In early Chinese thought, heaven was considered "round" and earth "square." Westerners from St. Anselm to Kant taught that round and square are opposites. I will explore the connections between east and west (round and square) in a blog that takes seriously the little details of our lives. Round and square; east and west—never the twain shall meet (it has been said). Except when they do, and that is the whole point of this blog.
From Round to Square (and back)
For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project: http://magazine.beloit.edu/?story_id=240813&issue_id=240610
A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again). *Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.
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.
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
(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.
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.
[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
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.