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Turtles and the I Ching

astalder

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Happy Chinese New Year! :)

The plastron of a turtle (=belly part of the turtle shell) has essentially 6 scutes (from head to tail, see attached image):

- gular
- humeral
- pectoral
(hinge)
- inguinal
- femoral
- anal

This reminds of the structure of hexagrams, with two pairs of trigrams on top of each other.

I know of the following references to turtles related to ancient Chinese oracles (based on Wikipedia and the like, please correct me where I am wrong or imprecise):

- Early plastromancy in the Shang Dynasty, i.e. earlier than about 1000 BCE, where turtle plastrons where heated punctually in order to produce cracks in the shell, which where then interpreted some ways of which the details are apparently unknown.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oracle_bone

- According to legend, the I Ching was created/discovered by Fu Xi after spotting the Yellow River Map and/or the Lo Shu Square on the back of a turtle that emerged from a river.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_River_Map
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lo_Shu_Square
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuxi

Are there more indications that would speak for or against early turtle oracles having influenced the I Ching?

As far as I understand the first written records about the I Ching are only a few centuries BCE and similarly for the legend of Fuxi, i.e. there is a huge historical gap to the Shang dynasty, or are there more indications in between?

One more incentive: Yin lines are called resp. drawn as broken lines and Yang lines as unbroken ones, which reminds of the breaking of a turtle shell under heat, even though the fractures usually had the shape of a T or the Chinese bǔ/pǔ.

Alain
 

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fabiogalassi

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Naturally there is room to reply to such assertions.

Firstly, I get what Stephan N. Kory write in his thorough work "Cracking to divine", -n.46 p. 211:

"[...] the character gua 卦, normally translated as hexagram or trigram in the context of Yijing consultations, refers [in the text Kory quote] to the line graph of a pyro-plastromantic crack here. For similar uses of the character gua, see Shiji 10.414 (文帝紀); Hanshu 4.106 (文帝紀); Beishi 7.258 (齊本紀/文宣帝高洋)."

But Prof. Shaughnessy, in the excerpt here attached, stops the similarity just to the term, not to the shaping outcome [E.Shaughenssy, The Composition of the Zhouyi, 1983 dissertation].

Just for now..
 

astalder

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In Shaughnesssy's dissertation, in the paragraph right next after the last paragraph in the excerpt linked above, he writes:

"As late as 1979 it was possible for an experienced paleographer to say in print that there was no trace of the trigrams and hexagrams in Zhou bronze inscriptions. At about that time, however, the systematic ocurrence of groups of six numerical symbols in the Zhouyuan oracle-bone inscriptions led Zhang to suggest that they were the prototype of the Zhouyi hexagram."
http://is.muni.cz/el/1421/jaro2011/RLB289/um/shaughnessy.pdf

That would maybe fit my suspicion that plastromancy was a way to determine numbers and then to derive something from the numbers and that broken/unbroken lines came later. In fact, even today, whenever you use coins or yarrow stalks with the I Ching, you first get a number between 6 and 9, and only then derive a changing/unchanging yin or yang line from that.

In "geomancy", as practiced from ancient Arab traditions, you hit the sand several times randomly with a stick and then count the marks, putting away pairs of two until only one or two marks remain, and do this 4 times to get one of 16 geomantic figures (see attached image on the right).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geomancy

I could imagine something similar in the case of pastromancy.

I have only seen a few oracle plastrons on the internet, so I can only speculate:

- When heat was applied with a hot stick of some sort, would the shell always crack?
- If not, would cracking or not maybe already count as a yes/no result?
- Or would it be retried and maybe counted how many times you have to do it until the shell breaks?
- Would you retry on the same spot in the back of the plastron or on a different spot each time?

Can one of these possibilities already be excluded, for example, are there (often? at all?) burns on the back of plastrons without corresponding cracks on the outside? Can you tell how many times the same spot was poked from analyzing the burns on the back? If you try to reproduce pastromancy, how often do you have to poke the same spot to get a crack?

