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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (30)

One year ago on Round and Square (30 October 2011)—Hurtin' Country: I Fall to Pieces
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Rural Religion in Early China." 
Click here for the introduction to "La Pensée Cyclique" the "umbrella topic for this series.
[a] Replete 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        Rural 16
Rural 17        Rural 18        Rural 19        Rural 20        Rural 21        Rural 22        Rural 23        Rural 24
Rural 25        Rural 26        Rural 27        Rural 28        Rural 29        Rural 30        Rural 31        Rural 32 
Rural 33

Playing With Words  
Language was not a serious impediment to individualization. It only reinforced a tendency that was already shown much more powerfully in the nature of society. There was a rich storehouse of language capable of describing individuals, if only there were a reason to do so. As long as Granet focuses upon the unifying power of the festivals and the periodic enrichment of society, the need for individualization is relatively small. When he turns to thought, however, a need develops to articulate the way in which a mind conceives of an object of thought, even as that thought is shaped by social life.

          As soon as people conceived the idea of individualized powers they 
          easily enough found the means of designating them in their language: 
          many myths owed their existence if not to a play upon epithets, then at 
          least to a play upon words.[1]

          Dès que l'on conçut l'idée de puissances individualisées, on sut bien 
          trouver dans la langue le moyen de les désigner : bien des mythes durent 
          l'existence sinon à des jeux d'épithètes, du moins à des jeux de mots.[2]
Granet’s point about “play(s) upon words” here is important. The way that language is generated is much like the way that social interaction is created. Language consists of cyclicality and gathering, as well as return—a point that Granet alludes to here and in several other provocative asides in this work. Suffice it to say at this point that the play of words is fundamental to the creation of lively and nuanced religious feeling. Words are generated in interactions with others, and contain a flow and rhythm that has the miniature effect of a gathering—a verbal communion between people.

The individualized ideas that had their roots in the social practices of the rural peasants were eventually destroyed along with their lifestyle, which became more complex as domestic units were attached to cities, as we shall see. Granet notes the connection of the peasant cults to other cults and the rich (presumably oral) traditions surrounding them.

Without the rhythm of social life, however, there was no need to continue many of the traditions. When social life changed profoundly, the individual legends that had been connected to cult practices were lost, and what was recorded was only an echo of former practices. Memory is rooted in routine and interaction, and a partly forgotten legend is almost certainly a reflection of an unpracticed cult or ritual. Destroy the practice and the ideas will fragment.

          The majority of them were attached to the local cults that perished 
          when feudal society was destroyed; as creations of vanished settings, 
          these myths, deprived of support in the system of worship, likewise 
          disappeared from memory and with them a number of legends from which 
          they had drawn their substance. The same fate probably befell many 
          remaining peasant legends that the literati in their disdain would not 

          La majeure partie d'entre eux étaient attachés à des cultes locaux qui 
          périrent quand fut détruite la société féodale ; créations de milieux 
          évanouis, ces mythes, privés d'un support cultuel, disparurent eux aussi 
          de la mémoire et avec eux nombre de légendes dont ils avaient tiré leur 
          substance. Même sort fut, sans doute, celui de beaucoup de légendes 
          restées paysannes que, par mépris, les lettrés ne voulurent point recueillir.[4]
[c] Core RF

A fascinating idea is only touched upon here—the unwillingness of the literati to see the peasant traditions as part of their own tradition. The rituals, it was often said, do not reach down to the common people. Disdain on the part of the literati would make sure that they never did. Marcel Granet, on the other hand, was determined to remedy the situation by creating a foundational chapter on the social, rural, and, indeed, peasant nature of all Chinese religious life. Indeed, so far does he go with his argument that much of his career was based on this core idea (even when it was not explicitly stated, as in his later works).

Profoundly Durkheimian, but with great care for his Chinese texts, Granet’s work raised rural social practices to a level that would have shocked any literatus in premodern China. For Granet, the rites go up from the foundations of the seasonal gatherings themselves.

We have seen that memory is fragile and powerful at the same time. Details are forgotten quickly, and fade even before the passing of rituals and social practices into oblivion. The powerful feelings connected to those practices, however, are something else. They are not, Granet argues here, merely the sensations that are aroused by coming together with other people—the momentary thoughts of individuals encountering other individuals. They are charged by the very social power of unification and gathering that grounds them. Such sensations are not easily forgotten, and have an endurance that goes well beyond their seemingly transitory nature. They have a lasting “social memory” that is deeper than an individual’s, and works its way into the very social fabric. 

