Reducing Uncertainty through Computation in Chinese Divinatory Arts
by Stéphanie Homola
This contribution focuses on technical terms related to the reduction of uncertainty through systematic and quasi-mathematical procedures in Chinese divinatory techniques. It analyses the technical processes and related vocabulary through which concrete data such as objects and temporal parameters are converted into mantic figures. The survey is based on primary sources on three types of systematized divinatory techniques: cleromancy, chronomancy, and Plum-blossom numbers of theChanges. In these techniques, uncertainty about future course of action is reduced through physical manipulations of objects and numbers, featuring two main stages: a complexification step (through addition) and a simplifying step (through counting out/division). Related computing terms refer to four types of operations –adding up, dividing, manipulating objects, casting/selecting –pertaining to two main semantic fields –mathematics and hand/fingers manipulations.
The addition process ensures that the divination fully and effectively grabs the cosmological specificity and complexity of the moment/situation at stake. Then, the division process allows to reduce the complexity of the situation (which mirrors the unfathomable diversity of the cosmos) to a scale that can be apprehended by the human mind. The key point in this division process is that attention is paid not to the result (quotient) but to the remainder of the division which constitutes the true result of the operation.
A major propriety of remainders is that they can be directly associated to a directory of mantic figures. That such directories are limited to a finite range (64 hexagrams in cleromancy, six or twelve elements in chronomancy) makes them suitable for action. Thus, these techniques provide a support for decision-making based on an organized vision of possible future courses of action along with the selection of the course of action appropriate to the situation at stake.