Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Whatever Happened to Air?

 (Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 23)

At a certain age, many of us suddenly crave to revive old familiarities. It becomes haunting and vital to find out ‘whatever happened to’ this or that schoolmate, to take a trip to the town and neighborhood where one spent the first summer after graduation, met one’s first serious...and so on.
        The Sentimental Journey need not be physical. You can do it in the space of a single library. In my case, a big part of it was to re-read, or even just take another respectful look at the title pages of, some of the books that had introduced me to Oriental Studies when I was just getting into my twenties. They included Spoken Chinese by Hockett and Fang, books on Buddhism by Edward Conze and Christmas Humphreys, even the Joyce Chen Cook Book.
        Looking back through these Venerable Tomes, one finds things that in the light of later training and experience are ‘incorrect.’ But as anyone who has lived in the Far East knows, the authoritativeness of the Teachings does not depend on whether they are factually true, but only on whether they are still circulated and quoted.
        One of the books I went back to was East Asia: The Great Tradition by Edwin O. Reischauer and John King Fairbank.[1] In the chapter ‘Classic China: The Golden Age of Chinese Thought,’ on page 77, I stumbled on a passage that would not have seemed strange to me as a student:

...all nature is made up of varying combinations of the “five elements” or “five powers” (wu hsing): wood, metal, fire, water and earth. The parallel to the four elements of the Greeks (earth, fire, air and water) is striking.

After decades of further reading both inside and outside ‘the field,’ I have two comments on this. The first is that nowadays not many academics would translate the hsing (nowadays usually spelled xing) as ‘elements’ – that term sounds too material and physical. The translation might be ‘energies,’ ‘processes,’ energetic transitions,’ ‘phases,’ ‘modi’ or whatever, but probably not ‘elements.’ This would already seriously undermine any comparison with ancient Greek thought.
        But even more importantly – for the life of me I cannot see any ‘parallel’ whatsoever, let alone a ‘striking’ one, between a four- and a fivefold system. In the Greek grouping, there are indeed four radical constituents. This quaternity naturally lends itself to a symmetrical presentation, whether as a circle divided into four equal quadrants, a vertical and a horizontal axis each having two poles, a bar or horizon having two elements above (air and fire) and two below (water and earth), and so on.
        In the Chinese fivefold scheme, symmetry is more problematical. Sometimes the ‘elements’ are drawn up as a circle with wood, fire, metal and water occupying points along the rim and earth in the center. But often the five are equally spaced along the rim, or as points on a pentagram or star. Their order is not always the same. They can stand in various kinds of mutual relationship, so that it is not possible to state that one is higher or lower than another.
        In the writings of C. G. Jung (I am not American enough to call him ‘Carl’ Jung, which he himself never did in his publications), who was a tremendous influence on many young people of my generation, the fourfold or quaternity idea is not only important; it is raised to the status of a supposed ‘archetype’ inherent to human consciousness. It underlies or constitutes the ‘mandala,’ a focus or ordering device.
        But if we are looking for ‘archetypes’ that supposedly apply to the whole of humanity, then what about a people, like the Chinese, who exceed the bounds of the fourfold and get along perfectly well with their fivefold focus?
        Perhaps the Jungian ‘archetype’ notion was more culture-bound than we had thought. Maybe there is no such thing as an inherent quaternity to which consciousness is magnetically attracted. And why should there be? The human hand, undoubtedly one of the unconscious models for such things, has not just four fingers but five, if not – as in the writings of Zhuangzi or the poetry of Zhou Mengdie – even more.
        To be sure, many scholars believe the Chinese fivefold goes back to an earlier fourfold (or more accurately, four-plus-one) scheme. Supposedly there were originally four Quarters (fang ) surrounding a Center; subsequently the Center was dislodged from its unique role and all five players became equal.[2] But even if this is so, the change is supposed to have occurred several centuries before the beginning of our era, and isn’t it then strange that the Chinese, comprising such a huge percentage of humankind, should have merrily proceeded to live an anti-archetypal and in that sense atypical life for the past couple of thousand years?
