Bi and the Dream

A placard on the wall of Gallery 19 at the Smithsonian Asian Art Museum announces that thousands of bi were found at “elite burial sites” dating from the Liangzhu culture (3300-2300 BCE). They are jade: nephrite colored richly by strains of iron and other ores over millions of years. Craftsmen sliced the discs with string saws.

The bi are displayed face on—almost perfect circles. Suspended in midair, they appear perfect: several circular discs floating behind plexiglass enclosures. This is, in part, a trick of the eye; we see what we expect (or want) to see. Actually, their shapes vary. While definitely circular, many are lumpy or lopsided. A long look from the side shows even more irregularities—thicknesses vary, and some of the bi undulate like warped records.

Some of the bi have barely intelligible marks. The note on one display explains that markings were “extremely rare.” What does that mean? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 1000? The marked bi are neither more nor less perfect than the others.

Nowadays, we mark everything. Like it or not, we even leave a faint digital signature on what we wish to be anonymous. Mostly. At my school, we check drafts of student essays for plagiarism, and when they come back with unnamed and unnecessary sources, it is an embarrassment of unoriginality. 5000 years ago, anonymous discs went to the grave and into eternity. We have them now—disturbed from rest—because of a construction boom at the beginning of the previous century. They could have slept longer.

Not surprisingly—or entirely a surprise—we have few records of the Liangzhu Culture. Evidence of the once-thriving culture ends abruptly. The people who lived in the region around Lake Tai seem to have disappeared. We don’t know why. We know that they thrived primarily because we discovered their funerary deposits: jade bi for the rich and pottery for the others. We build an idea of their lives on what they took to death.

We do not know why they prized their bi. Nor why a few of the bi have marks.

We do not know. Those words can feel intractable, like a dead end. Or like a challenge, a kind of epistemological “try harder.” But how can you know what you cannot know?


We coined the word “Kafkaesque” to describe the nightmarish world circumscribed by a bureaucracy of the soul. Franz Kafka, who repeatedly depicted such a world in his fiction, also told us how to escape. In his short story “An Imperial Message,” the emperor is dying. Before he dies, he sends a message for you. Sadly, or predictably, his messenger cannot get it to you. This is genuinely Kafkaesque—the emperor is at the center of a thicket of throne rooms, attendants, imperial bureaucrats, and cities within cities. Even though he is the emperor and his messenger bears the imprimatur of the emperor, the message will never arrive. However the story ends, “Du aber sitzt an deinem Fenster und erträumst sie dir, wenn der Abend kommt.” (Roughly, “But you sit at your window and dream it to yourself when evening comes.”).

Of course, the emperor is god—something or someone with absolute power. Except, once enthroned, the emperor’s power is circumscribed, in no small part by the same apparatuses of the power he wields. How often do we mistake the apparatus for the thing, imbuing that which is meant to do little more than act for or transmit with more? How often do we mistake laws for actual authority? We create limits (I can, or I can’t) because we cede control—and the attendant responsibility. Our current idea of self-authorized action is little more than lust and gluttony on steroids; to be the emperor, we must grapple with the full repercussions of having authority (read Shakespeare for a full gloss on the weight of the crown).

But, in Kafka, a dream cuts to the quick. You already know the message. You are the emperor.

In our dreams, we build worlds. A few nights ago, I dreamed of traffic patterns, and police, and cul de sacs. There were merge lanes and scofflaws who drove on the shoulder. I was looking for a purple Jeep. I didn’t make any effort; the world bloomed in my mind—a mind profoundly(and subconsciously) at work. So must it be as we sit by the window (a liminal space) in the evening (another liminal space). Dreams are no time for laziness but a bursting forth of our full power.

If I want to know what I cannot know, then I must dream.


We have found thousands of bi. Each one cut from a long round piece of jade. I wrote “craftsmen” earlier, but how did this not become domestic work—foisted, as much domestic work is, on women?  Or children? I think of the scene from Parasite when the family folds pizza boxes. Instead of sewing circles, sawing circles. Who did the repetitive work that wore down fingers, hands, and arms for hours at a time? Not a crew of slaves hoisting blocks into pyramids alongside the Nile, but an army of hands slowing sawing through stone.

