THE IMPERIAL RIDDLE
By David Arthur Walters
King Chao Cheng of Ch'in imposed order on the Warring States and selected his imperial name, Shih Huang Ti (Zhuangdi), “First Sovereign Emperor.” Although his Ch'in Dynasty lasted only fifteen years (221-206 B.C.), his imperial style purportedly survived him two thousand years, until the 1911 Revolution. Therefore we might believe he was a revolutionary innovator, a great man albeit one infamous for his methods. Yet he does not appear to be so unique when we examine our august emperor in his circumstantial and historical context. The self-declared First Sovereign Emperor was not the first emperor; his revolution revolved to a distant past replete with emperors cloaked by legend and myth. It is impossible to escape from history and remain civilized. King Cheng wanted a novel empire for himself, but his novel was rooted in experience.
King Cheng was two thousand years closer to his origins than we are. We sift through the old texts and dragon-bone inscriptions and dig up the graves with a curiosity almost morbid but enlivening nevertheless. After we examine the historical remains and archeological evidence, we are faced with a riddle, and use our imagination to flesh out the bones in hopes that the past will provide future guidance. In some respects we have a great deal more to work with than King Cheng did in his day; yet, when he sought guidance on this same but more proximate subject of ours, he too was confronted with the riddle of the past, with the mystery of the meaning of what had happened two thousand years or more before his own birth. His councilors presented him with old legends and myths, symbolic riddles upon which all pondered and made various proposals until he arrived at an enduring imperial synthesis.
King Cheng was naturally interested in the Immortals and their herb of immortality; he was so obsessed with becoming immortal himself that he went to absurd lengths searching for the most desirable health medicine of all. Of course he examined the ancient myth of China’s immortal 'Three Primordial Emperors.' The historical record expressly states his interest in that obscure triune and how he chose the title of one primordial personage, "Huang Ti", for his imperial name, with its double-meaning of "August" Emperor and "Yellow" Emperor.
He was also fascinated by Yu, who controlled the devastating flood with the help of his dragon and turtle; having thus saved the land and proven his abilities, Yu became an emperor in his own right. Remember, Yu was the Water Controller. Whosoever controls the water rules China—King Cheng chose Water as his dynasty's element. The natural order including the social order has its irregularities upon which order must be imposed if humankind would be civilized. An emperor who fails to control the water will fall from grace just as legendary Yu's father had failed and was executed. Floods and droughts have always been associated with rebellion and revolution in China. Indeed, Emperors and the waters rise and fall in accord with the Heavenly Mandate. A massive undertaking to control water with its attendant perils is underway in China as we speak.
Once the sovereign order is imposed, it may be convenient to bury the scholars who protest that order, and to burn the books they interpret as their authority for dissent, or at least to establish a monopoly over textual interpretation. Revolutionaries who succeed often become arch-conservatives just as intellectuals sometimes become anti-intellectuals. Li Ssu, Shih Huang Ti's Grand Councilor, was an eminent scholar who reportedly had so many scholars buried that melons flourished over their graves.
Blind faith in the latest imperial order is required, notwithstanding its arbitrary character under a sole arbiter, because people tend to forget the terrible causes that made the current legal order necessary in the first place; they are therefore prone to repeat the same old mistakes leading to chaos. The new order, however, is not as new as one might suppose. The linear order of progressive history, the very idea of perpetual innovation, was anathema to China as an agrarian civilization; wherefore the continuous change of the Book of Changes is regular i.e. seasonable.
For traditional China, progress meant a return to the original Golden Age of the naturally cultivated garden, where plants, animals and humans once got along so famously. In the traditional Chinese Paradise, not only mutual bliss but bare survival depends on cooperation with the spatial ordering and regular cycling of nature. Thus the large political order will necessarily correspond to the natural order spelled out more clearly by the stars in Heaven than by the complex shifting of sands on Earth. Naturally, the overarching political scheme may become overbearing in its Heavenly symmetry unless it is somehow in keeping with the mystical way of the private Chinese gardener who finds repose in his secret garden.
King Cheng wanted to establish an empire as stable and enduring as that supported by Yu's famous turtle, an empire of at least one-thousand years. The primordial turtle had carried the Growing Soil used by Yu to make the mountains that helped save humankind from the flood. A map of the Nine Regions including the Nine Rivers appeared on the turtle's shell, as well as the blueprint for human language by which the future can be known or determined. The birds would use their feet to write that language in the mud.
Basing civilization on the back of a turtle might seem strange to us today, but someone must start somewhere with something and ask questions. The deliberate application of heat to the shell of a turtle in order to trick out its internal order in the form of a riddle, and the conscious presumption behind the question—that there is an answer to the riddle—was critical to the development of human will and intelligence. In fact, riddles were posed everywhere civilization evolved; in Greece, for example, where the Sophists loved the logical play of riddle games; in India, if the loser did not volunteer to become the disciple of the winner of the riddle contest, he was beheaded.
Myths evolved from the divination process, and questions were asked of the myths. For instance, the famous poet C'hu Yuan (c. 340-278 B.C.) posed "Heavenly Questions" or "Riddles" about mythology; for instance: ‘If Gun was not fit to control the flood, why was he entrusted with this task? They all said, “Do not fear! Try him and see if he can accomplish it.” Lord Yu issued from Gun's belly. How did he metamorphose? Yu inherited his legacy and continued the work of his father. Why was his plan different, even though the work was in progress? How did he dam the flood waters at their deepest? How did he demarcate the Nine Lands of the earth? Over the rivers and seas what did the Responding Dragon achieve, and where did he pass? What plan did Kun devise? What did Yu succeed in doing?’
Good questions. King Cheng pondered on them before he selected his imperial name. C'hu Yuan, in addition to his 170 questions, complained about the politics of the Warring States period in which he lived a century before King Cheng appeared on the scene with his final solution to the complaints. C'hu Yuan was a nobleman, an important minister of C'hu, a state south of Ch'in, who raised too many questions and urged embarrassingly patriotic answers thereto at court; he was consequently banished. He traveled about, pondered on politics, asked Heaven questions about the mythological pictures on the shrines, where he stopped to rest and composed his poetry. Made miserable by the chaos of his times, and bemoaning the plight of his home state of C'hu in its conflict with the rising state of Ch'in, he tied a rock to his body, jumped into a river and drowned himself. To this very day the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated in his honor; the boats commemorate the search for his body—it was never found. Rice dumplings are thrown into the water to appease the dragons, or perhaps to feed his spirit. Riddle contests are included for the edification of everyone participating.
Following suit, we gaze in wonder upon the grand totemic conglomeration arising from the yellow soil, the Oriental Dragon, the Yellow Sphinx who guards the Great Wall. We are pleased to discover that the Oriental Dragon is friendlier and more beneficial than the Occidental Dragon. That is, if we do not fight it. Reflections on the Dragon gives us cause to entertain the proposition that King Chao Cheng's premature death after becoming Shih Huang Ti was not due to overwork and insanity, but to his spearing of a great sea-dragon; Captain Ahab made a similar fatal mistake with Moby Dick, the Great White Whale of the West. Let us retire to our secret gardens now, and pause for a moment in eternity to privately reconsider the riddle of existence. Those who answer rightly may don the imperial robe of gold and jade and continue on The Way.
7 June 2012 Question to I Ching: “Who Shall Lead Miami Beach?”
No. 41, Sun / Decrease
A person of modest means fated to succeed with the assistance of a partner restrains passion, decreases faults, and persuadnes others to make small sacrifices for the greater good without diminishing their integrity. This decrease is bound to be followed by No. 42, I / Increase.