From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lectures (6c)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Reading Geil)

[a] From Middle Heaven Gate RL
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h

After a good night's sleep, spent dreaming of rocky crags in the world of 1919, I got up, made myself a little omelet, prepared a pot of coffee, and settled down with the cats to read The Sacred 5 of China. My goal was to process Geil's work by moving methodically through the book, page-by-page. In the spirit of systematic reading, this was to be the first close encounter—not too fast, but not as slowly as a second reading would require (if it warranted that kind of attention at all). Yesterday, I had skipped around and considered bits and pieces, on the one hand, and developed a birds-eye sense of the whole, on the other. Today and tomorrow—and maybe the day after that—would be devoted to a methodical reading of every word, as well as careful study of every photograph and diagram in the volume.

[b] From Middle Heaven Gate (in The Sacred 5 of China)
It all started auspiciously enough. On the left was a view of Mt. Tai from the mid-point (Middle Heaven Gate, 中天門); it was even more barren and stark than the picture I had shown in class the night before. On the right stood the title page—its combination of phrases, titles, and numbers just curious enough to arouse suspicion. Why was it "5," and not "five?" The details of that answer were still a year away. Why did he list his degrees, the books he authored, and the words "etc. etc?" I also noticed that it had been discontinued—pulled from the living, borrowing shelves—at the Public Library of Tulsa, Oklahoma. On the other hand, if you're an author you can't do much better than Houghton Mifflin Company, then or now. Good start, I thought, but I remained a little wary of an author of five books on China whose name had never before ended up in even one of my card catalog notes or electronic searches before 2009.

I turned the page. "Every book has many authors: the title-page names but one." Geil thanks five people, including his wife, various academics, and "a very distinguished scholar whose name, for political reasons, is set down in a strictly secret place." The rest of the dedications page is equally odd and inspiring. The "fly on a fleet horse's tail" called to my mind several idiomatic phrases in Chinese about brevity and the general insignificance of a single individual or moment. Very nice, like viewing the flowers while galloping on horseback (走馬觀花).

          In the words of magistrate Chên of the Hua Yin District:
               "I have undertaken the labour of seeing this book
                to completion, and have the privilege of
                inscribing my name at the end,
                like a fly on a fleet horse's tail."
                                                                   WM. EDGAR GEIL. 
     5th sun of the 5th moon of the
            5th year after visiting

[c] 5 RF
On the other hand, what was with the date? Clearly, this 5 thing was on his mind, and it struck me that maybe it was, already, just a little bit too much. I was somewhat reassured by the formidable and detailed table of contents. He certainly knew the mountains and, if that were not enough, the list of illustrations—one hundred of them—sealed the deal. This man had been to all five mountains, and he had the illustrative firepower to prove it. He also had, on page xiii, a quotation that would serve as his pivot, allowing him to transition from architectonics to narrative.


And then it began. I wish to quote directly from Geil's preface. No paraphrase can do justice to the peculiar combination of insight and idiosyncrasy that I was just beginning to discover in the writing of William Edgar Geil.

                                               THE MAGIC OF 5
        5 is a number most remarkable to the man of the Central Kingdom. When 
        he looks into the sky at night he sees 5 planets, which we of the West term 
        Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Mercury. When he studies the tints of nature 
        he distinguishes 5: Green, Red, Yellow, White, Black. In the world there are 
        5 elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. If in the orchard the stems or 
        the flowers of apple, pear, and cherry be admired, 5 reveals itself again. If 
        space be analysed, there are 5 directions: East, South, Centre, West, and 
        North. So, too, in the little world of the body. The human frame has 5 
        constituents: Muscle, Vein, Flesh, Bone, Skin-and-hair. The trunk contains 
        5 organs: Kidneys, Heart, Liver, Lungs, Stomach. It has 5 offshoots: Head, 
        two Arms, two legs.

[d] En petit RF
Well played, William Edgar. Even though the reader with no background in Chinese cosmology might be a little perplexed, this seemed to be the start of a useful—even entertaining—picture of Chinese thought. One phrase in particular struck me as deeply insightful—indeed so much so that I wondered if it was possible that he meant what he said in all its enormous microcosmic implications. 

"So, too, in the little world of the body..."

Be still my beating heart-mind (心), I mused. Could this unknown writer really be hinting at one of the most profound ideas in all of Chinese thought? Could it be that he understood the brilliant, though circuitous, tradition in Daoist text and practice connecting the human body with the cosmos? Is it possible that Geil understood the insights of perspicacious French scholars of his time—Edouard Chavannes and Marcel Granet—who wrote fluently of this idea in the context of mountains and even society? Could it be that he had already, in 1926, anticipated the work of Granet's student, Rolf Stein, who wrote—long after Geil's death—that the human body is a "world in miniature" that mirrors the action, flow, and refulgence of mountains themselves? Was it possible? If so, the world of Chinese studies had missed a serious link in its own intellectual history. 

I kept reading.

        All other things, therefore, should manifestly be sorted into 5's. In music, 
        where where the white man talks about an octave, but really discriminates 
        popularly 12 sounds within that octave, the Son of Han recognizes only 5 
        notes. 5 tastes are distinguished: Salt, Bitter, Sour, Acrid, Sweet. From his 
        ancient semi-mythical kings he singles out 5 as worthy of remembrance. 
        And for more than 4 millenniums he has known 5 degrees of nobility.

        As there were 5 constant or cardinal virtues, so there were 5 punishments. 
        The calendar depends upon the Pillars of Heaven, or pars of stems. And 
        many of these matters are mentioned in the 5 Classics, and brought up to 
        date by the 5 stripes in the Chinese Flag.

        It is, therefore, only to be expected that mountains should be mentioned in 
        5's. And among the holy mountains, it was inevitable that 5 should be 
        prominent; and natural that these should become associated with the 5 
        elements, the 5 directions, the 5 colours. Hence, we find:

               Tai Shan, the East Peak, corresponds to Wood and Green.
               Nan Yo, the South Peak, corresponds to Fire and Red.
               Sung Shan, the Centre Peak, corresponds to Earth and Yellow.
               Hua Shan, the West Peak, corresponds to Metal and White.
               Hêng Shan, the North Peak, corresponds to Water and Black.

        These 5 are the sacred Quincunx of Hills; the devout pilgrim will fulfil his 
        duty by visiting these.

[e] Yin-yang RF
As page-and-a-half introductions to yin-yang five phase (陰陽五行) cosmology and the mountains as pilgrimage sites go...this was impressive. I thought of the challenges I had faced in teaching these concepts, and knew that it took a truly solid grasp of the material to make it digestible. If I were to quibble, I might have said that he could have defined his terms just a little more clearly at the outset, but that was a minor point here. In just 375 words, he had given even the general reader a sense of the biggest of the big ideas behind his mountainous project. Although I still didn't know if his reference to (as I saw it) the body as microcosm was penetrating or just a little lucky, I had read enough to see that William Edgar Geil knew his material well. He had proven himself in the early going to be a reliable and even amiable narrator. 

I poured myself another cup of coffee, and continued reading.

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[f] Pilgrims RF

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