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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Caught in a Web of Strategy Studies

Watched the final battle in Sunzi Bingfa and the 36 Strategies of Sun Bin (right) last night, a long and fascinating, if a little slow, Chinese TV series about The Art of War. I feel like I've just spent time in a strategy think tank, or a semester at West Point.

Last night, I was having difficulty concentrating on the action; I was wary because a VERY large spider, one of Hawaii's less promoted natural phenomena, had taken up residence in a space between a screen and some closed louvered windows in my bedroom, and it made me uneasy. Not very Taoist of me, I am not fond of this particular one of the five noxious creatures (wu du, sounds like voo doo). Which, now that I do research to provide you a link, I realize is NOT one of them; in Chinese symbology, the spider (zhi zhu) is actually considered a good omen, but you couldn't tell it by me. I will trade the spider for the gecko in my personal pantheon of wu du. I wonder if the Wizard had conjured it after finding on the web, so to speak, a picture of a similar spider that we saw while hiking in Hong Kong, a huge nightmarish thing that would throw silk from treetop to treetop, making a bug-catching canopy over trails. Not one of my favorite memories of life in Hong Kong. (Needless to say, I have to cover my eyes when Frodo is fighting Shelob in Lord of the Rings.)

The cane spider (you can Google it, I can't bring myself to do it for you), palm-sized and leggy, is harmless (I think), but unpleasant to encounter. We all have stories about our experiences with them--there was a season when a colony was living in my car. One might turn up on my windshield, suddenly at night, right in front of me. Or creep out of the defroster vent and work its way across the dashboard.

Yesterday, I noticed the spider on the smooth side of the inwardly folding louvers, staying there all day, moving maybe a half-inch downward to where the louvers were open to the outside. I suspect it is nocturnal and was confused; it had climbed up the glass, but couldn't figure out how to get back down. (Though, I'm sure it did; it was just terrorizing me.) Much as I didn't like to see it, as long as I could, I knew it was there and not somewhere else waiting to surprise me when I put on a shoe or pulled a book from my shelf.

It was still there when I turned out the lights for sleep, but I was just a little tense all night wondering if I would wake up to find it caressing my face at 3 a.m. For once I was happy to have the Yellow Emperor taking up more than his share of space on the bed; the cats are very good at arachnid search-and-destroy. I don't even have to tell them, "Sha!" I have sometimes found what looks like the remains of crab feasts on the floor. Good kitties! Hao mao!

The spider is gone this morning; I hope it found its way back outside. But I'm staying close to the Yellow Emperor. Not one of the Bingfa strategies, just common sense.

Which most of the Sunzi Bingfa is. The TV series featured colorful historically based examples. In the concluding battle, while employing a strategy called "The Tactic of Missing Stoves," (not making this up) Sun Bin causes his one-time classmate's downfall by writing some characters on a tree (essentially, "You will die here."). Pang Juan realizes he is trapped, defeated once again by the superior, even though crippled, Sun Bin and, with several arrows piercing his armor, Pang Juan falls intentionally on his own sword.

Earlier in their history together, Pang Juan accused Sun Bin of treason; he branded his face and "picked his patella," that is, removed his kneecaps. Sun Bin could never ride a horse very well after that and always walked with a cane. He never forgave Pang Juan. This is recorded in real historical records. This series does not include the face branding, a punishment that is illustrated in The Emperor and the Assassin, and Emperor of the Sea (at 3:23 in the clip, sorry more shameless promotion!)

Heroic suicide occurs a lot in this drama, usually self-inflicted sword impalements, but once by someone throwing himself against a pillar and cracking his own skull open. More of an Asian tradition perhaps, this is not so well thought of in Western military strategy, as we see practically every day in accounts of offensive activities in Pakistan, etc., although in those cases, taking innocent people along for the ride. Suicide bombing was not included in the Bingfa.

Sun Bin and his rival, Pang Juan, were both "cadets" studying with Guiguzi, a hermit and possibly a Taoist immortal. The series -- not as dramatic and over-the-top in terms of production as a sa geuk, like Emperor of the Sea, was probably more faithful to the history and traditional legend of the story of Sun Tzu, Sun Bin, Pang Juan and others of the Warring States Period. There was a little romance provided by a woman with extraordinary sword skills who was deeply in love with and in awe of Sun Bin, but who eventually became Queen of Qi. There's a great emphasis on Confucian duty and loyalty in the story, as well as traditional wisdom. Guiguzi is as stereotypical as a Taoist hermit can be, and both Sun Bin and Pang Juan are seen consulting yarrow stalk hexagrams. Pang Juan should have taken his final divination seriously.

I can't decide whether to re-shelve this set with my Chinese/Korean drama collection, or with Teaching Company history courses. I may actually refer to this later.

On Fortune Telling and Divination
It interested me to see the Sunzi Bingfa characters seeking advice (or therapy) from the Zhouyi/I Ching (and a fortune teller who employed the cup o' sticks technique.) I am concurrently reading Deng Ming-dao's excellent recent volume The Living I Ching: Using Ancient Chinese Wisdom for Shaping your Life. Despite its new-agey self-help title, it presents the I Ching in a remarkably accessible format, with explanation of its history and with nine illuminating appendixes. One point Deng makes, like one of my linked bloggers, is that the value of the I Ching is appreciated fully only after many years, decades even, of study and practice. Like many of us d'un certain age, I have fooled around with the old yellow-bound Wilhelm-Baynes translation since 1967, so in a way I do have decades of experience. But I never really appreciated the mechanics of the thing until it was explained by my Chinese Tao teacher, even though I had tossed many coins, and, a few years ago, read the somewhat abstruse Numerology of the I Ching by Alfred Huang.

Deng and W/B
Anyone who is interested in Chinese history, philosophy and culture, and in particular, Taoism (religious or not), would do well to delve into Deng's book. The Zhouyi/I Ching is another piece of the Chinese puzzle, and continues to be of value and interest.

I had a hexagram cast and interpreted in the Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong a couple years ago. I do not remember which it was, but the reader, also considering my birthday, advised me I should take care of my health and that I should not retire until 2012. (Which is pretty much what I expected and planned anyway.) It was a fun sort of experience but I think I might recast a hexagram to update the advice.

Less profound is the Chinese fortune stick method: I did this once in a temple in Wudang where the expected payment was to be based on the kind of fortune you got. I had a mid-range fortune. (Yi kuai? Gou le ma?) An English-speaking tourist couple from Taiwan translated it for me. It was a lot like the advice I got from a doctor when I had a recent colonoscopy/endoscopy: just keep on doing what you're doing.

I have a stick-set of my own that I use with the Guan Yin poems; when I bought the sticks, the Honolulu Chinatown vendor asked, "Do you want real or party favor kind?" There is a 78-stick set which is employed as a game for parties; the "real" set, used in temples, has 100 sticks and is linked to I Ching-like oracular statements. I knew the 78-stick set was just a novelty, I had gotten one in Hong Kong. I wanted the real thing. On the vendor's direction, I went to the local Guan Yin Temple to buy the accompanying book of divination, oddly, a little more kitchy than Martin Palmer's.

A hexagram takes time to create and interpret; the sticks are fast-fortunes. Guess which one gives the better advice.
Don't Gamble Today

Smooth Sailing for Floor Scrubbing

Just for fun, I used both stick methods while I was taking these photos. My party game reading was #26, which basically said I shouldn't gamble today. I was actually asking if I should scrub the kitchen floor.

The "real" one, #50, was much more interesting. It was about smooth sailing.

I'm off to scrub the floor.

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