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From Reality to Randomness

Vivien Chen's picture


"Death and life have their determined appointments; riches and honors depend upon heaven." - Confucius

In the preface of Christopher Lupke’s novel, he shares a brief anecdote of his first encounter with “ming” while studying at an Inter-University Program in Taiwan. Studying a course on the subject of Zhuangzi  (a Chinese philosopher), Lupke was introduced to his teacher, Jin Jiaxi. Lupke comments that teacher Jin stressed the importance of “ming” and described it as a “proper way to live.” One day, Lupke accidentally left his book bag, consisting of all his notes from the course, a copy of the Shiji, and a camera. One would assume a teacher would elicit a certain response after being told the notes for that course had been lost; however, teacher Jin’s response was one Lupke would never forget. His terse response commanded Lupke to “move on,” and that it was purely “ming.”


Unpredictable events fill our world and whether we like them or not or whether we perceive them as random … or not, they nonetheless occur. Patrick Suppes, author of Probabilistic Metaphysics states, “The world is full of random happenings” (27). This may be so, however some cultures do not perceive the world as “full of random happenings”; in particular, the Chinese culture has a vast history and understanding that we are put on the Earth to follow a mandate from Heaven. A “random happening” then is foreseen as a notion of the ming, or as something commanded by fate. This notion is discussed in depth in Christopher Lupke’s novel, The Magnitude of the Ming in which he examines how the concept of fate has shaped the Chinese culture. The story I want to tell, however, parallel with Lupke’s ideas of the ming, but it also explores the ways in which ming has impacted my life and my views on life. And I will do this by sharing personal anecdotes as well as describing certain Chinese traditions of which expound on the idea of fate, luck, and chance.

A random process can be seen as one governed by chance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines random as: Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard. Now, the existence of randomness is a concept heavily debated upon. The extensive mathematical calculations theorized to predict randomness (and therefore contradict it) are ones I do not plan on discussing; instead, I plan on discussing the inevitability of random (or what appears to be random) events that happen in our lives. But most importantly, I plan to examine the ways in which cultures (specifically the Chinese culture) attempt to “control” randomness by creating systems of beliefs within their traditions and culture that allow them to gain agency and to gain control - in other words, by sharing beliefs which include fortune telling, astrological signs at birth, and other common modern traditions the Chinese culture is richly formulated around aspects that resist notions of randomness.

This past April, a Southwest Airlines plane tore open during mid-flight at 34,000 feet above ground. The incident was blamed on factory flaws and “premature damage from fatigue.” However, one piece of information could not be ignored by experts - that this occurrence mirrored ones that occurred in 1998 when another Airline’s top peeled off as well. Hans J. Weber, owner of Tecop International, an aviation-consulting firm in San Diego, claims that manufacturing flaws are rare. “This is a real puzzle,” he said. “I am not fully satisfied with the explanation. The manufacturing of aluminum airplanes is very well understood.” After this event, the Federal Aviation Administration conducted a series of inspections to ensure a safer air travel, however some administrative members believe that some of the improvement (of the safety of planes) could be attributed to luck, as there is an “element of randomness to crashes.” Whether this event is attributed to a reoccurring manufacturing flaw that just happened to repeat itself twenty-three years later, or if it is in fact a “one-of-a-kind problem,” an element of randomness is still prevalent and cannot be dismissed, and this is just one example of many where we question randomness’ impact on society.

Although some may excuse this happening as an “act of randomness,” others may believe this to be an act of fate. Since thousands of years ago, the Chinese have created methods to discover and predict the occurrence of future happenings. And at the heart of this is the belief that there is a “grand scheme” to the universe, a pattern to life, and a pattern to the random events that occur in life. Returning to the malfunctioning of the planes, perhaps the Chinese would not attribute randomness to that event at all; and instead, formulate metaphysical reasoning to the accidents.

 But why would someone want a “grand scheme” to exist or a determined pattern to life? This seemingly puzzling question is in fact quite lucid – if you could put meaning to bizarre situations, wouldn’t you? Would labeling something or putting meaning to something make you more at ease? As Lisa Belkin (author of the articleThe Odds of That) puts it, “By merely noticing a coincidence, we elevate it to something that transcends its definition as pure chance. We are discomforted by the idea of a random universe… we want to feel that our lives are governed by a grand plan.” John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University states that finding definite patterns where none actually exists, and believing in fate and conspiracy “makes it less frightening” for us (Belkin, The Odds of That), and that is why we have tendencies to attempt to explain the inexplicable.

With this in mind, can it be that the Chinese share the same feeling of discomfort towards a random universe? If so, they have evolved their culture and way of thinking to counter randomness. In early China, it was believed that Heaven granted each of its people a mandate, and a sage must put it in practice (Lupke 49). For early Chinese rulers, the Mandate of Heaven was a political-social philosophy that served as the basic Chinese explanation for their success and failure; observing the heavens and communicating the passage of time to the people were divine obligations, which accounts for a preoccupation with astronomy, astrology, and calendrical science throughout Chinese history, “and explains why the ability to predict celestial events came to be seen as a barometer of a dynasty's success” (Pankenier, Mandate of Heaven). In fact, the Chinese believed that by analyzing astronomy, astrology, and the calendrical science, they could formulate calculations which could be used to explain and predict all events – and this belief remained heavily rooted in their culture, so much so that it is still very much alive and practiced today.