A more poetic improvised remark* about the flying golden turtle (even with an Arab association via flying carpet): If you see the turtle flying from below, you can see its belly, the plastron, so maybe Fuxi saw the turtle emerging from the great river in the sky, from the milky way, so that the two maps represent the sky, or the stars cracks in its plastron through which then light can shine and maybe the hinge between the first and last 3 scutes is the milky way, too...? Just to dream about a little...?
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qixi_Festival

* Added 7 Feb 2017: I wrote that in reply to a reply that is apparently no longer here.
 

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fabiogalassi

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For what I know, chinese plastromancy was not a way to determine numbers, even if numbers were utilized to classify the occurrence of cracks.
Milfoil divination, was instead directly linked with numbers productions.

To 'regulate' the beauty of speculation, please, for example, refer to the link:
Fracasso, A technical glossary of jiaguology

About the six-digit number representations (from Zhang Zhenglang on) and the relation with Yi hexagrams shape, is now clear it has no fundament as shown below in the link:

"The Illness Accounts and Denotations of Numerical Diagrams” by Zong-kun Li

with the following excerpt:
"[...]we found that the correlation of numerical diagrams and I diagrams was very limited and lacked solid logicality [...] The connections between numerical diagrams and I Ching didn’t consist with the examples in works like Zuo Zhuan《左傳》 and Guoyu《國語》 and could be regarded as subjective inference for the most part [...] (researches) demonstrated that some correspondences between numerical diagrams and I diagrams were just coincidences."

and again

"...The publication of The Zhanguo Chuzhushu I Ching of Shanghai Museum《上海博物館藏戰國楚竹書.周易》 further proved that numerical diagrams and I diagrams were two different systems with no inherent connections.."
 
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fabiogalassi

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...So, I could assume, following recent researches, that there were different as contemporaries styles of writing a 'divination outcome' in the ancient times (digits and symbols) and that the sixty-four hexagrams system expressed by two symbols (broken/unborken) long before to express yin and yang concepts seem to be linked with number expressions (i.e. one and six, graphically 'synthesized') and different way in making use of numbers and divination outcomes by the six-digits sequences.

- LIANG Wei-xian,
On Some Issues Related to the Shifa Chapter on the Tsinghua Bamboo Slips
On the Style of Writing of the Yi Hexagrams in the Divinatory Books of the Western Zhou
 
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astalder

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I gather from your replies that there is very little if at all that links ancient Chinese plastromancy to the I Ching according to contemporary research.

On page 72 (75 in the PDF) of Fracasso's glossary there is a figure with various cracks plus numbers and "crack-notations". I compared that with the attached image of a plastron with cracks and numbers/notations, from http://www.chaz.org/Arch/China/Oracle/Plastron_04.png

On the plastron there are 5 pairs of cracks, 5 cracks on the left, 5 on the right. Each crack has a number, from top to down. It appears that one horizontal line is "1", two is "2", and so on up to "4" and that an "X" stands for "5".

(Question on the side: What is not clear to me is how the crack-notations came about. Is it the shape and/or orientation of the cracks from which the crack-notations are derived? Is that known? I guess not in detail, but the overall principle?)

So there are 5 not 6 overall "horizontal lines" on the plastron, the top (=gular, I guess) pair of scutes has no cracks, and the numbering is "top to bottom" (head to tail) - all qualitative differences to the structure of the hexagrams of the I Ching and not that closely mirroring the 6 pairs of scutes of a turtle plastron.

I guess the basic premise behind oracles is that "things are connected", that you can ask a question at some place and find this reflected in other places.

Maybe it is in that sense that turtles/"turtles" occur in different places in Chinese history.

(One more question on the side: Are the plastrons that have been found so far all from the same region in China? How much is known about how widespread and harmonized the ways of casting oracles with plastrons was across China? Just to exclude that maybe in other regions there were ways of doing pastromancy that were much closer to the structure of the I Ching...)

