Primary Source

The Child as Microcosm [Literary Excerpt]


In this passage, fetal development is described in terms of Daoist cosmogony in which all things in the universe emerge from one source, the Dao (meaning "the Way"). All matter divides first into the two powers, Yin and Yang, polar opposites understood in terms of categories such as male and female, dark and light, Heaven and Earth, round and square, etc. These two then go on to multiply and form all things. Images such as the roundness of the infant’s head corresponding to the roundness of Heaven and the squareness of its feet corresponding to earth are not intended as simple figures of speech but as evidence of the actual links between fetal life and cosmic powers, and by extension the interconnectedness of Heaven, earth, and man.

One of the most important changes in the conceptualization of the child during this period was the effort to understand the developing fetus as a microcosm that followed the same laws that govern all things in nature. The desire to reorient human life in a past that transcended family ties and to reintegrate it with new theories that embraced the entire cosmos may well reflect contemporary political aspirations toward a unified empire governed by one ruler, in contrast to a lineage-based, multistate system. Because of the identification of the state with the cosmos in late Warring States times, once the child was viewed as partaking of cosmic processes, it became a meaningful constituent in the ritual concerns of the state. Cosmological views of fetal development also generated rituals and health regimens that offered a means for private individuals to influence the vitality and fate of their children. These beliefs reveal an optimistic world view and a faith that many of the hazards and uncertainties of childhood could be controlled or avoided.


Dao De Jing, Lao Tzu: Tao te ching, chapter 42, D.C. Lau, trans. (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1967) 49. Annotated by Anne Kinney.

Primary Source Text

Now the spirit is that which is received from Heaven, and the physical form is that which is endowed by Earth. Thus one gives birth to two, two gives birth to three, and three gives birth to the ten thousand things.1 The ten thousand things carry yin and enfold yang; the mingling of qi creates harmony. Thus it is said: In the first month there is a speck of fertile grease; in the second month there is a globule; in the third month, an embryo; in the fourth month, flesh; in the fifth month, sinews; in the sixth month, bones; in the seventh month, complete form; in the eighth month, quickening; in the ninth month, agitated movement, and in the tenth month, birth. . . . The roundness of the head imitates Heaven, and the squareness of the foot imitates Earth. . . . Thus human beings form a trinity with Heaven and Earth. 1

1This statement is quoted from the Daoist classic, the Dao De Jing, chapter 42, as translated by D.C. Lau, Lao Tzu: Tao te ching (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books), 1967, p. 49. The Huainanzi builds on this passage to demonstrate that the development of the fetus is governed by cosmic principles through numerology.

2Translation based on Derk Bodde in Feng Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959), vol. 1, pp. 389–99 and John Major, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the ‘Huainanzi’ (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 179.

How to Cite This Source

"The Child as Microcosm [Literary Excerpt]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #197, (accessed October 22, 2017). Annotated by Anne Kinney