Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Religion in China: thinking in fives

One, two, three, four, five ➙ totality. That's all there is to counting in five phases.

Mount Tai: the eastern sacred mountain
by Robert André LaFleur

Last week, my post discussed how China developed a complex yin-yang, five-phase correlative cosmology. In brief, anything in the world could be broken into fives, and the various items could then be linked to other 'fives' in an elaborate system meant to describe the movements of the universe. As ideas go, this is as big as it gets. The problem for Chinese thinkers throughout history - as well as for those of use who seek to understand these fundamental relationships - begins with learning how to 'think in fives'. To do this, we need to be aware of some of the ways our own worldviews affect our thinking, not the least when it comes to 'counting'.

Before we start to practice this pentagonal form of thought, let's take a look at a quotation from an American explorer who tried, about ninety years ago, to get his own mind around the concept, even as he struggled to explain it to his readers. William Edgar Geil (1865-1925) engaged five-phase cosmology as seriously as any Western writer in his time. Although his own understanding was imperfect, he sought to clarify the concept for readers who knew much less than he. Few Westerners have tried to relate the five-phase intellectual schema as extensively as Geil attempted in these opening sentences of The Sacred 5 of China (1926), a book about mountains as religious and cultural sites:


"5 is a number most remarkable to the man of the Central Kingdom. When he looks into the sky at night he sees 5 planets, which we of the West term Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, Mercury. When he studies the tints of nature he distinguishes 5: Green, Red, Yellow, White, Black. In the world there are 5 elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. If in the orchard the stems or the flowers of apple, pear, and cherry be admired, 5 reveals itself again. If space be analysed, there are 5 directions: East, South, Centre, West, and North. So, too, in the little world of the body. The human frame has 5 constituents: Muscle, Vein, Flesh, Bone, Skin-and-hair. The trunk contains 5 organs: Kidneys, Heart, Liver, Lungs, Stomach. It has 5 offshoots: Head, two Arms, two Legs.

"All other things, therefore, should manifestly be sorted into 5’s. In music, where the white man talks about an octave, but really discriminates popularly 12 sounds within the octave, the Son of Han recognizes only 5 notes. 5 tastes are distinguished: Salt, Bitter, Sour, Acrid, Sweet. From his ancient semi-mythical kings he singles out 5 as worthy of remembrance. And for more than 4 millenniums he has known 5 degrees of nobility.

Cover sketch for The Sacred 5 of China
"As there were 5 constant or cardinal virtues, so there were 5 punishments. The calendar depends upon the Pillars of Heaven, or pairs of stems. And many of these matters are mentioned in the 5 Classics, and brought up to date by the 5 stripes in the Chinese Flag.

"It is, therefore, only to be expected that mountains should be mentioned in 5’s. And among the holy mountains, it was inevitable that 5 should be prominent; and natural that these should become associated with the 5 elements, the 5 directions, the 5 colours. Hence, we find:

Tai Shan, the East Peak, corresponds to Wood and Green.

Nan Yo, the South Peak, corresponds to Fire and Red.

Sung Shan, the Centre Peak, corresponds to Earth and Yellow.

Hua Shan, the West Peak, corresponds to Metal and White.

Heng Shan, the North Peak, corresponds to Water and Black."

Draft preface of The Sacred 5 of China by William Edgar Geil, image used with permission of Doylestown Historical Society
Whether he intended it this way or not, the first paragraph seems to imply that only fives were seen in China - that people counted, yet only got up to five for any one phenomenon. By the second paragraph, he is clear in his emphasis - experience must be sorted into fives. The world has many things, and counting them is only one approach. Beyond that, there is clarity - a peculiar kind of cultural and intellectual power - to be found when we sort them into categories of five units each. In this way, we may see many craggy peaks along a mountainous landscape, but we will always have the five sacred mountains.

William Edgar Geil's sketch of the five sacred mountains and their five phase categories. Note the processual arrows. 
Geil was onto something here, and I use his foundation to teach five-phase cosmology in my own classes. This is a form of correlative thinking; the categories are not just comparable…they are meant to be compared, linked, and correlated. Learning to 'think in fives' is difficult for those of us who have grown used to counting discrete items around us. In our own loosely scientific experiences, most of us have grown accustomed to looking at things more easily than processes. We might, for example, look at a group of buildings and say something like 'there are twenty-six buildings on that small college campus'.

A five-phase approach to the same buildings would have the viewer name 'the five buildings'. And this is where we struggle. "What on earth (metal, water, wood, fire) are you talking about?"...we might howl. "There are twenty-six buildings; why speak of five?" The answer boils down to this: For the correlative thinker, the total is not nearly as important as a deep and enduring sense of the totality. We need to (learn to) 'count' in the following fashion:

One ➙ two ➙ three ➙ four ➙ five ➙ totality.

Ancient astronomical observatory, Mount Tai
While this would not be the way a young thinker would have learnt it in the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), I find it to be an effective way for those of us living in the 21st century to manage the idea. While there may be many things out there, they can be conceptualised in categories of five. In this way of thinking, green, red, yellow, white, and black are 'colour'. East, south, centre, west, and north are 'direction', and salty, bitter, sour, acrid, and sweet are 'taste'. Once you learn to think this way, it gets easier. Groups of things don't just represent the whole. In a powerfully cosmological manner, they are the whole. While this may sound just a little bit too 'postmodern' for people brought up in a world of data, remember that it is a profoundly premodern concept meant to engage the universe in a different way.

Give it a try. Think of the five car models, the five British prime ministers, the five French novelists, or the five professional golfers. And you know what? We already do this, at least after a fashion. It is just that we in the West have not systematised it to conceptual levels that defy the regular methods of induction. We have the Seven Wonders of the World, of course, and rural South Dakota boasts what we might call the Four American Presidents at Mt. Rushmore. If you think about it, you will find many more such compilations. They are not systematic, but thinking in clusters is not unique to China. What is - and what makes Chinese religious thought endlessly fascinating - is the way that it has become a habit of mind with enormous staying power, that has already lasted more than two thousand years. @sima1085


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