Reign of the Tripod

China’s rise and the future of threedom

According to Arvind Subramanian, even conservative projections of comparative growth trends place China in a global position, by 2030, that is strikingly similar to that of Britain and of America at their respective moments of economic predominance, accounting for a share of the world economy roughly 150% the size of its closest rival. If this were to come to pass, such leadership would invoke ‘hegemony’ as a matter of sheer quantitative fact – quite irrespective of explicit intentions. The ‘Chinese model’ would promote itself, even in the complete absence of political and diplomatic reinforcement, and the magnetic power of Chinese culture would continue to strengthen in approximate proportion to its commercial influence. China would become the object of irresistible attraction – counterbalanced, no doubt, by resentments – and its example would burn incandescent, even in the offended eyes of its detractors. So what is this ‘example’?

In exploring this question, one place to begin is the history of economic hegemony, and in particular that instantiated by the Anglo-American powers over their two ‘long centuries’ of global supremacy. This is a topic pursued with exceptional insight by Walter Russell Mead, most remarkably in his work God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

Mead locates the key to ‘Anglosphere’ hegemony in the ‘Golden Meme’ of the invisible hand, originating in the religious idea of providence, and modernized in Newtonian celestial mechanics, Smithian political economy, and Darwinian evolutionary biology. At its most abstract, this idea is both an affirmation and a renunciation, with its potency and suppleness stemming from both. To acknowledge the invisible hand is to foster a special kind of positive fatalism, trusting in the spontaneous trend of history, which is embraced as a covenant, and an overt or implicit election (in the theological sense). Such themes are undisguisedly religious, and Mead does nothing to obscure their roots in the Abrahamic tradition, or meta-tradition, which lays out a providential vision of history as finite, progressive, and inevitable, tending inexorably to eschatological completion, structured by superhuman law, and (through its divine predestination) facilitating the function of prophecy.

The deep culture of the Anglosphere is not only generically Abrahamic, however, it is also specifically pluralistic. The invisible hand takes center stage because the center is otherwise vacated, or distributed. Esoteric providence supplants exoteric sovereignty because an inability to reach agreement is eventually institutionalized – or at least informally stabilized — in a triangular balance of power.

What the British ultimately did was to rely on what Burke called “convention.” Scripture, tradition, and reason – each had its place and each had its devotees. But all of them went wrong if you pressed them too far. You should respect the scriptures and defer to them but not interpret the scriptures in a way that led you into some weird millenarian sect or into absurd social behavior. You honored tradition but did not press it so far that it led you into the arms of royal absolutism or papal power. You can and should employ the critique of reason against the excesses of both scripture and tradition, but not press reason to the point where you ranted against all existing institutions., ate roots and bark for your health, or, worse, undermined the rights of property and the established church. One can picture John Bull scratching his head and slowly concluding that one must accept that in society there will be bible nuts, tradition nuts, and reason nuts – fundamentalists, papists, and radicals. This is not necessarily the end of the world. To some degree they cancel each other out – the fundamentalist zealots will keep the papists down and vice versa, and the religious will keep the radicals in their place – but the competition among sects will also prevent the established church from pressing its advantage too far and from forming too exalted an idea about the proper stature, prestige, and emoluments of the clergy. [p223]

Cultural hegemony follows from a semi-deliberate fatalization, as the sovereign center is displaced by a substantially automated social process, which no social agent is able to master or entirely impede. Each major faction steps back into its position in the triangle, from which it can strategically engage the others, but never fully dominate or eradicate them. The triangle as a whole constitutes a social and historical motor, without adequate representation at any identifiable point.

Pluralism, even at the cost of rational consistency, is necessary in a world of change. Countervailing forces and values must contend. Reason, scripture, tradition: they all have their uses, but any one of them, unchecked, will go too far. Moreover, without constant disputes, constant controversy, constant competition between rival ideas about how society should look and what is should do, the pace of innovation and change is likely to slow as forces of conservative inertia grow smug and unchallenged. [p231-2]

This blog has previously touched upon the Singlosphere, where aspects of Anglophone and Chinese culture converge in Manchester Liberal / Daoist acceptance of spontaneous order, or laissez-faire. Does this convergence extend to triadic pluralism, and apply to the Sinosphere core of the Chinese mainland? Mead’s analysis is highly suggestive in both respects.

