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Friday, August 10, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (6)

[a] Autumn 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

The Autumn Festivals 
The festivals emerged from the “self-confidence” that was at the core of the domestic order when it reached the height of its collective experience—the harvest. Working together, each family displayed its “fortune,” and “the fruits of its labor.” Here we enter a new plane in the discussion of collective action and social solidarity. Granet notes that “neighboring groups came together in a communal assembly.” How, though, does something like that happen? 

If we are to follow the train of Granet’s thought, it happens as a direct response to the harvest itself. It is not planned or premeditated, any more than is autumn itself.  It is anticipated, though, and that distinction makes all of the difference. Communal assembly allows the closed domestic order to open to its widest point, welcoming ideas and even conflicts that would otherwise have been rejected by all parties.

          And it was not at all an interchange that sought only direct and material advantage: each 
          family, proud of the fruits of its labor, wished to display its fortune; neighboring groups came 
          together in a communal assembly, each inviting the others to make use of all its riches: it 
          won recognition of its prestige by its generosity.[1]

          Et non point d'un commerce qui ne cherche que l'intérêt direct et matériel : fière des fruits 
          de son travail, chaque famille voulait étaler sa Fortune ;  les groupes voisins se réunissaient 
          en une assemblée de communauté, chacun invitait les autres à user de toutes ses richesses : 
          par ses largesses, il faisait reconnaître son prestige.[2]

Each invites the others to make use of its harvest riches. This resembles forms of exchange such as the potlatch of the Canadian northwest coast Indians in many ways. The welcoming and sharing is an important part of the structure of the rural Chinese communal bond, but there is rivalry as well. It would be a major mistake to think otherwise, and to notice only harmony in such gatherings. Recognition of prestige is won through generosity.  Sharing gives prestige, and each group vies with the other for maximum generosity. This is not at all a simple case of structure and function. It is, rather, a complex ordering of smaller segments (independent domestic orders) of society as they vie with each other for relative (and highly transient) dominance. It is, in a phrase, contested generosity.

The families reach a high point of communal awareness, opening the otherwise closed domestic order to others. Usually situated in the closed kin network and turned inward to their daily concerns, at the festival they move outward at the highest point of their collective confidence. Not only, according to Granet, do they lose the “usual” feelings of enmity toward neighboring groups, but the very confidence and warmth toward outsiders that they otherwise lack is engendered through public display. That is the most important point of all. What Granet seeks to articulate is not a mere shift in “attitude” or an individual’s proclivity toward outsiders. It has nothing to do with individuals at all. It is a shared response to the collective work of the harvest and a shared outpouring toward others assembled together.

          In these solemn meetings of families usually withdrawn into themselves and shut up within 
          the circle of their daily cares, each of them, becoming aware of its power at a time of plenty 
          and feeling it to be increased by its public display, lost its usual feelings of enmity towards 
          the neighboring families at the moment when its self-confidence was carried to its highest 

          Dans ces réunions solennelles de familles habituellement repliées sur elles-mêmes et 
          enfermées dans le souci des intérêts quotidiens, chacune d'elles, prenant conscience de 
          sa puissance à un moment de plénitude, et la sentant encore accrue par son étalage en 
          public, perdait, dès l'instant où sa confiance en elle-même était portée au plus haut point, 
          ses sentiments usuels de défiance à l'égard des familles voisines.[4]

Granet notes the profound alteration (which is, of course linked to the structural alternation of the seasons) of the typical modes of interaction found in the domestic order. 

          The interpenetration of the different groups was more intense, more moving, more intimate, 
          and more absolute for their isolation and self-contained nature being in normal times more 
          La pénétration entre les différents groupes était d'autant plus violente, plus pathétique, 
          plus intime, plus absolue que leur isolement et leur occlusion étaient, en temps normal, 
          plus complets.[6]
[c] Alternation RF

The intensity of the interaction, notes Granet, is an outgrowth of the very isolation of the closed domestic order. It is as though the closed social grouping burst forth twice a year (in perfect seasonal rhythm) in an elaborate dance of matrimonial and gustatory bliss. The central idea of the closed domestic order must be understood as the heart of this experience. Granet maintains that it is itself the key to the flourishing of intimacy and social intensity experienced during the festivals.

There is a deep form of power in the rural gatherings of which Granet writes. These “orgies” affirmed the closed domestic orders as well as a wider “political” order that ultimately was created by the interaction between otherwise closed groups. “Political” order, in this sense, emerges from the interaction of otherwise independent entities.