In the same sense, similarities with "Arab" geomancy and other things in other places in the world could well be connected in an "oracular sense" without ever finding a direct historical link, I would presume...
 

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fabiogalassi

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Great questions need great answers...

I hope you colud be satisfied by these thorough works:

- Marco Caboara, Bu shu 卜書: A recently published Shanghai Museum bamboo manuscript on divination

- Kory, Stephan N. “Cracking to Divine: Pyro-plastromancy as an Archetypal and Common Mantic and Religious Practice in Han and Medieval China.”

- Rowan*K.*Flad, Divination and Power: A Multiregional View of the Development of Oracle Bone Divination in Early China


For what concern the field of connections, if I well understood Mr. Bichsel, when he wrote that 'shape is the story' I can use shapes to better approach the meaning of language and rethoric 'under' these shapes...as per 貞 in plastron you've shown, (I've highlighted here) you find also in Yi...
> Plastron_04.jpg

Zhen and OBI
 

astalder

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Thanks a lot for all these good links (again), I will delve into them... :bows:

In Flad's article on page 407 there is map with sites, quite a lot of them along the two big rivers and more, looks like quite a broad coverage of ancient China, presuming that also in China culture first emerged mainly around big rivers.
 

astalder

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I have looked around quite a bit, but only one insight/idea seems worth mentioning at the time...

The turtle* is one of the "Four Symbols" [1]:
- Black Turtle of the North (Winter)
- Azure Dragon of the East (Spring)
- Vermillion Bird of the South (Summer)
- White Tiger of the West (Fall)

* English not being my native language, I was not aware until recently that turtles are the ones living (mainly) in water, tortoises the ones living on earth.

This made me look to the sky...

The 28 mansions [1] are Chinese constellations in the sky - the moon takes about one day to pass through each of them. (That is the so-called "sideral month", which is about 27.3 days, the time it takes the moon to get back to the same stars in the sky. But since the sun also moved during that time, the time between new moons (or full moons etc.) is a bit longer, about 29.5 days, this is called the "synodic month", see this animation for the difference: http://www.sumanasinc.com/webcontent/animations/content/sidereal.html ). So you can look at the moon at night and find out by the mansions (star constellations) which day of an about 28 day month it is, like looking at the hands of a clock.

The "Four Symbols" above are each associated with weeks of 7 days in a row during that cycle, i.e. with a division of the sky into 4 parts.

In that light, the turtle would be part of the fixed stars in the sky.

Now, the Fu Xing, the "5 Chinese Elements", are associated with the 5 planets that can be seen with the naked eye (without a telescope): Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. [2]:

"Xing (Chinese: 行) of 'Wu Xing' means moving; a planet is called a 'moving star'(Chinese: 行星) in Chinese. Wu Xing (Chinese: 五行) originally refers to the five major planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Venus, Mars) that create five dimensions of earth life."

And, coming to the I Ching, I noticed the following sentence in the Wikipedia article about the I Ching [3]:

"There is also an ancient folk etymology that sees the character for "changes" as containing the sun and moon, the cycle of the day."

So, how about the mansions / "Four Symbols", Wu Xing and I Ching simply representing different parts/aspects of the sky:

- Fixed stars: Mansions / Four Symbols (fixed, hardly changing, except over tens of thousands of years)
- Planets: Wu Xing (changing)
- Sun and Moon: I Ching (changing)

Let me add an important observation to this:

Using yarrow stalks to ask the I Ching, you start with 50 and put one away at the beginning, so that 49 remain. Now, 50+49 (synodic) lunar months (i.e. 99 new moons) is almost exactly 8 solar years, which is also why the Olympics in ancient Greece were held alternatively every 49 and 50 months [4].

So, you have 8 (the 8 solar years), which you could associate with the 8 trigrams, and with 50 and 49 you have a reference to the cylces of moon and sun.

And change would be represented in two ways, by sun and moon (quite obviously, seasons and tides, and more) and by the five planets, less obviously, but also more interesting in the sky, because sun and moon always more steadily forward, but the five planets apparently stop sometimes and then even move backwards a while, e.g. Venus quite regularly, but Mars rather chaotically.

