Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chia Obama

Man! OK, I realize I have to start mixing things up with some more light, fun posts, so how about this... have you all seen the commercial for Chia Obama?!

Can you believe that this is actually a real commercial for a real product that you can buy! I saw it for the first time last night on television. On television! I know... this is maybe the first time in months that I've watched any commercials (thanks, Tivo) and this is what I see.

So, OK: my first thought on this was "Whaaat?!" and then my next thought was "OMG, I want to buy one." But then I thought again and realized "wait; no, I don't." First of all, since when do I want a friggin chia pet? Chia pets are like half really weak clay artifact/half sad excuse for a house plant, and they're the epitome of tacky, useless junk people buy on a whim and then wonder where to cram it. Plus, the Chia Obama doesn't even look that much like the president.

A lot of people seem to feel that a Chia Obama with an alfafa-sprout afro is sort of racist (or at least "racialist"). I'm not TOTALLY convinced of that -- and I feel like I recognize racism when I see it. Don't get me started on the clear, racial overtones in that Ant and the Grasshopper mass email that Nicole brought to my attention! --, but I would have to say that the commercial's suggestion that you proudly display Chia Obama on your desk at work sounds like a good way to start trouble.

I think it's kind of wonderful and hilarious that the commercial decides to take us in the other direction by saying that buying your own Chia Obama is a great way to celebrate the inauguration of our 44th president and that it is a symbol of your hope, pride and patriotism. So basically, you should just think of it as another cheap, commerative Obama souvenir of questionable taste.

Hey, in Germany they have Obama chicken fingers mit Curry dip, and in Russia they're using the president's image to shill vanilla and chocolate ice cream bars. OK, I will admit that that ad puts a big smile on my face.

So what do you all think about Chia Obama and about Obama kitsch in general?

Image from

The Gracchi: Tiberius

Early career

During his stint in the military, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (168-133 BC) fought under cousin Scipio Aemilianus in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), where he was reportedly the first man over the wall during the siege of Carthage. Later he served as quaestor in Spain under G. Hostilius Mancinus. There, Tiberius was instrumental in negotiating the peace treaty with the Numantians (a Celtiberian tribe resisting Roman domination), which probably saved the routed Roman army from destruction. This treaty would eventually be rejected by the Senate, and Mancinus would be put on trial for his failures as a general and turned over to the enemy. The officers serving under him and involved with the treaty were only spared a similar fate because the people credited Tiberius with saving the lives of thousands of Roman soliders.

Agrarian reform

The political career of Tiberius Gracchus began in earnest in 133 BC when he was elected a Tribune of the People. As tribune, he decided to take on the issue of land reform as his personal mission. This was perhaps the biggest social problem of the day: Rome was home to an ever growing mob of poor, landless citizens. There were several reasons for this: sometimes wealthy Senators would hire goons to strong-arm small farmers off their land. Also, a Roman father would usually divide his landholdings among his sons so that over the generations his descendants might not have large enough parcels to support their families. Most of these displaced farmers would move to the capital city of Rome where shanty towns were built around the city center: they would survive on handouts (distributed by the wealthy on occasions such as triumphs and religious festivals), watch free games in the arena, and maybe sell their vote. Some of these masses no doubt turned to a life of crime whereas others mulled around just waiting for a good opportunity to erupt into some mob violence. In a lot of ways, life in Ancient Rome was comparable to the conditions existing today in overcrowded, third world cities like Mumbai.

Tiberius was particularly concerned about landless veterans who, ideally, should have been given a plot of land at the end of their tour of duty. The growing number of landless citizens also placed a burden on the army since at the time only members of landholding families could serve in the military.

In order to combat the problem, Gracchus wanted to redistribute public land. This was land the Roman state had conquered during its expansionist wars, and at the time large swaths of it were controlled by Senators and other members of the wealthy elite. Tiberius proposed a law (known as the lex sempronia agraria) which would enforce pre-existing limits on how much public land one man could control, with the excess being confiscated and parcelled out to landless veterans. Unsurprisingly, this measure met with a lot of resistance from the Senate and ruling class since these were the same people who were bogarting all the land! For example, Plutarch says of Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica (c.183-132 BC, Nasica = "pointed nose"), Gracchus' biggest opponent in the Senate, that he "surrendered completely to his hatred of Tiberius. For he was a very large holder of public land, and bitterly resented his being forced to give it up."

