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Lecture series explores the roots of Tibetan and Chinese cultures

In northern China rests the remains of the ancient city of Taosi. Within the 4,000-year-old ruined walls stand the bases of 13 stone pillars, arranged in a crude arch facing east and south east.

These pillars could be remnants of an ancient calendar—the oldest of its kind in China, said David Pankenier, professor of modern languages and literature, in his Jan. 29 lecture.

Although the Taosi pillars were razed to the ground thousands of years ago, archeologists speculate that they were once at least four meters tall. Archeologists believe that as the sun rose behind the mountain range in the east, its rays would fall in one of the 12 gaps between the pillar.

In 2000, archeologists tested their calendar theory by erecting their own temporary pillars where the ancients had done around 2100 B.C. At the dawn of the winter equinox the sun’s rays streamed through slots on one of the pillars.

“They nailed it,” Pankenier said.

As the year progressed, the sun shifted from one pillar to the next; however the number of days it took to pass between the pillars could vary from one week to one month. The giant stone calendar accurately predicted the winter and summer solstices, the dates of the longest and shortest days, but it was less precise in estimating the fall and spring equinoxes.

“But it was still quite useable as a horizonal [sic] calendar,” Pankenier said.

Pankenier’s talk, “Getting Straight with Heave in Ancient China,” was the first of a five-part lecture series, titled "Transformation of Self, Society, and Text in Early and Medieval China.” The series is sponsored by the Asian studies program to prepare for the July visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Although modern China and Tibet are currently at odds politically, the two countries share many historical and cultural bonds, says Constance Cook, professor of modern languages and literature and director of the Asian studies program.

“There was a lot of cross fertilization between China and what has now become know as Tibet,” Cook says. “China influenced Tibet, and Tibet certainly influenced China.”

To explore the roots of Tibetan and Chinese cultures, these lectures will focus on civilizations before the 10 century A.D. that developed around the Yellow River, which Cook calls the “heartland of China.” These cultures view themselves and their relationship to the world in a “radically different” way than Westerns do, she says.

“Their notion of body, self and society, spirits, everything is different,” says Cook, who is teaching also a class on ancient Asian texts that dovetails with the lecture series. For example, the Western tradition emphasizes all things have a beginning and an end, but the Chinese philosophy and religion of Taoism teaches that things occur in cycles.

By exposing students to new perspectives and methods of thought, they will be better able to work with people of different cultures, Cook says.

“Learning new ways of thinking about things helps us understand when other people behave in a way we would consider irrational,” she says.

The lectures are sponsored by the Asian studies program, along with the modern languages and literature department, the philosophy department, religion studies, sociology and anthropology and the global citizenship program.

Upcoming lectures are:

• Feb. 7 at 4:10 p.m., Paul Goldin, professor of East Asian languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, will speak on “Confucianism for Americans” in Maginnes Hall, Room 260.

• March 11 at 4:10 p.m., John Major, from the China Institute in New York, will present “Natural Metamorphosis and Personal Transformation” in Maginnes Hall, Room 102.

• March 27 at 4:10 p.m., Victor Mair, professor Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, will present "Translation and Transformation: Adventures in Cross-Cultural Understanding,” in Maginnes Hall, Room 102.

• April 9 at 4:10 p.m., Gopal Sukhu, assistant professor Chinese at Queens College of the City of New York, will give a talk titled “The Platform Sutra as Scripture and Historical Allegory” in Maginnes Hall, Room 102.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Friday, February 01, 2008

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