Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Fates

My wife has long maintained that our meeting on a train in Germany was fate. It was certainly an unlikely meeting, but I'm not a believer in fate -- as I've already mentioned -- so I think that it was more a happy, lucky, fortunate coincidence. Incidentally, the term "coincidence" comes down to us via medieval astrology, but I don't mean to imply even a tinge of stellar fate to my initially meeting Sun-Ae. Perhaps God simply smiled on us.

In my previous entry, nomen omen, I noted some views on fate but didn't really attempt to distinguish them. Yet, there are distinct differences in the way that fate is understood. I first really noticed this about 15 years ago when I was living in a student dormitory in Tuebingen, Germany and speaking with a Japanese woman living there who was studying to become a pharmacist. Keiko was a very strong believer in fate. I don't know if she thought that fate ruled every detail of her life, or if it only determined the big things, but she considered its decrees implacable.

One day, she and I were discussing my research because she had asked me what I was working on. I began to explain what Gnosticism was and how the Gnostics believed that a malicious god had created the cosmos and had used fate to trap human beings in the world.

So far, so good.

Then, I mentioned that Gnostics believed that the true God of salvation had sent a revealer into the world to break the bonds of fate and free human souls.

"But," interrupted Keiko, "how can fate be broken?"

So, I explained at some length and in great detail how fate had been set up and how the Gnostic revealer had broken it by disrupting the heavenly spheres by which (astrological) fate was generated, channeled, and used.

When I had finished, Keiko asked:

"But how can fate be broken?"

Taken aback, I replied, "I just told you how."

"But how can fate be broken?" she repeated.

Slightly annoyed, I retorted, "I just told you how!"

"But how can fate be broken?" she insisted.

At this point, both of us were beginning to sound like broken records, and I realized that her question was not a true one about the details of how fate could be broken but an expression of profound disbelief that such a thing could ever occur. For Keiko, fate was the most fundamental thing in the universe. Nothing, not a god -- not even God -- could change it, let along break it.

I never asked Keiko for the Japanese word that means fate, but I assume that it is "unmei" (うんめい [運命]: pronounced "oon-mei"). This is the same as the Korean word for fate, "unmyung" (운명 [運命]: pronounced "oon-myung"). Both of them derive from the Chinese word for fate, "mingyun" (命運, "ming4 yun4"), albeit reversed. Could somebody clarify all of this for me, both linguistically and ideologically? Why the reversal? What ideology lies behind the terms? I know nothing about this. I did, however, find this online article (pdf text):

James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, "Spiritual Needs, Spiritual Nourishment in Shenzhen," Pacific Rim Report, Nr. 29, November 2003.

The authors explain the concept of "mingyun":

"The Chinese term mingyun describes fate as both fixed and flexible. Fixed: one's destiny originates beyond the individual in the 'command (ming) of heaven.' Yet flexible: it is also shaped by the particular 'movements (yun)' of an individual's life. Each person's journey is shaped by genetic inheritance and family background that lie outside personal control. And yet within this fixed pattern, Chinese wisdom recognizes that all is not simply 'given.' It is the lifelong discipline of self-cultivation that prepares one to embrace the opportunities that arise in and alter the course of a life."

I now have to wonder about Keiko's views on fate. She seems to have been fixated on the fixed aspect -- or so I understood her to mean at the time (and I certainly may have misunderstood). Whatever Keiko may have meant, I'd now be interested in knowing what Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese think that fate is. By this, I mean to ask if there are any scholarly articles that lay out the meanings.

I'm particularly curious because one of my graduate students is focusing on how fate is used in Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur. He thinks that the knight Balyn is a character who tragically succumbs to fate because he chooses a path that turns him into a non-Christian knight. As such a knight, God's providence no longer guides him, leaving him a pawn of fate as it was understood in the Old Anglo-Saxon tradition.

To my discredit, I've never read Malory's Morte Darthur (but I will), so I cannot yet judge if the student is correct or not. I have urged him to look into various understandings of fate, suggesting to him that his own Korean view will differ from the Medieval Christian one in Malory, which itself will differ from the old pagan Anglo-Saxon view. All three of these need to be sorted out in order to properly analyze Malory's text.

There's a common saying relevant here: "The past is another country."

So are other countries.


At 1:18 PM, Blogger Muninn said...

Nice posting...

You are right, it is うんめい in Japanese. As for the reversal in Chinese, actually my dictionaries also have an entry for the 运命/運命 as well, but I have never heard it used. Perhaps is was more popular in an earlier time. In my Matthews C-E dictionary published in 1931 (still available as a repring from Harvard U Press) there are several entries for this 運命已定 for "one's fate is settled" and 運命論 for fatalism (probably from west or via Japan) it also has an entry for 命運 for "luck; destiny"

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Muninn,thanks for this. I've also just linked to your fine blog, which I was unaware of until now.

I'm slowly working on my links sidebar, so more links to other Asian-based websites will gradually appear (in case anyone was wondering).

At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note also that at least bigger Korean dictionaries list also myôngun (命運). The Korean-English one that I have at hand has a very short entry, "one's fate; one's doom (악운)", which tells that it's a rare form.

I have noticed in passing that some Sino-Korean terms like that exist both ways, like kwallyôn (關聯), and its rarer partner yôn'gwan (聯關). But I have no idea what has made one form make its way into spoken language and the other not.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Antti, thanks for the additional information.

Incidentally, I have an improbable suggestion on the reversal of ideographic sequence in Sino-Korean terms.

Earlier, Koreans wrote Chinese to be read from top to bottom starting with the rightmost column and moving left. Now, Koreans write Chinese to be read from left to right starting with the topmost row and moving down.

Perhaps some confusion has occasionally resulted due to this shift?

Or is it just that for non-Chinese, the sequence doesn't much matter?

By the way, my wife thinks that yôn'gwan (聯關) is not rarer than kwallyôn (關聯). Does your dictionary state that yôn'gwan (聯關) is rarer?

At 1:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In fact, I was only using my own impression when saying that 관련 is more common than 연관; also the dictionary I took a look at referred directly to 관련 in 연관. But then on the other hand the Korean-Korean dictionary that I'm now seeing has a longer entry for 연관 (聯關) than 관련, and it would seem that the use of these two in science would be slightly different.

I'd think it'd be quite unlikely that the direction of writing should have caused the difference in the similar Chinese character terms. Perhaps it's just a coincidence in the history of the language? But I better finish my guesswork about this interesting matter here.


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