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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Calendars and Almanacs—Introduction (c)

A year ago on Round and Square (26 March 2012)—La Pensée Cyclique: Real Ideals 
Click here for the first post in the Round and Square introductory series "Calendars and Almanacs" 
[a] Papier RF
This is one post in a multi-part introduction to the Round and Square series "Calendars and Almanacs." Click below for the other posts in the series:
CA 1          CA 2         CA 3          CA 4          CA 5  
CA 6          CA 7         CA 8          CA 9          CA 10         CA 11
Let us take a more careful look at the day that was set for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. It will help to show both the power of traditional beliefs and the overlapping complexity of the calendar—to the point that no time can be “perfectly” lucky or unlucky, no matter how often specialists have been chosen to “select days” (擇日; zeri) for important events throughout Chinese history.   
[b] August 8, 2008

August 8, 2008 (the eighth day of the seventh lunar month) can be seen in the accompanying illustration (Figure B). Look for the horizontal lines that break the vertical column into eight segments. The first has the solar calendar information—“Eighth Day, Friday (weekday five).” It is that simple. In today’s calendars (unlike those in earlier centuries) the solar calendar is the main organizing element in the day columns, the point of reference readers are expected to recognize most easily. 

The second section has the names (two characters each, in red print, arranged vertically) of four auspicious stars—Generational Branch, Three Linkages, Heavenly Happiness, and Heavenly Physician.  The number of lucky stars is of more importance than their specific names. Most readers, even in Hong Kong, do not have much clarity when it comes to the difference between, say, the Three Linkages and Heavenly Happiness stars, and any translation (such as those above) will appear to be somewhat fanciful.  

The third section is one of the most consulted in Chinese history, yet its uses are limited. It provides a breakdown of the day into twelve traditional two-hour periods, each labeled with one of three variables—lucky (吉), middling (中), or unlucky (凶). The most auspicious days, such as New Year’s Day, have up to six “lucky” periods, but there is almost always a balance of 4-4-4, 5-4-3, 3-5-4, and so forth.  Yet while this section might be used to pick a particularly fine time to, for example, propose marriage, it cannot possibly deal with all of the variables that go into selecting “good” times in the Chinese calendar.  

The Olympic Opening Ceremony’s beginning on the eighth of August at eight o’clock p.m. provides a fine illustration of this.  From one powerful perspective, it is the very luckiest of times.  According to this hourly section of the calendar, however, 8:00 p.m. was listed as “unlucky.”  It is almost as though there are “weightings” of fortune for various days and times, and the pros and cons judged according to their possibilities.

The fourth section provides a listing of activities to avoid. The character at the top of the section (忌) can be translated in many circumstances as “taboo,” but that is too strident for the context here.  “Avoid” is a better choice.  If one reads the calendar from start to finish—over a full year—these “avoid” items provide a window onto an agricultural society that has been frozen, in some ways, in the text of the Hong Kong-style almanac.  

It is necessary to remember that the bulk of today’s readers live and work in large, bustling cities, yet this section has an array of items that seem almost pastoral in contrast.  The eighth of August 2008 notes that one should not “make (fishing) nets,” “cut out (patterns of) clothing,” “exorcise spirits,” or “gather clothing.” Other items to avoid on subsequent days include “opening granaries,” “paying mourning visits,” “entering water,” “moving earth,” and “cutting nails.”

Parts of section six parallel the “avoid” section.  It is headed by a large character that, in this situation, can best be translated as “appropriate” (宜). It forms a mirror, of sorts, in relation to section four. In most cases, section six has four activities for every one in the “avoid” section—if there are two listed in “avoid,” then “appropriate” has eight; if “avoid” has four, the “appropriate” section has sixteen.  This equation often surrenders to the sheer mass of material in this section, though, and August 8th presents just such an example, with only a 3:1 ratio.  

It is also worth noting that 入學, “studying” never appears in section four, and it can always be regarded as a good day to study. On August 8, 2008, those “appropriate” activities included “venerating ancestral shrines,” “inquiring into fortune,” “meeting friends,” “engaging to marry,” “going to the doctor,” “repair work,” “moving earth,” “erecting beams,” and “working in the kitchen.” The range of activities listed over the course of the year includes several dozen different activities, the bulk of them focused in one way or another on the life a complex family unit might lead on a large rural farm.

The rest of section six contains other scattered information, including the proper notations for each of twenty-four solar periods as well as seventy-two small five-day micro-seasons. These are marked—as can be seen on August second, seventh, and twelfth—by black backgrounds (refer to Figure 3). The black backgrounds are not limited to micro-seasons, though. August first is an excellent example of other information that is included in this part of the calendar.  

For August first, the black-bordered characters read literally “sun completely consumed”—a total solar eclipse, to be distinguished from “sun partially consumed” during partial eclipse days. The characters directly below it note “Not Visible in the Hong Kong Area.”  From this point, the calendar becomes more and more vague, and ethnographic research yields few answers. 

The seventh section is often described as noting “evil stellar influences,” but the characters are generic and the meaning vague, no matter how many experts are asked. The eighth section always contains three different characters that give a “feel for the day—mostly in terms of building projects.  On August eighth, section seven reads “Earth, White,” and the characters should not necessarily be read as though they are linked. Section eight has “Mortar,” “Pestle,” and “(bird) Cage.”  Fortune-tellers in China often react with a dismissive shrug when questioned about these sections; they are not referenced nearly as often as the sections above it.

More to come. Tune in tomorrow for the continuation of the "columnar" story.

This is one post in a multi-part introduction to the Round and Square series "Calendars and Almanacs." Click below for the other posts in the series:
CA 1          CA 2         CA 3          CA 4          CA 5  
CA 6          CA 7         CA 8          CA 9          CA 10         CA 11
[c] Calendrical foliage RF

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