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Friday, October 12, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (20)

One year ago on Round and Square (12 October 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: Coated Culture
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] Directive 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

Directive Ideas and Fertility 
Granet’s point about the festival is a broad and powerful one, and he is not worried about making grand statements. All of the key ideas (what he calls “the directive ideas”) come from the festivals themselves. He does not draw connections and analogies with his examples of the seasonal festivals; he argues that the social unions created by them lie at the heart of the ideas that (although they became far more abstract as they were refined) drove Chinese thought throughout its history. These ideas all have a social foundation, and they celebrate the union of yin and yang as principles that form the core of society’s birth.

          But not only did the directive ideas draw all the elements of which they were 
          made up from the arrangement of the Festivals: it was also to their sacred 
          origins that they owed the religious prestige which gave them their prosperity 
          and the dominating role they kept, during the whole course of Chinese history, 
          within the totality of dogmatic and scientific thinking.[1]   

          Mais, non seulement les deux notions directrices ont tiré du dispositif des 
          Fêtes tous les éléments dont elles sont formées, c'est encore à leurs origines 
          sacrées qu'elles doivent le prestige religieux qui fit leur fortune et le rôle 
          dominateur qu'elles gardèrent, pendant tout le cours de l'histoire chinoise, 
          dans l'ensemble de la spéculation dogmatique ou scientifique. 
[b] Direction RF

Notice how important direction is in the “directive ideas.” The very formulation of the key concepts comes down to the way in which the seasonal songs and other activities are organized. Left and right, north and south matter. There is not only a social power behind the directing ideas but a directional one as well. Society was in motion, as it were, and the directions of that motion (from winter quarters to summer work lodges; from summer work after the harvest to winter housing) had profound implications for the direction of thought. These ideas were not mere playthings any more than were the songs themselves and the seasonal contests. They were matters of great seriousness. Their importance lay not in the difference between winning and losing the contests, for that was of little consequence. It lay rather in the social shaping power that was unleashed by the contests themselves.

The key ideas (the “representations,” as Granet puts it) were formed as part of the process of gathering in human groups. Even though the translation below is muddled (reflecting, I might add, the original French), the point needs to be made, and powerfully: the key ideas were not produced from ever-deeper reflection upon the world around great thinkers. They were given birth, produced, by the festivals themselves. It is as though they could not help dominating the thoughts and reflections of early philosophers.  They were fundamental, foundational. Like gender in human and animal life, it cannot be avoided, cannot be anywhere but ever-present in our thoughts. It s a key dividing line, and not a product of a fertile imagination. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. That profound dividing line fertilizes the imagination and gives it life, giving direction to thought.

          Closely binding together ideas of human and natural fertility, the 
          representations formed during the ancient festivals were not simply at the
          origin of the work of reflection which attained the conception of the two 
          great cosmogonic entities; they were also the elements of the beliefs which, 
          from the time of peasant society, became sufficiently specific to serve as the 
          basis of distinct systems of ideas and religious practices.[3] 

          Liant étroitement ensemble les idées de fécondité humaine et naturelle, 
          les représentations formées au cours des fêtes anciennes ne sont pas 
          seulement à l'origine du travail de pensée qui aboutit à la conception des 
          deux grandes entités cosmogoniques, elles sont aussi les éléments de 
          croyances, qui, dès les temps de la société paysanne, se particularisèrent
          suffisamment pour servir de fondement à des systèmes distincts d'idées ou 
          de pratiques religieuses.[4] 
[c] Basis RF

Granet further points out here that the beliefs arose from the time (and festivals) of peasant society and became “sufficiently specific to serve as the basis of distinct systems” of thought and religious practice. This is a very important point, and has bearing on everything from the creation of early calendars (which profoundly affect even current ones) to the systematization of philosophical concepts in early China. It implies that the shaping power of peasant life and the seasonal festivals they created is such that it was capable of producing a form of thought—early Chinese philosophy—that became so detailed, so nuanced, so powerful that it was said that the rites thus produced did not go down to the common people. If all of Chinese religion and philosophy emerged from this fertile pool, as Granet strongly maintains, there are profound implications for our understanding of all of Chinese culture, from peasant life to the most abstract conceptions.

