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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (31)

One year ago on Round and Square (31 October 2011)—Middles: Middle of Nowhere 
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] Rural 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

Herdboy and Weaving Maiden
Could there be a better picture in Chinese mythology of Granet’s cyclical theme than the legend of the herdboy and the weaving maiden?  Society is divided in half by gender, and that is reinforced by the necessities of labor, which keep the two sexes apart for much of the year (in the mythical case, for 364 days). Divided work lies at the very core of early society and early thought. The apportioning of tasks may well have been a necessity of human—and now divine—labor, but it was surely more than that, as well. It was the fundamental starting point for human society itself.

          The legend of the Weaving Maiden was born of a like transposition. Emblem 
          of young peasant women in times gone by, the Weaving Maiden is a 
          constellation which all through the year leads a life of lonely work; not far from 
          it but also alone, another constellation, the Cowherd, labors in the heavenly 
          fields: it was necessary everywhere for the sexes to remain apart and for their 
          tasks to be apportioned.[1]   

          C'est d'une transposition du même ordre qu'est née la légende de la 
          Tisserande. Emblème des jeunes paysannes du temps jadis, la Tisserande 
          est une constellation qui mène tout au long de l'année une vie de travail 
          solitaire; non loin d'elle, mais aussi solitaire, une autre constellation, le 
          Bouvier, travaille aux labours célestes : il faut bien qu'en tous lieux les 
          sexes restent séparés et se répartissent la besogne.[2]
[b] Slingshot RF

Society was grounded in the division (and coordinated labor) of men and women. They were divided by rivers and streams that separated the household from the raised fields in the distance. Society was renewed by their coming together, first in the festivals and then in the social practices that made the winter months the heart of human and natural fertility. It was as though the festival were a slingshot that propelled men and women together in profound union that would stimulate even more “gathering”—from festivals to marriage and birth.

For the herdboy and the weaving maiden, it is a different kind of river that divides them—the Milky Way. Their labors, however, are just as different in the sky as they are for human beings on earth. Divided by a river, they go about their tasks in isolation, just as do their human counterparts. They come together only for the briefest (but deepest) of periods in a powerful concentration of the human festivals.

          Between them, as a sacred frontier, flows the river known as the Milky Way. 
          Once a year, work stops and the constellations are reunited: at that point, to 
          celebrate her annual nuptials, the heavenly Maiden fords the holy river of 
          Heaven. As on earth, birds take part in the wedding festivals; magpies form 
          an escort at the wedding ceremony: if their heads are bare of plumage, it is 
          because, having gathered over deep waters, they have formed a bridge for 
          the procession to cross.[3]   

          Entre eux, frontière sacrée, coule un fleuve qui est la Voie lactée. Une fois 
          par an, le travail cesse et les constellations se rejoignent  alors, pour aller 
          célébrer ses noces annuelles, la Vierge céleste passe à gué le fleuve saint 
          du Ciel. Comme sur terre, les oiseaux participent aux fêtes nuptiales ; les 
          pies forment escorte à la pompe du mariage : si leurs têtes sont dégarnies de 
          plumes, c'est que, se réunissant au-dessus des eaux profondes, elles ont fait 
          un pont pour le passage du cortège.[4]
[c] Renewal RF

The wedding imagery and, indeed, the very feeling of the holy place, is part of the reconnection of the lovers on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Here again, Granet waxes poetic as he describes the magpies—heads bare of plumage—that gather over the waters. It is a profound sense of gathering that grounds the legend, just as it is a similarly profound gathering that lies at the very heart of the social order and gives it renewal every spring and every autumn.

Without doubt, the weaving maiden is foremost the very picture of women’s work in the Chinese cultural world. She represents the ideals of staying in place and attending to domestic labor and conjugal responsibility. She also has an added image: that of fertility goddess. It should never be forgotten that women’s life “under heaven” was a combination of domestic labor, conjugal responsibility, and teeming fertility. Sexuality was not nearly as important as fertility, and it was the hope of families that their women would bear many sons who would, in turn, marry many daughters from beyond their villages.

