From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, March 26, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (1)—Real Ideals

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series about Marcel Granet, "La Pensée Cyclique"
[a] Round-square/east-west/never-twain RF
This series is dedicated to understanding one of the most fascinating intellects of the twentieth century, Marcel Granet (1884-1940). In an earlier era, he might have been considered (at least by bibliophiles considering tomes ranging from De l'esprit des lois to 呂氏春秋 between the world wars) the most interesting man in the world. For me, he is every bit of that (as we say back home). Granet's range of interests in social theory and Chinese literature were profound, catholic, and engrossing. I hope that (whether you are interested in French, social theory, or Chinese) you will give Monsieur Granet a little bit of your attention. The material is not simple, by any means, but it is an ideal way to grasp how knowledge really works.

Ideal and Reality 
The best way to begin understanding Marcel Granet is to read him, so let's dive right in. Chosen almost at random from among Granet’s texts, the following anecdote gives an accurate representation of the complex mix of historiography, sociological theory, mythology, and imagination that lies at the heart of his work. Near the beginning of his chapter on rivalités de confréries (“rival brotherhoods”) in La civilisation chinois, Granet describes the winter season ceremonies that formed reunions of the brotherhoods, and the development of the first “male authorities” in early China.

       In the course of wintering in the common house, the husbandmen, by dint of 
       jousts and expensive orgies, learned to have confidence in their virile virtues.   
       Their prestige increased in proportion as their clearings extended. But the 
       Founder Heroes did not derive their glory solely from the fact that they had 
       subdued the soil and conquered the brushwood with fire. In yet another manner 
       they are Masters of Fire. They are potters or smiths. They know how to make 
       the divine vessels by means of holy and tragic unions.  All the dynastic virtue is
       incorporated in the magic cauldrons cast by Yu the Great, exactly as it might be 
       in a Holy Mountain or River. These latter crumble away or dry up when the Virtue 
       of a Race is exhausted and totters. In the same way, when this virtue is too much
       enfeebled the cauldrons lose their weight. They depart of themselves, to another 
       master to be charged anew with prestige.

[b] Real/ideal 1907 RF
Granet explains that Yu the Great, the third sage-king in a line that began with Yao and Shun, was a smith. They Yellow Emperor was also a smith who gained his power in a victory over the agricultural spirit, Shennong. Shennong was said to preside over festivals of the forge, and is the god of burning winds, the god of fires of the clearing, indeed, the god of husbandmen. “He is the forge, the forge deified—and yet the resemblance between him and the god of field-labor is complete.” There is little surprise that these figures and their occupations would meet with approbation on the part of the assembled males during the winter season ceremonies.

It will also not be lost on any reader that Granet does not use guarded language in describing the “reality” of their mythical-kingly actions. These anecdotes lead Granet to a point that combines his profound learning in different areas. It is particularly interesting to see Granet’s use of the “facts” in this passage.

       The juxtaposition of these facts suggests a hypothesis.  Brotherhoods of 
       artificers from the body of husbandmen became the guardians of magic 
       knowledge and masters of the secret of the primeval powers.  The existence 
       of rival brotherhoods presupposes a center whose organization is no longer 
       founded on simple bipartition [as found in earlier forms of Chinese society].   
       Now, according to the most ancient Chinese conceptions which are known to 
       us, the Universe (the Universe is not distinguishable from Society) is made up 
       of sections whose Virtues are in opposition and alternation.  These Virtues are
       materialized under the likeness of Winds.  The Eight Winds correspond not only 
       to divisions of the human and natural world, but also to magic powers.  Everything 
       is divided in the domain of the Eight Winds but together they preside over music 
       and dancing.  It is the function of dancing and music to tame the world and 
       subdue nature for men’s profit.

[c] Ether-real RF
Granet forms a serious sociological point that is based upon his understanding of early societies, both through his Chinese texts and his ethnographic reading. He clearly links the ideal of field-labor and legendary ironsmiths with the growth of rival brotherhoods. For all his practicality, however, Granet is intent on explicating the magical center of such social practices, and the manner in which beliefs and social practices are intertwined.  

Toward that end, he employs the fundamental ideas of opposition and alternation in early Chinese thought with the divine winds, all of which are brought together in singing and dancing, whose function it was “to tame the world and subdue nature for men’s profit.” Granet is certainly not a hard-headed “realist,” impatient with any but “practical explanations.” His desire to articulate real social changes in early China, however, show him to be anything but a fuzzy thinker, chasing after symbolic permutations far beyond the practical world.

Indeed, it is difficult to sort “ideal” from “real,” “practical” from “ethereal,” in Granet’s accounts, as we shall see in his continuation of the passage above:

       In most of the mythical dramas, in which the legend of a foundation of power is
       commemorated, beings with the traits of dynastic ancestors or heraldic beasts, 
       are represented as ruling a section of the world, and these, in many cases, 
       appear in the form of Winds. We have then the right to suppose that a division 
       into marshaled groups was substituted for, or rather superimposed upon, the 
       twofold organization of society, each being appointed to one department of the 
       Universe and all working in concert—dancing, playing games, rivaling each other 
       in prestige—for the upholding of a single order. From these rivalries and these 
       games, sprang a new order of society, a hierarchical order founded upon prestige.
[d] Ideal (International Plaza) RF

Granet, in just the first few pages of a chapter analyzing the important theme of brotherhoods in China (so important that they have figured prominently in even the recent history of China), he mixes a set of of unapologetically mythical themes with sociological analysis that represents a mix of Durkheimian social theory and Granet’s personal study of Chinese kinship.  Patiently explaining the mythological themes and articulating the sociological issues relevant to his case, he mixes them with dancing, music, and wind—voilà, there are rival brotherhoods where a simple kind of social solidarity once stood.

It is, at once, rigorous and sensitive to the Chinese sources and cultural traditions. It is also a kind of scholarship that many readers have found unusual, perplexing, or both. Those readers not confounded by the details of sociological theory or the abstractions found in Chinese sources are likely to wonder what is “real” and what is “imaginative” in Granet’s accounts. That is the whole point of this series of posts—to make sense of the messy world where "real" and "ideal" cohere, and of the work of one of the twentieth centuries most interesting figures.

[1] The passage, was indeed, the first to which I turned when I opened Granet’s La civilisation chinois when writing this section.
[2] In just the past two centuries brotherhoods have figured prominently in the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804), the Taiping Rebellion (1856-1864), the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901), and numerous uprisings between the fall of the Qing dynasty (1911) and the advent of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

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