Although the exploration of astrology with mathematical calculations is no longer a popular method to predict future events, the Chinese continue to use other methods in determining fate; one of the more widely used practices is the mastery of Chinese fortune telling. Fortune telling is such an integral part of Chinese culture; in fact, I contend that fortune telling forms the foundation of almost every Chinese family. When I was a newborn, both my parents and my Grandmother required that my brother and I have our fortunes told at a Buddha temple. My fate and my character, according to my Grandmother, had already been predetermined. And my predetermined fate was precisely formulated according to the year of my birth date, the season, the day, and even to the hour and minute of the time I was born on that December day. Without delving too deeply into my “predestined life,” I will briefly share my “future outlook.”  Due to the factors of my birth date, I was told (or rather, my parents were told) that as a sheep, born in the winter around 8 pm on the 8th of December, I will be a “working sheep” in that I will have to work in order to find my “food.” Now, of course this can be interpreted in many levels so an exact meaning to the fortune remains unclear (incidentally, my parents tell me fortunes can be reversed).

Similarly, other methods are commonly used to determine fate and even luck. For example, the Chinese lunar calendar is widely used today in modern Chinese families. The calendar is still used in traditional and even nontraditional Chinese households. The relevance of the lunar calendar is centered on the belief of “lucky days” – “auspicious” days are important and thus saved for events such as weddings, funerals, business deals, or any monumental change in someone’s life. Even more specifically, exists an Imperial calendar, which maps out distinct activities, critical times and directions for those “lucky days.”

To continue, each lunar calendar is also associated with different animals; these animals (in the sequence they were assigned in an old Chinese legend) are: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep (also known as the goat), monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Each lunar year is a year of a different animal, (this year is the year of the rabbit) and certain aspects of the moon will determine your luck and prosperity for that year. The difference between these animal horoscopes and the western horoscopes that we use based on zodiac signs, is that the Chinese horoscope depends heavily on spirituality as it changes in tandem with the lunar cycle and is also determined by the year someone is born in, not the month.

On the other hand, for me, a person born in the year of the sheep (or goat), this 2011 year is not my luckiest, and therefore if I am wise, I will not make big decisions this year. In a positive light, if something does go wrong for me then well…  I have nothing to blame other than it’s just not my year! On the contrary, if I am lucky and an outcome works in my favor, this meant that other favorable events are in my path and lie ahead. And when this happens, I am told by my Grandmother to “thank” past ancestors for blessing me with this luck by saying a short prayer to Guanyin (in Chinese Buddhism, the goddess of love, mercy, and compassion). But yet again, these are just a few customary examples that illustrate how luck is not a stroke of random events; in fact, your luck (or lack thereof) according to Chinese tradition and cultures is the way of the world.  It has already been determined for you, and it is argued in Chinese tradition that happiness is a matter of luck, where luck, destiny, and an allotment of good or bad fortune are all received at birth (Lupke, 87).

To continue along the themes of good luck and fortune, the distribution of red envelopes during holidays is another means of creating and directing luck. Red envelopes are mainly presented at social and family gatherings such as weddings or on holidays, and I receive them usually specifically during celebrations of the Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year. However, it is also common practice for red envelopes to be given to workers to symbolize future prosperity. What is interesting to note are the several norms centered on the ideas of luck that are heavily emphasized in Chinese culture. For example, a married person is supposed to never turn down a red envelope for he or she will be destined to be "out of luck" in the upcoming year. Similarly, newly wedded couples are also expected to be generous with the amount offered in the red packets, so as to ensure a blissful marriage – it is important to emphasize that the act of giving red envelopes, and not just receiving them, promotes good luck as well.

Luck or the attainment of luck is heavily stressed in Chinese families, and countless customs encompass luck. These range from avoiding numbers that start with the number four (because of its mandarin pronunciation resembling death), not swinging your feet (I was told that by swinging your feet, you are pushing your fortunes away), to displaying plenty of voluminous tangerines during celebrations. By following these customs (I am hesitant to call them superstitions because of how tremendously influential they have become in almost every Chinese family), you have the ability to control the luck given to you from birth. This therefore takes unpredictability away from luck, and instead makes it a force driven by intent.

For this purpose, we seek to control the supernatural, the metaphysical, or rather the things in life hardest to control or to predict. The creation of the ancient art ofFeng Shuiis meant to achieve just this. Although developed over 3,000 years ago by the Chinese, I would argue that feng shui has become an even bigger trend now. In fact, it has evolved so rapidly that it has decentralized as it has become a common practice among everyone, and not just the Chinese. The concept of constructing buildings in ways believed to bring good luck, fortune, and prosperity has captured the attention of millions, and the notion that rearranging furniture in your home or office will bring you good health and good luck makes practicing feng shui popularly attainable to everyone.