Acts as Tribune

Tiberius made further enemies through the unorthodox tactics he used to try to push his agenda through. He realized there was no use in trying to get the new law passed by the Senate, so he put it up before the assembly where citizens could vote on it themselves. To block this move, the optimates (the party representing the elite) got his fellow tribune Marcus Octavius to veto the proposed vote. As representatives of Rome's common citizens, tribunes of the people were sacrosanct and laying hands on one or interfering with his official actions was a capital offense. Thus, because no one could mess with him, a tribune could essentially block any government action in the city of Rome with his veto so long as he was physically present. Tiberius didn't appreciate this "tribune of the people" trying to stop the people from voting on his land reform law so he convened the assembly to vote on removing Octavius from office. When Octavius tried to veto this vote as well, Tiberius had him forceably removed from the meeting place and replaced him with one of his supporters named Mucius. In this incident, you can argue that Octavius was acting counter to the will of the people, but Tiberius' actions were pretty clearly unconstitutional.

Tiberius also started playing hardball to get his proposed law passed: he began using his own veto power to block all the Senate's daily business until they reluctantly agreed to enact the lex sempronia. Plutarch tells us that his obstructionist measures included sealing the Temple of Saturn so that magistrates could not access the state treasuries which were held inside. Tiberius set up a commission to carry out the law composed of himself, his father-in-law Appius Claudius Pulcher (who was also the "first man of the Senate"), and his younger brother Gaius who was away at the time serving under Scipio Aemilianus in Spain.

But this was not the end of the conflict. Although the Senate had passed the law, they underfunded the appointed commission so that it was essentially powerless. Then, at the end of the year 133 BC, the King of Pergamum died and named the people of Rome as his heir. Tiberius decided to again by-pass the Senate and to bring bills before the Assembly which would determine how the estate would be administrated: specifically, he proposed that the money be allocated to funding the land reform. His enemies characterised this as an abuse of power, and they spread rumors that Tiberius had monarchical aspirations.


The optimates wanted to get rid of Gracchus, perhaps putting him on trial for daring to violate the person of M. Octavius, but they would have to wait until he was out of office to do this. This danger probably played an important part in motivating Gracchus to run for re-election for the next year. By doing so, he was once again acting illegally given that the Roman constitution specified that several years had to pass before an incumbent could run again for one of these annual offices (Term limits, baby!).

Violence broke out on election day (things had already gotten pretty hairy when M. Octavius was forced out of office). When Tiberius heard of a possible attempt on his life, his most loyal supporters armed themselves and gathered around him. Plutarch tells us that Tiberius put his hand to his head to indicate that he was in danger, but his opponents interpretted this as him asking for a crown. >Gasp!< When word reached the Senate, a group of Senators set off themselves to put down this coup. They made their way through the crowd as those people who were not die hard members of Gracchus' camp would have made way out of respect for the dignity of their office. We're told the Senators and their men then broke apart benches and used the chair legs to club Tiberius to death together with 300 of his supporters. Afterwards they chucked his body into the Tiber.


When things settled down, the Senate realized that things had gotten out of control and that Gracchus' assassination had stirred up much resentment among the common people. Therefore, as a concession, they took steps towards carrying out the lex sempronia and redistributing land. Meanwhile, Tiberius' most outspoken opponent, Nasica, was sent to Asia Minor on some pretext (even though he was the pontifex maximus) out of fear for his life. He died in Pergamum the next year under unknown circumstances.

Images: Roman denarius minted in 134 BC found on; Glicee lithograph of T. Gracchus sealing the Temple of Saturn found on

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Gracchi: Cornelia

That last post on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest started me thinking another favorite topic in Roman history. So let's take things back to the 2nd century BC and meet the Gracchi brothers, who were the Jack and Bobby Kennedy of the late Republic.

Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi

I think that any conversation about the Gracchi should start with the story of their mother, Cornelia (c.190 - 100 BC), who besides being one of the most influential women in Roman history can also tell us a lot about what life was like for Roman women in general. Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus (Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, 235-183 BC), the man who finally defeated Rome's worst enemy ever, Hannibal (248-183 BC). That's how he earned the name "Africanus," meaning "victor over the Africans."

When Cornelia was 18 (172 BC), she married a 45yo senator named Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (c.217 BC - 154 BC). Pretty much all marriages between upper-class Romans were arranged for political reasons, and given that Cornelia's father died years earlier I bet her mother Aemilia Tertia played an important role in making this match. The historian Plutarch (c. AD 46-120 ) tells us Gracchus was a devoted husband and generally gives the impression that they were happy together. During their roughly seventeen years of marriage, Cornelia bore her husband 12 children of whom only 3 made it to adulthood (the infant mortality rate in ancient Rome was no joke). When Gracchus died, their daughter Sempronia was around 16, Tiberius was 14 and their youngest Gaius was no older than 5.

Under Roman law, there must always be a man at the head of the household. Thus, when Gracchus died, Cornelia and her children technically passed under the authority of some male in-law. But, in practice, many upper-class Roman widows managed their own households and they were the ones making the day-to-day decisions. Assuming she survived her childbearing years, a Roman woman often found herself widowed at a young age -- either because she married an older man or because her husband died in one of those wars the Romans were always fighting. Also, whereas in Ancient Greece a fatherless young man would have become the head of the household and had authority over his widowed mother when he reached majority, in Rome adult children were expected to honor and respect their parents.

Plutarch tells us that Cornelia received several proposals after Gracchus' death, including one from Ptolemy Physcon (c.182-116 BC), the Pharoah of Egypt. But she turned down his fat, inbred ass and instead focused her attention on raising her three children. Historians also praise Cornelia for her modesty: one oft repeated anecdote tells how a Roman matron once visited Cornelia and, noticing her simple dress, asked where all her jewels were. Cornelia supposedly called her two sons to her and, putting her arms around them, replied "these are my jewels." Many conservative Roman writers condemned the decadent society of the late Republic. They believed conspicuous consumption to be out of step with traditional Roman values, and women who wore expensive dresses and jewelry were a favorite target. These writers looked back fondly to an idealized past, and they wrote that women should all do their own weaving and men should all serve in the army and till the fields.

Cornelia oversaw her sons' education and made sure they had the best Greek teachers available. These Greek masters instilled in Tiberius and Gaius a strong sense of civic responsiblity as well as uncompromising ideas on justice and democracy: you can definitely say that the character of their education, and hence their mother's choice in instructors, played a decisive role in molding the shape of their future political careers. Meanwhile, Sempronia was eventually wed to Cornelia's cousin Scipio Aemilianus (185-129 BC).

Images: Cornélie, mère des Gracques, 1861 statue by Jules Cavelier on display in Paris' Musée d'Orsay (image found on life in focus photography blog); 1779 painting "Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi" by Noël Hallé can be found at Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France (image found on wikipedia).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Teutoburg Forest

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

It happened this month, exactly two thousand years ago. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was fought in the beginning of September in the year 9 AD, during the reign of Caesar Augustus (born 63 BC, ruled as princeps 27 BC - 19 AD), and it would go down in history as the greatest defeat suffered during the relatively peaceful, prosperous golden age of the early Roman Empire (the Pax Romana). The battle went on for three or four days and wikipedia gives September 9-11 as likely dates.

At the time, Roman troops stationed in Germany east of the Rhine were under the command of Publius Quintilius Varus (46 BC - 9 AD) who had previously served a term as consul and governor of Syria. They included 3 legions, 6 auxillary cohorts of non-Roman allies, and 3 wings of cavalry.

The Romans knew the man behind the ambush as Arminius (18/17 BC - 21 AD) but today he's also called "Hermann the German." He was a chieftain of the Cherusci, a Germanic tribe eventually absorbed into the Saxon nation, who had received a Roman military education and had been granted Roman citizenship and equestrian rank. Before the rebellion, Varus looked at Arminius as a trusted ally, and thus Arminius was able to lead the Roman army into his trap. He also managed to put together a coalition of five tribes to fight the Romans -- perhaps with an eye towards further unifying the Germanic peoples in the future and establishing a personal hegemony.

