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Saturday, August 11, 2012

La Pensée Cyclique—Rural Religion in China (7)

[a] Spring nature 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

Spring Festivals and their Settings
Having described the buoyant connection between the harvest and the autumn festivals, Granet proceeds to the other major festival in the rural year, that of spring. At the close of a long winter, and before men set out for the fields to live and cultivate for many months, people again gather together. Before he launches into a narrative of spring, however, he describes the setting for such festivals. They were, in his telling, both highly charged and exceptional. They were set off from normal activity. These assemblies were anything but ordinary. 

          The assemblies of rural communities were held in special places: they 
          were beyond the cultivated fields in a part of the territory withdrawn from 
          domestic appropriation and profane use, on land that was holy for 

          Les assemblées des communautés rurales se tenaient ,en des lieux 
          consa­crés : c'était hors des champs cultivés, dans une partie du territoire 
          soustraite à l'appropriation domestique et aux utilisations profanes, sur un 
          sol qui pour tous était saint.[2]

[b] Willow RF
Note the imagery here. The assemblies occurred in very special locations. They were not held in the fields cultivated through gender-divided work, but took place beyond cultivation. Here, Granet echoes Durkheim and anticipates Claude Lévi-Strauss by noting that such sacred activities as communal gatherings cannot possibly occur on cultivated land—locations used, we should note, for agricultural purposes by a single domestic grouping. There can be no "home field" in cases of communal religious practice. 

The land, as Granet makes abundantly clear, needs to be holy for all members of the communal assembly. It also needs to be rich and diverse. We are not speaking here of an open field or other such mundane location. We are speaking of highly charged places—the terroir with a certain je ne sais quoi—that shape the participants, just as those participants shape the landscape all around them. 

          The location of these Holy Places is quite well marked out for some parts 
          of China; but all I can describe is the general appearance, the ritual 
          landscape of the Festivals. For the unfolding of their traditional 
          ceremonies, they require a terrain variegated with woods, water, vales, 
          and heights.[3]

          De ces Lieux Saints l'emplacement est assez bien désigné pour certains 
          pays ; pourtant tout ce que je puis décrire, c'est l'aspect général, le 
          paysage  rituel des Fêtes. Elles demandaient, pour déployer leurs pompes 
          traditionnelles, un terrain varié, avec des bois, de l'eau, des vallons, des 

The details come straight from the text of the Classic of Poetry, but Granet’s interests go far beyond the textual detail that he so loved. His is a poetics of movement and interaction, both with other human beings and the natural landscape. It is as though social interaction is carved into nature itself, and the very flow of bodies over the variegated terrain tied knots of ecstatic sociality that would remain taut for many years to come.

[c] Display RF
Granet continues with a description of the pilgrims themselves, attired as they are for a gathering of uncommon (but, never forget, regular and seasonal) proportion. They come from afar, precisely because such gatherings cannot be a local phenomenon. Their clothing is new, and that fact reflects far more than the economic condition of the participants. It reflects, far more profoundly, the newness of the year and regeneration. It declares the prosperity of each family, but the “dazzling newness” announces spring, cyclicality and social union, as well. Newness is far more than sartorial in these circumstances. It is cosmic...and social.

          There the crowd of pilgrims spread themselves, come from afar, often in 
          carts, dressed in seasonal clothes that were freshly woven and of which 
          the dazzling newness declared the prosperity of each family.[5] 

          Là se répandait la foule des pèlerins, venus de loin, en char souvent, 
          vêtus des habits de la saison, frais tissés, et dont l'éclat tout neuf disait 
          la prospérité de chaque famille.[6]

Even here, as he discusses clothing and journeying, Granet remains focused on the opening of the usually closed domestic order. The clothing is almost like a spring blossom, and it “declares” or proclaims the prosperity of that same (usually) closed social group. But the whole point behind this is that it must be declared to someone—to others, to the outside. Without moving outside of itself, there is no declaration—only a new dress to wear in front of the same old kin. This is different: there is audience, and all of the lush, blooming countryside is the stage. The freshly tailored newness is about much more than clothing. It is a social phenomenon, and an important component of gathering together in the spring after a long winter’s isolation.

Granet moves on to a short description of the most closed of participants in the normal domestic order. Women—who, even in peasant settings, have their own form of “inner quarters” and social modesty—shine like clouds in his telling. They “show themselves in groups,” not least because they need to protect themselves at times such as these from appearing to be too “public” in their sentiments. It is almost as though their hair and robes—the outer manifestations of their sexuality—are supposed to take the role of public proclamation, as the women themselves smile with reticence through the spectacle. This ostensible shyness while flashing the goods of teeming it is not just Granet's imagination (rich though that was). It is straight out of the Classic of Poetry, whose lines would make a Confucian schoolboy blush.

