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Sunday, August 5, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (1)

One year ago on Round and Square (5 August 2011)—Longevity Mountain: Academy on High.
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] Social 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
The Religion of the Chinese People
We begin with Marcel Granet’s shortest and most unusual book, The Religion of the Chinese People (La religion des chinois). Published in 1922, it represents the beginning of a very productive time in Granet’s scholarly career.  He had returned to France after his travels in China and military service, during which he prepared his theses and began work on his first publications, many of which now make up Etudes sociologiques sur la Chine. He published another thesis in 1919, and Religion can fairly be interpreted as the end of one phase of his work and beginning of another—a work for a general audience that concentrates and clarifies many of the scholarly messages in his doctoral research and foreshadows the complex analysis that would follow in the next dozen years.

[b] Countryside RF
The Religion of the Chinese People is the only book that Granet wrote with a great deal of his personal voice, and it reflects his authorial “take” on both his travels in China and his textual studies to an almost startling extent. Written on train trips from Paris to Yonne during his heaviest teaching years, the book is a contribution to a series of short works on “Science and Civilization.” Unlike his other publications, it has almost no footnotes, and represented (as several scholars have noted) an opportunity for Granet to reflect upon the whole of the Chinese religious tradition without the more concentrated focus of his other writings.  

Even a quick skim of Religion is capable of putting readers into a relaxed state—one in which their usual scholarly cares are temporarily set aside. It is almost impossible to read much of the book without granting the author a generous latitude in his manner of argumentation. Part of that comes from the book’s lack of citations, which makes it read almost like an interconnected set of stories. His personal voice, especially in the first and last chapters, plays a role as well. For those who have read all of Granet’s work, this contrast can be refreshing. He allows himself to wax poetic quite frequently, and the careful reader can see his powerful blend of social theory and close readings of the Chinese classics come together, almost as in a sociological-sinological dream state. 
The Religion of the Chinese People is no less an important book for that, and its strong core of key ideas provides a good starting point for our analyses. Granet begins the book by marking the key dividing point in Chinese religious traditions between countryside and city. Calling “the opposition between urban and rural life the essential feature of Chinese society,” he gets to the heart of the matter with a sense of irony.

          The opposition between urban and rural life is an essential feature of Chinese society. 
          That ancient opposition—the simultaneous existence of towns and villages is attested by 
          the oldest documents—was doubtless more marked in antiquity than it was later to be. In the 
          historical times of the feudal period, countrymen, in contrast to town-dwellers, preferred the 
          left to the right;as we know, nothing so much distinguishes two population groups as the 
          principles of orientation they have adopted. We have no right, for the time being, to think 
          that the distinction was based upon a difference in race;nor does it seem to have 
          corresponded to a separation into closed castes: there were constant exchanges between 
          the two parts of the population, and examples abound of historical personages passing from 
          one to the other. The opposition was linked with mode of grouping and style of life. In the 
          texts, products of urban settings, it is expressed in opinions that would suggest an inequality 
          of value. Rural life was opposed to urban life as peasant life to noble life. The essential point 
          is that the countrymen, the ordinary people, the plebeians, had the customs that were proper 
          to them; a fact marked by the aristocratic Rituals in the saying: “The rites do not go down to 
          the common people.”[1]

          L'opposition de la vie urbaine et de la vie rurale est un trait essentiel de la société chinoise. 
          Cette opposition, qui est ancienne - l'existence simultanée des villes et des villages est 
          attestée par les plus vieux documents - était, sans doute, plus marquée dans l'antiquité 
          qu'elle le fut dans la suite. Aux temps historiques de la période féodale, les campagnards, 
          à l'inverse des citadins, préféraient la gauche à la droite : rien, on le sait, ne distingue autant 
          deux groupes de population que le principe d'orientation qu'ils ont adopté. Nous n'avons pas, 
          pour le moment, le droit de penser que la distinction fût fondée sur une différence de race ; 
          elle ne semble pas non plus correspondre à une séparation en castes fermées: les 
          échanges étaient constants entre les deux parts de la population, et les exemples abondent 
          de personnages historiques qui passèrent de l'une à l'autre. L'opposition tenait au mode de 
          groupement et au genre de vie : dans les textes, œuvres des milieux urbains, elle s'exprime 
          en termes de sentiment qui veulent suggérer une inégalité de valeur. La vie rurale s'oppose 
          à la vie urbaine comme la vie paysanne à la vie noble. L'essentiel est que les campagnards, 
          les gens du commun, les plébéiens avaient des mœurs qui leur étaient propres ; cela, les 
          Rituels aristocratiques le marquent d'un mot : « Les Rites ne descendent pas jusqu'aux 
          gens du peuple. »[2]
[d] Communion RF
As we will see, for Granet rural life was grounded in the interactions people had, both with one another and with their environment. This was, of course, not only true of rural life, and it will become apparent that aristocratic households were just as dependent on the rhythms of nature and society as their peasant neighbors. Granet is quite clear, however, that all of the complexities that would eventually emerge in the refined writings of the urban literati had their foundations in rural life and the interactions that agricultural workers forged with others—living and dead—as well as the teeming natural world that surrounded them.