The army headed into Teutoburg Forest on the way to put down an uprising reported by Arminius. As the Romans spread themselves thin, trudging along a narrow, difficult forest trail, the Germans attacked -- first taking pot shots from a distance, but then advancing ever closer as it became clear that the Romans were in distress. The next day, Varus attempted to lead his troops to the refuge of the nearest Roman garrison, but they ended up caught in a disadvantageous spot between a fortified hill -- occupied by the Germans -- and a great swamp.

Roman historians recount how the army of around 20,000 was destroyed down almost to the last man. When it became clear there was no escape, Varus and his commanders fell on their swords. Only a scant handful of Roman soldiers managed to escape the bloodbath by fleeing into the forest -- all the rest were either killed or perhaps taken as slaves. After defeating Varus, Arminius' men pillaged the Roman garrisons and settlements east of the Rhine.

When news of this massive defeat reached Rome, it greatly affected the aged emperor's mental and emotional stability. According to trashy imperial biographer Suetonius (c.70 - c.130), Augustus banged his head against the walls of his palace and cried out "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!" In the aftermath of this loss, the decision was made to abandon plans to subjugate the peoples east of the Rhine and the river was established as a part of the Empire's border.

Recovering the Eagles

When they wiped out Varus' army, the Germanic tribesmen also captured the three legions' eagle-bearing standards, which were religious objects held sacred under the Roman national cult. Thus, once memory of the defeat faded a bit, the Romans attached some importance and a great deal of national pride to their recovery.

After Augustus' death, his stepson Tiberius (born 42 BC, ruled 14-37 AD) suceeded him as emperor, and Tiberius' nephew Germanicus (16/15 BC - 19 AD) was made military commander in charge of Germany. Germanicus scored a number of victories east of the Rhine, weakening the coalition Arminius mounted against the Romans and retrieving two of the lost eagles. Tacitus (c.56-c.117), who made Germanicus the hero of his Annals, tells us that Germanicus also came across the site of Varus' defeat where he found blanched bones lying in the field and skulls nailed to trees. His troops set about burying the Roman dead. The final eagle wasn't recovered until 41 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius (born 10 BC, ruled 41-54 AD).

Germanicus's honorific surname, which means "victor over the Germans," wasn't awarded to him because of his German campaign; he actually inherited the name from his father who was granted it posthumously in 9 BC. In 19 AD, only a few years after he was recalled from Germany, Germanicus suddenly died in Antioch under mysterious circumstances. The governor of Syria was to be tried for his murder (until he died suddenly, ostensibly by his own hand), but Tacitus suggests that Tiberius might have ordered his nephew assassinated due to concerns over his growing popularity with the army and the people of Rome. Meanwhile, in 21 AD Arminius was assassinated by his fellow tribesmen.

Another interesting fact is that the Emperor Caligula (born 12 AD, ruled 37-41 AD) had the month of September renamed "Germanicus" after his late father, the illustrious general. The new name didn't stick.

Teutoburg Today

Teutoburg forest lies in western Germany on the border between Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. Here, outside the town of Detmold, an 80 ft. bronze statue in the likeness of Hermann was completed in 1875. At the time he was celebrated as a symbol of German nationalism. Last month, Der Spiegel noted that this would be the 2000th anniversary of Hermann's victory over the Romans, but also that no one was planning any big celebrations since the idea of German warrior culture is tainted by its association with the Third Reich. For some reason there is also a statue of Hermann in the small town of New Ulm, Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the actual site of Varus' last stand was uncovered in the late '80s/early '90s, at a spot called Kalkriese hill 70 km north of Detmold's Hermann monument. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Germans stripped the fallen soldiers of valuables (nobody was left to fight them, so they could take their time!) as well as evidence consistent with Tacitus' account of the burial carried out by Germanicus' troops years later.

Link: Smithsonian Magazine "The Ambush that Changed History"

Images: Photo of Teutoburg Forest taken from Hermannsdenkmal posted on wikipedia by user Arminia and under GNU license; map of Western Roman Empire at the time of Augustus found at; photo of Hermannsdenkmal taken by David Crossland and found on Der Spiegel; photo of Roman cavalary mask uncovered at Kalkriese found on wikipedia.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On the Colon

I hesitate to lead you, gentle reader, down into the valley of the shadow of English grammar and punctuation, but lately I've noticed something that has irritated me so much that I have to write about it. When did people decide to start capitalizing the first letter after a colon?