And who would have thought that the domestic bed, or kang was the origin of all fertility and of the very direction of ideas in Chinese life?  For Granet, fertility is a social phenomenon. The holy place was the site for the most important of fertility unions, even though the real (if it is possible to make such distinctions anymore) union that creates a new generation takes place elsewhere. The fertilization begins with the most important act of all—the crossing of the stream. Granet certainly makes the stream crossing on the way to the festival appear to be sexually charged. From there, he creates another flowing poetic moment in a book that is full of them. He describes the “enormous hope of creation” among the youths as they cross the waters. It is a liminal moment as they pass from being closed vessels, as they were in their villages, to open, fluid receptacles, ready to create a new generation as they themselves come of age.

          The Holy Place was first the origin of all fertility. The most important act in 
          the Festivals, especially in the spring, was the crossing of the stream. When 
          the young people crossed the ford, before their first unions, they were moved 
          by an enormous hope of creation. They imagined that their dances and their 
          songs, their movements, their calls, and the scent of the plucked flowers drew 
          the principles of fruitfulness to them.[5]   

          Le Lieu Saint fut d'abord le principe de toute fécondité. L'acte le plus 
          important des Fêtes, surtout au printemps, était le passage de la rivière. 
          Quand ils traversaient le gué, avant leurs premières unions, les jeunes gens 
          étaient émus d'un vaste espoir de création. Ils imaginaient que leurs danses 
          et leurs chants, leurs gestes, leurs cris d'appel et le parfum des fleurs 
          cueillies attiraient eaux vives…[6] 
[d] Rhythm RF

Granet imparts to individuals within the group the motivations, sensations, and reactions of a confused but exhilarating rhythm. The flow of the river, the dance of fruitfulness: both beckon the opposite sex as they beckon (re)birth and regeneration.

          Shuddering at the contact with the running water, the women felt as though 
          they had been penetrated by the souls floating on the sacred springs; these 
          then gushed, and it seemed that the coming of spring had freed their waters 
          from the underground prison where the dead season had enclosed them. 
          From these images and feelings was born the idea that the souls of the dead, 
          seeking a new life in the time of spring, broke loose along the vernal streams 
          from the subterranean retreat in which death had shut them up.[7]   

          [L]es femmes se sentaient pénétrées comme par des âmes flottantes sur 
          les fontaines sacrées ; celles-ci jaillissaient alors, et il semblait que la venue 
          du printemps avait délivré leurs eaux d'une prison souterraine où les avait 
          encloses la morte-saison. L'idée que les âmes des défunts, quêtant une 
          vie nouvelle au temps du renouveau, s'échappaient, au fil des eaux 
          printaniè­res, d'une retraite souterraine où la mort les avait enfermées, naquit 
          de ces images et de ces émotions.[8]   

The sexual imagery flows furiously in Granet’s phrases above. The river is the great penetrator, and it is more than any mere individual—a mere youth from another village who has just left the watchful eye of his kin and neighbors—who captures the young women. It is the very ancestors freed from the Yellow Springs who do so. The streams flowed with (former) life, and gave new spirit to the women who would give birth to a new generation. The unseen world of ancestors has lurked in the shadows of Granet’s discussion, but it is about to be given the full prominence that it needs if we are fully to understand the importance of the festivals and, indeed, Chinese religion at all levels. 
[e] Mirror 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

[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 49.
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 22.
[3] Granet, Religion, 49.
[4] Granet, La religion, 22.
[5] Granet, Religion, 49.
[6] Granet, La religion, 22.
[7] Granet, Religion, 49.
[8] Granet, La religion, 22-23.

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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