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Saturday, October 13, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (21)

One year ago on Round and Square (13 October 2011)—Asian Miscellany: Food and Drink in Modern China
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
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

Living Death 
The beginnings of directional orientation for the dead can be seen even in the rushing spring waters, and it should not be forgotten that the seasonal festivals themselves have a powerful directional focus. This did not develop out of whole cloth, but was rather constructed from the base of the seasonal festivals and the “directional chants” of the assembled youth groups we encountered several posts ago. From here, we see the connection to the dead, which lies (so to speak) at the heart of geomantic practice. The Yellow Springs is the abode of the dead—their “winter quarters,” as it were. They gain release in the springtime. The connection of the ancestors to the lands that they once tilled and the holy places they frequented during the seasonal festivals is clear in Granet’s account.

          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.[1]

          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.[2]
[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.[3]

          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 
          du Septentrion.[4] 

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.[5]   

          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.[6]

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.[7]   

          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 
          a cult.[9]

          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 
          aucun culte.[10] 

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:
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 
[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), 23.
[3] Granet, Religion, 49-50.
[4] Granet, La religion, 23.
[5] Granet, Religion, 50.
[6] Granet, La religion, 23.
[7] Granet, Religion, 50.
[8] Granet, La religion, 23.
[9] Granet, Religion, 50.
[10] Granet, La religion, 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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