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Circle and Square: Explorations in Symbology
Circle and Square: Explorations in Symbology
Mark A. Riddle
[c. September 2010]
Quick Quiz Question:
If the black robe and square black cap of the graduation ceremony indicate the possession of an earthly credential conferred by human authority, what garb would symbolize a corresponding heavenly status provided by divine authority?
Before we answer, let’s look at some definitions. Symbology is the formal study of symbolism—the uses and meanings of symbols. A symbol is commonly defined as an arbitrary sign that has acquired a conventional significance, something visible that by association and convention represents something else that is invisible.
Answer to Quick Quiz Question:
A white robe with a round white cap.
(White is commonly an opposite of black;
round is opposite to square as heaven is to earth and divine to human.)
If you answered correctly without hesitation, you obviously have already been introduced to the world of symbolism; perhaps you are already adept at interpreting symbols. If you had no idea how to answer the question, this essay may be too narrowly focused to serve as an introduction to “the lost language of symbolism.” We will focus specifically in this essay on some meanings of the contrasting of circle and square.
Heaven and Earth in Chinese Cosmology
According to ancient Chinese belief, the human body and the world are constructed alike, microcosm and macrocosm. The round head is the vault of heaven and the rectangular feet are the square earth. By an ancient Chinese tradition, every capitol city must include a Ming-tang (明 堂 ) Temple, the ‘Hall of Light,’ a ritual palace that is at once an imago mundi (the universe in microcosmic form) and an elaborate embodiment of the ritual calendar. The Ming-tang was built on a square base (=Earth) and was covered by a round roof (=Heaven).
Tai-shan, the central and most important of the five sacred mountains of ancient China, was a symbol of the cosmos and the state and believed to be a producer of life forces; its sacred force figured in spring rites of planting and the fall harvest. A close relationship developed between the mountain and the emperor, who exercised his pivotal role in, and derived his authority from, rituals performed in an elaborate system of monuments erected on the mountain. At the summit, an open circular platform was constructed for the Feng sacrifices—burnt offerings to Heaven. At the base of the mountain, a polygonal open altar was constructed for the Shan sacrifices in honor of the Earth.
In Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, a complex of temples still prominent today, includes the circular Temple of Annual Prayers and Altar of Heaven (three concentric tiers within a square enclosure); the Altar of the Earth is square. The Temple of Heaven complex consists of three sections on a north-south axis. Here, at the Winter Solstice, in a ceremony last performed in 1915, the emperor paid homage to Heaven and reported on the state of the realm.
Symbols in Jade
The symbolism of the circle and square go back far into Chinese pre-history—art motifs of the Neolithic Yangshao culture were “derived from squares and circles without reference to organic form.” The Xiao-jing (Classic of Filial Piety) of ca. 400 B.C. mentions (Ch. 18) the round and square sacrificial vessels placed beside the coffin during a funeral.
Among the ancient artifacts found by archaeologists are the round ‘bi’ (璧 , commonly translated ‘jade disc’), representing Heaven and the square ‘cong’ (琮 ), representing Earth. In late Neolithic times, jade bi were often laid on top of the body in burials. The bi is a flat, doughnut-shaped disk while the cong is a hollow jade tube, squared or octagonal on the outside. Jade was often a substance sacrificed—round blue pieces were offered to Heaven and square yellow pieces to Earth. The Liangzhu culture of the Yang-zi River Delta (3300-2250 B.C.) is renowned for its cong and bi ritual jades, likely mass-produced by artisan specialists. Under the Zhou dynasty (1045-256 B.C.), a blue bi was offered to Heaven at the winter solstice, and at the summer solstice a yellow cong was offered to Earth.
Chinese scholars hold that the jade cong reflects the cosmology of ancient China. It is square outside and round inside, based on the notion that Earth is square and Heaven round, while the center hole represents the passageway between Heaven and Earth. A rod passing through the center hole would represent the Heavenly ladder by which a sorcerer or shaman traveled between Heaven and Earth. On most cong are carved images of animals which were supposed to help the shaman in his travels.
The symbolic significance of the bi is generally acknowledged, but some scholars believe that the bi had an important role in ritual, as well. According to ancient texts, the bi served to “render homage to the heavens,” but the esoteric meaning of these words has been lost. Lost was the function of the bi as an ancient astronomical instrument. The bi was used to locate the celestial pole thousands of years ago, in an age in which it was not located near a convenient marker such as the Pole Star.
