Quite a few months ago, in Taiwan, I saw a carpenter’s tape measure with the scales in metric, Chinese inches and how fortuitous the length is according to fengshui.

(This photo shows that 9.2 cm brings in fortunate events, while 7.2 cm is disastrous.)

I immediately thought: How arbitrary, and superstitious! How could one number bring in good fortune, another bad luck?

But then, just how ‘arbitrary’ is a ‘centimetre’?

A few months later, I was applying to various sources to fund my postgraduate studies. I noticed that each institution has a different set of rulers, which I try to fit into (not always successfully). For example, the New Zealand arts funding guide has rulers about ‘culturally diverse practices,’ ‘community arts participation’ etc; while scholarships in Germany are more about overcoming personal obstacles and having works which can be represented in a single compelling image.

I started to see rulers everywhere: in advertising (‘a desirable life looks like so…’), from my parents (‘you should try and live with dignity, earn a proper income, find a husband etc.’), in my head (e.g. ‘I will eat organic food when I can, and look after my wellbeing.’), in other people’s words (e.g. a conversation about eating for pleasure vs eating to survive)…

Marks, values and scales for measuring…

Does my life fall on the left or right side of the mark? (Whose ruler am I using here?)

The answer may lead to a feeling (e.g. satisfaction, disappointment, anger, joy, appreciation, gratefulness etc), and that in turn, lead to certain ways of living.

Rulers could be lenses for seeing, doing and living in the world.

At the same time, I realised, there are many rulers, many scales.

Let me return to the carpenter’s tape measure from Taiwan: the different scales could co-exist alongside each other, and I could choose which one to measure with (though this is not always easy to do).

How many rulers am I carrying, simply because it was given to me? Which ones do I want to keep on carrying? Which ones am I ready to let go?

(How would I like to live?)

Could rulers be flexible, and stretchy even?

Note 1: This is not an original thought in anyway. Zhuangzi, Laozi and Chogyam Trungpa have said this using different words, to name but a few. Xin thanks Creative New Zealand for allowing her the time and space to work on these thoughts while in Germany. Ivan Illich also wrote extensively on how industrialisation created various scales which guide how society work in Tools for Conviviality (1973).

Note 2: Xin thanks Creative New Zealand for allowing her the time and space to work on these thoughts while in Germany.

Note 3: I write as a way of sharing my individual experience. These are rulers currently in process in my life. (It’s all temporary.) I glean and gather other people’s ideas that I find nourishing, making a shelter/seedbag of ideas for living in the present. I do not claim any ‘universal truth’, nor do I wish to give you my rulers. I share in the hope that you might find something useful for your life, to make it your own by twisting it to suit your particular situation. If you feel like sharing your experience with me, to start a conversation, or to go somewhere we don’t know yet, together, you are welcome to get in touch: xin at

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