        But aside from the validity or otherwise of a formal or structural ‘parallel’ between the Western four and the Eastern five, we can also approach all this from the viewpoint of content. Comparing the Greek and Chinese lists of ‘elements,’ what does the five have that the four lacks?
        As it turns out, things are more complicated. The Chinese model contains two factors that the Greek does not – wood and metal – but at the same time, it importantly lacks the Western element of air.[3]
        I say ‘importantly’ because in Western culture, the ‘air’ element symbolizes mind, spirit, consciousness, or communication, and that factor is often considered the specifically human dimension, the crucial difference between mankind and the non-human world.
        It would go beyond the scope of this Scrapbook to expand on the cultural associations of the Chinese non-air elements of wood and metal. But could we just make a wild leap and surmise that the functions of ‘our’ air, in ‘their’ system, are perfectly well present but divided between wood and metal?
        We cannot. Even the assumption that more or less the same ‘functions’ must be operative for ‘them’ in more or less the same ways, is a wide one. It smacks of archetype-mongering, and I personally do not believe it.[4] In traditional China, people would have had no problem with there being no specific sector reserved for ‘consciousness’ as such. In the fivefold grouping of inner organs which is one of the conceptual mainstays of Chinese medical theory, thought or ‘ratiocination’[5] is treated as one of a group of ‘emotional states’[6] in which both ‘grief and worry’[7] and ‘joy’ are assigned to entirely different organs. I am inclined to agree with Chad Hansen that most ‘Chinese thinkers treat mind as an action guide’ and ‘we may even doubt that an intelligent, rational philosopher working in the ancient [Chinese – LH] conceptual scheme has any reason to postulate consciousness.’[8] A. C. Graham, discussing the two Cheng 二程brothers who were among the most influential neo-Confucian philosophers, says they ‘do not regard the mind as an organ of knowledge distinct from what it knows.’[9]
        Even linguistically, offhand I cannot think of a word in Classical Chinese that would have meant ‘air’ with the same monosyllabic obviousness and plausibility of the jin, shui, mu, huo and tu 金水木火土 that are in standard use for metal, water, wood, fire and earth. The modern word for ‘air’ is kongqi, but neither kong nor qi would have unambiguously meant ‘air’ as opposed to ‘emptiness,’ ‘unreality,’ ‘sky,’ ‘ether,’ ‘energy,’ ‘atmosphere’ or various other things.
        It is true that traditional Chinese medicine includes, in addition to the five phases or elements or whatever, another standard list of factors, this time sixfold, in which ‘wind’ is one of the players. The six are called the liu qi 六氣or six...aaah, but yes, six what? Donald E. Kendall, a well-known author in the Chinese-medicine field from whose work I have profited, calls them the ‘airs,’ ‘sky-airs,’ or ‘atmospheric airs.’[10] Nathan Sivin, whose translations I think mostly have the ring of sinological reliability, calls them ‘climatic configurations.’[11] In any case, I think it is clear that ‘wind’ as a ‘configuration’ or as one of the possible ‘airs,’ is not the same as ‘air’ pure-and-simple.
        Still, I must admit that having mentioned it, I am intrigued by my own thought that maybe ‘wood’ and ‘metal’ have something to do with my mind. Tree-shapes stirred by a breeze at dawn, shadows reflected in a metal-framed mirror at the approach of evening: maybe these Chinese-sounding images have more to do with ourselves than we think. And maybe we think about them more, or in different and less ‘mental’ ways, than our culture has taught us to think that we think.
