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Monday, July 30, 2012

Lectures (6e)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Nesting Rinds)

[a] Amends RL
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
I placed Marcel Granet's The Religion of the Chinese People back on the shelf, then went into the kitchen to put a little food in the cats' dishes and to give them fresh water. I checked the phone messages and my e-mail, too. I was feeling a bit guilty, it turns out, and I was ready to make amends. William Edgar Geil's passages about pilgrimage were not that bad. In fact, they were really....very...not...bad at all. Comparing Marcel Granet's writing about Chinese religion with Geil's—even though their works were published only a few years apart (1922 and 1926)—was about as unfair as criticizing Malcom Gladwell for not being Stephen Jay Gould. It was a particular version of apples and oranges, made more complicated by the fact that the apples were American and the oranges French. Moreover, the apples couldn't read or speak Chinese, but the oranges were fluent and studied original texts. Finally, the apples thought of bunches as just more apples, while the oranges saw in each accumulating bushel....a society.

[b] Brisk RL

There I go again, I thought. I need to take a walk, clear my head, and return to Geil's preface with a sense of fairness and an understanding of the author's context. He was not a sinologist, and was not trained in social theory. I needed to get over it. It was up to me to see what Geil could teach me about the five sacred mountains of China. I went for a brisk constitutional, thought about Geil's unparalleled accomplishments (unlike Granet, he had traveled to all five mountains, taken photographs, and written the only volume ever penned by a Western writer on the topic). I was ready to return to the fold, and—for now at least—to be rather more analytical in my systematic reading and a good deal less syntopical. It was a chilly late-October morning, and I returned to the house ready for a third cup of coffee, the warmth of the living room couch, and two furry felines. Geil was welcome in my home again, and I opened The Sacred 5 of China to the place where I had started my pilgrimage detour.

But now it was William Edgar Geil's turn to be mean.

Somehow, I had skipped a paragraph between his descriptions of the "5 Yo" (this is rendered today as yue—嶽;岳) and his literary journey into the origins of pilgrimage. How could I have missed it, except to go off on my little Granetian rant about ecstatic religiosity? Now that I considered it, I was more than a little surprised. 

[c] Nasty RL
I had always taught about the syncretic blending of religious teachings on the mountains, and had seen so much evidence for this during my own travels—not to mention the hundreds of texts associated with the five peaks—that it was hard for me to process, at first, what he was saying. In fact, so powerful are the Buddhist flavors on these five syncretic snow cones that it would be beyond belief for me to cast it aside. That was not what Geil seemed to be saying, but it wasn't just the fact that we disagreed (I was willing to bend over backwards after hitting a petty new low in my own behavior just an hour earlier). No, I was struck by how quickly his tone had shifted when discussion turned from Daoism (Taoism), Confucianism, and cosmology to the late-arrival (c. 50 CE) called Buddhism. This seemed just a little bit nasty.

          In the far later days, when Buddhism entered China, the new religion 
          not only sought lodgement on these 5 venerable hills, as the cuckoo
          lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, it also hallowed more hills of its 
          own. But the exotic character of this religion becomes clear in that it
          consecrates only 4 peaks. With the shrines of the intruding faith we have 
          nothing to do; our pilgrimage is to the ancient and autochthonous 5.[1] 

That seemed quite uncharitable, but I kept my powder dry. Maybe he just meant that the five mountains are sometimes called "Daoist mountains." Like Geil, I find this characterization a little problematic, since, as he himself states, these mountains predated any kind of sectarianism, and could far more properly be called "cosmological" mountains. Maybe he just got a little carried away, and failed briefly to turn the other interpretive cheek as he characterized Buddhism as an "intruding" faith that sought to lay its eggs in others' nests.
[d] Sanctity RL

Like the cuckoo.

I briefly considered taking another walk. I had already had too much coffee. I decided to open wide the doors of benefiting doubt and move on. Geil was building to his conclusion, and was more-or-less speaking of the mountains' sanctity from time immemorial rather than of the division of more "modern" faiths. He takes one more jab at the "foreign" religion before making his deeper points about the antiquity of the sacred hills. For Geil, Buddhism is just a little mango peel, easily removed, but something bigger has been going on since long before people could write.

          So with the Sacred Mountains of China. There is a thin rind of Buddhism
          on some of them, easily peeled away. Then comes the more sustantial
          fruit, of which we have much to say. But even this is not the essence; at 
          the core we find something far older than all Lao Tzu invented or that
          was invented for him, than all Confucius gathered up, something of the 
          more ancient religion. These mountains were not made famous by the
          Taoists; they had an immemorial flavour of sanctity about them. Men 
          believed in mountain spirits, in currents of influence ascending and 
          descending, in hill spectres, before any thinker thought to codify or 
          rationalise these beliefs. 

[e] Autochthonous RL
I paused here, surprised by the tone of these sentences. For a brief moment, I thought that I was reading Marcel Granet, and in more ways than one. Certainly the sentence about mountain spirits, currents of influence, and hill spectres sounds a great deal like the fluent descriptions Granet gave of peasant festivals on holy sites. There was one more thing, too. A full reading of Granet's The Religion of the Chinese People shows that Monsieur Granet was no more a fan of Buddhism and its late arrival than was William Edgar Geil. 

I did not have to reopen the book to check. I remembered clearly the care with which Granet had treated early Chinese thought, as well as the layered traditions of Daoism and Confucianism. He was off-handed with regard to Buddhism, and to the extent of can I put it?...somewhat rude. I started to wonder whether Geil could have read Granet's 1922 book after all. It was untranslated back then (called La religion des Chinois), and I was not sure about Geil's French language abilities. Had he at least talked with someone who knew Granet's work? This was intriguing, and—in what has continued as "yo-yo" fashion for three years now—I was again more favorably disposed to his work. There was something significant to be said about his characterization of these mountains and their social-religious origins—predating everything.

          They instinctively offered sacrifices to the gods of the range and the 
          peaks, especially when about to cross or scale them, long before the 
          chief minister of Yao was appointed President of the Mountains, or 
          the Emperor undertook to offer on the altar of the Earth at the summer 
          solsctice. They had their superstitions as to the preparation needful, in 
          the way of fasting and purification, that they might climb the passes, 
          before any corps of priests organised temples and laid out highways.[2] 

Exhausted by the mere five pages of Geil's preface, I took a last deep breath and pressed on to the concluding paragraph.

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[f] Concluding RL
[1] William Edgar Geil, The Sacred 5 of China (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1926), xvi.
[2] Geil, Sacred 5, xix.

Geil, William Edgar. The Sacred 5 of China. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1926.

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