From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Divinatory Economics (7)—Sacred Mountain Incense-g

For the introduction to the Round and Square series "Divinatory Economics," click here.
[a] Shrouded 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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Base Spending, Peak Spending
So, focusing on the eighty-percent of major temples on the hiking path, how do pilgrims spend their incense? Well, the major equation is strikingly similar to all others who make their ways up and down the mountains—they use most of their incense allotment at the base and peak temples. These remain the places where the most significant “divinatory calculation”—and performance—occurs. The base temple (南嶽廟) provides enormous opportunities for incense buying, and competition has flattened prices in a way that an American might understand only by looking at gas prices at three competing truck stops just off an interstate highway exit ramp.
[b] Hike-incense demur RL

Incense at the base? Required. Incense at the peak? Required. The amounts are negotiable, but the locations are not, at least for the traveler wishing to gain cultural capital from her connection to Longevity Mountain. All incense “spent” between base and peak is negotiable, with the added issue that the traveler is only able to carry a limited number of incense sticks up the mountain. While they are available for purchase (much more expensive, in a kind of locational oligopoly) there are a number of practical problems. 

For the hiker, even beyond the ¥200 that most people state as their incense maximum for the whole journey from base to peak (and down again), there is no possibility of carrying enough incense for even all of the major temples. Beyond this, there is the hardly insignificant issue of time. The hike takes four hours, even at a rapid clip. Temple stops slow the pace markedly. While they do serve as “rest stops” of a sort, serious engagement even at a half dozen temples on the path (not to mention the secular but pivotal Martyr’s Shrine about a quarter of the way up the road) could easily risk making the ascent an all-day proposition, with an uncertain descent in fading light.
[c] Heaven-sent RL

Risk and reward.

Most people do not buy much incense at temples on the ascent, but there is a significant exception that creates its own kind of motivation. These are the “wings” of various temple complexes with a section devoted to the propagation of children. These 送子殿 do a fairly brisk trade in on-site incense and allotments from the packs of travelers. Mt. Tai in the east and Longevity Mountain both figure disproportionately in child wish supplication (the other three mountains do not even begin to approach them), and it constitutes another variable in the process, as a kind of generational longevity begins to figure into the equation.

For the bus traveler, the question is whether “skipping” the temples up and down the mountain matters at all. It is a significant question, and the answers I have gotten in my fieldwork call into question any kind of easy (Western) assumptions about “authenticity.” There is (increasingly, with travel alternatives) a very real sense in which the means of ascent does not matter, and that the base and peak temples constitute the key experience. I wish to consider this, as well as the three millennia of tradition that both support and critique it.
[d] Alternatives RL

To begin, what I call the “imperial template” of kingly travel to repair time and space focused deeply on the sacrifice locations, not the journey itself. The fengshan sacrifices were made at base and peak, and the details of journeying were rarely mentioned, except for occurrences that have become the stuff of legend, such as the First Emperor encountering a monstrous storm on Mt. Tai and being forced to encamp about two-thirds of the way back down the slope (as though heaven had sent down stinking pitch upon the frightful and frightened poseur). That’s how traditional Chinese historiography relates it.

For the most part, the key tradition remains base and peak supplication, but let us not forget the “extreme” ideal of kowtowing every third step up the slope, and the hardly insubstantial evidence I have from people who value the full experience of the mountain, if only to have seen all of the rock carvings and attained cultural capital by viewing famous sites most people only read about in books. Still, the question persists, and it is one that affects both anthropology and economics. Why do many travelers regard it as unproblematic that they “miss” most of the mountain, even as they are invested in the religiosity of their interactions with it? This is one of the key questions I will be investigating on my next research trip.
[e] Key RL
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Theoretical Implications—1
WWPS? What would Pierre (Bourdieu) say? We'll examine that question tomorrow.

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