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Sunday, October 28, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (28)

One year ago on Round and Square (28 October 2011)—MIddles: Belt Buckles
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] Fertile 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

Ancestral Society 
[b] Bud RF
As we near the end of Granet’s “Ancient Beliefs” section, we can see the outlines of the organizational structure that would cement the concept of ancestors in the corporate mix—far beyond kinship—and not merely in the domestic units themselves. The combination of ancestors, assembled living people (chanting and engaging in presexual repartee), and the fertile earth of the uncultivated holy place was one that was made for the unity and “assemblage” of ancestral souls. The ancestors thus became a part of the social unity of the closed households, even as they broke out in festival with them periodically. At least twice a year, then, the bond between the newly-united living was reinforced not only as a corporate body of the living, but also with their corporate dead in tow. 

Society was made whole by linking those who had lived before with both the living and those who had yet to be born in a long process of reincarnation. That very process made internal Chinese perceptions of "society" a great deal more cyclical than would appear at first glance. Indeed, it linked those who walked the earth, those who once walked, and those yet unborn who would one day walk it. Many societies have categories to explain the concepts of predecessor and successor, and, even at this early (and “theoretical”) juncture of Granet's portrait, the rural Chinese spoke of society in such terms. The concepts were necessarily vague, put no less powerful for that.  

          On the one side, the Holy Place was a grouping of Ancestral Centers, 
          each of which was necessary to make up the sanctity of the whole.[1] 

          Par un côté, le Lieu Saint était un groupement de Centres Ancestraux, 
          dont chacun était nécessaire pour constituer la sainteté de l'ensemble.[2] 
[c] "Public" RF

The ancestral rites were public: they required public participation. It is interesting to see Granet’s (translated) use of the word “performance” in the quotation below. There is no doubt that the rites themselves, when properly carried out in the very spirit espoused from Confucius onward, were fundamentally performative. Performance is, by its very nature, public. The ancestors were part of the social order, and interactions with them were not of a private nature. Just as the songs at the seasonal festivals were public, so, too, were all interactions that living beings had with the dead. 

It is necessary to point out, however, that much of what is meant by the term “public” is not necessarily viewed by an audience. Selected individuals, having properly purified and fasted, would engage with the ancestors. The nature of the rites (even in their most basic stages, as we see in the case of early rural China) were public in the sense that chosen individuals represented the larger society (or elements of that society) in ancestral rites. They did not interact with the ancestors as individuals. They represented the corporate body itself. 

          Just as the ceremonies of ancestor worship always required public 
          participation in their performance, so too the common interest always 
          demanded that no family cult be allowed to escheat: the integrity of society 
          would have been attacked. Furthermore, the upkeep of these cults 
          associated from the beginning with those of the cultivated Earth was 
          indispensable for achieving the prosperity of agricultural work.[3]

          De même que les cérémonies du culte ancestral demandèrent toujours 
          pour leur célébration une contribution du public, de même, toujours, l'intérêt 
          commun exigea qu'aucun culte familial ne tombât en déshérence : la société 
          en eût été atteinte dans son intégrité. Aussi bien, !e maintien de chacun de 
          ces cultes associés dès l'origine à ceux du Sol cultivé, était indispensable 
          pour obtenir la prospérité des travaux agricoles.[4] 
[d] Roots RF

We have a practical matter to consider in the quotation above. The very work of upkeep (both physical and ritual) of the ancestral cults was of a corporate nature, and surely added to both the linkages between individuals and small groups, as well as the linkage beyond the domestic order of “assembled individuals” and “assembled ancestors.”  Again, we have something much bigger and more profound than the interactions of a several generation family under a roof hole. That very hole looks out onto the heavens, and it speaks to a wider world out there. The ancestral cult assured a sense of society “under heaven,” even as they worked as a group on upkeep of ancestral tombs and the observance of ancestral rites. 

At base, the ancestral cults are agricultural, as is the basis of all early social life. All people must eat, and the agricultural roots of society can even be found in unlikely places, such as modern urban society, as Granet’s mentor Emile Durkheim persuasively argued in The Division of Labor in Society, whose argument influenced Granet’s thought deeply. Building from that agricultural foundation, then, we have the basis of the private cult associated with earth. It is a short step to the worship of ancestors as a public matter, and that has everything to do with the tilling of fields and the seasonal movement of gender and labor, as it were, that is punctuated by the teeming social frenzy and sexual connection of the seasonal festivals themselves.

          And that is why, while the private cult of the appropriated Earth was 
          rounded off in each house by that of the natural Earth, and while the 
          worship of Ancestors seemed to be a matter of public interest, there was 
          associated with the public worship of the common Earth a cult of the tilled 
          fields: the public cult of grain, the cult of millet. In this way, the linked 
          development of agrarian and ancestor cults, of public and private cults, 
          is explained.[5]

          Et c'est pourquoi, tandis que le culte privé du Sol approprié se complétait 
          dans chaque maison par celui du Sol naturel, et tandis que le culte des 
          Ancêtres paraissait d'intérêt publie, au culte public de la Terre commune 
          s'associa celui des champs cultivés, qui fut le culte public des graines, le 
          culte du millet. Ainsi s'explique le développement lié des cultes agraires et 
          des cultes ancestraux, des cultes publics et des cultes privés.[6] 
[e] Cult(ure) RF

We finish this sub-section with the public cult of grain and millet. It is ultimately not possible to keep agricultural work (and, even more difficult, beliefs about the outside world) at only the level of the family. The family, as we have seen, is never really “closed” after all, and the need for replenishment opens the door for a merging of more than yin and yang. It creates the possibility that merged individuals and small groups will begin to think of their ancestors, the earth, and the grain that comes from “them” as something particularly important for corporate life.  

It creates the basis for a set of beliefs that link people in ways that go far beyond the world of the hearth or the individual field. The grain shrine created more than a place for veneration, however. People went to the grain shrine to pay respects, to be sure, but also to gather to decide community strategies such as water control and coordination of harvests. It became the very symbol of the larger society that linked human beings to something beyond the closed group of kin within which they passed most of their lives. 

With earth securely protected—and providing physical and social sustenance—heaven was only a small step away.

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
[f] Links RF
[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 53.
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 24.
[3] Granet, Religion, 53.
[4] Granet, La religion, 25.
[5] Granet, Religion, 53.
[6] Granet, La religion, 25.

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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