In the first place, it encourages considerable equanimity in regards to the prospective global transition, even when attention is focused upon the political and ideological heartland of contemporary China. It might seem, superficially, that the passage from a leading world culture dominated by tacit Christian attitudes to one in which unfamiliar Sino-Marxist ideas rise to unprecedented international prominence must be characterized by an immense – even near-absolute – discontinuity. Can such a leap take place without succumbing to catastrophic culture-shock and unmanageable friction? When examined from a broader perspective, however, such alarmism is far less than fully warranted.

For better or for worse, the over-arching cultural continuity of the coming shift is ensured by the profound kinship tying Marxism into the broad family of Abrahamic belief systems. Theologically rooted in the dialectical engagement with Judeo-Christian spirituality, initiated by Hegel and Feuerbach, the basic framework of Marxist thinking only trivially perturbs the structure of prophetic, eschatological, redemptive, and providential history. Its millenarian expectations are no more terrifying than those of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism before it, its prophetic certainties no more irrational, its submission to the iron laws of history no more constraining, and its moral enthusiasm no more zealous or impractical.

The specter of a totalitarian Marxist resurgence in China is as realistic as the fear of a theocratic putsch in the United States of America, which is to say, it has no reality at all. In both cases, maturity, pluralism, and established traditions protect against the domination of society by any particular intolerant faction. It is unnecessary to be either Christian or Marxist to recognize the continuing world-historical momentum of a broad Abrahamic meta-narrative, or to accept the consistency of such large-scale social storytelling with the perpetual regeneration of practical impetus, or to see a settled, spontaneously improvised social solution – and incarnation of dynamic conservatism – in the enduring triangular stand-off between Marxist scriptures, Communist Party institutional traditions, and market radicalism in today’s China. As with Mead’s Anglospherean pluralism, the reciprocal limitations that each of these factions imposes on the others will inevitably disappoint many, but there is no reason for them to horrify anybody.

Insofar as Mead is correct in identifying Anglosphere hegemony with the reign of the tripod, or the socio-cultural realization of pluralism (as triangular dynamic stability), the disruptive potential of emerging Chinese leadership should be considered as massively discounted, because the tripod is a Chinese native. Every temple in the country is equipped with a three-footed incense burner, every museum bronze collection is dominated by three-legged cauldrons, and each of these tripods has definite, explicitly conceptual cultural meaning. This is not only based upon the obvious practical and intuitive truth that the simplest model of stability comes from the tripod, but also from a recognition that triangular stand-off exemplifies sustainable dynamism in its elementary form, disintegrating the universe into strategic possibility.

For literary elaboration of this theme, one need only turn to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, perhaps the most widely read of China’s four great classical novels. Its most conspicuous instantiation as popular entertainment is seen in the game of paper, scissors, stone, which dates back (at least) to the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), when it was known as shoushiling.

The ultimate expression of triangular dynamic stability, not only in China, but worldwide, is undoubtedly presented by the Classic of Change, the Yi Jing, or Zhouyi. It is upon this work of singular, inhuman genius, in which sheer arithmetic speaks more purely than it has ever done before or since, that all of China’s ceremonial bronzes, literary flights, and childhood games converge.

In the numerical system of the Yi Jing, the tripod finds a source more basic than the Abrahamic meta-tradition can provide, regardless of how Trinitarian this latter has become. That is because, in this Chinese cultural ur-stratum, unity does not figure as an original unity, subsequently disintegrated into a theological, dialectical, or sociopolitical triangle but is, on the contrary, derived. As the Confucian commentary explains: “The number 3 was assigned to heaven, 2 to earth, and from these came the (other) numbers.” In the beginning were numbers – primordial dispersion.

The ‘language’ of the tripod finds its most convenient expression in the trigram, whose three lines constitute an elementary unit. To grasp the Yi Jing as a complete arithmetical model of the dynamic triad, however, it is necessary to proceed immediately to the structure of the hexagram.

