Click here for the first post in the Round and Square introductory series "Calendars and Almanacs"
|[a] Sequence RF|
We have considered, in sequence, the Chinese calendar and the contents of traditional almanacs. What can we make of this strange, thick, and inexpensive book that still sells millions of copies a year all over the world? The Chinese almanac has been printed and published in a similar form to today’s Hong Kong almanacs for almost a millennium; it is a valuable cultural document. Studying the Chinese almanac is not a way of “teaching superstition,” as some Chinese critics have feared. It is rather a way of understanding a cultural element that has not gone away—persistently will not go away—no matter how often it has been criticized. The occasional “superstitious” practitioner might be interested for his own reasons, but all people interested in Chinese cultural practices should be. A text such as the traditional Hong Kong-style almanac is a window onto Chinese culture that is stunning in what it can teach the careful student about Chinese history and culture.
|[b] Public RF|
A second aspect of the almanac that should be noted in conclusion is that it is a book that is meant to be used. It is common all over the world in the early twenty-first century to think of reading as a solitary activity engaged in by individuals. The almanac, however, reflects an earlier kind of reading common to households and market squares all over the world, in which reading was public and performative. Many of the texts were meant to be read aloud in the presence of others, and it was often the young scholars of the family who were chosen to do so. In all of these sections—including the consultation of the calendar itself—there is a built-in social dynamic that must never be forgotten when trying to understand the way that the almanac is organized. It is a document, at base, that was meant for the different generations of a complex family grouping living in a rural setting. It has adapted, over the centuries, to be a book used by smaller families in urban settings. In order to understand it, however, one must never forget its uses in a social setting.
|[c] Arm's length RF|
Third, the almanac is a great “linkage” text that combines oral and written cultures in powerful ways—in a way that no other traditional medium was capable of doing before the Internet. That may sound far-fetched, but the comparison is apt. Even radio and television cannot equal the voice-text dynamics of a simple book like the almanac, especially when read aloud. Even the most published of Western texts—the Bible and Pilgrims’ Progress—are unrelentingly narrative.
The almanac is a visual feast of small sections that allow even the non-literate user to page through it with pleasure. Many sections, as we have seen, explicitly tie oral culture and folk beliefs to a written tradition that deepens and, indeed, lengthens it far beyond that which homespun maxims are capable. The almanac takes farmers’ sayings about the weather and then organizes and codifies them; it takes the twenty-four “micro-seasons” of the year and presents levels of additional information about them (in and beyond the calendar itself) that gives them a precision never anticipated in a rural culture; finally, it takes common knowledge, such as things that are harmful to children, or what might be meant by a shiver, a shudder, or a ringing ear, and makes it into a miniature encyclopedia. An illiterate farming grandfather could get as much pleasure out of hearing such things read to him as could his highly literate little grandson in reading them aloud.
|[d] Aesthetic RF|
Fourth, as strange as it might seem to use the term for a black-and-white woodblock style text, the almanac is a compendium that has enjoyed a long reputation as an aesthetic joy. From the opening pages with the ox and the herdboy to the beautiful configurations of calligraphy and classic primers—all of the way to the sections upon sections of “illustration above, text below” narratives—the almanac is a text that is meant to be enjoyed as a kind of artwork. It is not meant to compete with the landscape scrolls, ceramics, or elaborate carvings that one can find in the great museums of China, but more people have enjoyed its woodblock pictures than have ever seen glimpses of Song dynasty landscapes or Ming ceramics.
The almanac is a reference work in up to fifty sections, sold year-after-year, and hung on family doorposts. It is an aesthetic pleasure in the same sense that family storytelling (with pictures being held aloft) provides shared enjoyment of words and images. The lasting image that best conveys a sense of what this book has meant in Chinese culture over the last millennium might well be the example of the young scholar we have discussed in some of the examples above. He is the hope of his family and of his generation. With devotion to his family and respect for his elders (and, as the best educated member of the group, exhibiting not a little bit of showmanship)—he ties together the overlapping almanac traditions of literature, reference, parable, divination, and hope for success as he reads aloud to the listeners, pausing patiently to hold up the illustrations for everyone to see.