          The gatherings of rural communities consisted in powerful orgies in which were affirmed, at 
          one and the same time, the strength of the family grouping and that of the political grouping.   
          Marking the beat of the rhythm by which female and male work alternated, the gatherings 
          had the character of great sexual festivals in which were effected the great matrimonial 
          exchanges by which each group permanently held hostages from all the others and sent them 
          delegates. These festivals of peasant harmony were also festivals of marriage and fertility.[7]

          Les assises des communautés rurales consistaient en de puissantes orgies où s'affirmait à la 
          fois la force du groupement familial et du, groupement politique. Marquant les temps du rythme 
          selon lequel alternait le travail fémi­nin et masculin, elles avaient le caractère de grandes fêtes 
          sexuelles où s'opé­raient les échanges matrimoniaux, grâce auxquels chaque groupe possédait 
          de façon permanente des otages de tous les autres et leur envoyait des délégués : ces fêtes 
          de la concorde paysanne étaient aussi des fêtes du mariage, des fêtes de la fécondité.[8]

[d] Affirmed RF
The interpretation becomes even more interesting, however, as we see what is the heart of such order. The rhythm of male and female work gives structure to the much broader interactions between groups. The sexual festivals and matrimonial exchanges emerge from the very structure of daily work in the closed domestic order. Opening itself to interactions and sharing (as well as structural conflict), the closed order begins to open in a wider political sense, without ever giving up the basic rhythmic cadence of its sexual division of labor.

          Marking the time of rustic work, inaugurating the success to come, celebrating the success 
          achieved, they were moreover great agrarian festivals in which orgies of food were mingled 
          with sexual orgies. They snatched people suddenly away from their monotonous lives; they 
          sharply awoke within them the profoundest hopes to be conceived by an agricultural people; 
          they excited the creative activity of inner life to the highest degree.[9]

          Marquant les temps du travail rustique, inaugurant son succès à venir, célébrant son succès 
          passé, c'étaient encore de grandes fêtes agraires où l'orgie alimentaire se mêlait à l'orgie 
          sexuelle. Elles arrachaient soudain les individus à leur vie monotone ; elles suscitaient 
          brusquement chez eux les plus profonde espérances que puisse concevoir un peuple 
          agricole : elles excitaient au plus haut degré l'activité créatrice de la vie intérieure.[10]

[e] Height RF
Granet notes the importance of agricultural and sexual fecundity, and both were at the heart of society’s growth. The festivals interrupted not only the “monotonous” lives of individuals, but of the collective order as well. The give-and-take, the sharing, the social and sexual intercourse—these are the height of excitement (and a profoundly religious excitement it is, as Granet notes) of an agricultural people. It should not be missed that Granet, even as he describes profoundly social interactions, never loses sight of the “creative activity” and “inner life” that is a part of such assemblies. He describes, in short, the very foundation of the social order as it is brought to its highest peak at the harvest festival.

The autumn harvest represents the peak of intensity in rural social life, and Granet treats it at the very beginning of La religion des chinois because he resists the saying from the Book of Ritual that he quotes earlier in the chapter—that the rites do not go down to the common people. He argues for a social foundation of a profound order, and, in effect, argues that a narrow focus on rites and the highest practices has made us lose our way in understanding the foundations of Chinese religious life.  

Harvests matter.  

          The practices and beliefs born of this extraordinary activity governed the development of 
          Chinese religion: public and family cults, ancestor and agrarian cults, even the cult of 
          heaven, emerged from these festivals of human and natural fertility in which the domestic 
          spirit was revealed in all its strength while the sense of society was created.[11]

          Les pratiques et les croyances, qui naquirent de cette activité exceptionnelle, ont commandé 
          le développement de la religion chinoise : cultes publics et cultes familiaux, cultes des ancêtres 
          et cultes agraires, voire même culte du ciel sont sortis de ces fêtes de la fécondité humaine et 
          naturelle où l'esprit domestique se révélait dans toute sa force, tandis que se créait le sens 

Everything “religious,” which is almost to say “everything corporate,” in Chinese life has at its foundation the closed domestic order and the rhythmic interaction of groupings in the great communal gatherings. The very power of the domestic spirit emerges from this opposition and this alternation. We would do well to note the profoundly Durkheimian final statement: the closed order is reaffirmed, even as the sense of a wider society is created. This, for Granet, is the solid, if distant, foundation of even the most esoteric of rites and the most minute details of religious practice in early Chinese society.
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), xx.
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), xx.
[3] Granet, Religion, xxx.
[4] Granet, La religion, xxx.
[5] Granet, Religion, xxx.
[6] Granet, La religion, xxx.

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.

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