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Friday, April 19, 2013

Philosophy of History of Philosophy: A History (1a)—Heaven is High and the Emperor is Far Away

A year ago on Round and Square (19 April 2012)—Fieldnotes From History: Capital Duck
[a] Cold, rainy, spring RF
This is one post in a four-part series. Click below for the other posts:
High 1          High 2          High 3          High 4

I recently wrote an essay for a website that proposed to deal with history, philosophy, culture, and the practice of daily life in early China and Greece. The piece that was finally published was a great deal different from this one, so I am happy to post the "long version" here. As will be clear soon enough, I see profound connections between the thought of Greek thinkers such as Hesiod and Herodotus, on the one hand, and Chinese writers from Sima Qian to the anonymous authors of the Book of Songs (詩經/诗经). Through it all, like a flowing watercourse, runs the calendar and a question that I think needs asking (and re-asking) as we study history: what is the relationship between repeatable events, such as we find every year at certain points of the calendar, and singular moments in the past. This is a philosophical question...about history, culture, and time. That is why it is the second post in this series on the philosophy of history (of philosophy).
[b] Flowering RF
On a cold, rainy, day in mid-March the Chinese agricultural calendar recognized a solar year cycle called “Insects Awaken” (驚蟄). It also noted the seventh of seventy-two little micro-periods, five days each, called “Peaches Begin to Flower” (桃始華). Every year, these periods mark a key break in the agricultural year, as snows continue melting, river ice thaws, and the first buds of agricultural growth begin to dot the landscape. On that particular March day, the calendar also prescribed that it was a good day to pay reverence to ancestors, go out and about, hold marriage ceremonies, move residences, open markets, erect beams, make grain payments, and position graves for geomantic efficiency. It was a bad one for binding nets, “moving earth,” discarding clothing, and building outhouses.[1]

All of this, and more, is contained in one column of text that has shown a remarkable consistency over the past two millennia.[2] Agriculturalists in China’s first millennium BCE followed prescriptions and proscriptions for daily activities, and in a way that bears resemblance to today’s patterns. Above all, though, they followed the rhythms of the year. They “read” the patterns of freezing and thawing carefully, prepared their implements, and were ready for plowing as soon as the earth was.[3]  

But first, they would dance. 
The brilliant sinologist and sociologist Marcel Granet (1884-1940) has written memorably about these spring celebrations during what we today call “March” and “early-April”—most notably about two weeks on either side of the vernal equinox. For the careful reader of the calendar, the year has been building to this point. The period names are memorable, and even more resonant than the names of months are for Westerners: “east wind melts the ice,” “dormant creatures twitch,” “fish swim upstream, breaking ice,” “river otters sacrifice fish,” “wild geese head north,” “grasses and trees sprout.” These period names show the yang-melts-yin momentum of the year, and Marcel Granet tells what happens next: people gather before they plow, and love fills the air. 

         Holy was the place, sacred the slopes of the valley they climbed and descended, 
         the stream they crossed with their skirts tucked up, the blooming flowers they 
         plucked, the ferns, the bushes, the white elms, the great oaks and the wood they 
         took from them: the lit bonfires, the scent of the nosegays, the spring water in 
         which they dipped themselves, and the wind that dried them as they came 
         from bathing, all had virtues, unlimited virtues; all was a promise given to 
         all hopes…
...The ancient festivals were above all festivals of initiation, which brought into social intercourse young people hitherto shut up in the hamlets of their families: betrothals and marriages were contracted to the benefit of the community and under its control…[The young people stood in rows, facing each other, and their chants] had such potency that on each occasion the young people burst into poetry…When they faced one another in [these choral] contests…their rivalrous action was always regulated by rhythm; whatever the contest, it had the appearance of a duel of dance and song.
         With all the images of the ritual landscape, flowers, foliage, the rainbow joining 
         two regions of Space, springs flowing together, they composed a litany of 
         seasonal saws by means of which they linked their wills together and placed 
         one another under a spell. Little by little, by the effect of this long inclination, 
         feelings of sexual modesty and family spirit were muted within them. The power 
         of the poetry finally brought them together, and they no longer resisted the duty 
         to unite.[4]

The writer who sees only naiveté in these lines misses Granet’s point entirely. Those who live on and for the soil gain a sense of the rhythms of the year that frames their daily lives, as well as the life cycles they experience as they age. These actions make the calendar. It is not the other way around, except in the most mundane sense. We don’t follow the calendar; the calendar follows us. Everything we know about daily life flows from these patterned activities.  
Such a statement would likely have sounded perfectly natural to a farmer in early Greece, as we shall see, as well as to a rural Chinese agriculturalist.  It is not so much the facts surrounding cycles of cold and heat—natural and obvious to anyone paying attention—as the peculiar mix of human labor, creativity, and imagination connected with those cycles that make the everyday lives of early agriculturalists fascinating to study. From this perspective, the spring equinox was a time, according to Marcel Granet and the earliest calendrical sources, to gather, celebrate, and hope—together, in blissful communion. It was a time for betrothals, sharing of the last savings from winter domesticity, and making plans for the work in the fields that would dominate their lives for the next six months. Indeed, the very word for “society” in Chinese has roots in this practice of communal gathering in sacred spaces. 社會 (“society”) literally means “gathering” (會) at the grain shrine (社)”—uniting together in sacred space. 

Through this lens, we can know something of the rhythmic cadences of their social and working lives, most of which took place far beyond the gaze of power holders and writers of history. There is an old saying in China, and it is as relevant to ancient China as to Greece—“heaven is high and the ruler is far away” (天高帝遠). The state may have codified the calendar and distributed copies of it. The distant agriculturalists knew better that they were solely responsible for negotiating the cycles of growth and decay. The rest of this essay will explore the implications of these ideas for the study of everyday life.

This is one post in a four-part series. Click below for the other posts:
High 1          High 2          High 3          High 4 

[1] A translation of the current lunar calendar date is posted every day on my blog, Round and Square.

[2] Even the earliest calendars in Chinese history connected agriculture and the ruling house. Examples can be found in several first millennium BCE works, including the Guanzi (管子) and the Spring and Autumn Annals of M. Lu (呂氏春秋). See Allyn J. Rickett, Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985) and John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel, The Annals of Lü Buwei (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).

[3] In East Wind Melts the Ice, Liza Dalby writes memorably about these seasonal patterns. Liza Dalby, East Wind Melts the Ice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[4] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Edited and translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 41-44.

Dalby, Liza East Wind Melts the Ice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Granet, Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People [Edited and translated by Maurice Freedman]. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. 

Knoblock, John and Jeffrey Riegel. The Annals of Lü Buwei. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Rickett, Allyn J. Guanzi: Political, Economic, and Philosophical Essays from Early China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. 


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