Yet, the art is not so simple or so easy. In order to achieve good luck or good fortune, you need to determine the “perfect spot,” otherwise known as good qi. This perfect spot “is a location and an axis in time,” and knowing how to balance the energies within those locations is believed to assure health and good fortune to people inhabiting them. Other factors like being near a body of water can also negatively or positively alter a location’s qi. On the other hand, if the energy in our environment is hindered or not flowing correctly it can cause disharmony.

Subsequently, disharmony, or specifically disharmony in nature is something we go at great lengths to prevent. I would venture to say the most random events in life are ones caused from nature. Perhaps what makes them so threatening to us is their possibility to occur at unpredictable and random times, and this can be seen by the devastation struck by Japan just recently. For these reasons, we invest in the most expensive machinery and technology that are used to try and predict the precise location and times of when such an event will occur. However not even our most thorough calculations or analysis can match up against the volatile behavior of nature. Our human tendency to predict random events or to be “one-step-ahead” of them is evidenced by our extensive investments in determining and calculating natural occurrences.

Likewise, in early China (obviously lacking the advanced technology we have procured over the years), they believed they could do that same – they believed they could outsmart nature, but instead with the use of oracle bones. Oracle bones are probably the earliest form of Chinese fortune telling known. During the Shang Dynasty, “the ancients reckoned the natural elements as the exertion of some mystical power” – in other words, they believed predict natural occurrences were the products of divination.  So, by using a tortoise shell, the ancient would drill holes into it then put it over a fire. The fire would illicit irregular cracks on the shell, which the ancient used to interpret the happenings of good or bad omens.

Incidentally, oracle bones (although now a different version of oracle bones) are still used today to predict events in our lives, and this I have seen practiced numerous times. The practice of predicting fate is now commonly called, Kua Cim. Practicing at temples, as I stand from a distance, my mother chooses a wooden container filled with wooden sticks that resemble popsicle sticks, all marked with different numbers. She then gently kneels down in front of one of the statues of gods or goddesses and concentrates on the question she wants answered in her mind. While holding the container in her hands, she then carefully tilts it slightly downwards and slowly shakes it. This ritual is repeated until one of the sticks falls out. However, if multiple sticks fall out of the container at once, the ritual must be repeated. Once a single stick has fallen out, she gives it to a Buddhist monk in the temple who hands her a small scroll with the answer to her question. Now, keep in mind the answers are not specific “yes” or “no” answers, rather they sometimes can be short tales that have underlying themes and morals to them. By interpreting them yourself or having the Buddhist monk interpret it for you, you will receive the answer to your question. Rather, the question I always have after watching my mother perform the rituals is, why do we go through great measures as these ones to determine our fate or our future? Without ever telling me her troubling questions, my mother usually responds by saying something like, “It makes me sleep better at night.”

            It is possible that randomness feels like a loss of control. The possibility of the unknowing and the unpredictable happening manifests itself into our minds and preoccupies itself to an extent to which we feel we must seek out answers and explanations. Or rather, we believe in a system where fate has been destined; in this case, there is no need for explanations – and instead, like Teacher Jin, we respond: “That’s ming.” Regardless of the methods we use to explain an inexplicable event, the effects are still liberating to us.  And in my mother’s case, seeking out answers to looming, troublesome questions is one way she participates in the illusion of control over life, so that she can “sleep better at night.”

            The Chinese culture is just one of many cultures that embrace traditions of which date back to hundreds of years. Its reaction to randomness – with the creation of the Lunar calendar, to intricate techniques of fortune telling, to the art of feng shui, to deep rooted customs ingrained in the culture – is not an uncommon one. In fact, is it not true that some of us rely on our “ daily horoscope application” on our phones to catch a glimpse of what the day will be like? Or what about spending five dollars or even hundreds of dollars to get our fortunes told by a “reputable” fortune-teller whose business resides in an upstairs room? Why is knowing so important to us? It is possible that we, since birth, were given the illusion that control exists among us, doing its best to conceal the randomness and unpredictably that surrounds us. Our lives demands so much control, that when we encounter randomness, we do our best to predict and direct it, similar to how the Chinese culture directs luck. From the elections of a president to lead our country, to obeying traffic lights and knowing that the light will in fact turn green in a matter of seconds, to waking up to your alarm that promptly rings at seven every morning, and to relying on the CNN newsroom to be on to deliver your morning news, it is no surprise that we react to randomness the way we do. Possibly, it is time to look around you, deeply into the “order” of which you perceive things to be, and instead take note of the ubiquitous commotion, unpredictability, and randomness that surrounds you.


            Works Cited (Print)

Suppes, Patrick, 1984, Probabilistic Metaphysics, Oxford: Blackwell.

Lupke, Christopher, "The Magnitude of the Ming". University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu. 2005




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