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Monday, February 27, 2012

Divinatory Economics (4)—Sacred Mountain Incense-d

For the introduction to the Round and Square series "Divinatory Economics," click here.
[a] In-between 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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Religiosity In-Between
There is a good deal of “religiosity” (most of it, in fact) between these two extremes, and that is the bulk of what I wish to consider here. Nonetheless, the extreme cases help us to delineate some of the key features of what I call, in slightly combative terms—at least in the realm of the humanities—divinatory economics. Three key elements must be considered, for every one of them plays a significant role in the calculations of pilgrims. Of importance, though lesser consideration, are the costs of travel to and from the mountain, staying near the mountain, food and drink, as well as costs of going to sites in the area (such as Mao’s birthplace). These are hardly inconsequential, but they pale in comparison to the key religious calculations we shall consider here.

·  Supplication at both the base temple and peak temple
·  Means of transportation from base to peak
·  Allotment of yuan for incense, hell money, and other accoutrements.
[b] Peak RL

These are the invariables, as it were, in the divinatory equation. Everyone participates in religious activity at the base and the peak. Everyone “goes up” the mountain in some way (and this is dizzyingly variable). Everyone, consciously or not, makes choices about the amount to be paid for incense and other items. The range of financial, social, and even “cultural” choice in just these three items is considerable, and I maintain that all other factors pale in comparison to these three “market” (and marketing) choices.

From these three key elements—shared even by the “extremes” we have encountered thus far—we can add the choices that guide and vary the situation for individuals and small groups. I cannot stress enough that divination on the Southern Mountain makes no sense without a pilgrimage from base to peak. The foundational sacrifice (in ancient times called the feng) and the peak sacrifice (called the shan) were the poles of an out-and-back journey that was completed by the performance of another ceremony at the base to complete the experience. In-between, imperial journeys varied between uneventful flights up the mountains (pausing for tea and contemplation along the way) and terrifying ascents and descents under the strain of frightful weather and overly eager carriers.
[c] Choice RL

Yes, carriers. Every significant “climber” before 1800 (I am being overly careful here) was carried up the mountains by attendants. There were (basically) two options until 1950. Be carried or walk on your own. Even these simple variables were somewhat more complicated in earlier eras. For example, “carrying” for wealthy patrons meant being carried by men in a palanquin of sorts (these varied over the ages). It could also mean horses and donkeys, not unlike experiences today for many people exploring the Grand Canyon. Mt. Tai, in particular, has several sections that are so steep that horses cannot manage the ascent. There is a famous arch on Mt. Tai dedicated to precisely the ridge (it is about forty percent of the way up the mountain) where “the horses turn back” (迴馬嶺). Donkeys are far more adept at, say, fifteen percent grades, but even donkeys cannot manage the final stairway to heaven that comprises the last five hundred or so meters up China’s most famous mountain. Truly, up the “eighteen bends,” it was a matter of walk or be carried. Emperors were carried. Peasants walked. Even in, say, 1100, there was some room for variation.

Today that variation is enormous. On the southern sacred mountain (the focus of our study), the range is greater than ever. Even in early times, donkeys could manage the entire route on the southern mountain. This is different in kind from all four of the other sacred mountains, where certain parts of the ascent and descent make only human movement (in one form or another) possible. On Longevity Mountain today, though, the twenty-first century variables are difficult to choose from, much less analyze. Here is a gradation from emphasis on walking to carriage of one kind or another.

·      Walking from base to peak (and even this cannot ever by “complete”).
·      Bus to South Heaven Gate (南天門) and walk to peak (another hour).
·      Bus to mid-mountain followed by hike to peak (two to three hours).
·      Bus to mid-mountain followed by cable car to South Heaven Gate, 
       followed by the hike to the peak (another hour).
·      Motorcycle to the peak.
·      Car to the peak.
·      Motor up (by any of the above means) and hike down.

Of course, it is possible to conjure plausible variations even within these parameters, but none significantly change the key “equations.” One might expect an entire mountaintop taxicab/cycle economy, with cars and motorcycles waiting for the throngs who get off buses at South Heaven Gate, an hour from the Zhurong Temple at the peak. This is not the case, and the few cabs or motorcycles I have seen (I always make it a point to talk to the drivers about why they are waiting there) have been “abandoned” by their patrons, who chose to take another way down the mountain.
[d] Carriage RL

There is one further variable—a small one in an economic sense, but an enormous one in terms of culture and power dynamic. At no other point on the mountain today does one see what appears right after a ten-minute hike down a small valley and steeply up to a small rest area on the hike to the topmost temple. With about thirty- to fifty-minutes of walking left for most pilgrims, the chairs appear. For a fee, one can be carried up the rest of the climb by two men hoisting a palanquin held by sturdy bamboo handles. It is a vestige of earlier times, when hierarchy, demand for labor, and pilgrimage made this the most common form of transportation for any pilgrim “of means,” and is a distinct reminder about the historical and, indeed, structural nature of all economic transactions.

Aside from being carried to the Zhurong Temple, everyone—even those who ride motorcycles or drive cars—must walk the last half-kilometer of slowly ascending steps to the temple proper. It is possible (unlike the matter on a sacred mountain such as Mt. Tai, where a good deal of hiking and steep climbing is required even of bus and cable car riders) to avoid walking almost from the time she finishes burning incense at the base temple until this last half-kilometer.
[e] Homestretch view RL
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Variations on a Temple Theme
Tomorrow, we'll look at the variety of ways that people make choices about transportation, supplication, and shared experience.

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