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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Divinatory Economics (3)—Sacred Mountain Incense-c

For the introduction to the Round and Square series "Divinatory Economics," click here.
[a] Smoking RL
The next half-dozen posts center on a research question I have been pondering for some time—the way pilgrims spend their incense on China's southern sacred mountain (南嶽衡山). I gave a lecture on the topic at Erlangen University in November, and then expanded some of that work into an Asian Studies Faculty Research Seminar—an ongoing series in the Beloit College Asian Studies program—in December. Although I will be continuing my research and writing on this subject, I thought that this might be a good time to begin exploring in depth some of the implications of "divinatory economics." If you have not read the introduction to the series, I would recommend it as the place to begin. If you have, settle in for a series of posts that describe the Chinese mountains (the first post, below, re-covers some of the territory from the Longevity Mountain series so that readers without that background are "ready" to spend their incense). I have tried to make these posts reasonably entertaining—even the "theoretical" sections to come next week.
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Sacred Mountain Spending
Today’s Chinese temples show a formidable array of diverse religious activity—from ever-so-serious, procedurally correct divination to what could almost be called a slapdash, get-it-over-with form of supplication. Because the divinatory terrain is so rich and varied, let us consider the two extremes of divination and ascent on China’s southern sacred mountain, Mt. Heng (衡山). More commonly known as Longevity Mountain (壽嶽), it has been a serious point of religious interest for three millennia in China. The teeming religious energy on the mountain recalls the intensity that I have seen only on China’s four Buddhist mountains; none of the other members of the “five peaks” configuration rubbed with care and planning on Mt. Tai that day—not even Mt. Tai itself—shows even a shred of the seriousness of purpose that can be seen from the base temple to the peak of Longevity Mountain.
[b] Gathering RL
Emile Durkheim’s (1858-1917) perspective on religious and social ecstasy is still useful here, almost exactly a century after its first publication. Religious energy builds as people gather together. Even more importantly, Durkheim’s students added key elements to their teacher’s perspective. Les deux Marcel—Mauss (1874-1950) et Granet (1884-1940)—developed the linked concepts of reciprocity and cyclicality, and did much to explain why pilgrimage maintains and builds momentum through patterned movement. This is as true of travel up, down, and around sacred mountains as it is in the socio-religious revolutions around the Kabala. Finally, a scholar we might call Durkheim’s “grandstudent,” Rolf Stein (1911-1999) gave further depth and nuance to the social and cosmological pattern by emphasizing the overwhelming force and clarity provided by miniaturization—from placing the five mountain construct onto a single slab of granite to modeling the architecture of the heavens in the earthly palace in the world below.

Social gathering. Religious energy. Reciprocity, cyclicality, and continual movement. Finally, miniatures and the shrinking of large scale devotion to a manageable size that can be carried in the pocket, as it were. These are some of the theoretical perspectives we will consider as we work though this ethnographic account of religiosity on Mt. Heng.

Two Extremes
[c] Assent/ascent RL
Let us begin with the first extreme. It is mentioned in numerous sources for both the southern peak and Mt. Tai in the east. This highly gendered (I have only seen it refer to women; never men), methodical, and devoted ascent style is said to exist even to this day, although I have never seen it in my hundreds of days on the mountains. Informants, including fellow pilgrims, assure me that it is, indeed, still a part of the vast panoply of devotional activity on the mountain. The method is simple, if almost impossibly slow and demanding. The pilgrim walks three steps, then performs the ketou (kowtow), climbs three more, kowtows, and so on. The literal meaning of ketou (磕頭) is to “touch the head,” and that is exactly what the devout climber does—touch the head respectfully on the stone almost 2,500 or more times on an all-day climb, while stopping for further devotions at temples dotting the path to the peak.

Now consider the other pole of devotional energy on the mountain. This is one that I have witnessed often, and it is as efficient as the three-step ketou is laborious. Indeed, I was able to take the trip from base to peak with one no-nonsense businessman from Hubei, who left little doubt as to his intentions and interpretation of the costs and benefits of time, incense, hell money, and car travel. The other examples I have seen fit the pattern well, so I will relate it as a brief, verifiable case study. This extreme in the channeling of religious energy is also gendered. In a hundred days on the southern mountain (the only one of the five with a road from base to peak—or just a third of a kilometer from it) I have only seen men behave in this manner. It remains atypical in the extreme, but it is hardly hypothetical.
[d] Bottom line RL
First, with spouse, paternal parents, and children trailing, the head of household enters the Southern Peak Temple (南嶽廟) from the rear entrance, openly scoffing at my reminder that temples have cosmological directions flowing from south to north. “Just show me the furnace,” he grumbles. Reaching the fires, he gathers up the incense sticks of wife and son. He appears about to take those carried warily by his parents before relenting in a kind of filial pique and leaving them to their own divinatory methods. The stash he carries with him is formidable—a quiver of expensive dragonhead (longtou; 龍頭j) incense sticks at almost ¥90 apiece and big piles of hell money. Into the fire they went, without pause or reflection. Jaw set, he waited patiently for his parents to make their far more elaborate preparations and bows before whisking the crew back through the exit (this time moving in the correct direction), past many other shrines to the gods of wealth, luck, and longevity. I asked him about these, and he replied politely but curtly that the big furnace at the base temple is all that mattered.

Back to the illegally parked car (in front of a neighboring incense stand), we all packed in for the trip up the mountain. Stopping to buy tickets took almost as much time as the rest of the ascent. Once on the road, the Mercedes powered through the turns like an uphill Formula One race car, passing buses and motorcycles, with several close calls along the way. Past a dozen temples, the car sped up the incline, parked illegally right by the sign explaining the history of the tip-top shrine, and emptied. The father led his little group over the approximately half-kilometer to the temple, where, with little time for contemplation, he tossed in another large and expensive load of incense sticks, slapped his hands together in the international language of “now that’s done,” and headed for the car.
[e] Perspectives RL
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Religiosity In-Between
We've looked at the extremes. Now let's examine the bulk of divinatory behavior on China's southern (sacred-cosmological) mountain. 

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