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Friday, November 2, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (33)

One year ago on Round and Square (2 November 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: Jerry's Haircut
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] Cyclicality 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

Rhythm and Cyclicality 
Rhythm and cyclicality are at the heart of the Marcel Granet’s argument in La religion des chinois. The rhythms are everywhere, and they are played out, at their most fundamental level, in the actions of beings in the context of a lively natural environment. They are not passive cycles. Many of them are enacted, and that is a point to which Granet returns many times. Among these actions are the competitions that did much to stimulate social bonding. One of those that connects to the summoning of yin powers is the dragon boat race on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, just as the summer growing season begins.

          These contests were conducted in many different ways, and sometimes in 
          the form of boat races: a place in the calendar was given to these nautical 
          competitions; preserved in the custom of dragon boat races, the myth of 
          the Dragon masters of the rain still forms part of Chinese beliefs.[1]

          Ces joutes se faisaient de multiples manières, et quelquefois sous forme 
          de courses de bateaux ; une place fut donnée dans le calendrier à ces 
          concours nautiques ; conservé par l'usage des courses de bateaux-dragons, 
          le mythe des Dragons Maîtres de la pluie fait encore partie des croyances 
[b] Specificity RF

Dragon boat racing has all of the competition that is a part of the festivals, combined with the calendrical specificity that marks it as part of a larger movement. “Dragon masters of the rain” are the driving idea behind the action, but the actions themselves takes on a life of their own in the races. People gather and spur on their sides. They fairly “snake” down the shores themselves. The competition is supposed to be gallant but intense.  Little do those rowing on China’s rivers each June know about the calling forth of yin essences, but the races have been preserved for well over two millennia. It has everything to do with agricultural life, however, and our source is the calendar itself, which has preserved a few key activities that recall profoundly important social forces from early times.

Granet builds toward the conclusion of his core chapter on peasant religion by pointing out the relationship between mythic themes that are alive today and the festivals—held in the all-important holy places—themselves. The unity of yin and yang essence in the sporting of dragons is an important connection, as is the fertility and domestic example, as it were, of the weaving maiden. Here again, though, the power lies in the movement itself. The weaving maiden (and the dragons, for that matter) would be rather tired examples if it were not for their cyclicality—for their gathering ability. It is in the unity of the constellations on the seventh day of the seventh month (or the unity of dragons on the fifth day of the fifth month) that gives power to the myth. It gives power, for that matter, because the ideas are rooted in the very stuff of human society, and are geared to promote its unity and further movement. It has endurance, however, because of the calendar’s ubiquity in Chinese life. 

          Two powerful mythic themes were born of a single aspect of the festivals at 
          the Holy Place. How many sacred legends must have emerged from the 
          many and stirring practices of those festivals, the gathering of flowers, the 
          climbing of hills, encounters with springs, stones, and divine trees?  
          Sometimes the mythological datum has served as matter for dogmatic 
          speculation, which has reduced its elements to scholastic entities: that is 
          what happened to yin and yang, to the rainbow, and to the Yellow Springs.[3] 

          Deux puissants thèmes mythiques sont nés d'un seul aspect des fêtes du 
          Lieu Saint ; combien de légendes sacrées ont dû sortir des pratiques 
          multiples et toutes émouvantes de ces fêtes, cueillette des fleurs, ascension 
          des monts, contacts avec les fontaines, les pierres et les arbres divins ? 
          Parfois la donnée mythologique a servi de matière à la spéculation 
          dogmatique qui en a réduit les éléments à l'état d'entités scolastiques: 
          c'est ce qui s'est produit pour le yin et le yang, pour l'arc-en-ciel, pour 
          les Sources jaunes.[4]
[c] Elements RF

Many of the elements of the festivals have been lost, or preserved only in snatches of text here and there. Granet seems less bothered by the almost inevitable loss of rituals and customs that would be mere copies anyway (once the rhythmic need for the practices were gone), than the effete scholarly reworking of elements of society and nature that would be reduced, as he put it, to “scholastic entities.”  One cannot really even find “survivals” much of the time there, so much have things been overcooked, as the spirit of rural cyclicality was rewritten to address the needs of ruler and minister in a very different social setting.

Dogma is the most perplexing problem for Granet, but it is interesting to see the way that he traces it. It is no wonder at all that “the theologians of feudal religion” would seek to rework the rich mythical imagery that sprang from profound human emotion in the festivals. Working to legitimize the courts at which they served, however, the “emotive power” of the ideas was quickly lost. Without action, without movement, these ideas were nothing. Out of context (as they surely were at the court of a Zhou vassal), they made little sense at all, and only held what power they had by virtue of a remembered religious emotion—for the courts were not as far from the peasant practices as they imagined—and a veneer of legitimacy garnered from their connection to a transitory political order.

