing. At the front is a short text that reads: “Presented here, and having been secretly held, is this album of 60 drawings, entitled Tui bei, to tell tens of thousands about good and bad luck. Do not let it out casually. When examining the future, please know that the past may have been clear as a bright moon, but the future may be dark and black. Be cautious.” The work probably is based on the 64 hexagrams in the Book of Changes. It contains 60 drawings, beginning with hexagram jia zi and ending with hexagram gui hai. Each drawing has a description of the image, followed by a poem or an ode, predicting the fate of the country in the time of the Tang dynasty, whether in peace or war, and its future. In the first drawing, for example, named jia zi, the image depicts a man with a long head and ram’s horns, sitting on a rock, holding the sun and the moon in his hands. The poem reads: “Ever since the creator of the universe Pangu achieved Ultimate Reality, there have been tragic events with fierce battles between dragons and tigers. Who could record all the risings and demises in the past thousands of generations? From now on we will prophesy those in the future.” The last drawing, named gui hai, depicts a man walking, with another man pushing him on his back. The poem reads: “We look for clues of predestination in the vast cosmos, but the rises and demises of future generations are not controlled by people themselves. It is too long to tell in tens of thousands of words; it’s much better being pushed on the back into retirement.” Whether the original was actually the work of Yuan Tiangang and Li Chunfeng or a forgery under their names is now impossible to determine. Similarly, it is difficult is to trace the original contents of the work. Since the Five Dynasties (907‒60), knowledge of this work has spread widely. Its content touches upon the extent of state powers and their rise and fall. The drawings and texts also contain exhortations, admonitions, and much conjecture. Since the Song Dynasty, this work was often sanctioned as a forbidden book, but among ordinary people it has remained quite popular. Numerous editions exist, with slightly varied texts and drawings; the prophecies and explanations also differ.

Last updated: October 30, 2017