Chinese uranography (star cartography) is wholly based on the rotation of the stars around the pole; held against the background of the sky so that the stars of Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper, correspond to markings incised upon it, the bi shows at its center the position of the pole. The religious significance of this is, of course, that the celestial pole (now the Pole Star) is the residence of Tai-yi (太 一 ), the Emperor of Heaven, the supreme deity of the Taoist pantheon. For the Taoist, to return to the original unity of the One is to return to the Pole Star. It is the universal Alpha and Omega, the place where all things begin and to which all return. This is how a jade disc can be used in rituals to ‘render homage to the heavens.’
The Music of the Jades
According to musicologist Fritz A. Kuttner, “the Chinese had a longing and an amazing gift for mystical cosmology involving sacred numerical relations, especially in the field of music. Many bi discs had a musical determination and symbolism of their own apart from the other ceremonial significances.”
Bi were not only a symbol of Heaven and of the male principle (yang), but also of sound and life (death is silence; sound is life). That’s why they were placed on the chest, in the mouth, or on the lips of the deceased at burial.
Also serving a double role as both religious symbol and musical instrument were the jade qing ( 磬 ), lambda-shaped stone gongs (Japanese ‘uchi-ishi’), a set of 16 of which were suspended from a wooden frame to create a chimes-like musical instrument. As C.A.S. Williams pointed out almost a century ago, the qing was shaped like the gnomon, or carpenter’s square, which in China was “the emblem of a just and upright life.” [and prosperity] “The application of the square and compasses as symbols of morality was known to the Chinese from early ages.” The set square and the compasses are, of course, the instruments by which the circle and the square are constructed.
Chinese Mirrors in Bronze
Markings representing the T-square, set-square and compasses appear on Han-era Chinese bronze mirrors called ‘TLV’ mirrors in English, after the shapes of these markings. In Japanese, they are referred to as ‘Compasses-and-Square Mirrors’ (方 格 規 矩 鏡) [to establish order], the name reflecting what the markings symbolize. The mirrors were produced in government factories from the mid-1st Century B.C. to the mid-1st Century A.D., featuring a central square and circle denoting Heaven and Earth, surrounded by multiple theriomorphs set off by the rectilinear elements of the TLV design. In the final version of this design, the animal forms were standardized as a white tiger (west), red bird (south), green dragon (east) and black snake and tortoise (north). TLV mirrors ceased to be made about the middle of the 1st Century A.D. but these design elements continued in artistic use for another century, or until about the end of the Han dynasty.
In 1948, American scholar Schuyler Cammann provided a key to understanding the symbolism of thesemirrors, which were apparently used both in rituals and for divination. According to Cammann, the ‘V’ shapes frame the central square, which is thought to represent China as the ‘Middle Kingdom.’ It also mirrors the ancient Chinese idea that Heaven was round and Earth was square. This illustrated the Chinese idea of the five directions–North, South, West, East and Center. The area in between the central square and the circle represented the ‘Four Seas.’ During the Han Dynasty the ‘Four Seas’ represented territories outside China. The nine nipples in the central square likely represented the ‘nine regions of the earth,’ discussed by Cammann as having come from the Shiji (the Classic of History).
The ‘T’s reflected the ‘Four Gates of the Middle Kingdom’ idea present in Chinese literature, analogous to the four inner gates of the Han place of sacrifice, or the four gates of the imperial tombs built during the Han period. The ‘L’s are thought to have symbolized the marshes and swamps beyond the ‘Four Seas,’ at the ends of the earth. The ‘L’s seem to bend, possibly to achieve a rotating effect which symbolized the four seasons, or the cardinal directions. The eight nipples outside of the central square were most likely a representations of the Eight Pillars, mountains that held up the canopy of Heaven. The area between the inner round border and the outer rim of the mirror was often filled with swirls that represented the clouds in the heavens.
On the other hand, Japanese scholars hold that the ‘L’s and ‘V’s divide time, the calendar (the ‘L’s representing the two solstices and the two equinoxes, and the ‘V’s the beginning points of the four seasons, thus dividing the calendar into eight parts), while the ‘T’s divide space in the same way.
Other Japanese scholars theorize that a TLV mirror is an expression of Chinese yin-yang, wu xing cosmology—a kind of mandala, corresponding to the horizontal plane of a calendrical sundial, a gui-biao (圭 表 ), with the central nipple indicating the position of a sundial’s vertical gnomon (表, ) which when in place would cast a shadow on the horizontal mandala (圭 ) indicating points of the annual calendar essential to agriculture and important to statecraft.
Cosmological Gameboards, Diviner’s Boards, and TLV Mirrors
The ‘TLV’ mirrors are no doubt related to a Han-era board game, liu-bo (六 博 , ‘six rods’), played on a board which also had cosmological referents. Played in elite Chinese society from the 6th –Century B.C., the board has a central square divided into four triangles. Scholars believe that players’ pieces were moved along ‘L’-shaped and single-bar ‘roads’ according to rules derived from ancient divination practices. The four directions and the numerology of the number 12 seem to be important elements of the game, with the result that liu-bo could be played as an allegory of the annual cycle and the orderly regulation of the state, subject to the intervention of fate in the form of rod or dice throws. The ancient Chinese seem also to have believed that liu-bo was played by the immortals.
