Saturday, 12 November 2005

Tibetan Extensions 1 : Astrological Pebble Symbols

MichKa recently asked whether it was good luck or bad luck to encode the bad luck character? in relationship to proposed new Tibetan characters under consideration by the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC). As I am the proposer of the character in question (see N3011 for the formal proposal document), I guess it might be an auspicious start to my blogging career to talk a little about this ill-omened character and the other related Tibetan astrological characters in Unicode.

The Tibetan block of Unicode contains more than just the letters and punctuation marks that are needed to write the Tibetan script; it also includes quite a few religious, musical and astrological symbols. Among these are a group of characters representing various combinations of black and white pebbles that are used for divination, the various combinations representing differing levels of good or bad fortune : white pebbles (Tibetan rdel dkar རྡེལ་དཀར) represent good fortune and black pebbles (Tibetan rdel nag རྡེལ་ནག) represent bad fortune, with one, two or three pebbles indicating the degree of good or bad fortune, so that one white pebble is good, two white pebbles is very good, and three white pebbles is extremely good. Neutral fortune is represented by a white plus a black pebble. In Tibetan astrological texts black pebbles are represented by an X-shaped cross, whilst white pebbles are represented by a O-shaped circle, as can be seen in this page from an astrological almanac for the Wood Ox year (1985), published in Lhasa by the Tibetan People's Publishing House :



The upper rows of this chart show single, double and triple white pebble symbols, single and double black pebble symbols, and the white plus black pebble symbol. When Tibetan was re-encoded the second round time in 1996 for Unicode 2.0 (more about that another time), these six pebble symbols were included in the original repertoire :

  • U+0F1A TIBETAN SIGN RDEL DKAR GCIG རྡེལ་དཀར་གཅིག "one white pebble"
  • U+0F1B TIBETAN SIGN RDEL DKAR GNYIS རྡེལ་དཀར་གཉིས "two white pebbles"
  • U+0F1C TIBETAN SIGN RDEL DKAR GSUM རྡེལ་དཀར་གསུམ "three white pebble"
  • U+0F1D TIBETAN SIGN RDEL NAG GCIG རྡེལ་ནག་གཅིག "one black pebble"
  • U+0F1E TIBETAN SIGN RDEL NAG GNYIS རྡེལ་ནག་གཉིས "two black pebbles"
  • U+0F1F TIBETAN SIGN RDEL DKAR RDEL NAG རྡེལ་དཀར་རྡེལ་ནག "white pebble, black pebble"

This leaves an obvious gap in the pattern, with no symbol for the triple black pebble combination. The reason for this is that the triple black pebble represents extreme bad fortune, and is apparently avoided by astrologers, who always substitute the less ominous double black pebble symbol when writing out a fortune. Thus, whilst three black pebbles may be cast when divining someone's fortune, the three black pebble symbol is almost never written down. Nevertheless, the triple black pebble was added to the Unicode 3.0 repertoire in 1999 :

  • U+0FCF TIBETAN SIGN RDEL NAG GSUM རྡེལ་ནག་གསུམ "three black pebbles"

Now you may think that this would mark the end of the story, but far from it, it marked the start of much acrimonious debate on the Unicode TIBEX (Tibetan Extensions) mailing list about whether other combinations of pebble symbols needed to be encoded or not. The TIBEX mailing list was intended to be a forum for experts on Tibetan to agree upon the set of characters needed to complete the encoding of Tibetan, but due to irreconcilable differences between the participants, it has proved impossible to reach any sort of consensus on almost any issue, and the result is that rather than producing a single proposal covering a set of commonly agreed characters for encoding, new Tibetan characters are being proposed in dribs and drabs by individual sponsors. The subject of this posting is the symbol for the black plus white two pebble combination, for which I am the sponsor : TIBETAN SIGN RDEL NAG RDEL DKAR རྡེལ་ནག་རྡེལ་དཀར "white pebble, black pebble".

As I said earlier, neutral fortune is represented by the "OX" (white plus black pebble) combination, so what then does the proposed "XO" (black plus white pebble) combination represent? Well, the latter combination never occurs in the ordinary divinations, but only in a set of special divinations known as the "upper and lower nine burial pebbles" (steng 'og dgu dur rdel སྟེང་འོག་དགུ་དུར་རྡེལ). In these divinations the "OX" combination indicates good luck earlier and bad luck later, whereas the "XO" combination indicates bad luck earlier and good luck later. An example of the "upper and lower nine burial pebbles" can be seen in the bottom two rows of the 1985 almanac shown above. These divinations are divided into two rows, with a single black or white pebble in the top row, and one or two pebbles in the bottom row. The two pebbles are always either "OX" or "XO"; the same colour "XX" and "OO" combinations do not occur in this context.

This almanac provides clear and unambiguous evidence of the usage of the "XO" pebble symbol, and convinced most of the TIBEX members of the validity of encoding the "XO" character. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that in some almanacs the line between the upper and lower rows is dispensed with, so that superficially the divinations appear to comprise a single row of vertical two pebble combinations and mixed colour three pebble combinations, as can be seen in the bottom row of this almanac printed in India in 2000 :



Nevertheless, it is clear from the fact that some of the single pebbles have writing underneath them in place of a single or double pebble, that the single pebble on top and the single or double pebble at the bottom are seperate entities, as shown in the 1985 almanac. Notwithstanding, there was fierce argument on the TIBEX list about whether the "XO" symbol was a valid entity or not. It has been claimed by one particularly vociferous member of TIBEX that the 1985 almanac is an example of incorrect typographic and astrological practice, simply on the basis that it was published in Chinese-controlled Tibet. Whether that is the case or not (and I am convinced that there is absolutely no truth in this) is largely irrelevent, as Unicode encodes characters on the basis of attested usage, not on the basis of what is "correct" or not.

It has also been claimed that certain astrological calculations, known as the "upper and lower doors" (sgo steng 'og སྒོ་སྟེང་འོག), include all possible permutations of three black and white pebbles, and thus the mixed-colour three pebble combinations "OXO", "OOX", "OXX", "XXO", "XOX" and "XOO" also need to be encoded. However, despite repeated requests, the textual evidence for these pebble symbols has never been made available, and so no proposal for these characters has yet been made.

Anyway, back to the character that I have proposed for encoding, TIBETAN SIGN RDEL NAG RDEL DKAR. This character has now been accepted at the recent meeting of the UTC (see Proposed New Characters), and is provisionally allocated for encoding at U+0FCE, right next to its old friend the triple black pebble symbol [TIBETAN SIGN RDEL NAG GSUM]. The next stage on the road to characterhood will be in April 2006 when the proposal is considered by WG2, which is the working group of ISO/IEC 10646, the ISO standard corresponding to Unicode (see Appendix C of the Unicode Standard for details of the relationship between the two standards). As the character repertoires of Unicode and ISO/IEC 10646 are fully synchronised, any addition to Unicode also needs to be approved by WG2, and so character proposals need to undergo a convoluted and slow process of balloting by national bodies, often lasting several years, before they can be included in the relevant standards.


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