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:

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.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique (11)—Mulan Granet-b

[a] Renewal RF
The next few posts in La Pensée Cyclique take a detour into territory that Marcel Granet would not have envisioned. It was, quite simply, inspired by him. One of the things that has startled me in my ongoing intellectual biography of Marcel Granet is the (intellectual) fuel that reading his work—and even his personal history—often leads me to think of new avenues in my own writing. For years—and especially since Disney's release of the Mulan movie in 1998—I have thought about ways to explain not only how badly Disney got it wrong, but things in the Mulan tale that I feel have been missed precisely because the Joan of Arc mythos absolutely dominates Western cultural interpretations of strong women. What follows is a retelling and re-analyzing of the Ballad of Mulan...inspired by my reading of Marcel Granet. I call it Mulan Granet (but Marcel Mulan sounds pretty good, too). 

If you can make it to the end of this post, you'll be rewarded with a retelling of the Ballad of Mulan (next week) that brings our understanding to new levels.
[b] Gathering RF
The Need for Renewal 
After describing in detail the architectural and seasonal solidity of the family grouping—and then proceeding to describe the deep integration of the village unit (stretching credulity with fathers and uncles, mothers and aunts, speaking as one)—Granet reaches the key point in his early analysis: a social unit of such simplicity cannot survive because it is incapable of renewing itself. Let's say that again. No basic kinship group can survive without renewal. Fundamental renewal. Unless the little backwater family wants to become a kind of royal family (with historically and genetically disastrous results), they had better bring in some new blood.

Of course, we think first of inbreeding. Farmers have understood this concept since the first coyote started eating "dog food"...and the pooches started to show a little more diversity. You see, the renewal called for here goes far beyond the common forms that we think about when our only focus is merely practical. Granet argues here for more than a little fresh conversation around the kitchen table and the avoidance of awkward tics. Society must renew and regenerate, just as the soil and the seasons must do the same. Granet stresses this point from start to finish.

          The large undivided family, which, as the days went by, was self-sufficient 
          and lived in isolation, was, however, neither completely independent nor 
          always closed. The alternating distribution of work went with a strong 
          opposition between the sexes expressed also by the prohibition on marriage 
          within the group of kinsmen.

[c] Communal RF
The only way to create real integration and a continuing social regeneration is through exchange, and this is precisely why marriage lies at the very heart of the social order. It was a focus in all of Granet’s sociological analyses. It is not merely a useful social practice. It is absolutely necessary at all levels of the social order. The practices that led to integration are not without conflict by any means, but there is in the case of marriage a biological price to pay for keeping systems closed. As Granet shows in his studies of early China, the social cost is almost as great. Families need social renewal. Period...or semi-colon.

How did Chinese peasant villages, in Granet’s idealized recreation of the world of his sources, create social exchange and renewal? The brief answer lies in trading half of the village’s children in each generation to other villages and integrating their children into the domestic unit. The social structural necessity of this arrangement should not mask its pain for individuals and families. Many sources speak to the misery of young women leaving their families and villages to become daughters-in-law. Even twentieth-century accounts show similar themes. Necessity does not equal ease, and exchange was accompanied in many cases by great pain.

          In each generation one half of the children, all those of one sex, had to 
          leave the familial village to go to marry into a neighboring village, being 
          exchanged against a group of young people of the same sex and of another 
          name. It is possible that the exchange was in the first place of boys…But 
          from the time that the texts inform us directly, the exchange was of girls: 
          the most pathetic plaint in the old songs is that of the bride forced to go to 
          live in a strange village. 
Regeneration comes from a mixing of names even more than it comes from a mixing of blood. The most idealistic picture has the young women of one village bringing new life—on numerous levels—to what was a closed system of gender-divided labor and a single surname. Regeneration, even at its most orderly, is as painful as it is necessary; it requires crossing, whether that be on the plane of fields of crops or marriage exchange.

          The essential point was that marriage was made by a crossing of families, 
          just as the field were made by a crossing of furrows. By this practice each 
          hamlet received a group of hostages from a neighbor and in turn furnished it 
          with one. These periodic exchanges, by which a family group obtained 
          pledges giving it a hold upon another group, also caused a foreign influence 
          permanently to penetrate its inner life. They made evident the dependence 
          of the domestic communities and the supremacy of the local community, a 
          wider grouping of another kind.

“Caus[ing] a foreign influence permanently to penetrate its inner life,” the closed domestic order grudgingly (and of necessity) welcomes “foreign influence.” It is not done happily on either end. One village gives up its young women and receives another group whose members were influenced by “foreign” ways. Neither village is as inviting as it might imagine itself, and precisely because each is dominated by an “in-group” mentality. Ultimately, the domestic group is dependent upon these exchanges because they create something larger—for Granet, “society” itself—through the alliances that are formed. 

This exchange and renewal is the Mulan legend, to which we now turn. Disney doesn't have a clue.

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