the northern quarter

The following is an extract from the Monkey Press book The Kidneys which has recently been re-edited and reprinted. This section is on the text of Suwen Chapter 5, which deals with the resonances of the five elements/phases. Here, at the beginning of the description of the resonances of the kidneys, Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée discusses the nature of the north, water and their relationship to the origins of life.

suwen chapter 5:

‘The northern quarter gives rise to cold, cold produces water, water produces the salty, the salty produces the kidneys, the kidneys produce bones and marrow, marrow produces the liver; the kidneys master the ear.

‘In heaven it is cold, on earth it is water, among the parts of the body it is the bones, among the zang it is the kidneys, among colours it is black, among notes it is yu, among sounds it is to sigh, among movements which react to change it is to shiver, …among the expressions of will-power it is fear.

‘In the north there are always two animals – the snake and the tortoise.’

Elisabeth Rochat: The character for north is bei (北), and we can see that it represents a position of no communication. It is to be back to back. Incidentally the ideogram for back is made up of the same character above and radical 130, the part of the body, below (背). The north is the place of separation; when people are expelled or exiled they are expelled to the north. The relationship between north and the back also has something to do with ritual, because when facing south (which is the ritual position for human beings in nature) the back is facing north and there is a communication between the back and north and the front and south. The back faces obscurity and the front faces the light. In Suwen chapter 6 it is also seen as the difference between life coming from the kidneys and life shining from the heart; it is the difference between these two types of fire. Also, you turn your back in order to rebel or flee from something.

In ancient Chinese thought the north or water (because they are the same thing in this context) was the region to which the ten thousand beings withdrew. But if we withdraw or return to something it is because it is our origin, and the ten thousand beings retire to the north because in the north, or in the water, they discover the foundation of their origin. In this way we can see that the north is also the anchorage of the axis of life, and perhaps the guarantee of the supreme unity of each and every being.

There is another use of this character bei (北) in Chinese literature: bei dou (北 斗). Dou (斗) is a spoon or a ladle, and bei dou, the spoon in the north or the spoon showing the north, is the name of the constellation of the Great Bear. This constellation points to the pole star, and in the 2nd century BCE the pole star was considered to be the dwelling place of the great deity tai yi (太 一), the supreme unity. In the Analects, Confucius makes a comparison between the ruler of a state and this pole star:

‘He who governs the people by giving good examples is like the pole star which rests immobile while all the other stars move around it.’

It was the Chinese view that the pole star was the only fixed point in heaven, and that all the constellations and other stars just moved around it. It was the fixed point of the rotation of heaven. For that reason it was the dwelling place of the great and supreme unity because it was the unification point for all the movements of the stars.

The north is also ambiguous and ambivalent because it is the separation, back to back, the place of exile and no communication – just as winter is the season of no communication. Suwen chapter 2 says that in winter heaven and earth are like strangers, yin and yang have nothing more to do with each other. But at the same time the north is also the place of returning, and of return to the origin and unity. This is very interesting because from this perspective the north is both the return to the beginning and the beginning of division and separation.

In winter earth and water are separated, the soil is hard because of the cold, and the water is also hard because it is frozen as ice. But at the same time the core of winter, according to the Book of Rites, is the moment for the mating of tigers and the period to keep seed for germination. It is the period of the tenth celestial stem, gui (癸), the mysterious gathering of water inside the earth ready to receive the impulse of heaven, the yang within. This is like the yang of the kidneys or the yang of ming men, which is revealed through the yang of the liver and heart which are the two yang zang.

Of course we also have to remember that at the beginning of Zhuangzi chapter 1 the first word is bei (北), north. Daoists are very interested in origins and authenticity, and we can find the origin of nature and the authentic in the north and within water. In Zhuangzi chapter 1, in the north there is an abyss where a great fish resides. This great fish rises up from the sea to become a great bird called peng, which flies straight to the south. This is a good image of the power of the kidneys and heart and the rising up of life, of water and fire.

So in this Chinese conception of the north we find the double power of the kidneys: the separation but also the unity of the origin, the unity of life but also the seeds of diversity.

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