Alain

PS: The little fox icon of my website (= my avatar here) is based on the first response I ever got from the I Ching, 64 Wei Chi, Before Completion, Success, which I read in the very beautiful description/interpretation of Richard Wilhelm [5]. And, being born in August 1966, I am born right in the middle of a Fire Horse year... ;)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty-Eight_Mansions
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Xing
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Ching
[4] Valerie Vaughan, The Origin of the Olympics: Ancient Calendars and the Race Against Time, http://www.onereed.com/articles/vvf/olympics.html
[5] http://www2.unipr.it/~deyoung/I_Ching_Wilhelm_Translation.html#64
 

svenrus

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I have been thinking about the "big tortoise": A tortoise is known to move very slow. The Sky in it's annual movement is very slow too. The signs on the shell of the Big tortoise: The sky with it's patterns of stars....
 

fabiogalassi

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And...on February 23, while we ended with our humble ideas, Professor David N. Keightley, one pillar of Ancient Chinese Civilisation, passed away.

So sad.
 

astalder

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One more thing I looked at at the time was the "Xishuipo M45 Tomb":

http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/Grave45_HenanProvince.jpg
http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/Arrangement Tomb M45.jpg

The arrow at the top right corner of the second image shows the direction of north (labeled north in chinese), so the feet of the buried man point north, his head south. On his right (east) is apparently a dragon made of shells, on his left (west) a tiger, also made of shells. At his feet are two bones and more shells arranged roughly in a triangle.

I have not been able to find sources so far that appear reliable, one dates the grave 5300 BCE, one 3000 BCE, and they interpret the arrangement at the feet of the buried man as the big dipper (ursa major), which would have been quite close to the north pole in the sky around that time frame (the north pole in the sky describes a circle every 26500 years because the earth axis precesses):

http://calgary.rasc.ca/images/precession.gif

In any case, tiger-west and dragon-east would fit with current views of the "Four Symbols". And that "turtle-north" would then be rather at the feet and "bird-south" rather at the head would fit with the nature of these animals, the turtle staying close to the ground, the bird able to fly high up.

The second thing I looked at at the time was a passage from Zhuangzi featuring a turtle (here the James Legge translation):

"Zhuangzi was (once) fishing in the river Pu, when the king of Chu sent two great officers to him, with the message, 'I wish to trouble you with the charge of all within my territories.' Zhuangzi kept on holding his rod without looking round, and said, 'I have heard that in Chu there is a spirit-like tortoise-shell, the wearer of which died 3000 years ago, and which the king keeps, in his ancestral temple, in a hamper covered with a cloth. Was it better for the tortoise to die, and leave its shell to be thus honoured? Or would it have been better for it to live, and keep on dragging its tail through the mud?' The two officers said, 'It would have been better for it to live, and draw its tail after it over the mud.' 'Go your ways. I will keep on drawing my tail after me through the mud.'"
-- http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/floods-of-autumn/ens

To me the theme of "death" and I guess "sacredness" was also mirrored at the time.

About sun and moon and maybe the I Ching:

When the sun shines, you can see the land and the water and everything else on earth in technicolor, but you cannot see the stars. When it is really dark, you can see the stars in the sky, but you cannot see the land and the water and everything else on earth. Depending on the moon phase, you have chance to see quite a bit of both and maybe how they might mirror each other. Especially in times before people had fire, moon phases must have made a huge difference.

Would turtles maybe mirror these two parts of the world, the lower part of their shell (the plastron) standing for the earth we live on, the round upper part of their shell for the sky and the stars? And since on the northern hemisphere you see the stars rotate around the north pole in the sky, maybe the turtle associated with north would be central in that sense, would be what all turns around and changes while the turtle lives "forever" and stays the same?

