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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Lectures (6h)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Mammoth, Masterful, Immortal China)

[a] Surprise 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

[b] Imagine RL
Well, he just kept surprising me—and that has continued right up to the present. I had checked and rechecked my reading "control panel," calibrated my effort, and then plunged into the final paragraph. I was not sure—given the rocky ride I had gotten through the first four and a half pages—what to expect. I was not sure, but I certainly did not anticipate prescience, depth...and awe. William Edgar Geil had surprised me again, and on levels that made me shake my head at my string of earlier reactions. 

There is a sentence in that last paragraph that makes me think he and Marcel Granet had been studying early Chinese social theory together like chums sipping their preferred beverages (more on both later) in the shadow of the Sorbonne, Notre Dame, and the Seine

          The [interpretive] shaft has not been sunk deep enough to reach the 
          primitive thought of the peasant.[1] 

Although we wouldn't articulate it quite the same way today, Geil was "speaking Granet" here. He was excoriating the silly attention given by many diplomats, journalists, and travelers to the "ephemeral froth and foam" of surface events. His translator, the eminent sociologist Maurice Freedman, states it clearly:

          Granet installed himself in Peking to spend under two years there in
          1911-1913. The point of his going to China was not to study Chinese 
          life as it was lived, as one might imagine if one were not aware of his
          background; it was, certainly, to get some idea of what the country 
          was like; but the overriding aim was to study the Chinese classical
          texts in the setting where Chinese studied them, a sort of field work  
          (as we might now say) upon scholarship.[2] 

[c] Froth RL
It is hard to imagine a more forceful articulation of this "all about foundations" message than to be in Peking (Beijing) in 1911 and 1912. So enthralled with the core texts of Chinese civilization was Granet that he scarcely noticed the rather bumpy froth-and-foam" of the fall of imperial China. While some of us in later years might have appreciated a first-hand account by a well-trained sociologist and literary scholar (rather than missionary-and-diplomat accounts), his resolve speaks to something that has been going on as long as Westerners have been studying the other. Since at least Herodotus, in other words. 

Or Homer.

This was not just Marcel Granet's point, either. It hinted at the historical-structural thinking of another French historian who, a quarter century later, would distinguish between deep (and deeper) structures and l'histoire evenementielle—the daily drumbeat of events that seem large for (to use today's language) a news cycle or two. "History," writes Fernand Braudel, "may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly and what appears not to move at all."[3] 

          Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like 
          fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as 
          often as not into oblivion. Every event, however brief, has to be sure a 
          contribution to make, lights up some dark corner or even some wide 
          vista of history. Nor it it only political history which benefits most, for 
          every historical landscape--political, economic, social, even 
          geographical--is illumined by the intermittent flare of the event.[4] 

Granet (1884-1940), Braudel (1902-1985), and now Geil argued for something much more significant. They sought an understanding of the underpinnings—the deep, dark, gelid sea lying many miles deeply below the "ephemeral foam and froth of temporary and superficial agitations."
[d] Windsock RL

You go William Edgar, I thought. "Foam and froth?" Beautiful. "Temporary and superficial?" The hammer drives the nail into the beam. Geil's exasperation with the ways Western observers were thinking and writing about China...1925, when he wrote this preface...might as well be said by moi and just about every colleague I have in anthropology and historical studies. Does the selection of a Chinese president (later this year) matter? Sure. Does the apparent slowing of the Chinese economy affect world markets and China's future? Yup. Does any of it matter if we don't understand the political, economic—not to mention historical and "cultural"—context of it all?


Then it's just the windsock floating in the breeze. All sound and fury and no use to anyone, including the avid reader of international news. As Geil states with admirable force, we need to understand what Braudel would later call le longue durée, the foundations of it all. I could refine and tweak the language to bring it up to speed with the academic language of 2012. (we'd leave out "culture" and speak of "habitus," for example), but Geil saw something that too few of his contemporaries could comprehend. Too few of today's readers get it, either.

So what do we make of Geil and "mammoth, masterful, immortal China?" Let's allow his final paragraph speak for itself. I never saw the last paragraph coming.

          Is it not time that the student who has the "spiritual power of 5 teeth"
          turned a little more serious attention to China—mammoth, masterful,
          immortal China? Time has been devoted by some who seem to have 
          teeth at all in discussing the ephemeral froth and foam of temporary
          and superficial agitations. The shaft has not been sunk deep enough
          to reach the primitive thought of the peasant. This persists. This 
          indicates the age-long drift of a 5th of the human race. It may be that 
          these pages, while they do not pretend to achieve ultimate scientific
          results, may at least awaken some competent investigator to the 
          possibilities of the Land of Central Glory, wherein dwell the greatest
          people in all the world.[5] 

Wow. And that is exactly what I wrote in the margin of my book. Wow. Geil had surprised me again. This was going to be an interesting ride. 

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[e] Margin RL
[1] William Edgar Geil, The Sacred 5 of China (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1926), xix.
[2] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People (New York: Harper & Row, 1975, xxii.
[3' Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (New York: 
          Simon & Schuster, 1972), 8.
[4] Braudel, Mediterranean, 11.
[5] Geil, Sacred 5, xix.

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II
          New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Geil, William Edgar. The Sacred 5 of China. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1926.
Granet,Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

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