From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Calendars and Almanacs—Introduction (a)

A year ago on Round and Square (24 March 2012)—La Pensée Cyclique: Introduction
[a] Almanac

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
Chinese almanacs, which can be found in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities in the weeks before the lunar New Year, are a powerful connection between current cultural practices and those of early-modern times. Almanacs have been a prominent part of Chinese life for well over a millennium, and the calendar has cast its formidable shadow over government and social life for as long as China has aspired to centralized rule. Varying in size from slender versions with minimal contents to copies that are several inches thick—with sections containing good-luck charms, fortune-telling, physiognomy, agricultural information, and folk religion—almanacs have shown a remarkable continuity in Chinese cultural life over the past five-hundred years.

The covers of Hong Kong-based almanacs are an auspicious red, with large illustrations of happy families and long-lived patriarchs.  They have a string through the top meant for hanging on a wall—testament to the almanac’s role as a charm as much as it is a cultural reference work.  It is traditionally bound, with sheets of thin paper folded after printing into the sewn binding.  Current almanacs differ from Hong Kong, to Taiwan, to the People’s Republic in their calendrical as well as cultural information, but all share a creative tension between the calendars, which give them their reason for yearly publication, and the other information embedded within them.
[b] Mangshen and Ox PD

What strikes the observer first is the initial section, printed in red characters, that contains a cowherd and the spring festival ox—giving a cosmologically (if not meteorologically) accurate picture of the coming year’s weather. This is followed by a geomancer’s compass and details concerning directional influences for the coming year.  Further sections in red characters (a sign that the section details change from year-to-year) presents a series of calendrical charts to organize astrological, social, and even governmental information over the past two centuries.  

One has to page all the way to the back of the volume to find the calendar.  Printed in red and black characters, it details the year in monthly and daily columns.  Together, these comparatively brightly colored pages represent the daily reference “bookends” of the almanac.  These sections are the reason people need to buy new almanacs in the late months of the year, and it is still the work of calendrical specialists to put together an accurate and, one might say, compelling calendar for personal and family reference.

Current calendars are divided into as many as eight sections detailing the solar year correspondence, auspicious stars for the day, a breakdown of positive, neutral, and negative “hours” in the day, tables of activities to avoid and embrace, and a chart of the various “personality” characteristics of the day that reflect the patterned cycles of days that make up Chinese “day-reckoning.” The calendar has traditionally figured prominently in everything from family decisions and business negotiations to government activities and the planning of large events.
The calendar is the almanac’s most powerful link to a millennia-old tradition of organizing personal, family, and governmental activity according to the rhythms of the cosmos.  It was historically the role of the imperial government to promulgate a calendar, and individuals created calendars at the risk of imprisonment or execution.  In fact, one of the most interesting things about current almanacs is their connection, through the powerful tradition of the calendar, to the minutiae of everyday life and mundane social activity.  The calendrical linkage of the five elements, the jianchu cycle of days, and constellation influences, along with appropriate and inappropriate activity charts (including sewing, traveling, engaging in trade, and making wine), provides a “top to bottom” sense of life in the family compound and beyond.
***  ***
While the calendar is the interpretive center of the almanac, it is impossible, while paging through the more than forty sections that make up the larger versions of the book, to miss the rich array of cultural information embedded within it.  These sections are of varying importance and historical distance from modern life, but they provide a window onto concerns for fate and future in Chinese life.  Still, one might well ask what the “middle” sections are doing in the almanac.  Their inclusion is essentially a publishing decision, and the sections have little connection with the all-important calendar.  The fact that many of the almanacs’s sections have continued to be printed over many decades, even centuries, makes them a rich cultural repository.
[d] Above-below PD

It is in these middle sections that one finds the most interesting illustrations in the almanac. Aside from the cowherd on the very first and last pages (the latter being a basic picture of the next year’s calendar and “cosmic weather”), the calendrical information is not illustrated.  This is quite different in sections on “fortune telling by physical sensation,” “the five elements of childhood and the twenty-six dangerous gates” and “Zhuzi’s guide to managing the home,” as well as physiognomy, palmistry, and mole placement charts.  In these illustrations one sees a clear connection between text and picture, often in the 上圖下文, shangtu xiawen (picture above, text below) format found in late-imperial illustrated fiction.  For example, in the “hundred family surnames” section, at the top of every double column of sixteen surnames one finds a woodblock print of one famous figure—the Song dynasty founder on the right and Confucius on the left—from among those names.  Similarly, the almanac’s various guides to proper interpersonal conduct have illustrative woodblock prints highlighting various aspects of social interaction.

In addition to sections on charms, agricultural and geomantic information, and the sections of folk wisdom mentioned above, one finds a series of divination sections of widely varying seriousness.  Many of these sections are intended, from their own introductory blurbs, to give a small “glimpse” of the characteristics of future events and personal choices.  These sections serve similar functions to the fortune-telling booths and popular divination activities that one can find virtually anywhere in the Chinese-speaking world.  It is easy to mistake many of these sections for extremely serious inquiry into the future.  That, however, has always been the role of professional astrologers, who would go far beyond the contents of the almanac to link personal fate and future for their clients.

The continuity of the almanac is one of its most impressive features, and the fact that it is still printed and purchased in large numbers, regardless of how people actually manipulate or interpret its contents, is testimony to a cultural tradition that, whatever its critics (and they have been around in various guises for as long as there have been almanacs) engages earlier cultural practices and provides a fascinating window onto ideas about fate and future in the rhetoric of personal and family life in China.

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] Continuity RF


  1. Wow, good work, thanks.
    Will the book be same from year to year, especially on the date, forecast , and contents. Is there anyone verify its contents and ensure that it is up to date ?

  2. I'm sorry that I didn't see this earlier. It is NOT the same from year-to-year, so I will translate a new day...every single day. Basically it means getting ahold of a "Hong Kong-style" almanac in the late-fall or early winter. I always post the full page surrounding the day in question, followed by the Chinese text and a translation. I am thinking about ways to "post ahead," but haven't figured out an approach yet (beyond one year, there are reference materials, but it seems impractical). We'll see, though.

  3. Hi, this is really great work. Thank you!
    Is there anyway we could see the near future dates, like within the next 2-3 months. I use it to guide us in setting future dates to move, make a deal, and other things. Thanks again.

  4. Thank you, Joan. I enjoy doing it, and am working to streamline it in a number of ways over the course of the next year (the whole process was slow and cumbersome when I started last February). As of now, I don't have a way (on several levels) of posting in advance. Still, I have some ideas, ranging from using the elaborate books that show some of the details for future years (such as the day "personalities"). Doing full translations well ahead of time is logistically complicated, but I am thinking about it. I do want to include a note in future posts saying that, if you e-mail me, I will take a look and get back to you! In the short run here, By all means send me a note,and I'll check! I don't have my almanac yet for the coming year (an unusual circumstance). I will have one soon, though!