Just like with the circle, human civilizations have made use of the square for thousands of years. Wells, homes, palaces, carriages and fields were made in the shape of a square, to make efficient use of available space on mother Earth. Perhaps as part of duality, the ancient Chinese determined that while the circle (think Sun and Moon) represents Heaven, the square is relative to lowly or humble Earth. Or they may have thought that Earth was square, in the first place?
In the Hetu (Yellow River Map) diagram, both the five and ten dots that appear in the center of a square were designated to represent the ‘element’, Earth. Although in the later Loshu (Lo River Writings) diagram, while the ‘element’ Earth now introduced as trigram Kun and migrated to the South West, the five dots remained in the center surrounded by the eight trigrams. The Loshu diagram is also known as the magic square of three, while the five dots in the center represent change.
Therefore in both ancient diagrams, Earth remains in the center of the square(s) surrounded by the other four ‘elements’ of metal, water, wood and fire. (Each ‘element’ generates the next.) Or if reversed, Earth can be said to be surrounded by water, fire, metal and wood. (Each ‘element’ destroys the next.) These two sequences are so well known and used by those familiar with the study of Chinese metaphysics that nothing more need to be said.
However the deep thinkers, if they have not realized by now, should think a tad deeper about a third sequence, if any. If they get this ‘missing’ link, perhaps they may come to understand the beauty and the effects of this third sequence, and the unity of the magic square of three.
If we correctly read the ancients, the Neo Daoists and Neo Confucians, the circle represents heavenly essence and the square represents earthly virtues. That is why references have been made to the circle within and the square without in some Daoist texts. There is no need to be carried away by sage(s) who prefer the cultivation of heavenly essence to that of earthly virtues, and rebelled against ancient wisdoms handed down. Or think it is not hip or fashionable to learn or cultivate ‘down to earth’ virtues. Staying centered or balanced is important to our own learning and cultivation.
If we do not cultivate kindness, can we become benevolent (Ren) all of a sudden? If we do not understand justice (Yi), will our actions be deemed right? If we do not learn the mores of a people, can we reciprocate with correct propriety (Li)? If we have not learned and cultivate till virtuous actions arise with spontaneity, can we be considered wise (Zhi)? Probably such questions have been constantly raised by humanity down the ages.
Like the receptive Earth, be broad and generous, follow the ancient thoughts (Zhouyi, Laozi, Confucius, and Buddha), try not to lead and you would not go astray. After all, Earth represents the humble square or virtues. And hidden within the center – the heart of all things - lays sincerity (Zheng).
Just in case, you think the ancients do not know much, take a look at what was said about Earth in passing:
“The earth before us is but a handful of soil; but when regarded in its breath and thickness, it sustains mountains, without feeling their weight, and contains the rivers and seas, without their leaking away.” ….“The water now before us appears but a ladleful; yet extending our view to its unfathomable depths, the largest tortoises, iguanas, iguanodons, dragons, fishes, and turtles, are produced in them, articles of value and sources of wealth abound in them.” [Doctrine of the Mean 26. 9 Legge]
If we remain ignorant, stubborn or proud, and yet think that we know, even with access to the best ancient sages and/or heavenly immortals, we may still learn nothing about the magical circle and the humble square.
For how much do we really know about Heaven and Earth?