          Sometimes the theologians of feudal religion collected the mythic elements 
          (we shall see later of what the genealogical legends and the recitals of 
          miraculous conceptions were made up): incorporated into a body of official 
          dogmas, quickly stripped of their charm and their emotive power, they fell into 
          the oblivion that comes sooner or later to all dogma. Other legends, probably 
          the majority of the themes relating to animals, have had by the erosion of time 
          to fall to pieces by themselves; they have formed the foundation of Chinese 
          folklore: there the new religions came to take what could be used to make a 
          semblance of national and popular religions.[5]

          Parfois les éléments mythi­ques ont été recueillis par les théologiens de la 
          religion féodale (on verra plus loin de quoi sont faites les légendes 
          généalogiques et les récits de conceptions miraculeuses) : incorporés à un 
          ensemble de dogmes officiels, vite dépouillés de leur charme et de leur 
          puissance émotive, ils sont tombés dans l'oubli dû tôt ou tard à tout dogme. 
          D'autres légendes, sans doute la plupart des thèmes relatifs aux animaux, 
          ont dû, par usure du temps, se décomposer d'elles-mêmes ; elles ont formé 
          le fond du folklore chinois : c'est là que les religions nouvelles sont venues 
          prendre de quoi faire figure de religions nationales ou populaires.[6]
[d] Springs RF

Folklore springs from this rich set of sources as well, but it is an eroded tradition. A “national” religion would have to be built from the remnants of a much more powerful local one. In order to create a new form of religion that would fit “feudal” society, it would take the same cyclicality found in the seasonal festivals to found a way of thinking that tapped the profound emotional core of human alternation.

Granet finishes his chapter with a series of questions that will lead us to the next stage in China’s religious development. The next wave is a “mass of hybrid products,” to be sure. That hybrid, however, partakes of the cyclicality of nature and the basic levels of society. It is then given a new level of detail and particularity as it moves from an unpersonified realm of ancestors and vaguely powerful natural areas (found in the holy places themselves) to a specific set of myths and beliefs that were connected (or made to connect) to the life of the Zhou court and the increasingly restive vassals associated with it. Two millennia of religious change are hinted at in Granet’s final paragraph, and the changes that would take place in the Zhou are only the barest of beginnings. 

          But how are we today to find our way in this mass of hybrid products?  
          What role has the popular imagination played, what role Taoist invention, 
          what the Buddhist or other share contributed to the legends of the sun raven, 
          of the hare, of the phoenix, the unicorn, the dragons themselves, the Isles of 
          the Blessed, the Queen Mother of the West’s marvelous garden of peach 
          trees, the flood, the turtle whose severed feet hold up the world, the mulberry 
          tree from which the sun emerges, the cranes ridden by Immortals, the 
          pheasants changing into oysters, the playful and helpful foxes, the tigers for 
          whom the souls of their victims serve as spies, and the hedgehog that seeks 
          safety by waiting in a rut for the carts to go by?[7] 

          Mais comment se reconnaître aujourd'hui dans cet amas de produits 
          hybrides? Quelle est la part de l'imagination populaire, de l'invention taoïste, 
          des apports, bouddhiques ou, autres, dans les légendes sur la corneille 
          solaire, sur le lièvre, la grenouille, le vieillard, le cassier qui peuplent la lune, 
          sur le phénix, la licorne, les dragons eux-mêmes, les Îles des Bienheureux, 
          les merveilleux jardins de pêchers de la Reine-mère d'Occident, le déluge, 
          la tortue dont les pattes coupées soutiennent le monde, le mûrier d'où sort 
          le soleil, les grues que chevauchent les Immortels, les faisans qui se 
          changent en huîtres, les renards facétieux et secourables, les tigres à qui 
          les âmes de leurs victimes servent d'espions, et le hérisson qui cherche le 
          salut à attendre dans une ornière le passage des chars?[8]

In Granet’s last paragraph we have a series of questions. Even more importantly, however, we have a series of places and personalities. They are just as highly charged in some ways as the earlier beliefs, not the least because they partake in its rhythms. Yet we have the persona of the Queen Mother of the West. We have the place of the Isle of the Blessed. The movement is fast-paced and profound. It has everything to do with the power of writing, I would add, for writing allows a vague yet powerful idea to be cemented on the page, studied, and systematized. The most powerful emotions are not written, but their power can be channeled into writing. That the images to which Granet refers are still a part of the Chinese mythical universe, however, speaks to the endurance of the practices that Granet has explicated in his analysis of Chinese peasant religion.

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
[e] Endurance RF
[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 56.
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 24.
[3] Granet, Religion, 56.
[4] Granet, La religion, 25.
[5] Granet, Religion, 56.
[6] Granet, La religion, 25.
[7] Granet, Religion, 56.
[8] 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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