I first noticed this development when I was reading this blog that is like a serialization of a novel this guy's working on. I don't feel right linking just to nitpick someone's grammar (unless it's in the NYTimes), but here is one of many examples, "...Bertie's outfit, which he produces from his neverending bottomless carpetbag seemingly wrinkle-free: A peach silk shirt, grey three-piece with jodhpurs, and a matching twill baseball cap." I thought that this was annoying and wrong, but I figured maybe it was just a personal quirk on the part of the author.

After that, however, I noticed other articles written by other authors who did the same thing. "The brusque nurse, the surfeit of drugs, the ordinary mishaps—this pen's out of ink!—that seemed to bode ill: All served to underscore Betty's terror and her feelings of powerlessness and abandonment." I'm not sure whether this is a new development, or whether this is just one of those thing like when you learn a new word that previously eluded your attention and then you hear/see it used in a bunch of different places over the course of the week (I want to call that synchronicity).

So I decided to look into this capitalization after the colon thing and see whether it was legitimate or not. Before I tell you what I found out, let me just say that I think any discussion of rules of grammar and punctuation treads a slippery slope. I feel like we've all had experiences with grade school teachers who insisted that some usage or another was obligatory or incorrect, and that this was a "rule" one must follow, only to find out later that that was bullshit and that things were not that simple.

On one extreme, there are pedants who insist people should conform to rules that have long ago fallen out of fashion or which were specious to begin with (Don't get me started on the lie that there is a distinction between "further" and "farther!" That might actually have to be the topic of another post). On the other extreme, I guess, you end up with linguistic anarchy and you eventually realize that the possibility of communicating our thoughts to one another via language is a tricky business and that some rules and common practices are actually necessary in order to protect the meaning we're trying to convey. I guess, the ideal falls somewhere in between a world with hard and fast rules and a world where chaos reigns.

When do you use a colon?

The wikipedia entry on the colon has a catalogue differentiating between the many functions a colon may play in English sentences, but -- basically -- what follows the colon expands on the idea set out before the colon. Sometimes this can be a list.

He emptied out the contents of his car: two improperly-folded road maps, an empty bottle of suntan lotion, five discarded Starbucks cups, three pairs of cheap sunglasses....

Other times, what follows the colon could stand on its own as a complete sentence but the writer has made the choice to connect these clauses using the colon as a conjunction.

After a decade of civil war, the country's economy was in ruins: unemployment was at an all-time high, and rampant inflation had made the nation's currency all but worthless.

Do you capitalize the first word after a colon?

There seems to be some disagreement on this point. I guess that I was taught that you don't capitalize the first word after a colon (unless, of course, it's a proper noun or something like that that you would capitalize anyway in the middle of a sentence). According to wikipedia, the Brits all follow this practice and never capitalize after a colon. On the other hand, some American writing handbooks say that it is not incorrect to capitalize after a colon if and only if the clause that follows could stand on its own as a complete sentence (as in our second example sentence above). Not only that, but some American style books actually DEMAND that you capitalize the first word after the colon in these situations. The Associate Press and MLA style books both seem to fall into this category. The Chicago Manual of Style tells you to capitalize only when what follows the colon is a quotation or where two or more sentences follow the colon.

What about semicolons?

People today probably use semicolons less often than colons. Some recent articles even claim that it's facing extinction. But, anyway, a semicolon can be used as a conjunction to connect two sentences which are in some way related to each other. It seems to be universally accepted that you do not normally capitalize the first word of the second clause when a semicolon is used like this. This usage of the semicolon to connect two related sentences is very similar to using a colon to connect two related sentences; the only difference being that the semicolon's application is even broader (i.e. to use a colon the second clause must expand of the idea of the first clause, but you can use a semicolon if the two clauses are related in any way at all). Given this similarity, and the fact that no one would capitalize the first word after a semicolon, I wonder why anyone would feel the need to capitalize after a colon.