          The only myths from the earliest times whose memory has been preserved 
          are those in which the feelings characteristic of the ancient festivals were 
          directly recorded, and their conservation is due to the fact that those 
          emotions answering to everlasting ideals, something of the festivals survived 
          in the popular calendar.[5]

          Les seuls mythes du premier âge dont le souvenir ait été conservé sont 

          ceux où s'étaient enregistrées directement les émotions caractéristiques des 
          fêtes anciennes, et leur conservation est due a ce que ces émotions répondant 
          à des idéals de nature permanente, quelque chose de ces fêtes subsista dans 
          le calendrier populaire.[6]
[d] Preserved RF

These “directly recorded” feelings “characteristic of the ancient festivals” were fundamentally religious feelings. Following Granet’s quotation above, it is surely important that they answer to everlasting ideals. What lies behind them, however, is truly the power of their seasonal rhythm, and the “textual memory” of that rhythm that is preserved in the popular calendar. Indeed, in the popular calendars we have a connection to the gathering power of society in time. Through the notation of festivals and other occasions we can see a glimpse of a profoundly religious rhythm that constituted the year and influenced the direction of popular cultural belief. 

Granet backs up his calendrical and social points with the story of the herdboy and the weaving maiden. The tale reflects far more than the love story of herdboy and weaving maiden that is related in contemporary versions. It is an example that links both time and space, and points directly to the “gathering momentum” of early society. It is connected to fertility issues and the regeneration of the social group. In short, it is a stellar model of religious organization that both reflects and gives new impetus to the cycles of life and work.

               Such is the case with the myth of the Heavenly Weaving Maiden. It is a 
          stellar myth; along with the fact that bright Heaven and Dawn were perhaps 
          already for the peasants invoked in oaths, it is the only indication we have 
          of a rural cult of the stars.[7]

          Tel le mythe de la Tisserande céleste. C'est un mythe stellaire ; il est le 
          seul indice que nous ayons d'un culte rural des astres, avec ce fait que, 
          peut-être, le Ciel lumineux et l'Aurore étaient déjà pour les paysans les 
          divinités du serment.[8]
[e] Bonding RF

Note Granet’s connection of the myth to a “rural cult of the stars.”  The herdboy and the weaving maiden are the very personification of the heavens, but their myth had profound connections to issues at the heart of the social order. That they were used in oaths is already an example of their social bonding effect, but that was only a small part of the matter. Those practices were, in turn, grounded in the calendar, even before it was a printed object of daily perusal and veneration that could be found in almost any home in China.

          But the elaboration of a calendar by people for whom it was a deep 
          conviction that nothing human could be without resonance in the whole 
          of nature, could not be carried out without all the habits of men being lent 
          to the constellations and meteors: we have already seen it happening with 
          the rainbow, the resplendent nuptials of Nature.[9]

          Mais l'élaboration d'un calendrier par des gens dont la pensée profonde 
          était que rien de ce qui est humain ne peut être sans retentissement dans la 
          nature entière, n'a pu se faire sans qu'on prêtât aux constellations et aux 
          météores tous les usages des hommes : on l'a déjà vu pour l'arc-en-ciel, 
          noces resplendissantes de la Nature.[10]

After a somewhat clumsy aside dealing with language and individuality, Granet is back in his element here, as he notes the connection of social practices to the very patterning of the constellations. As can be seen with the image of the rainbow, nature both reflects and moves the society of which it is, ultimately and integral part.

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        Rural 16
Rural 17        Rural 18        Rural 19        Rural 20        Rural 21        Rural 22        Rural 23        Rural 24
Rural 25        Rural 26        Rural 27        Rural 28        Rural 29        Rural 30        Rural 31        Rural 32 
Rural 33
[f] Individuality RF
[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 53-54..
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 24.
[3] Granet, Religion, 54.
[4] Granet, La religion, 25.
[5] Granet, Religion, 54.
[6] Granet, La religion, 25.
[7] Granet, Religion, 54.
[8] Granet, La religion, 25.
[9] Granet, Religion, 54.
[10] Granet, La religion, 25.

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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