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Monday, August 13, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (9)

[a] Trek RF
Click here for other posts in Round and Square's "Rural Religion in China" series:
Rural 1          Rural 2          Rural 3          Rural 4          Rural 5          Rural 6          Rural 7          Rural 8
Rural 9          Rural 10        Rural 11        Rural 12        Rural 13        Rural 14        Rural 15
Transition, Contest, and Exchange 
Granet moves us from the highly charged and potential spirituality of specific kinds of holy places to a perspective focused again squarely on the lives of the peasants. He begins by noting their hard work, and even the wretchedness (“empty of thought") of their existence. He underlines again the very nature of their narrowness—the domestic order, the “spirit of their own territory,” the saturation of it all with “family egoism,” and “suspicion towards the stranger.”  It is as though the peasant, working hard all year long, cannot be immediately freed to reach the heights of communal spirit, and is, indeed, like the frog at the bottom of Zhuangzi’s well, unable to see or even imagine a different way of life. 

          But moving out of the routine of their daily lives (doubtless hard and brutal, 
          certainly wretched and empty of thought) the peasants of ancient China did 
          not pass without a transitional stage into such a state of religious exaltation: 
          they were not immediately ready for the great surge of emotions when they 
          came from their homes to the communal Festival, for they were still heavy 
          with the spirit of their own territory, saturated with family egoism, full of 
          suspicion towards the stranger.[1]

          Mais les paysans de la Chine ancienne, au sortir de leur vie quotidienne, 
          sans doute dure et brutale, mesquine en tout cas, et vide de pensée, ne 
          pas­saient point sans transition à un pareil état d'exaltation religieuse ; ils 
          n'étaient pas tout de suite prêts pour de grands élans quand ils s'en 
          venaient de chez eux à la Fête commune, lourds d'esprit de terroir, 
          pénétrés d'égoïsme familial, pleins de défiance envers l'étranger.[2] 

[b] Variegated RF
To use an academic example that Marcel Mauss might have used, imagine a scholar moving from month upon month of careful, quiet study in the archives to an intellectually challenging and even festive academic conference. The lonely historian goes to San Francisco for the national convention. There she must interact with others in numerous ways—from conversation and light banter to the deep engagement of ideas. Peasants, like professors, have a similar situation. They are unable (just like a diver making his way to the surface) to become a part of the raucous assembly at once. Granet’s words are loaded and powerful. “Saturated,” “surges of emotions:” these are hardly neutral terms. To rise above the narrow perspective of the domestic order, the peasants must go to more than a neutral site; they must go to a neutral site that is charged (and further charged by their actions) with spirituality. This is scary business, and it requires a transition. Big time.

The transition is seen in the approach to the holy place. Certainly shy, reticent, and worried, they disguised it under their “bantering air.”  Upholding the prestige of their families, even in a rural gathering of peasants, was something that required rising above the daily “inwardness” of the domestic order. The transition can be seen in all of the shouting. The domestic order, which promotes social shyness in many ways, can only be protected and given value by rising above that very same inwardness. One shouts promotion of one’s family—not something that happens while having breakfast in the kitchen. One banters as though it were a natural part of one’s daily activity. But it isn't. The order is given value; the social is engaged. Loners (and groups of related loners who live in a closed domestic setting), are forced outward. This is not a daily activity, but it changes everyone's life. Forever.

          The different groups approached one another not without some fear; each 
          was moved by the prestige of the other; but did they not need to uphold 
          their family honor?  Shyness was disguised under a bantering air; the 
          bands confronted one another mockingly and exchanged challenges.[3] 

          Les groupes divers ne s'abordaient pas sans quelque crainte ; chacun 
          était ému du prestige de l'autre ; mais ne fallait-il pas soutenir l'honneur 
          domestique ? La timidité se dissimulait sous un air railleur ; avec des 
          moqueries les bandes s'affrontaient et échangeaient des défis.[4]

[c] Evenings RF
One need not stretch analogies too far to see the place of such mockery and challenges, either. One need only to look to autumn evenings and high school football rivalries for that. The Weatherford Kangaroos tussle with the Mineral Wells Rams—local rivalry. The United States and China focus on both gold and total medals in the latest Olympiad. There is posturing and there is comeraderie. The nervousness and shyness that comes from uneven preparation and wariness of competition, not to mention the feelings on the part of visiting fans of being out-of-place, is often covered by boasts or strong talk. So it is with the communal festivals, which come to life, as it were, in mockery and chatter.

Competition lies at the heart of the festivals. Opposed families in competition created a powerful social connection that went far beyond the contests themselves. Imagine opposed social groups in a rich natural area, with the competitive interaction resulting in something much greater than even human connection. It is a competitive connection between the social and natural worlds that lies at the very heart of the spring festivals. 