Granet’s source for this explication is a product of the very urban aristocracy that maintained that “the rites do not go down to the common people.” Indeed, most writings on ritual do not tell us much that is neutral or “observational” about rural life, and in many classical texts one might wonder whether all refined people did not live in cities. Were it not for the 詩經 Shijing—the Classic of Poetry—we might have to reconstruct a picture of early Chinese rural life from fragments in the ritual and historical record. Granet, however, saw in the Classic of Poetry a source that, although hardly lacking in interpretive challenges, provides keys to understanding the nature of rural social life and communion—the heart of the Chinese religious order in early times and stretching even down to the present in many ways. Do not misunderstand me. The Classic of Poetry is a problematic source for life-as-lived in early China. What I find fascinating is what Granet does with it.

          We should not know those customs were it not that there has been preserved for us in an 
          anthology of poems a whole collection of songs that came to be esteemed in the eyes of the 
          courtiers in the towns of the domains by the symbolic use they made of them. These songs, 
          more or less reworked by and deformed at their hands, are made up of themes, poetic 
          sayings, in which the rustic inspiration makes itself felt.[3]

          Ces mœurs du vulgaire, nous ne les connaîtrions pas, s'il ne nous avait été conservé, dans 
          une Anthologie poétique, tout un lot de chansons, devenues respectables aux gens de cour 
          des villes seigneuriales par l'utilisation symbo­lique qu'ils en faisaient. Ces chansons, plus ou 
          moins remaniées par eux et déformées, sont constituées par des thèmes, des dictons 
          poétiques, où se sent l'inspiration rustique.[4]

[e] Clarity RF
It is necessary to note a number of important points here. First, the fact that the Classic's songs were collected at all says something important about the connection between rural and urban, elite and common. The challenges are great, however, for the songs were reworked, as any student of Chinese literature readily knows, and themes that reflect the rusticity of rural sexual life were transformed for generations of readers (through the wonders of interlinear commentary) into sagely encounters between ruler and attending ministers. Nonetheless, Granet asserts that we can still find rustic themes embedded in the songs, and many recent interpreters would agree with him on that point, even while questioning Granet's methods.

Those themes form the heart of Granet’s argument, both in The Religion of the Chinese People and the more scholarly Festivals and Songs in China [Fêtes et chansons de la Chine]. Before Granet can proceed however, he finds it necessary to address certain methodological issues that bring into opposition the working habits of his sinological and sociological readers. Detail-oriented sinologists and pattern-seeking sociologists, especially in Granet’s day, created demands on a single writer that were difficult to satisfy, with one side seeking depth and clarity, while the other sought satisfying generalizations.

Granet’s analysis at the beginning of his peasant religion chapter clearly marks his interests in Chinese thought as sociological, even macro-sociological. He speaks of “traces” of popular usage (which might just as well be called “survivals,” in the rhetoric of his age), and it is fundamental to his analysis that these can be found, even if only in general form, throughout the literature of early China.

          When these themes are grouped together, sociological analysis can succeed in  
          reconstructing a picture of rural life in its broadest outlines. But however methodical the 
          work of reconstruction may be, and even when it is subsequently confirmed by the traces 
          left by popular usages in the learned literature, the picture obtained can be only a general 

          Les thèmes une fois groupés, l'analyse sociologique peut réussir à restituer, dans ses 
          traits les plus généraux, une image de la vie rurale. Si méthodique que soit le travail de 
          restitution, et même quand il est confirmé après coup par l'examen des traces laissées 
          dans la littérature savante par les usages populaires, l'image obtenue ne peut être 
          qu'une genre unique.[6]

[f] Eurasian RF
Note Granet’s assertion that the interpretation is valid for the whole of China, even as it fails to deal with any historical and local peculiarities. He is not content, either, to say that is a weakness. In fact, he characterizes those who would let the search for details derail broad interpretations as “fanatics,” and still does not let it go merely at that. They are “enamored of individual facts and chronological precision,” and he expresses his forceful disagreement with such an approach. He  concludes his prefatory matter with the very interesting point that oddities—strange local customs or historical aberrations—would infect serious analysis, and actually lead the interpreter toward greater misunderstanding. For Granet, generalizations are not to be feared. The careful polishing of isolated facts, however, can be very dangerous, indeed. Be wary, he implies, of studying the record of what actually happened. That way...leads to chaos.

          It is valid for the Chinese lands as a whole for a vast period of poorly defined time: it 
          eliminates local and historical peculiarities: a defect that is, after all, minor and which is felt 
          only by historical fanatics enamored of individual facts and chronological precision.  There 
          is less risk that the reconstruction incorporates oddities: the defect would then have been 
          more serious and it needs to be pointed out.[7]

          Elle vaut pour l'ensemble des pays chinois et pour une vaste période de temps mal 
          déterminée ; elle élimine les particularités locales et historiques : dommage après tout 
          médiocre et sensible seulement aux fanatiques de l'histoire épris de faits individuels et 
          de précision chronologique. Les chances sont moindres qu'elle enregistre des singularités : 
          le dommage serait plus sérieux et mérite d'être signalé.[8] 

Marcel Granet thus sets the foundation for his analysis of Chinese religion by dividing urban and rural, aristocratic and common, and general and particular. His is a macro-sociological analysis that uses literature as its source. His is a kind of “imaginative sociology,” to use Maurice Freedman’s memorable phrase, that sought to find lessons that were much more lasting than stray historical facts. These fireworks (beware straightforward historians) are only the beginning for Monsieur Granet.
[g] Particular 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 
[1] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People [Translated by Maurice Freedman] (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 37.
[2] Marcel Granet, La Religion des Chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 10.
[3] Granet, Religion, 37.
[4] Granet, La religion, 1.
[5] Granet, Religion, 37-38.
[6] Granet, La religion, 11.
[7] Granet, Religion, 38.
[8] Granet, La religion, 11.

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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