He who does not understand fate is incapable of behaving as a gentleman … .
He who does not understand words is incapable of understanding men.
— Confucius in The Analects, 20.3, translated by Simon Leys
The character ming 命 has the meaning of ‘a decree’ or ‘a command’. In early Chinese texts, it could also denote an act of investiture or reward directed toward a subordinate. The sense of submission attendant on this ties ming to the related meaning of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’, often more specifically in the sense of the predetermined nature of life and one’s allotted lifespan. The supposed moral nature of destiny gives ming a place in debates concerning decision, duty and the institution of proper government. This is reflected in the term tianming 天命, ‘Mandate of Heaven’, used when talking about the superior moral power of a ruler who claims legitimacy in managing human affairs. For both individuals and the state, destiny can be an expression of the Mandate of Heaven.
Yun 运 has the meaning of ‘to carry’ or ‘to transport’, but also ‘to revolve’ or ‘to move around’. It can refer to cycles in life or the cosmos, as in the seasons or the rise and decline of dynasties. In these changes or rotating phases, yun also refers to the vagaries of the times, and thus to fortune, the variable and impermanent nature of luck and what it brings. The term mingyun 命运 thus encapsulates the various tensions between fate and luck, as well as predetermination and individual volition.