Last summer my best friend was visiting Lakota Indians in the USA and later showed me their arrangement of the four directions with animals and colors. Birds were in the south, but otherwise maybe not a direct correlation. I am not sure at the moment how old these attributions of the Lakota Indians really are, but if there were not brought in after Columbus, they might even be tens of tousands of years old, and if so, maybe also in other places on earth, to be seen...

Sorry for such a long post, but I would not know what to leave away...
 

fabiogalassi

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Just a fast upgrade to my #5th post above where I wrote:

"...seem to be linked with number expressions (i.e. one and six, graphically 'synthesized') and different way in making use of numbers and divination outcomes by the six-digits sequences."

Reading the paper by Chen Jie "Origins of Numbers in ShiFa" I abruptly have to change 'one and six' in 'seven and eight', following some code-evolutions analysis, whereas "NINE and SIX in Yao titles indicate their changeability" (or six changing in seven '___' and nine changing in eight '_ _').
Naturally this is just the surface of the paper contents.
 

millennium3

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Did any one see the first episode of 'Art of China' presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon? I missed the beginning and happen to turn it on at just the time when he was showing 'the most significant artefacts in Chinese civilisation' - the oracle bones of the Shang. These are the earliest turtle shells they have and they are shown quite clearly. If you have BBC iPlayer - they show up at about 11 minutes in - this is a link.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04c3cmw/art-of-china-episode-1

Unfortunately he goes on to describe this use as a superstition. I did watch the program to the end - but I got the impression that his Chinese host was not that impressed by this description - and that he was not given as fuller co-operation as he might have been if he had shown more respect.
 

millennium3

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Did any one see the first episode of 'Art of China' presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon? I missed the beginning and happen to turn it on at just the time when he was showing 'the most significant artefacts in Chinese civilisation' - the oracle bones of the Shang. These are the earliest turtle shells they have and they are shown quite clearly. If you have BBC iPlayer - they show up at about 11 minutes in - this is a link.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04c3cmw/art-of-china-episode-1

Unfortunately he goes on to describe this use as a superstition. I did watch the program to the end - but I got the impression that his Chinese host was not that impressed by this description - and that he was not given as fuller co-operation as he might have been if he had shown more respect.
 

millennium3

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Not sure how I managed to post this twice - tried to delete it through 'edit' but failed!
 

astalder

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Nice to see so many oracle plastrons, I had imagined them to be larger.

Here is a link to the first episode which is maybe accessible from more countries: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2j6xd3

At the risk of projecting not unlikely too much: As I wrote in the first post here, the plastron of a turtle has essentially six pairs of scutes. This reminds a bit of the hexagram for Earth with its six broken (yin) lines. Conversely, the upper part of the turtle shell contains at least 3 clear hexagons, each made of 6 "unbroken (yang) lines", which would fit the tentative interpretation of the upper part of the turtle shell with Heaven (6 unbroken lines) and the lower part (plastron) with Earth (6 broken lines)? To me maybe too far fetched without some historical support, but a nice way of remembering these two hexagrams and maybe still worth keeping in the back of one's mind?

At least 6 is associated with north in the Yellow River Map, as well as with the black tortoise...
 

astalder

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Maybe associations with turtle shells, similar to the one suggestively illustrated below*, really played a certain role for the development of the I Ching?

As far as my limited knowledge goes, the practice of casting oracles by poking turtle plastrons and bones would have essentially disappeared with the end of the Shang Dynasty, i.e. around 1046 BCE. Conversely, the oldest direct copies of the I Ching would be from about 300 BCE, but there appears to be circumstancial evidence that suggests that these texts would be copies of texts that were written roughly around 900 BCE (Western Zhou Dynasty, the dynasty immediatel following the Shang Dynasty).

So, was there maybe some kind of "cultural revolution" taking part then, between dynasties, during which the I Ching would have emerged in nearly its current form, and would still in some ways have been inspired by older practices of casting oracles, which would also mirror in the legend of Fuxi discovering the trigrams on a turtle emerging from a river...?

