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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (17)

[a] Calendar/architecture 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

Seasons and Calendars  
The calendar is the core unifying force in the Chinese universe—the intellectual and social organizing principle behind every movement under heaven (天下). The seasons divide the halves of the year once again, giving the rhythm of the universe its four-part structure. The seasonal festivals, however, were closely—even profoundly—linked, for seasons are not merely natural phenomena in Chinese thought. They are punctuated by social activity. Furthermore, the peasant sayings (some of which contributed to what today is a popular twenty-four part breakdown of the year) emerged from the actual practice of working the year. Over time, they became, as Granet notes, stereotypical and obligatory. They began as part of a rich engagement with the rhythms of nature, however, and were as fundamental in their own way as the working of the fields and the marking of the seasonal festivals.

          The basis for organizing these confusing facts intellectually and practically 
          was the Calendar. From the song contests were born not only a great 
          number of emblematic formulae but also the art of formulating the seasonal 
          themes. What the peasants observed in natural recurrences provided, once 
          put into poetic form, an important body of calendrical sayings; analogous in 
          form to the symbolic themes of the Festivals, stereotyped, conventional, 
          obligatory in character, and, beside, rich in themselves in calendrical wisdom, 
          these saying too seemed to possess a constraining power.[1] 

          Le principe d'organisation intellectuelle et pratique de ces données confu­ses 
          fut le Calendrier. Des joutes chantées étaient nés, non seulement un grand 
          nombre de formules emblématiques, mais aussi l'art de formuler des 
          thèmes saisonniers. Les remarques paysannes notant des récurrences 
          naturelles, mises sous forme poétique, fournirent une masse importante de 
          dictons de calen­drier ; ceux-ci analogues par la forme aux thèmes 
          symboliques des Fêtes, stéréotypés, conventionnels, de caractère obligatoire,
          riches d'ailleurs en eux-mêmes de sagesse traditionnelle, semblèrent posséder, 
          eux aussi, une espèce de pouvoir contraignant.[2] 
[b] Calendrical RF

Granet traces the beginning of the formulaic saying to the song contests at the seasonal festivals. The chants clearly have a verbal rhythm that emerged in the engagement of the sexes during the festivals. The imagery of the seasonal changes works its way into the very heart of the sayings. Chinese almanacs, even today, are packed with these images, and their source can be found in early peasant gatherings. What we have today, Granet asserts, is a carry-over from the social life of early rural families.

Winter—specifically the down time after the harvest has been completed—is, for many societies, a period of rest and thanksgiving. Note how Granet establishes the calendrical nature of peasant songs. It is one of his most imaginative statements, and it coheres nicely even with calendars and almanacs today. Singing in chorus about themes of the year that has just passed, the participants engage in a form of creative and calendrically rhythmic peasant historiography. It is also, as Granet notes, a kind of planner or organizer that prepares them for future tasks in line with the obligations created by natural processes. Whether it be wind or rain, planting or harvest—indeed, birth or death—they sang the calendar. This insight, if I may say so, is precisely why Maurice Freedman and I think that Marcel Granet was a genius.

          The harvest in, to give thanks to all things and, before the new year, to give 
          them their leave for the winter, the Chinese peasants sang in chorus the 
          labors and the days of the year now past; the poetic patchwork of their sung 
          calendar, reciting to them their future tasks, presaged their success and 
           promised them the continued help of Nature. Such a song was testimony 
          of past obedience, a vow of future obedience to the law that obliged men and 
          things to bring their actions into harmony.[3] 

          La récolte faite, pour rendre grâces à toutes choses et leur donner, 
          avant l'année nouvelle, leur congé hivernal, les paysans chinois disaient en 
          chœur les travaux et les jours de l'année écoulée ; les centons versifiés de 
          leur calendrier chanté, tout en leur dictant à l'avance leurs beso­gnes futures, 
          leur en présageaient le succès et leur promettaient le concours continué de 
          la Nature. Un tel chant était un témoignage d'obéissance passée, un vœu
          d'obéissance future à la loi qui obligeait hommes et choses à faire concorder 
          leur action.[4] 

Harmony was the goal, and social harmony was just a small feature of the universal harmony that peasants sought through their festivals. Concord in a domestic unit was useless without concord of the river waters and the changes of seasons, to name just two small examples. Granet’s use of the term “obedience” here is quite pointed, but that is what nature requires—obedience to natural laws that seem immutable. 
[c] Vintage calendars RF

There is something more, though, for Granet does not treat people as passive figures in the face of nature. Their obedience is tied to the responsibility of leadership, even control, over nature. They are not mere followers of nature who are acted upon, helpless to respond. They lead, too. Imagine shaking a great rug and creating a flowing rhythm on a windy day…or flying a kite in responsorial adjustments to the movement of the breeze. One is obedient to nature’s “laws,” but one is also responsible for setting them in motion. It is a complex idea that lies at the very heart of Granet’s thought, and should not be dismissed as peripheral (the most common criticism of Granet).

