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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Divinatory Economics (10)—Sacred Mountain Incense-j

For the introduction to the Round and Square series "Divinatory Economics," click here.
[a] Space RL
This is the last of ten posts that 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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Theoretical Implications—3
Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Space
[b] Production RL
Structure, habitus, praxis, field, cultural capital—we have these Bourdieuvian concepts, and we have added my interpretation of Marshall Sahlins’s approach to structure, history, and culture. Let us conclude by thinking about travel and supplication on China’s southern cosmological mountain in terms of The Production of Space. Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 classic (translated into English seventeen years later) changes the way we think of space, action, and culture. It is a fitting place to finish our framing of the research situation on China’s southern sacred mountain. Remember: this essay is about generating research questions. More work will follow. I probably am giving away too much of my perspective to say that I suspect that more mileage (kilometerage) will be gained from this framing than the results. In any case, let us conclude with an examination of the implications of Lefebvre’s work for Chinese sacred mountain pilgrimage.

Space is produced—religious space as much as secular. It is a social product, and new spaces come about because of labor and unequal hierarchical and compensatory arrangements. Nowhere is this clearer on China’s sacred mountains than when we view the steps themselves. Each of the five mountains has thousands of stone steps that have been carried by laborers and placed in sequence up the mountain. The temples and teahouses are also constructed spaces. That they are produced in accordance with cosmological models dating back 3,000 years does not change the equation. The mountains as we know them—indeed, the mountains as ritual and social centers—have been produced on the backs of laborers.
[c] Long, winding RL

The Level Two structures of steps and roads winding up the mountain have everything to do with lightly compensated labor; in an earlier day, the arrangement was the corvée. Laborers would work on behalf of the regional or state authority during pre- and post-harvest breaks. Lefebvre notes that “every society—and hence every mode of production with its subvariants—produces a space, its own space.[1] Space, according to Lefebvre, embraces multiple intersections and locations. He sets forth a “conceptual triangle” that can help us focus our own thinking about the social and sacred space on China’s southern mountain:

       1  Spatial practice, which embraces production and reproduction, and the 
           particular locations and spatial sets characteristic of each social formulation. 
           Spatial practice ensures continuity and some degree of cohesion. In terms of 
           social space, and of each member of a given society’s relationship to that 
           space, this cohesion implies a guaranteed level of competence and a specific 
           level of performance. 

       2  Representations of space, which are tied to the relations of production and to 
           the ‘order’ which those relations impose, and hence to knowledge, to signs, to 
           codes, and to ‘frontal’ relations.

       3  Representational spaces, embodying complex symbolisms, sometimes coded,
           sometimes not, linked to the clandestine or underground side of social life, as 
           to art (which may come eventually to be defined less as a code of space than 
           as a code of representational spaces).
[d] Incorporation RL

Social space incorporates social actions. Lefebvre goes further, stating that societies are in need of special places, particularly religious and political sites.[2] The southern mountain is distinctive in that it is, at the same time, arguably the holiest (surely the most intense) religious location among the five cosmological mountains and a center of political worship, as it were.

Here is a mountain that is celebrated by the People’s Republic of China government and is the focus of outsize attention in terms historical memory and political commemoration. The Martyr’s Shrine (忠烈祠), several kilometers up the slope, is home to serious homage to the Nationalist forces who fought the Japanese in the late-1930s, and endured withering bombing assaults, even as they hid in mountain caverns, hoping to fight another day. The shrine has been maintained by the People’s Republic of China, and occupies the largest single “politico-religious space” on the entire mountain—larger than either base or peak temple, and dwarfing the size of any other sacred space. It focuses on the very Nationalist (Guomindang; Kuomintang) forces that the Communists defeated in 1949 to take possession of the “mainland.” Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan, where they remain to this day. That this is a particularly sore point with PRC officials is an understatement.

So why dedicate (build, construct) a shrine to these very soldiers? A full treatment must await further research, but it is not difficult to see that the southern mountain contains the seeds of communion even between viciously opposed armies. Together (the forces of unity are contested to this day in textbooks on both sides of the Taiwan Strait) they fought the Japanese. Both Communist and Nationalist forces endured dreadful attacks in different locations. The victorious Communist government has sought a kind of political and religious statement in the shrine to Chiang Kai-shek and his forces. There is even a memorial pine grove dedicated to the late, defeated general. Space is often contested, but it is also (and never more apparent than here) conceded—sometimes for uncertain cultural capital.
[e] Construction RL

Finally, it should be noted that Lefebvre analyzes the production of space in time. “If space is produced, if there is a productive process, then we are dealing with history…the history of space..."[3] The variously built and rebuilt temples along the hiking path to the southern mountain peak carry their history in granite text. The highly stylized language, similar from temple-to-temple, notes the original construction of the site (sometimes, as with an academy two-thirds of the way to the peak, originally built in another location and moved to the mountain) and the various builders and rebuilders. The natural setting of the mountain is encumbered and enhanced with wood, stone, mortar, and (let us never forget) text. 

These pages have been devoted to questions surrounding the way that pilgrims traveling to China’s southern cosmological mountain (Longevity Mountain) spend their religious energy. It has not focused on conclusions. Further fieldwork focused on precisely these questions will be necessary to ferret out the implications of pricing, competition, and locations for what we might call incensory commerce. What we have been able to accomplish here is twofold. First, I have been able to convey at least a little bit of the “thick description” that is required of this material. In a narrowest (let us say Hobbesian) calculation, there is no basic need (clothing, food, or shelter) to travel to a sacred mountain and burn incense at temples. The pilgrimage (as all pilgrimages are) is thoroughly cultural, and has as much to do with accruing cultural capital as spending monetary resources. The details matter, and the thoroughness with which we should examine such matters as “tactile religiosity” is as important as the pricing of incense.
[f] Production, transport RL

Above all, however, it is a focus on the variables of mountainside supplication that dominates these posts. Further research will be required to tease out aspects of the “authenticity” question (what is required of an authentic pilgrimage experience?) and of the overarching importance of the base and peak supplications. That an entire mountain would be produced in step-sized increments, accompanied by shrines, temples, refreshments stations, and restaurants…only to be bypassed by nine of ten pilgrims…is extraordinary.

There are, to be sure, layers upon layers of historical matter—rock carvings, temples, steps, and shrines. It seems hardly plausible, however, that almost all of it could or would be abandoned to the needs of convenience and focused tourism. That the cable cars have become themselves a form of pilgrimage is indisputable, but much more study will be required to understand the relationship between convenience, time-saving, and serious, longevity-producing religiosity.

These posts have have begun to frame some of the questions. Now it is time to return to the mountain and focus upon the actions of pilgrims and the production of space on the holy mountain. Stay tuned.

[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 31.
[2] Lefebvre, 34.
[3] Lefebvre, 46.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991.
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[g] Raw RL

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