* Below on the left left a top view of a turtle, with 6 unbroken lines in the middle (Heaven), on the right right a bottom view of a turtle (plastron) with maybe 6 "broken lines" (Earth) on each pair of scutes? And hence the 62 other hexagrams would be in between?
 

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cjgait

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Actually the use of turtle plastrons and ox (and rarely sheep, pig or deer) shoulder blades for 'crack divination' continued in the Zhou Dynasty and we have some of the plastrons that have turned up in tombs. One of them might have personally involved the Duke of Zhou in its creation and was found in the remnants of the royal tombs of the Zhou. The practice continued as far as the Han according to references in literature and may have been carried out sporadically long after that.
 
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astalder

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Quote from "The Characterization of Tortoise Shell and its Imitations", Thomas Hainschwang and Laurence Leggio, Gems & Gemology, Spring 2006 [1]:

"Tortoise shell is a natural thermoplastic material, and behaves very much like certain synthetic or semisynthetic plastics. Using heat and pressure (molding), the artisan can fuse several thin pieces into one thick piece and then, to a certain degree, form it into desired shapes (Bariand and Poirot, 1998)."

This made me wonder if there is maybe a difference between the carpace (upper, dorsal shell) and the plastron (lower, belly part) in contact with heat. Would maybe(!) the carapace just "melt" and almost never crack, so that effectively only the plastron could be used for oracles? Hence the plastron would correspond to yin (weak/brittle broken line) and the carapace to yang (strong/malleable unbroken line)?

Maybe someone with practical experience with making jewelry etc. from turtle shells would know?

The above article mentions plastrons essentially only once in Figure A-3 on page 39: "The plastron (belly) plates of the hawksbill turtle have also been worked into objects; the resulting material is often referred to as blond tortoise shell."

A Google search for "blonde tortoise shell" finds combs and spectacle frames (typically imitations), suggesting that at least for everyday usage blonde tortoise shell would not be brittle.

[1] https://www.gia.edu/gems-gemology/spring-2006-characterization-turtle-shell-imitations-hainschwang
 

astalder

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Below is a new illustration of two of the ideas that emerged from this thread, I privately like to call it "turtleverse"...

On my website, I have also added a little bit about the ideas from this thread: i ching
(a bit further down the page, in the "leads" section, but also assuming the reader would be somewhat familiar with the reasoning above and in previous pages)

My website is mostly like a garden, most of the time I just let it grow, but from time to time I cultivate a little, so it is never perfect, but some things are older and maybe already a bit wiser, while the stuff about turtles and the I Ching is still quite young... ;)

Alain

PS: Feel free to share this image if you like it...

turtleverse.jpg
 

astalder

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I got a copy of David Pankenier's book "Astrology and Cosmology in Early China" that users 'tacrab' and 'lilly' had brought up in the thread "Sun / Moon / Venus and Change (8 Trigrams / 5 Wu Xing)". What a wealth of information about ancient Chinese culture in relation to stars and planets, illustrated and with lots references, all very carefully done for all that it appears to me!

Looks like the idea to see the turtle as symbolizing the universe, as I drew it above, is not new. Pankenier writes on page 185 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013): "As we saw above, the turtle has a very long history in China as a sacred animal and cosmological model, its carpace having been thought to represent the dome of the heavens and, one would think it follows, the belly plastron the Earth."

But rather than picking out more details from the book (especially not without at least a little bit of reading into it), I would recommend to get the book, if you are interested in connections between heavens and the I Ching, the five Wu Ching, and more things in Chinese culture, maybe going even as far (as it appears from glancing over some parts of the book?) as the origins of Chinese writing?

By the way, apparently there is not much about cycles of Venus (8 years) etc. in the book, so maybe still room for further research? Given the detailed accounts of the movements of the five planets in the appendix of the book (a translation of a treatise of about 100 BCE), ancient Chinese astronomers would have had to be aware of the cycles of Venus at least at these times, but most likely (I guess) also quite a bit earlier in history, considering that Venus is the most prominent of the five planets in the night sky.

Alain
 

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