The calendar was the supreme law of the human and natural world, and it held that distinction because it worked, in multiple senses. The rhythms of gender-divided work in the fields, and the manner in which people worked in obedience to (and control of) nature, was what gave the calendar its power. It is not a “thing” outside of human and natural movement—nor above or beyond it. It is embedded in the very relations that people had to their environment as they worked the soil in all climates and seasons.

          It is significant that the Chinese attributed this poem to their most
          venerated legislator: the Calendar was and remained the supreme law, valid
          at once for human society and the natural world.[5]

          Il est significatif que les Chinois aient attribué, ce poème à leur législateur
          le plus vénéré : le Calendrier était et devait rester la loi suprême, valable à la
          fois pour la société humaine et le monde naturel.[6] 

The rhythm of society and nature has further dimensions that Granet now begins to explicate, or at least note. The approach of hawks and ring doves were not merely emblematic of spring’s arrival. Coming full circle, as it were, they were actual signals for the change of seasons and of human activities. It is not necessarily a matter of things becoming emblematic after they are perceived as real forces, either. It is all the more powerful when it works in the opposite way—when they themselves actually seem to signal the world’s movements.

          But as soon as the seasonal sayings, the observations and the 
          prescriptions, emblems common to all species of beings and signals 
          ordering every action, were arranged in an organized calendar, each took 
          form the very fact of its position a capacity to become the distinct sign of a 
          particular meaning and a special efficacy. Thus it was that the reappearance 
          or the retreat of hibernating animals, the hawk changed into the ring dove or 
          the ring dove changed into the hawk, were no longer simply emblems of 
          Spring and Autumn but actually the signal for return to the village or for 
          going out into the fields, for the close of hunting or for its opening.[7]   

           Mais les dictons saisonniers, remarques et prescriptions, emblèmes 
          communs à toutes les espèces d'êtres et signaux commandant toute action, 
          dès qu'ils étaient ainsi classés dans un calendrier organisé, recevaient, 
          chacun, du fait même de leur place, une aptitude à devenir le signe distinct 
          d'un sens particu­lier et d'une efficacité spéciale. C'est ainsi que la 
          réapparition ou la retraite des animaux hibernants, l'épervier transformé en 
          ramier ou le ramier changé en épervier, ne furent plus seulement des 
          emblèmes du Printemps ou de l'Automne, mais, précisément, le signal de 
          la rentrée au village ou de la sortie dans les champs, de la fin de la chasse 
          ou de son ouverture.[8] 
[d] Calendrier RF

Transformations, such as that seen with the hawk and the ring dove were significant in themselves, and it is interesting here to see examples of it in early practice, even if that early practice is that imagined by a theorizing sinologist such as Granet. The transformations of creatures played a very great role in later Chinese historiography, but these transformations as reflections of seasonal change (and not immediate discord in the universe) are significant. Indeed, transformations in the very “body” of human society and the domestic order are what the seasonal festivals themselves were all about. Transformation is the very heart of a growing and complex social and natural order. Without profound change—some predictable, others sudden—there is no order. 

That is the rhythmic key. Order is not static.

Granet builds toward the philosophical development of Chinese thought that took place far from the rural festivals, and far from its social practices. It does not take long, after removing the spontaneous excitement of the festivals (the “concerted action,” as Granet puts it), for them to lose their indistinct values. This is a matter worth pondering. It is not a matter of civilization “advancing” as values become distinct. The power lies in their indistinct nature. “Fixed ends” are the very opposite of what the seasonal festivals seek. Their very indistinctness and unfixed nature (at least in terms of specific ends) marks them, even as their general aim of harmonious intermingling and exogamous exchange is very clear.

          Symmetrically, as soon as the religious practices ordered by these signals 
          were removed from the concerted action of the Festivals, they lost their 
          indistinct values: each, appearing to pursue a particular end, seemed to 
          have been thought out for this special use. There came a time when the 
          crossing of the stream served only to procure rain and when it was 
          considered a sort of mimetic rite specially conceived for that fixed end.[9]    

          Symétriquement, les pratiques religieuses ordonnées par ces signaux, 
          sitôt soustraites de l'action d'ensemble des Fêtes, perdirent leurs valeurs 
          indistinctes : chacune, semblant poursuivre une fin particulière, parut avoir 
          été conçue pour cet emploi spécial. Il fut un temps où le passage de la 
          rivière ne servit plus qu'à obtenir la pluie et où on le considéra comme une 
          espèce de rite mimétique tout exprès imaginé pour cette fin déterminée.[10]

The seeming advance created by philosophers through mimetic rites is one of order and symmetry only. The real power, the raw power, is found in the indistinct themes and natural forces found in the interaction of human beings and nature in the twice-yearly seasonal festivals, in the lush natural settings where animal, human, and ancestral life came together in a frenzied few days of dancing, sharing, and contestation, society, as Granet asserts, was created.
[e] Terrain 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

[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 47.
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 20.
[3] Granet, Religion, 47.
[4] Granet, La religion, 20-21.
[5] Granet, Religion, 47.
[6] Granet, La religion, 21.
[7] Granet, Religion, 47.
[8] Granet, La religion, 21.
[9] Granet, Religion, 2-47.
[10] Granet, La religion, 21.

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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