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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Calendars and Almanacs—Introduction (i)

A year ago on Round and Square (2 April 2012)—La Pensée Cyclique: Gathering the Social
Click here for the first post in the Round and Square introductory series "Calendars and Almanacs" 
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

Almanac Sections—Divination 
In order to show the rich cultural permutations of the almanac, it is necessary to understand traditional approaches to divination.  The almanac has many, and it is a reason why fortune-tellers in Taiwan and Hong Kong tend to have copies of almanacs in their booths, almost as a kind of handy divination reference. There are about a dozen sections in the largest almanacs that can, in one way or another, be linked to divination of some sort. Most are what we might call “low stakes” prognostication, providing a “glimpse” of a future possibility. This concept needs to be examined in some detail before we proceed.  What might we mean by a “glimpse” of the future?  A brief anecdote from my research and two further examples will have to suffice.
[b] Divine RF

Working for a computer company in Taiwan twenty years ago, I had a female colleague who had recently graduated from college and was a true asset to the company. I thought of her as very “modern,” yet she would often return from lunch with her latest “reading” from a fortune-teller. I found that shocking at the time (long before these matters began to make sense to me in the larger pattern of Chinese culture). I asked her pointedly how someone so well educated could believe such “nonsense.” Her answer intrigued me, and has since led me to study what some people call “superstition” in Chinese and Western culture and which I have come to think of as a “rhetoric of fate and future.” She said that she enjoyed being single, but that her family was pressuring her to marry. She wanted to “get a feel” for what might come next in her life. The phrase struck me, and made me wonder how one could “get a feel” for something in the future.

There is nothing “logical” about the matter, but the Chinese almanac (as well as bustling fortune-telling booths in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and out of the way places in the People’s Republic) is filled with sections that do just that: playfully lead an individual to “get a feel” for the future. If one considers the matter seriously, we might ask what role do glances at newspaper horoscopes, plucking petals from a flower (s/he loves me, s/he loves me not), and even checking betting odds for sporting events play in life if not to get just a glimpse, or “feel” for the future?  We will examine several sections that deal with this theme.
[c] Detail RF

The physiognomy section, especially its charts for mole placement, provides a useful example of the almanac’s diversity. As in many societies, the lines and features of the face have held a fascination for Chinese thinkers over the centuries, from sophisticated thinkers to those who have been accused of being nothing but charlatans.  There is little that is “active” about this section, and the person who endures a physiognomic consultation is at the mercy of his body, a cultural and medical tradition that is specific in some places and vague in others, and the interpretive prowess of the physiognomist. The practices are common to this day.

This latter issue is hardly inconsequential, and it recalls a bit of the “day personality” theme we considered in the calendar section. If one happens to get an optimistic and positive interpreter, one is more likely to have a positive “spin” on even the most ill placed of moles. A “straight-talker,” particularly if he has been paid in advance, is more likely to go “by the book,” and tell the text’s direct reading to the visitor. Indeed, the relative “privacy” of the almanac was a way for people to get interpretations on matters of physiognomy and fortune before the more detailed and (usually) specific consultations of “experts.” It is not unlike checking websites to be informed on medical matters before a visit to a doctor.  The almanac provided it in almost every home.

We will just consider a few mole placements and the almanac’s interpretation of them. These are more complicated as interpersonal or social issues than other matters usually covered by the almanac. A person’s precise birth time, or the way that she throws coins or drops cups—common divination procedures used in temples—are usually known only to a few people. Facial mole placement, however, is as public as the clothing one wears, and (until the late-twentieth century) there was no realistic way to change it. 

One must consider the power that such widespread cultural knowledge could have to make mischief on the reputation of a person, and it is not surprising that Hong Kong and Taiwan have seen an uptick in elective cosmetic surgeries in the last few decades. A particularly inauspicious mole placement says “failure” in a way that few other things have the power to do beyond family wealth and education. Particularly well-placed moles also had the power to influence others’ perceptions, and there are not a few stories in Chinese literature about men who were particularly taken with, and attentive to, their facial moles (Illustration D).
[d] Mole Placement Chart

          6 眉毛內-主聰明, 才藝超群,富貴且具有財運。
             Inside the eyebrows—clever and artistic, bringing wealth and status.
             S/he is also lucky with money.  

        20 兩眼之間-主短命,且可能犯罪。
             Between the eyes—a short life, and s/he could be incarcerated.

        22 鬢角-旅行中會遭遇災難之相。
             On the temples—s/he will encounter troubles and disaster while traveling.

        23 耳內-賢而多貴,男女皆吉。
             On the ear—noble and learned, auspicious for both men and women.

The mole placement chart only begins to scrape the surface of physiognomy in Chinese culture, but it is a window onto some of its more prominent features. The inescapably social and cultural overtones are among its most important.  Such a patterned overlay of good and ill fortune has played a role in Chinese history, and critics of traditional culture—not the least of them a quite superstitious individual himself, Mao Zedong—have described them as a series of cages holding back individual initiative. 

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

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