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] Northeast RF|
Rural 17 Rural 18 Rural 19 Rural 20 Rural 21 Rural 22 Rural 23 Rural 24
And the belief came to be held that the dead lived under the earth in a
deep abode, the winter refuge of the waters, called the Yellow Springs.
The Yellow Springs to begin with appeared to be very close to the
peasants’ native land; people though they could almost reach the Springs
and open up for the souls an easy path to the land of the dead by digging
grave pits. But death dictated a change of orientation: while the living
opened their dwellings to the South and faced in that direction, the dead
were buried to the North with their heads to the North.
Et l'on se mit à croire que les morts résidaient sous terre dans une
demeure profonde, refuge hivernal des eaux, que l'on appela les Sources
jaunes. Les Sources jaunes, d'abord, parurent toutes proches de la terre
natale ; en creusant la fosse des tombes, on pensait les atteindre presque
et ouvrir aux âmes un chemin facile vers le pays des morts. Mais la mort
détermine un changement d'orientation, tandis que les vivants ouvrent
leurs demeures au Midi et se tournent vers le Sud, les défunts sont enterrés
au Nord, la tête au Nord.
|[b] Orientation RF|
Notice how death dictates a change in orientation. The living are oriented toward the south (the top), while the dead are oriented toward the north (the bottom, difficult though that might be for the Westerner to envision). This would have a profound impact on the way that Chinese directional thought developed over the centuries. Granet asserts, again, that this arises from the rhythms of peasant life and work. The implications are great, because, if Granet is correct, there is a profound connection between the very highest levels of Chinese thought and the agricultural practices of ordinary people.
As we have seen, this is Granet's whole point—from top to bottom, as it were.
The dead were buried “at the bottom" of the conceptual grid. The common dwelling place of the dead is a signficant concept in its own right. There is collectivity even in death, and that arises from the thoughts of the living, who are immersed in their own forms of collective action and thought. Just as they imagined life in nature as being like theirs, so, too, did they imagine a life for the ancestors that contained much that was of importance to the dead while they lived. Aristotle wrote this many centuries ago, and he was already trailing early Chinese thinkers who were no less forceful in their own ways.
When the Chinese thought of their land on a vaster scale and wanted to
give a common dwelling-place to the dead of the whole of China, they put
it at the very edge of their country, to the North; and since to them the North
was Down, the Yellow Springs were sited in the depths of the North.
Dès que les Chinois se firent de leur terre une idée plus vaste et qu'ils
voulurent donner aux morts de toute la Chine une demeure commune, ils la
placèrent aux extrémités de leur pays, vers le Nord, et, comme pour eux, le
Nord c'était le Bas, les Sources jaunes furent logées dans les profondeurs
It is fascinating to see the Chinese (in Granet's portrayal) engaging in thought about their land “on a vaster scale” in this passage. That, too, is a result of collective thinking, for it is unlikely that even creative thinkers could generalize from the individual fields where they planted and harvested. It is difficult to think cosmologically when your forearms are dripping with rice-muck.
|[c] Divided RF|
The holy place is the necessary connection between the two, for it opens to ordinary thinkers (doing their daily tasks and thinking with leisure at most, six months—one half of yin and yang, during the winter retreat) the possibility that there is much more to be considered.
The world was divided physically in profound ways. Autumn gave way to winter, and yang gave way to yin. The chants of the autumn festivals brought together the world’s waters and made them converge during the winter months.
The fate of men could not be separated from the fate of things; water,
sacralized in winter, was female, yin; the residence to which it was forced to
withdraw for the winter by the chants of the autumn festivals, subterranean
pole upon which converged all the waters of the world, was also recognized
as the residence of yin.
On ne pouvait séparer le sort des hommes de celui des choses : l'eau,
sacralisée en hiver, était féminine, était yin ; on admit que sa résidence, où
on la forçait à se retirer pour l'hiver par l'incantation des fêtes d'automne,
pôle souterrain où convergeaient toutes les eaux du monde, était aussi la
résidence du yin.
The circle would come ‘round again, to be sure. Yang, “on the lookout for spring,” awaited its fertilizing moment. The play of fertilization—a subtle give-and-take of natural and physical processes—was at work in humans, animals, and the rest of the world. It is noteworthy that the place of the dead was thought of as the source of human creativity and power, but it really is not a great stretch to consider it so. Those who were living and achieved the highest that human life had to offer...were the source of fertility for those who would follow—a kind of cosmic genetic engineering that strengthened the social body.
The Yellow Springs, retreat of the souls aspiring to live again, were
furthermore the prison where, overcome by yin, yang, on the lookout for
the spring, awaited the moment when it could kick the earth to make the
springs rise up and bring back life and fertilizing waters to the land. And it
was thought that the Yellow Springs, retreat of the dead and the reservoir of
life, were the place from which there emanated the principle of the fecund
humors that endowed human beings with creative power.
Les Sources jaunes, retraite des âmes aspirant à revivre, furent encore la
prison où, vaincu par le yin, le gang, guettant le renouveau, attendait le
moment où il pourrait frapper le sol du talon, faire jaillir les sources et
ramener sur terre la vie et les eaux fécondantes. Et l'on pensa que, retraite
des morts et réservoir de vie, les Sources jaunes étaient le lieu d'où émanait
le principe des humeurs fécondes qui donnent aux humains la puissance
|[d] Interplay RF|
From this complex interplay emerges creative power, creative thought. The fecundity that swirled at the center of the Yellow Springs as they burst forth in spring (as yin gave way to yang) was the source, as well, of an intellectual power that would created the foundations of Chinese philosophical thought. By the time that the great "comsological" works (such as Guanzi and the Lüshi chunqiu) were written, it was second nature. It all emerged, however, from the wellspring (quite literally, as we have seen) of the seasonal festivals.
From the interplay between life and death, the core philosophical distinctions in Chinese thought would develop. The Yellow Springs, Granet asserts, were fundamental to the development of that thought. Those closest to practices surrounding the Yellow Springs, however, were hardly able to contextualize the matter. Too close to the ancestral power and the practices meant to harness their fertilizing power for living ends, they remained confused and perplexed in the face of death and the power of the ancestral spirits.
In this way from an ancient moving rite there developed a belief that was
soon put to use and made more precise by scholastic speculation. In popular
thought the belief must always remain unclear and confused, hardly distinct
from the images and emotions that had given it birth. The Yellow Springs
were invoked only for the most solemn oaths, and were avoided in speech.
Practices seem to have been connected to the Yellow Springs, but it was not
Ainsi se développa, à partir d'un vieux rite émouvant, une croyance qui,
bientôt, fut utilisée et précisée par la spéculation savante. Dans la pensée
populaire, elle dut rester toujours indécise et confuse, à peine distincte des
images et des émotions qui l'avaient fait naître. Les Sources jaunes étaient
choses qu'on évoquait seulement pour les plus terribles serments, et dont
on évitait de parler. Quelques pratiques semblent se rattacher à elles, mais
Unclear and confused though they might have been, the “images and emotions” that gave birth to the idea of a “place of death” shaped Chinese philosophy. Even at the highest levels of Chinese religious practice, not to mention historiography, the Yellow Springs generated the most solemn of oaths and utterances. Practices may well have been connected to it, but it was broader and more general than a mere cult ever could have been. In Marcel Granet's interpretation, the practices surrounding ancestral fertility were early Chinese society.
|[e] Ancestral RF|
Click here for other posts in Round and Square's "Rural Religion in China" series:
Harper & Row, 1975.