This unique work is a massive study accomplished over a short ten-year period. Didier's text surpasses the work and methodology of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropologist Franz Boas and the schools of social sciences and humanists who held the theory of "mutually dependent cultural fertilization." The theory of mutually dependent cultural fertilization stands opposed to the theories of twentieth-century science-oriented scholars, such as Rolf Stein. Stein's renowned 1964 seminar at the Sorbonne, Paris, pointed out that human responses to observable natural phenomena in cultural or spiritual cultivation contexts tend to record the same observed results. By Stein's theory, although there may be overlap or agreement between different cultures as to the nature of observed phenomena, there is not necessarily a mutual influence or an Indo-European origin to the concepts or ideographic images found in early Chinese and other Asian sources. In particular, the Big Dipper is recognizable across the entire northern hemisphere, sometimes with seven or more stars, and it is not necessary to ascribe this recognition to any given culture.
The case on which the originally conceived work of Didier was based is the central position of the Pole Star in the northern heavens. The observable fact is that Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, circles and points to the Pole Star as the center of the sky in the northern hemisphere. This massive work was published online, according to Victor Mair, because of the new insights it gives to the mutual influence of South Asia, as well as near- and mid-Eastern civilizations on the worldview of Neolithic and Shang-Zhou dynasty China:
In and Outside the Square is one of the most remarkable achievements of Sinological research that I have ever encountered. The ample subtitle, "The Sky and the Power of Belief in Ancient China and the World, c. 4500 b.c.–a.d. 200," gives an indication of the broad and inclusive aims of this three-volume work. Yet neither the title nor the subtitle can adequately encompass the rich assemblage of themes that are woven together in this outstanding scholarly treatise. To be sure, what we have in John Didier's magnificent magnum opus is the first and only investigation into all significant aspects of the rise of civilization in the East Asian Heartland (EAH), from its beginnings to the establishment of a bureaucratic system that persisted (albeit with numerous changes of dynasty and modifications in details of structure and operation) until 1912.… This grand synthesis of diverse disciplines will stimulate lively, fruitful debate among Sinologists and Eurasianists alike; … the present bountiful offering gives us plenty to feast upon.(p. 7) [End Page 491]
A major hypothesis of the work, among the many other topics, is, in Didier's own words, as follows:
The point here is that the dualism of the two sets of circumpolar stars Mizar & Alioth and Pherkad & Kochab may have been recognized, since their geometry surrounding the meridian of the heavens and polar center might have been mimicked on earth in the form of the early symbol of 中, a design that from Shang times and on has meant, very significantly, center (and, specifically, political center that in turn necessarily relied on a sacred center).(Volume III, Chapter 6, pp. 6–10 in text, pp. 9–14 in the PDF page enumeration)
That is, the center of the northern heavens shifted slightly during the Neolithic period into the late Zhou and early Han dynasties (from 5,000 b.c. to 200) so that there were two different sets of polar stars, assigned between the Neolithic and the late Zhou dynasty. Didier hypothesizes that ancient Chinese astronomers created a rectangle between these two stars, in such a way that the character for center, zhong 中, could be drawn as a box or square with the brighter star (for...