Other uses of the colon

Besides preceding a long list or connecting two independent clauses, a colon can also be used in other ways where I WOULD capitalize the next word. For example, a colon can also be used to seperate a title from a subtitle (e.g. "Glass Slippers: Feminism and Gender Roles in the Cinderella Story") or in plays, transcripts, etc. to seperate the speaker's name from his dialogue (Viceroy Fizzlebottom: Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithin's Day already?). It is correct to capitalize the next word after the colon in both these situations.

Moreover, if what follows the colon is a direct quote, set off in quotation marks, I would probably capitalize the first word of the quote. The consumer group's representative strongly denounced the new law: "Rather than protecting small investors as the government promised, the final bill would shelter brokers from liability for past violations." I don't know though; to be honest, I could kind of go either way on this one.


Is your head spinning yet? Like I said, any in-depth discussion of grammar and punctuation usually ends up highlighting the absurdity of attempting to communicate through language at all.  Not only that, but it can sometimes make you more self-conscious and unsure about your writing.  I definitely don't believe that in writing a blog, an informal article or even a novel that one needs to take care to follow all the commonly agreed upon conventions of formal English grammar -- and I sure as heck don't claim to do this myself.  But, nevertheless, my initial reaction to those sentences above remains.  For me they stood out, and my gut instinct told me that they were "wrong."

And so, for what it's worth, I would say that unless you are constrained to follow the MLA or AP rules of style you shouldn't capitalize the first word after a colon. I'm curious to know what other people think: when would you capitalize after a colon?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cool Music: Midlake

Another good band that I think I originally discovered through Aquarium Drunkard and which I've been listening to more lately is Midlake. Midlake originally hale from Texas (Denton, TX which is just north of Dallas and Fort Worth) and they play kind of indie/ alternative/folk rock (i.e. what I like to call "White People Music"). I feel like if you're into the National, Kings of Leon, Blitzen Trapper or any other groups like that (also the Decembrists who I hesitated to mention because I personally think a lot of their stuff can be boring and whiney) then you might also enjoy Midlake.

My favorite Midlake song is still the first song I've ever heard by them: "Roscoe" off their 2006 album The Trials of Van Occupanther. The whole song is pretty great (I want to say that it's almost universally recognized as their best track), but I think the best lines is "Been born in 1891, waiting with my Aunt Roseline." I think it's just so evocative of the era they're -- somewhat earnestly, somewhat winkingly -- singing about. Plus, I had an Aunt Roslyn.

Here's the video:

You can find some more of their music on myspace, assuming you haven't turned your back on that corner of the internet forever. There's also more midlake videos available on youtube.

Mysteries of the I Ching, Part II

Example of I Ching Divination

In order to better explain the I Ching and what it's all about, I decided to do a sample casting for the purposes of this post. The question I asked was "What is the I Ching?" and the symbol I got from counting out the yarrow stalks was this:

Symbol #62 (Xiao Guo) with the third line changing from yang to yin.

Meaning of Symbol

The Wilhelm translation of I Ching renders Xiao Guo as "Preponderance of the Small." For comparision, one of the copies I have at home (edited by Alfred Huang) calls this symbol "Little Exceeding" and the other (by Wu Wei) labels it "Attention to Detail/Small Tasks/Avoid Excess".

Huang translates the text for this symbol as follows:

King Wen's Judgment:

Little Exceeding.
Prosperous and smooth.
Favorable to be steadfast and upright.
Little affairs can be done,
Not great affairs.
A flying bird leaves a message:
Not appropriate to ascend,
Appropriate to descend.
Great good fortune.

Commentary on Judgment:

Little Exceeding.
The little ones exceed and proceed.
Favorable to be steadfast and upright
And to act in accord with the time.

The yielding attain the central places.
There is good fortune in dealing with small affairs.
The solids are neither central nor correct.
Great affairs should not be dealt with.

There is an image of a flying bird.
The flying bird leaves a message:
Not appropriate to ascend,
Appropriate to descend.
Great good fortune!
To ascend is contrary to the situation;
To descend is in accord with the time.

