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] Rural RF|
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Halves and Wholes
The most primary division of the year and of nature cuts it into halves. Similarly, the driving and most basic form of division found in human society divides it into two, as well. Indeed, it all begins with a single day. Light and dark, on most places of the globe and certainly all of China, form the basic dividing line of human action, and it can easily be argued that sleep and waking (from which all activity follows) is an outgrowth of it. The year itself is divided by solstices for the agricultural worker, and the primary dividing category in much of nature is founded on the difference in gender. These are not “interpretations.” They are structural categories. In myth (and, indeed, in surgery) they move, but not easily. Human thought works around, rather than through, them.
|[b] Yunnan RF|
Before we proceed with this, however, it is necessary to note the manner in which Granet refers to compiling the calendar as “a task of religious organization.” It is far more than a mere marking of time. The fundamental breakdown of time into halves (light and dark) is of a significance that can only be called religious.
The same holds for society, as well.
Distinctions of male and female shape the very way that human beings interact, work, and celebrate. In few places can the religious significance of such “halves” be seen more clearly than in China, where that very distinction gave rise to the powerful concepts of yin and yang.
The creation of a Calendar was a task of religious organization that called
for the help of directive thought. That thought was provided by the concepts
of yin and yang, principles whose concurrent action constituted both
human and natural order. Yin and yang, whose philosophical fortune was
to be very important, quite early on became cosmological entities for
astronomers; in the beginning they were merely elementary principles
L'établissement d'un Calendrier est une œuvre d'organisation de la vie
religieuse qui demandait l'aide d'une pensée directrice. Celle-ci fut
fournie par la conception du yin et du yang, principes dont l'action
concurrente constituait l'ordre humain et l'ordre naturel. Le yin et le yang,
dont la fortune philosophique devait être grande, devinrent assez tôt des
entités cosmologiques, à l'usage des astronomes ; ils n'étaient guère, à
l'origine, que des principes élémentaires de classification.
These divisions become the elementary principles of classification. Here Granet follows Durkheim and Mauss in stressing that categories emerging from human experience are the basic organizing tools for human imagination. Classifications can quickly become more complex, even in the “simplest” of societies, but their roots lie in the structure of society and the patterns of interaction therein.
|[c] Totality RF|
Human society divided down the middle into male and female. It was a fact of life, a fact of nature. Yin and yang divided the world into two as well, but it is important to note that those concepts go far beyond simple equations of masculinity and femininity. The totality of one class is broadly female. The totality of the other is broadly male. But, as Granet points out below, they are both active principles. They are hardly static categories. They work in opposition and alternation. Their merging and their joining, not to mention their transformations, became—in a powerful and profoundly active sense—a totality. The principles express the order of that totality. They are not “things.” They are movement, and they do not function independently.
Opposition and alternation are their foundations.
They were above all two orders, female and male. All things belonged to
one or the other of them, or rather, the totality of one class formed a female
grouping, yin, that of the other a male grouping, yang. But these concrete
categories were also active principles. Space was made up of the
opposition of yin and yang, Time of their alternation. These real and
sexuate principles, brought face to face and alternating, were the very
stuff of Totality, whose Order they moreover expressed.
Ce sont avant tout deux genres, l'un féminin, l'autre, masculin. Toutes
choses sont d'un genre ou de l'autre, ou plutôt l'ensemble des unes
constitue un groupement féminin, yin; l'ensemble des autres, un
groupement masculin, yang. Mais ces catégories concrètes sont aussi
les principes actifs. L'Espace est fait de l'opposition du yin et du yang, le
Temps de leur alternance. Ces principes réels, sexués, affrontés, alternants,
sont la substance même du Tout, dont par ailleurs ils expriment l'Ordre.
Nature was perceived in the same way. People looked to their outer world and to the world of people surrounding them. When they imagined a wider universe, they imagined it to be organized in much the same manner in which they themselves were organized.
Nature was so represented. The idea people had of the natural world being,
from the first, joined with that they had of the human world, the structure
of society must be the model upon which they conceived the general
structure of the World.
C'est ainsi qu'on se représentait la Nature. La représentation qu'on pouvait
se faire du monde naturel étant, dès le principe, solidaire de celle qu'on
avait du monde humain, la structure de la société devait être le modèle
d'après lequel fût imaginée la structure générale du Monde.
|[d] Unit RF|
The structure of the world and the structure of society were “the same” because they both were shaped by divisions that cut them in half and profoundly influenced their inner natures and even actions. Gender division and seasonal division were deep interpretive devices that shaped the way that human beings imagined their world. Because they could not be altered by mere thought—day cannot become night, except with time, and males cannot (in traditional social terms) become females—they were ready-made compartments for further thought.
Sexual division creates the elementary units of society, and it is obvious why this is so. It also creates society’s most basic classificatory unit. Because of its very fixity, it works its way into yin-yang classification. Note Granet’s explanation of gender opposition and alternation in describing the manner in which male and female activities could be conducted.
They are distinct and discrete entities, and they work in a simultaneous separation and union. Those seemingly unrelated concepts are at the very core (they “take turns, as Granet writes) of yin-yang categorization. Whether it be the opposition of the winter dwelling to the summer (where men work the fields away from the village), or the manner in which work was conducted (sericulture and agriculture), or even the divided lines of young girls and boys chanting rhythmic taunts at the spring festivals, the division of people right down the middle was primal. It formed the essential classification, from which all others were generated.
Now, in peasant society, division by sex was the essential division, always
perceptible in the elementary unit, the family, in which husbands and
wives were of different names and different essences. And that is why
yin and yang were in the first place two sexual groupings. Male and female
activities had to be conducted in distinct places and at distinct times; and
for that reason yin and yang worked in opposition in space and time by
Or, dans la société paysanne, la division par sexes était la division
essentielle, sensible en tous temps dans l'unité élémentaire, la famille,
où maris et femmes sont de nom différent, d'essence différente : voilà
pourquoi le yin et le yang sont d'abord deux groupements sexuels.
L'activité des hommes et des femmes devait se faire en des lieux, en
des temps distincts ; voilà pourquoi le yin et le yang agissent en opposition
dans l'espace, en se relayant dans le temps.
From sexual divisions and, indeed, the concept of “half” of everything, one could build outward toward an understanding of the universe as a whole. More profoundly, the direction of most Chinese thought worked the other way. Toward far more minute breakdowns of the universe and toward more and more refined distinctions. It all requires the first crack, however, of the perceived whole into distinct halves.
|[e] Direction RF|
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Harper & Row, 1975.