Does this mean that the Liangzhu people had slaves? I don’t know, but I think about the tech factories outfitted with nets so that the workers do not find relief from their toil. Bone crushing construction or endless hours of grunting agriculture? Slaves, over and over again. Did they sing while they sawed? I try to imagine songs that keep to that frantic beat. Did they race each other to cut their slice first? We compete everywhere. Why not? Imagine a John Henry of the Neolithic Yangtze River delta, whipping a string bereft of crushed quartz through jade as if it was mashed rice paste.

We know that they did not speak Chinese. We know (from genetic analysis of remains) that they shared genes with Austronesian and Tai-Kadai people. But what we don’t know renders what we know into little more than conjecture and guess. Our knowledge is imperfect. In the same way that the bi have imperfect shapes and imperfect history, our understanding is imperfect. The message—the truth—is never coming from the emperor. All we can do is imagine.

More often than we would like to admit, we straddle the worlds of the known and not-known. We lead essentially liminal lives—caught between knowing and not-knowing. Too often, we trade hard-won ignorance (the awareness that as hard as we try—and we must try—our effort will not provide a satisfyingly clear answer) for arrogant correctness. We cannot admit that we do not know. We have a mechanical reflex against unpredictability—whether we read the past, present, or future. We value prediction over genuine discovery. “I was right!” supplants “I found out!”

If we are going to model reading on dreaming, part of the task is to recognize that we are out of control. We will predict—it’s what we do—but surprise will derail our predictions. Surprise is an error message in the infinitely predicting machine of our brains. However, if we substitute rigid certainty for precise and imaginative uncertainty, our interpretations will fail even if they are clear.


I’m going to make a leap here. Reading is prediction directed to the past; the words are already written. Even though it is past, we still try to fit what we read into models of everything else we have read. When my students assert, “I can relate to X, Y, or Z,” what they are saying is, “This fits with a model that I already know.” And those of us who teach know the living hell of relatability. Anything outside that narrow ravine threatens to stop the students in their tracks—already when they are 16. Earlier.

In the same way, when we encounter new situations, when a circumstance calls on us to genuinely predict, we predict following models we already know. It is nearly impossible to get someone to predict beyond what they expect to happen beyond the known. Happily, most things in our lives adhere to patterns. Until they don’t. Fortunately, most of us are not making predictions that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but some are, and they fall prey to the same internal mechanisms. The results are too often catastrophic.

So, how do we avoid the quotidian and useful process of prediction? How do we read the exceptional? How do we incorporate the genuinely new and surprising into our homeostatically driven lives?

When I look at the bi, I can guess (which is not to say that I take incoherent swipes at possibilities) at their significance, but I realize that even my best guesses are circumscribed by the limits of my experience. I know there is something that I do not know, and I realize that ignorance will stymie me over and over. I return to the bi to marvel at them and to marvel at my ignorance. They remind me that despite my reasonably well-trained intelligence, that something as simple and elegant as a jade disc will remain out of bounds. I experience hubris in the face of the unknown. This drives me to consider the undiscovered countries. And consider them I must.

How then do we confront systems that are quantitatively more complex? We try to bridle wild horses (mistaking tigers for horses—they both have four legs!) with prediction and end up eaten. Our imaginations must be more thoroughly engaged.

When Kafka exhorts us to “erträumen,” I do not believe he is suggesting anything passive, or for that matter, lazy. The truth is like a message from the emperor. When we dream that message to ourselves, when we imagine it, our imagination must be fully engaged because it is not as simple as a dream for snack cakes or even a dream of bedding a fantasy partner.  Truth may be a dream, but it is, fortunately, a demanding and difficult dream. But if we do not dream the big dream, our thoughts will be confined to the palace’s myriad chambers and infinite passageways. Our imagination will take us to a place we do not yet know.

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Brian Brennan

I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

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