        And come to think of it, there is at least one important area of Chinese culture in which the ‘elements’ are explicitly features of mental activity. This is the whole family of meditation techniques in which the mind is indeed an ‘action guide,’ directing the imagination or attention through a fixed sequence of foci or loci or stations which are associated with organs of the body.[12] To make this just a bit easier to – what shall we say, ‘imagine’? – I will give a brief description of one of these techniques, practiced by quite a number of people in Taiwan, which I learned earlier this year from an 82-year-old retired actress and opera singer whom I will call Teacher Zhang (her real surname).[13]
        Sitting with crossed legs (if possible in what yoga practitioners call the lotus position), we start by letting our hands rest easily on our knees, with the thumbs lightly touching the index fingers and the other fingers loosely open. The left hand lies palm-up, the right palm-down, so that we have a ‘yin’ and a ‘yang’ hand. Then we check to see that three important points are vertically in line above each other: (1) the ‘yin opening’ or yinqiao 陰竅, an imaginary point nearby the anus and/or slightly in front of it, (2) the ‘heart opening’ or xinqiao 心竅, thought of as between the breasts or nipples, and (3) the ‘general assembly point’ or baihui 百會at the center of the crown. We think of our body as connected with ‘heaven energy’ via the ‘general assembly’ and with ‘earth energy’ via the ‘yin opening’; the ‘heart opening’ in between is to direct or supervise what will go on in our body.
        When these three are in line (as much as possible), we direct our thought to the lowest point, the ‘yin opening.’ We stay there until we have a feeling, a consciousness, or a sense of ‘something’ being there. Directed or accompanied by our thought, the ‘something’ then gradually rises along an imaginary mid-line of the body until it reaches the ‘heart opening.’
        From there, again led or accompanied by our thought or imagination or attention, ‘it’ divides to left and right, going into the lungs on both sides. We think of ‘the Metal of the lungs’ and stay there with our attention, but without straining too hard to avoid extraneous thoughts, which will arise in any case. We do not necessarily keep repeating the words ‘metal’ or ‘lungs’; in the fivefold system, metal is simply the ‘element’ associated with the lungs. We sustain a relaxed awareness of ‘it’ being present in the lungs.
        When we feel it has been enough for now, we let ‘it’ return from left and right into the ‘heart opening’ in the center. From there it proceeds backward through the body to the spinal column and then goes down the back to the level of the kidneys. Again it divides to the left and right, going into the kidneys on each side. We are aware of ‘the Water of the kidneys’ and stay with this until we feel it has been enough for now.
        Again ‘it’ returns from both sides to the mid-line of the back at about kidney level, and from there proceeds forward and down through the interior of the body, to the so-called Cinnabar Field or dantian 丹田. The dantian is not an organ but a theoretically present point. Because of its importance in the so-called Inner Alchemy of Daoism, in English it is often called the ‘Lower Elixir Field.’ Another name is qihai 氣海, the ‘Sea of Energy.’ Skipping all possible debates over the exact location of this point (if there is one), let’s just say for now that it is slightly under and slightly behind the navel.
        We let our attention rest briefly in the Cinnabar Field, then let ‘it’ rise again along the original mid-line to the ‘heart opening.’ This time, from the ‘heart opening’ we direct it to the right and slightly downward, into the liver. We consciously think of ‘the Wood of the liver’ and let it remain there, circulating or being present in the liver.
        When we are ready, we then have ‘it’ return to the ‘heart opening’ between the two breasts, where it now stays for a while. We think of ‘the Fire of the heart.’
        Finally, to round off the sequence of five ‘organs,’ we let ‘it’ sink from the heart downward into the tummy and belly area which in a general way is associated with the spleen. Thinking of ‘the Earth of the spleen,’ we imagine ‘it’ being in this region. When we feel we are finished, we have completed one cycle of meditation.
What I have just described is one particular version of what I call a ‘family’ of meditation techniques which utilize the fivefold system of inner organs as foci in a mental process which is said to be beneficial to physical health. Sometimes that mental process is explicitly called neishi 內視 or ‘inner viewing’; sometimes the practitioner is encouraged to think of specific colors, animals or other attributes while dwelling upon each of the organs. Interestingly, though the fivefold group of organs is perennially the same, the order in which they are ‘innerly viewed’ is not always identical. In my description above, I have indicated the order which I learned from Teacher Zhang, but in other sources on paper or the internet, I have seen two alternative orders.
        Now a question: does the order really matter? I don’t know if it does. I personally see no reason to deviate from what I have been taught, but I could very well imagine that the order doesn’t matter much, as long as one respects and takes seriously the overall procedure and, especially, the reasons for which one took it up in the first place. I could even imagine...but now I’m getting very Western again...that the number of these not-really-physical ‘organs’ is just a convention which could perfectly well be changed. If two weeks from now I consulted a new Teacher and was told that the heart and spleen were so closely related that I could henceforth collapse those two stations into one, I would believe it.