          Then it was that the Festival began; the whole of it was spent in a series 
          of contests; the variety in the Holy place provided ample matter to the 
          thrust of the game which, once unleashed, sought to unfold.[5]

          Alors la fête commençait ; elle se passait toute en concours : la variété 
          du Lieu Saint fournissait une ample matière à la puissance de jeu qui, 
          dès ce moment déclenchée, cherchait à se déployer.[6]

But contests they were, even if they are not of a form that twenty-first century readers would recognize. The combination of swiftness and practical skills makes one think of rodeos and other contests that reward the rapid completion of useful tasks. The whole sacred meadow was filled with competition, friendship, frustration, anger, love, and toil. Does that sound like any festival that just happened, say in London, about...yesterday? Maybe it was not bird-nesting, but table tennis and athletics (not to mention rowing) play the same role.

          Bird-nesting (for example of swallows) was the object of tournaments, as 
          was the gathering of firewood and simples, and there were battles of 
          flowers. Then there were races along the stream and the hillsides, 
          foot-races, cart-races, boat-races, and especially the crossing of fords 
          by opposing groups, their clothes raised to the waist, with much 
          provocation and bantering. Confidence and joy sprang from all this 
          emulation; the family spirit stripped itself little by little of its aggressive 
          timidity in every band that had some success and was made aware 
          of its resources.[7]

          Les œufs d'oiseaux qu'on ramas­sait, ceux, par exemple, des hirondelles, 
          servaient à des tournois : la récolte des fagots, la cueillette des simples en 
          était encore l'occasion et il y avait des batailles de fleurs. Puis, c'étaient des 
          courses au long de la rivière, au flanc du coteau, courses à pied, courses 
          de chars, courses de bateaux, et surtout le passage du gué qui se faisait 
          par groupes affrontés, les vêtements relevés jusqu'à la ceinture, à grand 
          renfort de provocations et de railleries. De cette émulation sortaient la 
          confiance et la joie ; dans chaque bande, qui avait ses succès et prenait 
          conscience de ses ressources, l'esprit familial se dépouillait peu à peu de 
          sa timidité agressive.[8]

[d] Interaction RF
Note again the interaction of opposed social groups and the natural setting. There is, moreover, something even more powerful that can begin to be seen in Granet’s account. “Confidence and joy” emerge from the contests. More specifically, they emerge from emulation. The narrow family spirit loses its “aggressive timidity” (this is a perfect phrase) through action directed at an opposition, but made in concert—emulation. It is as though a closed and crabbed group, looking inward all but twice a year, gains strength and confidence by tracing the patterns of lively display (almost as one would trace the strokes in a piece of calligraphy to gain the “feel” of a powerful master), and emulating others. Their circle of influence and confidence grows wider, more open, more spiritual—more profoundly social and religious. Granet was on to something that we all know...yet forget every Olympiad or AHA conference or National Truckers Association meeting.

Indeed, just as emulation leads to social confidence, competition leads to exchange. Any reader of Marcel Mauss or Bronislaw Malinowski will recognize the images of the first line below. Giving, as Mauss makes clear, is a competitive act. Plucked flowers and pledges of friendship certainly do give power to the social bond (and all the more so when those things happen in a setting that is spiritually charged in its own right.

          Challenges gave way to gifts:  the groups exchanged plucked flowers 
          and pledges of friendship which they undertook to keep until the next 
          meeting. Brought together by their peaceful contests, the neighboring 
          families began suddenly to feel an intense need for communion and 
          peasant harmony, a creation once more renewed and with an entirely 
          fresh strength, was born of the contests in the Holy place.[9]

          Des défis on passait aux cadeaux : les fleurs cueillies s'échangeaient, 
          gages d'amitié qu'on se promettait de garder jusqu'aux réunions 
          prochaines. Rapprochées par leurs tournois pacifiques, les familles 
          voisines éprouvaient soudain un intense besoin de communion, et la 
          concorde paysanne, création renouvelée, une fois de plus et avec une 
          puis­sance toute fraîche, naissait des joutes du Lieu Saint.[10]

[e] Cyclicality RF
Anticipation is also an important part of the communal spirit. If the assemblies were perceived as isolated, independent events, with no chance of repetition, the principles of banter and exchange would be profoundly different. Pledges of friendship, actions, and goods depend on the expectation of return. The cyclicality of the festivals is important, then, even before it “comes ‘round again.” 

Knowing, or assuming, that future festivals will occur gives communal gatherings a power that goes far beyond the obvious. It creates mechanisms for giving and receiving that can be renewed both by individuals and by the groups to which they belong. What might begin as an isolated act of generosity, then, can grow through the repetition of festivals into something far more profound.

Click here for other posts in Round and Square's "Rural Religion in China" series:
Rural 1          Rural 2          Rural 3          Rural 4          Rural 5          Rural 6          Rural 7          Rural 8
Rural 9          Rural 10        Rural 11        Rural 12        Rural 13        Rural 14        Rural 15 
[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 42.
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 15.
[3] Granet, Religion, 42.
[4] Granet, La religion, 15.
[5] Granet, Religion, 2-43.
[6] Granet, La religion, 15.

Granet, Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman]. New York: 
     Harper & Row, 1975.
Granet, Marcel. La religion des chinois. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922. 
[f] Exchange RF

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