Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"The Five Elements -- Coming Together"

This message was sent to the CAIS community on March 23, 2011

On Saturday, May 7, the CAIS community will again dress up in qípáos 旗袍 (cheongsams), Zhōng Shān zhuāngs 中山装 (Sun Yat-sen suits) and flock to the ShowCAIS gala, CAIS’s annual
ritual of fun, community bonding and generosity toward the school. This year’s ShowCAIS theme is “The Five Elements . . . Coming Together.” When I first heard this, I thought the Five Elements were perhaps a CAIS parent rock band, maybe Billy Shen on guitar, Brian Berson on the drums — I pictured Betty Shon in her qipao, hair dyed purple and belting out a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” JP Lor in the Development Office quickly corrected my misunderstanding and explained that this year’s ShowCAIS theme of Five Elements (wŭ xíng 五行) referred to the elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth (jīn , , shuĭ , huŏ , ) in ancient Chinese thought.

“Furthermore,” JP said, coyly, “it would be swell if you could write a historical piece about the meaning of the Five Elements in advance of ShowCAIS.”

Hmm, I thought, this is just the kind of escape/distraction that I love—even if the complexity and sophistication of the subject exceed my relatively simple understanding. I happily agreed. So here goes. . . .

Today, China seems monolithic, and people commonly refer (dubiously) to China’s “5,000 years of continuous history.” But as most of us know, in reality China wasn’t always one place or even one idea. In fact, before China’s first emperor Qín Shĭ Huángdì 秦始皇帝 (literally The First Emperor of the Qin) took control of the Chinese empire, China was a series of independent states or kingdoms (guó ), each of which had its own language (now, for political purposes, called dialects) and culture. For instance, if you were from the ancient Kingdom of Chŭ , you would speak what is today Cantonese, and you would eat rice and seafood with sweet flavoring. If you were from the state of Wú , you would eat savory food and speak what is today the local language/dialect of Shanghai, Suzhou or Hangzhou. (Incidentally, you also might be covered in tattoos, and you’d likely be a strong swimmer.) And so on.

Over time, relationships between these states became increasingly hostile, and the prime concern of their rulers became issues of war and peace. In fact, as many of you know, the two-and- a-half centuries leading up to the unification of China into one empire is referred to as the Warring States (Zhàn guó 战国) Period (475-221 BCE).

Philosophy from this period was, for the most part, unconcerned with lofty issues of cosmology and focused instead on practical issues of ruling the state and maintaining peace (or at least avoiding conquest)—political science, really. Different schools of philosophy ranged from “everybody be nice and civil to each other, and there will be world peace” (Confucianism) to “do whatever it takes to win and we’ll rule the world” (Legalism or Fă jiā 法家). In the short term, Legalism won; the state of Qín , with its strong army, government monopolies, intolerance of intellectual discourse, subjugation of the individual and super autocratic rulers, unified China in 221 BCE as the Qin Dynasty (Qin is pronounced like “chin” or “cheen” which is the origin of the word China). A lasting and conspicuous symbol of this approach to governing is the Terracotta Army outside of Xi’an, which is the excavated portion of the tomb of the Qin’s first megalomaniac emperor, Qin Shi Huang (a group of our 6th and 7th graders will visit Xi’an and see the Terracotta Army in April). Legalism worked for the State of Qin when it came to marshaling resources to gobble up neighboring states. But when it came to governing an empire, it wasn’t so popular with the general population, and the Qin was able to hold onto power for only 15 years. The fall of the Qin in 206 BCE marked the beginning of the Han Dynasty (film buffs: the well known Chinese film Farewell My Concubine –Bàwáng bíe jī 霸王别姬—directed by Chen Kaige centers around the Peking opera of the same name which tells the conquest of the Qin by the Han).

Coming on the heels of the brutal Qin (not to mention centuries of warfare between independent kingdoms), the Han had to legitimize its authority by something other than military might. So Han scholar philosophers set about developing a state ideology that supported its rule in cosmological terms—the rise of the Han had to be seen as conforming to the will of Heaven. Traditional Confucianism, with its emphasis on proper human behavior, wasn’t enough; the Han needed the force of the Universe behind it.

The theory of the Five Elements represents part of the Han’s attempt to develop a theory of the universe that legitimized its own authority. The theory of the Five Elements is not all that easy (for me, at least) to understand, and to be honest, it is not entirely consistent. Moreover, with over 2,000 years of history, it has accumulated a lot of popular elements that are unrelated to the original Han Dynasty cosmology. But I’ll try my best.