Grasped in operation, the Yi Jing is not only a binary arithmetical system (as Leibniz interpreted it), but a bino-decimal conjunction. This is demonstrated by the fact that it systematically rewards the application of decimal digital reduction, and reveals its dynamic pattern only under these conditions. (This might, quite reasonably, be considered a highly surprising suggestion, since digital reduction – as it arose within the history of Western Qabbalism – seems to have been generated, automatically, from the interference of the decimal Hindu numerals with older alphabetical number systems, or ‘gematrias’, that attached cardinal values to specific letters, without use of place value. It is immediately obvious that this historical account cannot be translated into a Chinese context, where alphabets have no traditional root.)

Digital reduction is an extremely simple numerical technique, involving nothing besides single-digit additions and neglect of decimal magnitude. A multi-digit number is treated as a string of single digit additions, and the process is reiterated in the case of a multi-digit result.

Expressing the series of binary powers in decimal notation yields the familiar sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192 … When this series is compressed to a string of single digits by reduction, it proceeds: 1, 2, 4, 8, (1 + 6 =) 7, (3 + 2 =) 5, (6 + 4 =) 1, (1 + 2 + 8 = 11 = 1 + 1 =) 2, (2 + 5 + 6 = 13 = 1 + 3 =) 4, (5 + 1 + 2 =) 8, (1 + 0 + 2 + 4 =) 7, (2 + 0 + 4 + 8 = 14 = 1 + 4 =) 5, and repeatedly, through the 6-step cycle 1, 2, 4, 8, 7, 5. This process exposes the arithmetical necessity of the Yi Jing hexagram, as an archetypal exhaustion of the phases of time.

To excavate the triadic or tripodic, it is helpful to turn to the classical (and now integral) Confucian commentary, the ‘Ten Wings’ (Shi Yi), which explore the structure of the trigrams and hexagrams in various ways. These include an explicit formula for folding the six lines of the hexagram back into a triad, by coupling the lines: first and fourth; second and fifth; third and sixth. These dyads have a consistent arithmetical order, when calculated in accordance with the reduced bino-decimal values generated above: 1 + 8 = 9; 2 + 7 = 9; 4 + 5 = 9. “What these six lines show is simply this, the way of the three Powers.”

Summation to nine regularly serves as a confirmation within the Shi Yi. For instance, in the section translated by Legge as ‘The Great Appendix’:

52. The numbers (required) for Khien (or the undivided line) amount to 216; those for Khwan (or the divided line), to 144. Together they are 360, corresponding to the days of the year.
53. The number produced by the lines in the two parts (of the Yî) amount to 11,520, corresponding to the number of all things.
54. Therefore by means of the four operations is the Yî completed. It takes 18 changes to form a hexagram.

144 = 1 + 4 + 4 = 9

216 = 2 + 1 + 6 = 9

360 = 3 + 6 + 0 = 9

11,520 = 1 + 1 + 5 + 2 + 0 = 9

18 = 1 + 8 = 9

There is much more to say on the importance of the number nine in traditional Chinese culture, and beyond, but this is not the time. For now, it suffices to note that nine, or ‘Old Yang’, represents the extreme point of maturity or positive accumulation in the Yi Jing, and thus incipient transition. It thus echoes the function of the same numeral within a zero-based decimal place-value system, strongly reinforcing the impression that the Yi Jing assumes cultural familiarity with such numeracy, and thus indicating its extreme antiquity within China.

The six-phase cycle collapses into a triadic dynamic, whose stages are the dyads 1&8, 2&7, 4&5. It is thus exactly isomorphic with the paper, scissors, stone circuit, or rather, this latter can be seen as a simplification of the Yi Jing dynamic tripod, treating each stage as simple, rather than twinned. Where the bagua, or set of trigrams, merely enumerates the set of 3-bit variants in static fashion, the system of hexagrams rigorously constructs a triangular dynamic, which is presented as a model of time.

If this is the ‘Chinese example’ at its most quintessential, then it is exactly the Anglosphere example, as determined by Mead, except carried to a far more exalted level of abstraction, or proto-conceptual purity. Dynamic pluralism is under no threat from a Chinese future, insofar as deep-cultural evidence counts for anything. The reign of the tripod has scarcely begun.


One thought on “Reign of the Tripod

  1. Pingback: Calendric Dominion (Part 4) | Old Nick

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