          By her fidelity to ancient usages, the Weaving Maiden deserved to become 
          and to remain the patron of women’s work and of conjugal life: on the night 
          of the heavenly nuptials, Chinese women, in order to promote pregnancy, 
          float little figures of children on the water, and in order to become skillful, they 
          thread their needles by the light cast by the holy Constellation.[5]   

          Par sa fidélité aux vieux usages, la Tisserande a mérité de devenir et de 
          rester la patronne du travail féminin et de la vie conjugale : la nuit des 
          Noces célestes, les femmes chinoises, pour favoriser les grossesses, font 
          flotter sur l'eau des figurines d'enfant, et, pour devenir adroites, elles enfilent 
          des aiguilles à la lueur qui descend de la Constellation sainte.[6]
[d] Linked RF

Just as women would thread their needles by the light of the constellation—a particularly poignant image that mixes many of the themes we have seen—so, too, would they thread their sexual futures to her stars. Who would think of a domestic laborer as an image of fertility?  The two are intimately connected in the early Chinese social world of Granet’s text.

Just as the herdboy and the weaving maiden would come together for the briefest of periods during the year, so, too, was the window for living men and women quite narrow. Hoping to make the most of their own opportunities—which were deeply linked to the success of the closed domestic order and, if one can individualize at this point, the woman’s success within it—they connected themselves to the weaving maiden by sending figures down their own Milky Way. The fertility images are embedded, and are interwoven with the legends themselves.

Divided labor supports them. Fertility windows drive them.
[e] Glue RF

Human sentiment and even profound desire for fertility are incapable of cementing these beliefs, however. That can only be done with the glue that is the calendar. The weaving maiden, far more than her partner, was to be found in the detritus of tradition—on tomb walls, on statuettes, and in fragments of legends. The calendar, and the resonant combination of seven and seven—with the yin essence it embodies—is what gives the weaving maiden her power in the cultural tradition. Even in times when women kept to their domestic labors, they were as though surrounded by a holy place of their own. 

They were “fertilized,” as it were, by their contact with the holy places, even as the men labored in their fields far away from them, divided by the rushing rivers that separated the agricultural fields from the households where the women spent the late spring and summer months.

          But if in the whole course of Chinese history, the Weaving Maiden has had 
          offerings of fruit and flowers set before her, if her graven image is to be found 
          on the walls of funerary chambers, and if she has come to the aid of filial piety 
          in difficulty, it is because the calendar has given her a place and because, even 
          in times when and places where women remained always shut up, there were 
          gardens made up of water, rocks, and venerable trees between the walls of the 
          noble residences recalling the ritual landscape of the Holy Places. There the 
          memory of the ancient Festivals could be preserved by carrying out some of 
          the seasonal rites that originated from them.[7]   

          Mais si, dans tout le cours de l'histoire chinoise, la Tisserande s'est vu 
          dresser des offrandes de fruits et de fleurs, si l'on trouve son image gravée 
          sur la paroi des chambres funéraires, si elle est venue en aide à la piété filiale 
          dans l'embarras, c'est que le calendrier lui avait assigné une place et que, 
          même aux temps et dans les milieux où les femmes restaient toujours cloîtrées, 
          il y avait, entre les murs des résidences nobles, des jardins, composés avec 
          des eaux, des roches et des arbres vénérables, qui rappelaient le paysage 
          rituel des Lieux Saints. Là, le souvenir des vieilles Fêtes pouvait être conservé 
          par la pratique de quelques-uns des rites saisonniers qui en dérivaient.[8]

The very rocks and gardens were more than symbols of the holy place: they were the holy place, and the women were imbued with their presence. In those gardens, amidst running waters and rocks, the women carried out the patterning of the seasonal festivals, just as the weaving maiden did the same in her constellation in the sky. When their own window of sexual opportunity would open in the cold months of late autumn and winter, they would be ready, with all of the power or ancestral presences hovering near the germinating seeds and the astral influence of the heavenly constellation of fertility, the weaving maiden.

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] Astral RF
[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 53-54..
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 24.
[3] Granet, Religion, 54.
[4] Granet, La religion, 25.
[5] Granet, Religion, 54.
[6] Granet, La religion, 25.
[7] Granet, Religion, 54.
[8] Granet, La religion, 25.
[9] Granet, Religion, 54.
[10] 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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