Originally the Five Elements of metal, wood, fire, water and earth were used to explain the temporal dimension. Each is associated with a season: spring is associated with the element wood, summer with fire, autumn with metal and winter with water. The element of earth corresponds to the transition period between seasons. Time was traditionally viewed as cyclical and not linear, thus the cycle of the four seasons and the transition between seasons (and their corresponding elements) informs Chinese historiography—dynasties wax and wane like the seasons, and each dynasty is associated with one of the five elements. The Han adopted earth as its element.

According to one explanation of the relationship between the Five Elements, each element begets the element that follows it. So wood begets fire, fire begets earth, earth begets metal and so on. Another explanation is that each of the Five Elements overcomes the element that precedes it. What this all means is not entirely clear to me, other than the fact that the Han Dynasty needed to establish that events in history occurred in a cycle that was part of a cosmological pattern, and that the rise of the Han was following this pattern—they were the legitimate rulers of the empire at the time of their rise.

In addition to using the Five Elements to explain the temporal dimension, Han scholars explained the spatial dimension in terms of the Five Elements, assigning a cardinal direction to each element. East corresponds with the element wood, south with fire, west with metal and north with water. Earth was at the center. I suppose CAIS could claim metal as its element as San Francisco is on the West Coast, or because CAIS is on the west side of the building and FAIS on the east (making them wood). Or perhaps we are earth, as Hayes Valley is pretty much in the dead center of San Francisco.

After explaining time and space, Han philosophers got a little carried away, it seems to me; before long everything imaginable corresponded with one of the Five Elements. Some of the correspondences seem more reasonable, attractive even. For instance, each element has a corresponding mythical beast, including Yellow Dragon (earth) and White Tiger (metal). Each element has a corresponding color as well, so, for instance, fire is red, water is blue, and so on. In fact, if we use this system to determine various characteristics of CAIS, and if our location in Hayes Valley corresponds with earth, then our school color ought to be yellow, and our mascot ought to be a dragon (we’re batting .500).

Other correspondences are a little stranger. For example: the corresponding vital organ for wood is the spleen; metal correspondence with the liver. Presumably this has some relation to traditional medicine. Wood is associated with a “goatish” odor (think months’ old mutton hanging from a line in a Mongolian yurt), and water is associated with a “rank” odor. Metal corresponds with being hairy, while earth corresponds with being naked. Fire corresponds with beans and water with millet. And so on. What this tells me is that Han scholars needed to assure their rulers that absolutely everything (even the human spleen and the smell of a goat) had its proper time and place in the cosmos and that the proper place and time for the Han was ruling the known world with then and there.

This year’s ShowCAIS theme--“The Five Elements . . . Coming Together”--might suggest that the traditional temporal and spatial divisions between the elements and their corresponding “stuff”‖ are being cast aside and that everything is happening all at once and in the same place. This might be viewed as playing havoc with the cosmic order of things, the deliberate creation of chaos. I prefer to think of it, however, as the beginning of a new order in which we are bringing everyone together—the ultimate community building exercise.

When I watch the work of the ShowCAIS volunteers as they plan for May, I can see this exercise already in motion. Each volunteer has an individual project or responsibility, playing toward his or her strengths and talents. Some volunteers are working on putting together the auction, while some are working on the creative aspects of the event, like décor, invitation design, etc. Some are working on art projects with our students, while others are working on the raffle. With many different components at play, there are bound to be competing and complementary timelines, priorities and needs that must somehow to be address and juggled in order to put on an event of this magnitude. Everyone wants time and space to promote his or her own projects. Everyone wants access to resources that the school can provide, like funding or staff support. Everyone wants his or her piece to be successful. This all sounds like a recipe for chaos!

Yet despite this tug-and-pull process, on May 7th, everything will fall in place, as it always does. The volunteers can take a step back and witness, with satisfaction, how their piece contributed to the whole event.

While our incredible volunteers play a vital role in organizing ShowCAIS, you, as our guests, also bring essential elements to the event. You represent the gamut of our community: parents, teachers, extended family, friends, business partners, and so on. On this night, all the elements come together.

If the scholars from the Han Dynasty were right, everything has a time and a place. On May 7th at the Ritz-Carlton, ShowCAIS is our time and place to come together as community to celebrate our mission, our children, and our greater family. So, I hope to see you there.