Text and visualization of the “Fire fate” predicting health and development of children (Zhengzu baidaquan 正足百大全, printed 1831; State Library of Berlin, shelfmark Libri sin. 737, http://resolver.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/SBB00002FE000000000, img. 67)

Working Group (2015-2018)

Accounting for Uncertainty: Prediction and Planning in Asian History

Tackling ideas of uncertainty and not-knowing has produced a variety of ways of modeling and reasoning material and intellectual cultures in Asian cultures throughout history. This project focuses on the varied methods and rationalities, as well as material tools, that actors employed when planning and predicting nature, matters of state, and their own lives. From weather forecasts to earthquake predictions, from daily tasks to the future course of society and state, material means and visual representations were used with the aim of facilitating the decision process by making the unknown and uncertain easier to grasp.

The project invites comparisons of the rationalities of knowing and not-knowing that informed diverse historical cultures of Asia. What are the similarities and differences between the ways in which actors materialized and visualized what was yet to be known and what had been experienced or accepted as facts? Are factual knowledge and divinatory result irrevocably bound up with the processes from which they are produced? How do people legitimize the process of divination and acquisition of factual data? Does standardization impact on validity? What role does the visual play both as an explanatory tool and for the validity of the practice?  

This project is a cooperation between the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (Department III, Artifacts, Knowledge, Action, Director: Prof Dagmar Schäfer) and The International Consortium for Research in the Humanities  "Fate, Freedom, and Prognostication—Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe" at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg.

Past Events

Accounting for Uncertainty


Complexity (Accounting for Uncertainty)


Accounting for Uncertainty—Prediction and Planning in Asia’s History



Accounting for Uncertainty: Image Gallery

Click below to scroll through the collection

A Glossary of Uncertainty

“Two women and a child.” By Harunobu 春信 ? Wood-block print, no date. Paper, ink. Author's collection.

“Two women and a child.” By Harunobu 春信? Wood-block print, no date. Paper, ink. Author's collection.

Childbirth and the “Arts of Judgement” in Medieval Japan

Anna Andreeva

In medieval Japan (10th–16th century), childbirth was fraught with precariousness and danger. Although the physiological process of pregnancy was basically understood, it was never quite clear how exactly the events could unfold. 

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Images from the Manual of Locust Control by Chen Chongdi

Chen Chongdi 陈崇砥. Zhihuang shu 治蝗书 [Manual of Locust Control]. Lianchi shuju, 1874.

Adapting Environmental Relations in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century China in Terms of Locust Uncertainty

David Bello

Five terms (short period of drought; laying eggs; flying locusts; rustic foolish/ ignorant commoners; disaster relief/disaster readiness) have been selected to establish a context of “locust uncertainty,” which exemplifies the larger category of environmental uncertainty during the first half of the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644-1912). 

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Fig. 1:You Tong 尤侗(1618-1704)

You Tong 尤侗 (1618–1704) was a prominent Suzhou literatus who participated in the spirit-writing altar of Peng Dingqiu. This illustration from You’s autobiography depicts himself receiving a visit from an emissary of the Jade Bureau, the celestial bureaucracy of Wenchang with which Dingqiu facilitated communication. The site of the contact is the Cultural Star Pavilion 文星閣in southeastern urban Suzhou.From You Hui’an Taishi nianpu tu yong 尤悔菴太史年譜圖詠(Chronological Autobiography of the Local Notable You Hui’an, with Illustrations and Verses), 1: 17a. In You Xitang quanji 尤西堂全集(Complete Works of You Tong), Shanghai: Wenrui lou, 1900. Courtesy of the East Asian Library and the Gest Collection, Princeton University Library.

Spirit–Altar Prophecy and the Civil Service Examinations in Qing Dynasty China: The Pengs of Suzhou

Daniel Burton-Rose

My contributions to the Analytical Glossary focus on how participants in the civil service examination system—both anxiety-ridden candidates and proud degree holders—accounted for the inherent uncertainties of the system through specific mantic practices and broader ideological constructions.

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Hand diagram from Damo yizhangjin 達摩一掌金(Bodhidharma’s Treasure of the Palm)

Hand diagram excerpted from a recent edition of Damo yizhangjin 達摩一掌金(Bodhidharma’s Treasure of the Palm) attributed to Monk Yixing from the Tang dynasty (Yixing 釋一行. Kanming yizhangjing 看命一掌經 [Classic of Fate Auscultation in the Palm]. No place of publication: 2).

Reducing Uncertainty through Computation in Chinese Divinatory Arts

Stéphanie Homola

My contribution focuses on technical terms related to the reduction of uncertainty through systematic and quasi-mathematical procedures in Chinese divinatory techniques. It analyses the technical processes and related vocabulary through which concrete data such as objects and temporal parameters are converted into mantic figures. 

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“Karakaburi de mo ii kara, minogasanai de!”

“Karakaburi de mo ii kara, minogasanai de!”

“A swing and a miss is fine. Don’t just watch it go by!”  

Here“見逃す” (minogasu) replaces “見送る” but the meanings are the same.The batter is likely meant to be Hagiwara Takahiro. The “予” character on his hat references his role as chairman of the Jishin yochi renrakukaigi; it could also be a not too subtle nod to the Yomiuri Giants, Hagiwara’s favorite baseball team.) The pitcher is a namazu, the catfish often associated with seismicity in Japanese popular culture. The box at the pitcher’s feet contains baseballs labeled M5, M6, M7, and M8, representing the range of earthquake magnitudes of interest to the scientists and the nation.

Yomiuri shinbun, August 27, (1979): 25.

Terminology of Uncertainties: Earthquake Prediction in (Modern) Japan 

Kerry Smith

My glossary entry explores one of the rhetorical strategies that Japanese earth scientists used in 1978 to explain some of the uncertainties associated with short-term prediction to legislators. 

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Turtle Divination from the first century CE (redrawing)

Turtle Divination from the first century CE (redrawing)

Predicting Contingency in Imperial China

Zhao Lu

In accounting for uncertainty, contingency plays an intriguing role. It has become intertwined with uncertainty and unpredictability. My project is aimed to untangle the entanglement among contingency, uncertainty, and predictability. 

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