        But I would not do it. True, to do it would be to reduce the five to the supposedly ‘archetypal’ or ‘original’ four. But could my Spleen, or the Earth that is my belly, really Ratiocinate itself into being happy with going back and giving up, relinquishing, saying goodbye to the warm dawn energy gleaming through the branches of Wood, to sunset mirrored in the dream-rich peace of Metal, in return for the restoration of mere thin...Air?

--Lloyd Haft

[1] Also known as A History of East Asian Civilization, Volume One. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1958/1960.
[2] For an interesting discussion of this with many references, see Aihe Wang, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China, Cambridge University Press 2000. Wang says (p. 77) the shift from four to five ‘undermined the absolute and sacred centrality of the former ruling clan,’ amounting to ‘reduction’ of the center to a ‘fifth fang.’ There was a shift (p. 92) ‘from centrality to cycles of change.’
[3] An interesting sidelight is that one of my own favorite Chinese philosophers, Shao Yong (1011-1077), actually did advocate a fourfold system, but it never won widespread acceptance. In his scheme, the four are fire, water, earth and...again not air but...stone.
[4] In general, very much in opposition to that grand old patriarch and patron saint of Leiden sinology Gustaaf Schlegel (1840-1903), I believe in a fundamental incompatibility or incommensurability between Chinese and Western concepts. See another Scrap in this series, ‘Haft’s Incommensurability Principle’:
[5] This translation is given by Nathan Sivin (see full reference in note 11 below), p. 287.
[6] Translation from Sivin, p. 209.
[7] This translation is from Kendall, Dao of Chinese Medicine, p. 114. See note 10 below.
[8] Chad Hansen, ‘Language in the Heart-Mind,’ in Robert E. Allinson (ed.), Understanding the Chinese Mind: The Philosophical Roots, Oxford University Press 1989, pp. 119-120.
[9] A. C. Graham, Two Chinese Philosophers: The Metaphysics of the Brothers Ch’eng, La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing 1992, p. 62..
[10] I am referring to Kendall’s book Dao of Chinese Medicine: Understanding an Ancient Healing Art, Oxford University Press, 2002, especially pages 89-92.
[11] In Nathan Sivin: Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China: A Partial Translation of Revised Outline of Chinese Medicine (1972) with an Introductory Study etc., Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan 1987, p. 275.
[12] My terminology here is, I realize, tortuous, simply because the things I am referring to are no less so. Many years ago my former student Michel Hockx pointed out to me that when Chinese refer to ‘imagination,’ very often what they actually mean is what in the West would be called ‘reproductive skill,’ and in that sense not regarded as imaginative at all. I say the stations in the meditation are ‘associated with’ organs of the body to avoid the issue of whether or not the ‘organs’ on which the meditator focuses are ‘the same as’ objectively present physical organs inside the physical body. At the very beginning of my own instruction, Teacher Zhang said very emphatically that when she referred to the ‘heart,’ she was not talking about ‘the physical heart.’ As if to underscore this, she added that for meditation purposes, I should think of the heart as being in the middle of the chest rather than specifically on the left side.
[13] I know of one published biography of Teacher Zhang. I will not quote it because, dating from 2003, by definition it tells us nothing about newer developments in the last ten years. In outlining Teacher Zhang’s later career and life, it takes us up to her decision, as she approached seventy, to retire to a mountain environment in order better to pursue meditative and other spiritual ‘practice.’ It says nothing about her still later decision, as I understand it, to return to big-city life after trying to adapt to the mosquitoes, snakes and general daily inconvenience faced by an elderly person living in a formidably remote rural area. If these were indeed the reasons why Teacher Zhang went back to Kaohsiung rather than trying to engineer a mind-over-matter ‘demonstration’ by ‘overcoming’ the troubles at any cost, I must say that in my view this makes her more rather than less credible as a spiritual Teacher.