          In their finery, the womenfolk, usually invisible and shut up in their 
          hamlets, showed themselves in groups and shone like clouds. With their 
          sprigged robes, their grey or madder-red headdresses, they appeared 
          as beautiful as the mallow of cherry blossom.[7]

          Sous leurs beaux atours, les femmes, d'ordinaire invisibles, enfermées 
          dans le hameau, se montraient en bandes et éblouissaient comme des 
          nuées ; elles semblaient, avec leurs robes à ramages, leurs coiffes grises 
          ou garance, belles comme la mauve ou la fleur de cirier.[8]

[d] Wholly RF
Granet’s turn at this point in the text is interesting. He speaks of individuals, even as they relate to each other in, and as, groups. Here we see an example of individuals carving out specific actions in a broad symphony of movement within a sacred setting. It is like a social orchestra, with individual notes being played, even as the broad flow of music creates something much more profound than any single set of actions could ever reveal. One can imagine this from the narrowest of gatherings (say, an academic conference) to the broadest congregation on the globe (seventeen days of the Olympics, held ever four years). Large and small weave together to create something profoundly greater than any of the individual movements. This is what Durkheim meant, and what Granet sought to articulate on the pages of Religion.

          Groups of people made or renewed relationships. Drawing one another by 
          the sleeve, taking one another by the hand, they gave themselves up to the 
          joy of meetings long and impatiently awaited and which had to be of short 

          Des groupes se formaient où se renouaient les vieilles relations ; se tirant 
          par la manche, se prenant les mains, tous se livraient à la joie des 
          rencontres longtemps, impa­tiemment attendues et qui devaient être de 
          brève durée.[10]

Note here the absolutely key point that Granet makes about duration. By their very nature, festival interactions cannot be long term ones (the anthropology meetings must end every November, the Olympics must come to a tearful, flame-snuffing close). They often are anticipated by both individuals and the larger group, for long stretches of time. The planning can be intense. Nonetheless, the gathering itself is all the more powerful for its relative brevity. Individual and group anticipate, plan, and then explode, as it were, in social and religious interactions that have an intensisty fueled by their very ephemerality. They are, by their very nature, extra-ordinary.

Granet waxes eloquent as he describes the interaction between people and their terrain. Note the manner in which he describes the “filling” (in all directions, it should never be forgotten) of the terrain with their happiness, generating more such happiness in the process of continual renewal. This, again, is far more than a matter of individual emotions or simply the sum of many separate emotional parts. This is a communal “filling."

          In the enthusiasm of these solemn assemblies they moved up and down in 
          all directions over the terrain, filling it with their happiness and feeling that 
          happiness fed by the memories recovered at their contact with the witness 
          of all the potent joys of their race.[11]

          Dans l'enthousiasme de ces assemblées solennelles, ils parcouraient en 
          tous sens le terrain, le remplissaient de leur bonheur et sentaient ce 
          bonheur s'accroître des souvenirs retrouvés au contact du témoin de toutes 
          les joies puissantes de leur race.[12]

[e] Intense RF
The eloquence continues to an almost ridiculous point, at least for those unready for Granet’s state of poetic abandonment (which is nonetheless tied to a rigorous theoretical framework). The point is to make the contact as intimate as possible, not as long as possible. Long-term contact creates merely a closed domestic order. This is different in kind—and in "kin." Brief, yet intense, contact with outsiders brings about an enlargement of the inner life, on both an individual and a group scale. It is what Granet's teacher, Emile Durkheim, called religion.

          They wished to make this beneficent contact as intimate as possible; from 
          it there seemed to come to them a prodigious enlargement of their inner life. 
          They experienced the presence of a tutelary power whose sanctity sprang 
          from every corner of the landscape, blessed forces that they strove to 
          capture in every way.[13]

          Ce contact bienfaisant d'où leur semblait venir un prodigieux accroissement 
          de vie intérieure, ils voulaient le rendre aussi intime que possible. Ils 
          éprouvaient la présence, d'une puissance tutélaire dont la sainteté jaillissait 
          à tous les coins du paysage, forces bénies que de toutes façons ils 
          cherchaient à capter.[14]

Finally, the “tutelary power” springs from the landscape in every way. They strive to capture it, to make it their own. There is nothing in the assemblies if they do not create a profound merging of society and nature. The former is transformed by its interaction with a sanctified environment. The energy of the social body, in turn, gives new sanctity to the place. 

Nothing will ever be the same.
[f] Tutelary 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), 41.
[2] Marcel Granet, La religion des chinois (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1922), 14.
[3] Granet, Religion, 41.
[4] Granet, La religion, 14.
[5] Granet, Religion, 41.
[6] Granet, La religion, 14.
[7] Granet, Religion, 41.
[8] Granet, La religion, 14.
[9] Granet, Religion, 41.
[10] Granet, La religion, 14.
[11] Granet, Religion, 41.
[12] Granet, La religion, 14.
[13] Granet, Religion, 41.
[14] Granet, La religion, 14.

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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