Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Religion in China through history and today

The first post in a series is often a little bit uncomfortable for everyone - writer, editors, and readers.

Mount Emei, China
by Robert Andre LaFleur
This attempt will be no different in some respects; you don’t know me and I will be seeking a sweet spot for my posts in what is an almost impossibly difficult (and yet, strangely "natural") topic - Religion in Modern China.

Toward that end, I will spend today’s introductory post telling you just a little bit about what we will be discussing on these "pages" in the coming weeks, months, and maybe years. It is not what you might have thought if you have been reading The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Weekly Standard, or the New Yorker. This is not because those publications have it wrong; far from it. It is just that they tend to look a little too keenly to the present, and tend to privilege the eggbeater froth of today’s breakfast omelet instead of looking back many centuries - even millennia - to the hundred-year eggs of breakfasts past. This series will sample Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) duck eggs just as much as it does "fresh" ones from the People’s Republic of China.

To do that, we need will context. We need scary sounding people and concepts such as Dong Zhongshu’s cosmology, sacred mountain templates, the imperial calendar (not to mention the agricultural one), and official historiography. We need to understand why Buddhism and Daoism were both courted and reviled over the past two-thousand years (give or take a few hundred), and why Confucianism (what, really, is that?) has been, at the same time - and occasionally alternately - both a powerful state-builder and an idealistic laughingstock. We are going to look at it all, slowly, carefully, and with reference to modern China.

So, I envision these posts as a weekly look at the concept of "religion" in (modern) China. It will take us a while, but we’ll examine Chinese cosmology and calendars as our foundation. Without a deep and flowing sense of the lunar calendar, it really is not possible to understand much about religious life in China. After that, we need to comprehend the solar rhythms of the calendar that o’er-topped the lunar, even as both still battle for ascendancy in a Janus-faced duel of time. Even in the earliest sources, we have evidence that key figures in the states being built in the Yellow River valley (and beyond) were powerfully conscious of the patterning of the solar and lunar years, and the ways of agriculture. The interpreter of modern Chinese religion who is not well attuned to these rhythms will understand very little. These posts will focus on the foundation of the calendar in Chinese religious life, and follow its threads from 1000 BC onward.

But what does that have to do with religion in modern China?

Well, everything.

Further, we will examine the idea of holy spaces and sacred mountains in and beyond China during the last three millennia. As everyone from Lü Buwei to Henri LeFebvre has noted, some spaces - this works something like the pigs in Animal Farm - are more equal (sacred) than others. Sacred space—what does that mean? How does it relate to, say, the Temple of Heaven (天壇/天坛) or even Mao Zedong’s birthplace? Or Confucius’s? What have earlier writers said about sacred spaces and the way that they have been constructed in China and beyond? The theme of sacred space will provide another layer to our understanding of religion in China during the last three millennia. In particular, we will look at the various sacred mountain templates that dot the landscape. These vary from the major (the five "cosmological" mountains, as I call them - 五嶽/五岳 - and the four Buddhist mountains) to just about every quasi-sacred hillock within 6,000 kilometres, east-west and north-south, on the landmass.

But what does that have to do with religion in modern China?

Well, everything.

Beyond that, we will start to examine the works of some thinkers who will change the ways we interpret "religious" phenomena in Chinese history. Marcel Granet (1884-1940), Rolf Stein (1911-1999), and Clifford Geertz (1923-2006), to name just a few, will lead us to ask new questions of some very old materials. Marcel Granet was, hands-down, a genius who understood Chinese religiosity in ways that "objectivists" will never comprehend. Rolf Stein, his student, moved the story smaller (in a book called Le monde en petite or The World in Miniature) and larger in truly profound ways. Clifford Geertz was an eminent American anthropologist who wrote of religion in ways that cast the net so broadly as to make some wonder whether he was saying something along the lines of "religion is…well, everything." One of his most memorable examples, which we will consider in these posts, is a toadstool that grew in Bali to a size beyond what anyone had ever seen. Was it a toadstool? Was it an act of…something bigger? We will examine big toadstools and little miniatures, even as we study the thoughts of great interpreters of Asian religion.

But what does that have to do with religion in modern China?

Well, everything.

And, finally, we will never lose sight of our desire to understand religion in the Chinese world, including (and especially) today’s China. In short, this series of posts will strive to examine…

…well, everything.@sima1085


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