Culture | Couple’s translation of Chinese almanac keeps the faith

Nuggets of wisdom

English version stays true to the rural language of geomancer’s classic tome as it spreads ancient knowledge to a wider audience

March 27, 2017 3:49 AM (UTC+8)
Joanna Lee and Ken Smith Photo: ???
Joanna Lee and Ken Smith Photo: ???

Everyone has bad days, and the problem is that you never know when they’re going to fall. Unless you have a copy of Joanna Lee and Ken Smith’s Pocket Chinese Almanac, that is.

The almanac, which is written by Hong Kong-based geomancer Warwick Wong, and translated into English by Lee and Smith, lists good things to do and bad things to do for each day of the year.

For instance, October 1 is “good for rituals, going out, hairdressing, and cleaning house.” On the negative side, November 8 is “bad for weddings and breaking ground.”

The almanac on which the pocket version is based has a long history. Generally known by its Cantonese name Tong Sing, it started out as the imperial calendar some 2,000 years ago. This was used by Chinese emperors to set daily activities.

“Geomancers made the imperial calendar for the emperor by looking at the lunar and solar patterns. A lot of it was about predicting the weather. For instance, if it said it was ‘a good day for planting,’ or ‘a bad day to be on a boat,’ you would get an idea that it was referring to sunny and rainy days,” says Smith, a journalist who, with wife Joanna, splits his time between New York and Hong Kong.

As in Western astrology, the interpretations had a metaphysical side, too. “There was an idea that the solar bodies were directly connected to earthly bodies, and could influence them. That metaphysical side became part of the readings,” says Smith.

Court geomancers arrived at their predictions by applying complex mathematical formulas to the data relating to the sun and moon, and for a long time, only the emperor knew the results. But over time, other geomancers started to produce their own almanacs, which were sold to the public.

The best-known edition of the almanac today is published, in Chinese, by the Hong Kong-based Kong King Tong publishing house and is in constant use among Chinese communities as people pick important dates for the likes of weddings and funerals.

One of the fun things about the pocket version is that Lee Smith and Wong have made no attempt to modernize the entries – they’ve kept to the original rural flavor of the language.

Some days are proclaimed bad for “digging ditches,” or good for “buying livestock,” for instance. Later editions of the pocket book include an appendix that tells the modern reader how to interpret the advice – “building a toilet is not something many people do these days,” explains Smith.

Says Lee, a musicologist and translator who’s well-known for promoting Chinese culture in the West: “Pest control is a good example. That is obviously agrarian in nature, but today, pests far exceed rodents and insects. If you want to fire someone, make sure it is a good day for pest control.”

“In modern times, women use it to find a good day to have a haircut,” says Lee. “But in the past, the meaning of a ‘good day for a haircut’ referred to the first time that you cut a baby’s hair. That is a very important day for good beginnings.”

How about the entries on building stoves? “In a multi-generational household, the head of each family has their own stove. So building a stove means that you are asserting your independence inside whatever ever physical structure you’re in,” says Smith. “It can mean, ‘I have a wife now, so I will eat in my own room.’ The idea of building stoves is all about family,” adds Lee.

The idea to translate the almanac arose when Lee’s Hong Kong-based mother used an online version to plan the date and time of Lee and Smith’s wedding. (“It took place at 11am,” notes Lee.) The pocket almanac, which was first published in 2010, was initially just for sale at New York’s The Museum of Chinese in the Americas, but demand was so great, it became widely available. The almanac was, says Lee, even used to plan Elton John’s tour of China in 2012.

“Elton probably didn’t know that,” laughs Lee. “His tour manager used it. They chose good days to travel when they put the itinerary together. Elton would probably enjoy that if he knew about it, but he has no idea!”

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