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] Soil RF|
Click here for other posts in Round and Square's "Rural Religion in China" series:
They imagined then that their conception was the work of the fecund
Powers emanating from the domestic Soil, that the Soil itself had
germinated the life they felt grow within them, and finally that the child
they got had taken its substance from the very substance of the ancestors.
Elles imaginaient alors que leur conception était l'œuvre des Puissances
fécondes qui émanaient du Sol domestique, que dans le Sol même avait
germé la vie qu'elles sentaient croître en elles, et qu'enfin l'enfant qui leur
venait avait pris sa substance dans la substance même des aïeux.
|[b] Outpost RF|
It is very important to note the conception of fecund powers, and the explicit relationship between the newly born and the ancestors. We are not speaking here merely about the “spirit” of the ancestors, but rather of their essential matter. The very bodies of the ancestors merge with the soil to become ancestral soil. This, in turn, is the precise setting for sexual relations, the germination of seeds (which, of course, returns to the soil), and the first days of infants, who are given to the earth after their birth, and only days later become fully a part of the life of the social group.
What Granet describes is hardly a “symbolic” or “stylized” process. It is the very stuff of nature, and that “stuff” is the fertile soil (when thought of in the larger sense of “earth”) that lies opposite heaven itself in a 天地 relationship. To interpret this correctly, we must realize that “heaven” is not the only place where ancestors reside, even though that would take on enormous importance as Chinese thought became more refined and abstract in future centuries. In a much more powerful and corporeal sense, they reside in the ground itself, nourishing the many kinds of seeds in the southwest corner of the house for the benefit of society and nature.
It is not a very large step from corpses of people with whom one has shared life in the closed domestic order to “life principles” floating in the household corners in which they were buried. Nourishing the soil, these corpses became disembodied and returned to the social life from whence they came. This is a key point. If the body itself returns to the soil of its origin, the spirit returns to the domestic order that gave it social life. The division of hun and po souls (魂魄) in Chinese thought—refined to the point of abstraction in later philosophy, but arising from these principles—contributes to this thinking. Hun is corporeal; po is ethereal. Both form "the whole."
|[c] Float RF|
One dies with the body, and floats about—and does so even before death, while in dream states. In the context of the peasant household, however, it is enough to acknowledge the ethereal power encompassing the rotting bones of those with whom the family had shared life months and years before. What would become the corporeal soul rots with flesh in the earth. The ethereal soul was thought to hover among the grains and coupling parents.
The belief became established that life principles floated in the dark corner
where the ancestors had become discarnate: every birth seemed to be the
reincarnation of a forbear.
La croyance s'établit que des principes de vie flottaient dans le coin sombre
où les aïeux s'étaient désincarnés : toute naissance parut être une
The decaying flesh in the southwest corner of the house was a forbear. More importantly, however, it was grandpa (or grandma, or dad, or uncle). “It” was a part of the domestic order. “It” had once worked in the fields, shared meals with others, and participated in the give-and-take of the seasonal festivals. It is not hard to imagine, then, that the “life principle” of the disincarnate body would return to the social order and breathe new life into it. That was done through reincarnation, and it all was centered (as it were) on the southwest corner of the compound. The soul that had left the earth would return in the guise of little junior (小寶寶兒), the newest addition to the cycles of change and rebirth.
|[d] Guise RF|
Uterine reincarnation is a significant dimension of the themes that Granet has built into the powerful first chapter of La religion des chinois. The newborn child was an ancestor, and returned in essence to the living family. In precise terms, the new child was uncle or grandpa, or the like (assuming that the ancestor was male, as most early thinkers in China would have done) on the mother’s side. When their “stay in Mother Earth” was over, that life principle became a new, living member of the family who would again work in the communal fields, share meals, marry, engage in sexual relations (creating more “living ancestors”), and, upon his own death, return to the soil, only to be born again in an endless cycle.
Since women conceived in their natal homes, reincarnation must be in
the uterine line: a newborn child was none other than an ancestor who,
individual life again and reappeared within the living section of the family.
Comme les femmes concevaient dans leur maison natale, c'était en ligne
utérine que devaient s'opérer ces réincarnations : un nouveau-né n'était pas
autre chose qu'un ancêtre qui, après un séjour dans la Terre-mère,
substance commune des aïeux maternels, reprenait une vie individuelle et
réapparaissait dans la portion vivante de la famille.
It must be noted, however, that this cycle is not merely a thought pattern or an elaborate intellectual game. It is the very picture of social interaction and relationships. The cycle is driven, as are the seasonal festivals, by social forces that shape thought. They shape the very relationships between people and give order to their actions and their thinking. Reincarnation, then, is a profoundly social concept. It is common to refer to it as an idea, and even a product of the imagination, but its foundations lie at the heart of social interactions in a natural setting. Anything less misses the thrust of Granet's imaginative sociology.
|[e] Creation RF|
From here, his explicit points continue. Earth is the basis of kinship. This, too, is more than a mere idea, more than just a way to distinguish an uncle from a grandfather. It is kinship in its deepest sense—real social relations that result in food being produced and prepared, as well as festivals celebrated and marriages cemented. All of these occur because the family is attached to a plot of land. There is a profound connection to the soil that lies at the very heart of the social order.
People do not merely interact with one another. They do so in the context of the soil. Even better put, they do so in and on the very ground that they use to plant, harvest, celebrate, and create new generations.
At the same time as the idea of Mother Earth was elaborated—basis of
according to the system of descent through women—the belief was formed,
in the family groups fixed to domestic Soil and confident in their perennity,
that the family substance was as eternal in the same way as was their Soil
and like it ever unchanging. It was neither diminished by a death nor
augmented by a birth: but every member of the group passed by birth or
death into a different form of existence.
En même temps que s'élaborait l'idée de Terre-mère, principe de parenté
dans une famille attachée à un terroir et organisée selon le système de la
descendance féminine, en même temps dans les groupes familiaux, fixés
au Sol domestique et confiants dans leur pérennité, se formait la croyance
que la substance familiale était éternelle à l'égal de leur Terre, et, comme
celle-ci, toujours égale à elle-même. Une mort ne la diminuait point ni une
naissance ne l'augmentait : mais tout membre du groupe passait, par la
naissance ou la mort, à une forme différente d'existence.
Those generations emerge from the uterine line, and the family substance is unchanged. Death or birth do not affect it in its deep essence. Mothers are connected to Mother Earth, and men are reborn through both mothers and earth. In short, there are different forms of essence, all part of one world, that alternate to create the cycle of human life and death.
This is precisely why the “unseen world” is a fundamental part of the world as a whole in China. Granet makes it very clear that the family is constituted, at its very foundation, of the living and the dead. This was to become the foundation for ritual life within the family in China through imperial times and even up to the present. For now, suffice it to say that social relations on the fecund soil is what gives sustenance to the wide social network encompassing the living and the dead.
It may strike readers as idealized, but it is the very picture of living reality—“seen” and “unseen” under a single roof.
Click here for other posts in Round and Square's "Rural Religion in China" series:
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
|[f] (Un)seen RF|
Harper & Row, 1975.