The diviner’s board of Han-era China, called shi (式 ), also bore marks similar to those on TLV mirrors. The instrument was comprised of two discs, one circular (on top) and one square (below), symbolizing the cosmos, with the circular and square discs representing Heaven and Earth, respectively. The circle could be rotated in relation to the square. The seven stars of the Big Dipper, joined together by a line, were inscribed in the central area of the upper, circular disc; the pivot which held the two discs together passed through or near the central and brightest star of the constellation (epsilon Ursa Major). The operator (diviner) used a pair of compasses and a set-square as auxiliary aids. First, the operator set the square board to correspond with the cardinal directions. Then the operator revolved the circular disc to correspond with the position of the sun, and the handle of the Dipper engraved in the center of the circular disc then indicated the result of the divination by pointing to one of many figures incised on the outer edges of the discs.
Michael Loewe suggests that the purpose of the TLV mirrors was to represent and perpetuate the most favorable position that could be obtained by manipulating the two discs of the diviner’s board, to provide the owner of the mirror an assurance that he or she was correctly oriented to the cosmos.
West Asian Urban Design
It may seem like a stretch to go from ancient Chinese game-board design to West Asian city planning, but we intend to show that they are related—and that what links them is the cosmology of the circle and square. The Sassanian city Firuzabad founded ca.226 A.D. was built on a perfectly circular plan modeled after the Parthian city of Darabjird; Ecbatana, royal city of the Medes; and the Achaemenid citadel at Dilberdjin. The square base and round dome was an architectural feature of Sassanian origin. The round cities and palaces of the Medes, Parthians and Sassanians reveal cosmological concepts—the circular cities were divided into four equal sectors by radial access streets oriented to the cardinal directions. The most famous of the ‘cosmic round cities’ of the East was Baghdad, the ‘Round City of Mansur,’ founded in 762. The Oriental military camp was also circular. The cosmic throne room of the ancient Eastern king featured a domed roof with sun, moon and stars reflecting the astral religion of the Neo-Babylonians, Chaldeans and Persians, with the king in his realm as the sun in the sky. The Zoroastrian fire temple was also a square building with a dome.
The Vara—Indo-Iranian Cosmology
The circular cities of West Asia, such as Merv, Phrasspa and Hatra, were expressions of an ancient Central Asian tradition, the Indo-European vara. When the Indo-Iranians arrived on the Iranian plateau, they already had a developed and vigorous architectural tradition, brought with them from the steppes. For example, at the Altin Dilyar Tepe in Bactria, in the dunes between Balkh and the Oxus (Amu Darya), ramparts form an immense circle, thought to reflect a highly structured society of early, Iron Age, Indo-Europeans.
This architectural tradition persisted long in Central Asia—a stupa found in a Buddhist sanctuary in ancient Merv consists of a square platform of bricks oriented to the cardinal directions, surmounted by a round brick tower. A huge building uncovered at Old Nisa (near Ashgabat in Turkmenistan) included a ‘Square Hall’ dated to the 2nd Century B.C., believed to be a religious shrine, possibly for dynastic worship, and a ‘Round Hall,’ probably also a shrine. The Koy-Krrylgan-Kala site on the southern edge of the Kyzylkum Desert consists of concentric circular structures, with dwellings in the outer section and a burial ground for a ruling elite and a temple for a dynastic cult in the inner area—dating from the 4th Century B.C.
The vara concept, the old Indo-Iranian architectural plan, is known from the scripture of the Parsees, the Avesta, said to date from the time of Zoroaster, ca. 600 B.C., and features a square and a circle inscribed one within the other. Vara means ‘enclosure,’ and in the Avesta account, a terrible winter depopulates the earth; the only survivors are protected by a vara built by Yima, the first shepherd-king/first ancestor of Iranian myth, in the legendary homeland of the Iranians, at the direction of Ahura Mazda (God).
The Bactian cult center at Dzharkutan, discovered by A. Askarov in 1977, is an example of a vara. Dated to the 14th-13th Century B.C., it “has neither sources nor parallels in the Near East.” Instead, it shows the influence in Bactria of the northern steppe culture; on the steppe, Scythian royal kurgans show the same planning principle. The vara is a microcosm of the universe, incorporating circle and square components of a temple and royal burials. “This mythologeme could only have originated in a society where there already existed the prototype of a ‘celestial town,’” the European steppe culture ca. 2000 B.C.
Continued, next page, Part II