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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

From the Geil Archives (27)–Thinking in Fives

[a] Sacred RF
Click here for Rachel Johnson's other posts in the series "From the Geil Archive"
1-About Me                    2-Naming (Un-)Conventions                3-Out of the Frying Pan       
4-Jack of All Trades       5-Warring Pens                                    6-Thinking in Fives

Today's Round and Square Guest Contributor is Rachel Johnson. Rachel, from Burr Ridge, IL, just graduated from Beloit College with a BA in anthropology and a minor in Asian Studies. She was introduced to William Edgar Geil through a course taught by Rob LaFleur, and she is currently working in Doylestown, Pennyslvania with four other interns to research and digitize his archives with the Doylestown Historical Society. She and Geil share a mutual love of travel and of Chinese history and culture in particular, which is what drew her to study him further.
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Please note that all items marked "DHS" are property of the Doylestown Historical Society, and used with DHS permission. If you wish to use an image, you need permission of the Society. Please contact Robert LaFleur (, and he will put you in contact with the appropriate people.

“5 is a number most remarkable to the man of the Central Kingdom.” So begins the introductory chapter of William Edgar Geil’s final published work, The Sacred Five of China, entitled, “The Magic of 5." In fact, from this point on he becomes obsessed with five. In his dedication, he cites the five people who made his book possible. He dates the dedication “5th sun of the 5th moon of the 5th year after visiting the Sacred 5 of China." His book is broken into five chapters (discounting the introduction and the epilogue), each broken down into five more subsections. 
[b] Handwritten DHS

He seems determined to boil everything down to five elements, and in doing so, takes his first, only, and ultimately too-late step from casual observer of Chinese culture towards serious Chinese scholar. Sadly, this movement towards a greater and more in-depth understanding of the culture he so admired was cut short—since he died in 1925 and Sacred 5 was published posthumously in 1926. However, there can be little doubt that Sacred 5 is Geil’s most important, and most impressive work, and the biggest reason for this, in my mind, lies in the importance of the number five.

In this chapter Geil touches upon one of the most profound, persistent, and complex theories that form the framework of Chinese philosophy and religion: wuxing (五行), known most commonly in English as the Five Elements, Five Phases, or Five Agents. 

Wuxing was first described to me (by none other than Rob LaFleur, in fact) as “thinking in fives." It is, very simply put, a system by which the patterns and movements of the universe can be broken down into five “elements” (or phases, or agents, et cetera) which represent totality. In Western philosophy there are commonly thought to be four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. These elements are the essence upon which everything else around us is based, according to ancient Greek thought. (Of course, Aristotle later added the quintessence, aether, though its addition was controversial and not wholly accepted at the time). In Chinese thought, however, there are always five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. So, too, are there five directions: East, South, Center, West, and North. In fact, everything from colors to planets to organs in the human body can be broken down into five literally quintessential parts, which represent, together, totality. More than just representing totality, they represent patterns, the movement between these parts, a continual cycle of flow and change which underlies every element of nature and the universe. 
[c] Turtle? DHS

Geil seems to have a surprisingly firm understanding of the basis of this philosophy, which was seldom studied in depth by Western scholars at the time. While his understanding is somewhat perfunctory, it is nevertheless astute. He has taken to heart the importance of “five," and this magic number permeates his entire book, which discusses the five sacred mountains of China: Tai Shan, Hua Shan, Heng Shan, Heng Shan, and Song Shan. (Yes, there are two mountains called “Heng Shan." The characters in Chinese are different, but they are pronounced the same way. English isn’t the only language that is allowed to be confusing). So obsessed does he become with five that he takes the time to hand write each “5” in his otherwise typewritten manuscript. He fills handfuls of pages with writing out the title of his last book, every time with a different five. Sometimes it is written as a tally, sometimes as a Roman numeral, sometimes as an Arabic numeral. On some there are drawings of an odd turtle (borrowed from the ancient "Luo River Chart") with the numerals one through nine on its back, with five highlighted. 

While Geil may not have been a world-class academic (there is still no evidence he ever graduated from Lafayette College, despite the pictures of him sitting at his desk writing while wearing his mortarboard) he was certainly on to something big here. His obsession with five showed that he had at least begun to understand and internalize this amazingly complex, intrinsically integral, and wholly fascinating theory, and with it, one of the most important foundations of Chinese culture and thought. 

And, in keeping with the theme of today’s post, it is worth noting that this is my fifth blog post as one of the five guest contributors for Round and Square. Coincidence? Entirely, but nevertheless fitting.
[d] Thinking in fives DHS

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