Commentary on Symbol:

Thunder above Mountain
An image of Little Exceeding.
In correspondence with this,
The superior person weighs the pros and cons of his conduct:
Excessive humility is better than excessive arrogance in behavior.
Excessive sorrow is better than excessive expense in a funeral.
Excessive frugality is better than excessive luxury in spending.

Right, so what does all this mean? Wu Wei actually seems to sum up the symbol pretty well: the central themes are (a) paying attention to small details, (b) aiming to accomplish small, acheivable goals (little accomplishments will eventually add up to something big), and (c) avoiding excess (its better to make due with a little less than the ideal than to have too much).

And what's all that business about the flying bird leaving behind a message? Huang explains that, from watching the mother bird leave the nest, the baby birds learn that it is better to fly low than to fly high. Flying closer to the ground is safer, in part because you're more likely to be within reach of a suitable place to land when the time comes. For me this brings to mind the myth of Icarus, and I feel like the I Ching is recounting the same allegorical lesson about the dangers of soaring too high.

So that's step one. Step two is to look at the line-text for our changing line (the third line in the symbol). Here's Huang's translation of the line-text along with the associated commentary:

Yao Text

Third Nine
Go not too far.
Guard against this.
Otherwise one might be injured: misfortune.


Otherwise one might be injured
What a serious misfortune it is.

So yeah that doesn't really seem to add much to our understanding in this case. The line-text just further emphasizes the warning against going too far or overdoing it. Also, watch your back!.

Our final step is to check out what symbol is formed when that third line completes its change from yang to yin. This turns out to be symbol #16 (Yu) which is variously translated as Enthusiasm, Delight, Happiness, Peace. Some of the explanations I read for Yu include "inspire enthusiasm/ great success/remain humble" and "humility and sincerity bring harmony." Also: after you acheive success you must try to remain humble and avoid selfish thoughts.

My interpretation

I think that this is actually a pretty interesting and appropriate answer to our question ("What is the I Ching?"). The I Ching is "preponderance of the small." This makes sense given that in order to use the I Ching you have to take some time and sort through sticks. The I Ching is attention to detail, success through small achievements/realizable goals and avoiding excess. And, finally, the I Ching leads to happiness and harmony and success but remember to stay humble.

Putting all the answer stuff aside, I think that this casting also tells you a lot about what the I Ching is like. As you can see, in addition to being a fortune telling instrument, the I Ching is actually pretty didactic. It's text is full of advice about being steadfast, moral, honest, upright, etc. I want to say that this sets it apart from other fortune telling techniques like tarot cards or tea leaves or whatever. With the I Ching, any pronouncement about the future always comes hand in hand with a lot of preachy/sage wisdom.

Consulting the I Ching is more usually a solitary, introspective experience. With tarot cards, the meaning of the cards is really wide open to different interpretation which you leave up to a fortune teller. But with the I Ching it's all written down in a big book. The answer you get is definitely open to some interpretation, but if you're literate and intelligent you can decide for yourself how the words apply to your question/situation. Interestingly enough, I read an article where the author said that when she spoke to people about the I Ching she found that no one ever claimed its answers were incorrect -- in the worse cases the answer was just obscure. What's more, you'll really never go astray following its advice since the I Ching's philosophy is very much about being the most moral, disciplined person you can be.

Image: illustration of Xiao Guo from

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mysteries of the I Ching, Part I

What is the I Ching?

The I Ching is one of the most ancient Chinese texts.  It was included among the Five Classics preserved and taught by followers of Confucius, which all predate the establishment of the Qin dynasty by the book-burning First Emperor in 221 BC.  "I Ching" is usually translated as "The Book of Changes" which reflects the tome's underlying philosophy: that our world is made up of forces (opposing forces, balanced forces) which are always changing, that history is cyclical, and that there is continuity between the past, present and future.  I also have a copy which calls itself "The Book of Answers," reflecting the fact that the I Ching is primarily used for divination.

How did I discover the I Ching?

I think I was wholly ignorant of this classic until three years ago when I read the novel The Man in the High Castle by scifi writer Philip K Dick (the guy who wrote the book on which Blade Runner was based).  The novel, which deserves a recommendation in and of itself, takes places in an alternative world where the Japanese and the Germans won WWII.  The US has been carved up, with the Nazis taking the East Coast and the Japanese the West, while a Free America in the Heartland acts as a buffer between the two world powers.

