From Round to Square (and back)

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Calendars and Almanacs—Introduction (e)

A year ago on Round and Square (29 March 2012)—Displays of Authenticity: In the Wheelhouse
Click here for the first post in the Round and Square introductory series "Calendars and Almanacs" 
[a] Olympic Year 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

The cycle has cultural resilience.  A bookseller in Hong Kong once told me that the way to think about the cycle is to imagine an office filled with a diverse range of personalities.[1] Some people are optimists, others pessimists; some imagine danger in almost any action, while others might be more inclined to see opportunity and possibility. These “personalities,” she told me, are similar to those we all know from our extended families, friends, and classmates—any large group of people we have encountered. Now imagine, she said, that, even as the business keeps running, one person would be “in-charge” of key decisions for an entire day, before passing control to another person the next day—onward, in repeating cycles, so that every twelfth day the personality would return. 
[b] Interconnected RF

This, she emphasized, is the way to think about the jianchu cycle of twelve.  Imagine now, she said, a request for a special favor—one for which we might hope that an exception might be made for us.  Imagine asking for an extension for a project, a paper, or a report.  Now, she said, imagine any set of twelve teachers or bosses you have ever known. Some would likely say “sure, of course” while others might say “absolutely not,” with a range of answers in-between.  This is what the day personalities are like, and they shape the sense of possibility for twenty-four hours before giving way to another in an endlessly repeating cycle. 

The day personality for August eighth was 成, completion. The traditional text (followed by a modern interpretation) has the following to say about “completion” days. 

          In Heaven's annals are the lives of the myriad things. Arrange wedding 
          receptions, go on long journeys, do digging projects. All these will be 
          fortunate, but avoid casting aspersions. 

          An auspicious day for all kinds of activity, in particular for going on long 
          journeys in which one has to stay away from home. Again, keep busy and 
          mind your own business, and let everyone else mind theirs.[2]
[c] Fanning RF

The tone is positive, and it is likely that if one were to ask for a favor on such a day, it might well be granted. Contrast a “completion” day in the cycle, however, with the day that came just before it, on August seventh—danger (危). 

     Ascending the dangerous mountain, the 
     wind blows fiercely—there is great 
     peril. Be joyous and drink wine. All else is little use. 

          Another day when everything seems to be going wrong. Avoid trying to get 
          things to work when they won't; the best course of action is to walk away from it.
          The almanac's advice is to go out and get drunk.[3]
[d] Consulting RF

In early August of 2008, there was, indeed, a stretch of three days before the Olympic Games in which “disaster” (破) was followed by two successive days of “danger,” before opening, like a rainbow after a thunderstorm, to “completion,” as though timed precisely for the Olympics. 

It is important to realize that these admonitions are not blindly followed. It would be sheer foolishness to think of a vast Chinese population (today or in the past) as slavish automatons programmed by the calendar.  One example of manipulating the calendar for personal ends appears in the Ming dynasty novel The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅, and gives a humorous perspective on finding what one wants to find within a doctrinal system. In the anecdote below, Dame Wang has convinced her young neighbor, Pan Jinlian, to sew a set of burial garments for her.  It is important to Dame Wang to commence the sewing as quickly as possible (she has ulterior motives unconnected to the garments), and her tone is urgent.  Nonetheless, it was expected that a calendar should be consulted, and that a lucky day should be chosen. 

          Pan Jinlian took the calendar in her hand and examined it for a while. 
         “Tomorrow is an unlucky day,” she said, “and the day after tomorrow is bad too. 
          The next good day for tailoring is not until the day after the day after tomorrow.”
            Dame Wang snatched the calendar away from her and hung it back on the wall,
          saying, “The fact that you’re willing to do it for me, young lady, makes you my 
          lucky star. What need is there to be particular about the date? I already asked 
          someone to check for me and he reported that tomorrow is an unlucky day. But I, 
          for one, see no reason to pay any attention to the taboo against doing tailoring 
          on unlucky days.” 

         “Actually,” said [Pan Jinlian], “an unlucky day might be the most appropriate for 
          making burial garments.”[4] 

There have always been skeptics in China, and much of their wrath was reserved for the kinds of practices embodied in the almanac. There have also always been practical people, not unlike Dame Wang, seeking to maximize their own positions within a calendrical template.

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
[e] Undulating RF
[1] I first heard a version of this story from one of my students, Khoi Bullion ’97 (whose “source,” in turn, was his grandmother) while teaching an almanac course at Colby College in 1995. I am indebted to him for leading me to pursue further research on the matter in subsequent years.

[2] [1] Derek Walters. Chinese Astrology (Kent UK: Aquarian Press, 1987), 151

[3] Walters, 152.

[4] David Tod Roy. The Plum in the Golden Vase, Volume 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 70. All emphasis mine. 

Roy, David Tod. The Plum in the Golden Vase, Volume 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. 

Walters, Derek. Chinese Astrology. Kent UK: Aquarian Press, 1987.

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