Wednesday, May 1, 2013


They appear as sacred markers; perhaps protecting from evil spirits. They have a quality about them that tells of this role without one ever really knowing. They are memorable. The eye wanders back to them to delight in their elegance, their sparse, raw beauty. Their simplicity is obvious in their organised complexity, as is their integrity. The inherent qualities give these ordinary pieces of paper a power beyond their reality. Is this why one senses the sacred in their presence? They hang with purpose, nonchalantly waving the light breeze as if communicating with spirits unknown, unperceived. They seem to reveal the unknown to the body, for it to feel mystery and magic - the enchantment of place. That something so apparently insubstantial can cohere amazes, time and time again.

Some say they represent lightning; and so they do. They zigzag in the same manner as the comic book illustration of a character being zapped. While the analogy seems appropriate in one way - light and power - it becomes a bit parochial when placed in its context of the past. Is it just the way that we choose to read things that gives us this insight? Others say that it is a priest’s tear-off talisman, to be used a little like the tram conductor’s ticket board of other times, a belt full of bundles of tickets of all colours that he would rip off and punch with grand authority. This sense of the folded paper being a dispenser of meaningful pieces may be true in the same way as it is seen as a bolt of lightning, since the segments do easily tear off and could be stamped or marked to be taken home by the pilgrim and treasured. But is this merely a perception from our era of dispensing machines and gadgets? Then again, others see these as simple decorative pieces - a clever folding of paper that waves subtly, prettily, in the breeze and tumbles into place. A glimpse through the Internet listings will show how others read these, noting that they are markers, that they tear off, or that they fall beautifully into their zigzagging pendant form. But what are they?

They are seen in photographs of temples, shrines and tori. They catch the eye and the imagination. They are the shide, folded paper pieces that hang from rice straw ropes and define place silently, but with authority and certainty - HERE: I AM HERE. First seen in books of photographs of Japanese architecture, these folded pieces of paper have always entranced. It was not until many years later that they were seen hanging from the thick rice straw rope draped high across one of the tori marking the temple complex at Nikko. At last one had an opportunity to look closely at these folds to see how this wonder was created from such an apparently simple sheet of paper. The surprise was that this was a double sheet. This had not been noticed previously. It was difficult to figure out, so these hangings were photographed for further review when home.

It was not until some years later, when, with time on one’s hands, the paper-folding puzzle was recalled. The images were perused again, the pencil taken out and the sketching began the analysis of the creasing. Today, this would be called ‘deconstruction’, or ‘reverse engineering’. The image was unfolded in the mind, drawn, and the paper cut to achieve the final identity. No, this was not right, so the task started again, and again, learning from the discovery of how different cuts changed things. The geometry was searched out, then the cuts. Some hour or two later, after pauses to maintain one’s sanity and to reinvigorate the inquiring mind, the cuts and folds became apparent.

The principle driving the search was that these overlays had a precise structure and a sense; such was their strength and coherence; that this was not a complicated or overly self-conscious making. One was seeking something simple that would be transformed into this beautiful object. Eventually it became obvious - a fold, reverse cuts, and a tumble fold on fold. Astonishing! Such elegance! What did it mean? What was it called?

The simplicity of the solution of the most familiar hanging - the zigzag of four - was so basic that it held as much wonder as the final object itself. A piece of paper in the proportion of 8:3 is folded into halves to give a double piece in the proportion of 4:3. Along the ‘4’ side, a cut is made on each quarter line that goes two-thirds across the width ‘3’ parallel to the fold. The first cut starts from the left-hand side near the top ‘fold’ edge of the page. The second cut starts from the reverse, the lower twin edge, and cuts equally as deep along the second quarter line. The third cut is identical to the first but on the third quarter marker, and is mirrored around the central, the lower ‘reverse’ cut.

The forming then starts with the first fold beginning at the lower end of the first cut. The whole page is turned over along this alignment and creased. The second fold does likewise on the next alignment, and then the third. This gives the final zigzag piece of 4. The folded paper piece is then placed in the twist of the rice straw rope that is opened for this insertion, and is hung from th folded edge. But what is this called?

It took the coming of the Internet for one to discover that this was a shide. The rope from which it hung was the shimenawa. Over the years I have never been able to discover just what the shide means; what it symbolises, if anything. I have never seen anything written on this subject. Even illustrations are scarce, and when one comes across one, there is, strangely, no commentary on the folded paper that is, ironically, the most memorable item in the photograph. The Internet has some sundry suggestions about its role and meaning, as noted earlier, but these all seem too random and vague for such a precisely beautiful item, especially one that marks something sacred, as it appears to do so eminently. The sites on the Internet that tell about making these items all explain the idea on a casual, informal basis, practically - cut like this as many times as you like, and fold: QED. It looks a little like instructions for the making of Christmas decorations, or the cutting of a folding ‘man-chain’ for children. I believe that things are much more rigorous than this, that there is a unique precision and relevance to every part of this shaping and folding. It screams about this in its stark silence. After all, as Alexander Pope said, ‘Order is heaven’s first law.’ So what is the shide?

I will try to analyse this object and propose a meaning. It is a theory that will require testing over time and the input of others who know about shide more intimately from within the culture and religion that developed it. Maybe this hypothesis will bring out those who know, if just to correct it? It could be that this understanding is too schematic, or even too presumptuous. It seems to me that the shide has a cosmic symbolism. That it relates to the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. It is made from one, folds into two, has three alternate cuts across the pieces, 2 deep, with one inverted between two, and folds into four with a ‘tumbling’ triple sequence. Could it be that it holds the unity of existence, of being, in itself as a primary beginning, the page; a presence that is a twin - the fold, a duality that is mediated by the between, the third, three cuts, 2 deep - the twin and the reverse - which is neither one nor the other; to further cohere as the trinity, the three ‘tumbles’ - to give the final assemblage of four - the four seasons, the four directions - in the one that was the beginning: the ONE, the unity of being: the shide? Does this set of relationships reverberate silently in the cosmos like the hum of a tuning fork?

The shide seems to me to hold an essence that is primal in its power. The intuition that the folds of this paper were simple and elegant turned out to be true. I would be surprised if the symbolism was not as rigorous, scrupulous, meticulous - such is the experience of the shide and the significance of tradition. I do not believe that it is merely a clever decorative piece, some exotic piece of origami, or just a ‘tricky’ ticket dispenser. Tradition was never random or ad hoc. Nothing in tradition did anything based on expression for the sake of expression, as we know it today. It never sought ‘originality’ in the way we understand it, but it did seek out origins: first principles. The individual was not important. An object had to conform to the required proportions and had to be functional before it could be beautiful, before it could hold power. The shide holds such astonishment that it must touch on something complete in every way, as idea and concept, as well as in its making. It is truly iconic in its ordering, in its manifestation.

One is left wondering:

Is there any point in knowing more about the shide? Ananda Coomaraswamy has written about The Bugbear of Literacy - the problem of intellectualisation. One would not wish to turn the shide into an object solely for the confirmation of an analysis that could remove or ignore its potency. I believe that it is stronger and more immediate in its essence than this and will be able to remain so. It is truly an item of surprising wonder that touches the native mystery of the Shinto world even today.

“Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” - Albert Einstein

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