Most of the action takes place in the western half of the country where the I Ching figures among the many aspects of Asian culture disseminated under Japanese occupation.  Several of the characters consult the oracle for advice, and Dick claims that he turned to it for guidance when he was writing the novel.

After finishing The Man in the High Castle my curiosity was piqued and I was eager to check it out for myself, but (although I gave it to a couple of people as a gift) I didn't get a copy of my own until earlier this year.

History of the I Ching

The I Ching's origins are prehistorical.  Traditionally, much of the classic's present, written form is attributed to the work of three authors.  King Wen ("Zhou Wen Wang" 周文王, , 1099-1050 BC), the progenitor of China's Zhou dynasty (1045 - 256 BC), is credited with putting the 64 symbols in their present order and with writing the Judgments for each of the symbols.  While Wen's son King Wu would go on to defeat their enemies the Shang and put the family in power, Wu's younger brother -- known as the Duke of Zhou ("Zhou Gong" 周公) -- is said to have continued their father's literary work and written the explanations for each of the six horizontal lines that comprise each symbol.  Finally, the commentary further expanding on the meaning of the symbols, King Wen's judgments, and the Duke of Zhou's line-texts is traditionally attributed to Confucius (孔夫子, 551 - 479 BC).

Contemporary historians now believe that the traditional account of the I Ching's authorship is legendary, much the same way that the Torah is thought to be the work not of the prophet Moses but of a number of different authors.  Nevertheless, scholars believe that the core of I Ching  (the symbols, judgments and line-texts) were written down and canonized during the span of Zhou dynasty with the commentary being added by later generations of Confucianists, perhaps incorporating elements of an oral tradition that began with the philosopher himself.

How to consult the I Ching

The way that I Ching divination works, basically, is you ask a question and then you are directed to one of the book's symbols and whatever is written there is your answer.  You can either ask a question seeking knowledge (what will the new year hold?) or advice (what should I do about...?).  One of the books I have at home suggests that the wise man asks "what should I do?" rather than "what will happen?"

In order to find out what your symbol is, you need some way to generate random numbers. Perhaps the most ancient method involved banging turtle shells and reading the cracks that formed, but the knowledge of how to do this has been lost (plus, poor turtles!). Another one of the oldest methods employs dried yarrow stalks, and this technique (or at least a modern reconstruction) is still used today.  There's really no reason why you couldn't use a bundle of any old kind of sticks (you need 50), but -- you know -- the yarrow stalks are traditional.

A more recently invented method (which became popular in the 12th/13th century AD) uses three coins.  A lot of people like this method because it makes it quicker and easier to get the six lines of your hexagram, but at least one of my I Ching books disparages the coin method as "inauthentic."  Also, the probability of getting each of the four types of lines is different depending on whether you're tossing coins or counting sticks.  I've only used the yarrow stalks; I guess I feel like it gives you the full I Ching experience.

The process of manipulating the sticks is somewhat complicated (here is a good set of instructions).  You need to do this six times in order to get the six lines that make up your symbol.  Each line is either yin (broken) or yang (solid) and either constant or changing.  When you are finished, you look up your symbol in the I Ching and read the corresponding judgment and commentary (your translation of the I Ching may also include a further explanation provided by the translator/editor).

But this is not the end: if your symbol includes any changing lines you should also read the line-texts for these lines (and the associated commentary) which usually give you a more specific answer applying to the situation you are asking about.  I Ching users are sometimes uncertain how to interpret an answer with more than one changing line, but I follow the general rule that a lower changing line speaks of a situation closer to the immediate present whereas higher changing lines speak about a later, future situation.  Finally, when the changes have occurred (i.e. changing yin lines have turned into yang lines and vice versa) the six lines will form a new symbol.  Look up this new symbol and read the Judgment and commentary to find out what the situation will be like once the current changes have been resolved.

Stay tuned for Part II and an example of I Ching divination

Images: cover of I Ching edition published by St. Martin's Griffin found at; portrait of King Wen found at; photo of statue outside of Confucius temple in Beijing found on wikipedia.