Modern Folk Views Continued Much of the Old Ideology
Folk worldview held that within the mountains were giant spirit dragons and tigers, whose pulses were also energy-flow channels in the earth. Cutting the dragons pulse caused disaster. The earth also had its qi, which, in the earth or in humans, was regarded as purely natural. No one thought of it as shen or fate or as needing incense or sacrifices. It was regulated through means assumed to be purely natural—in humans, use of herbal drugs.
I have often described my moment of truth in understanding traditional science. Construction for a new hospital had cut deeply into a hill by the bay where I stayed. Local peasants warned that this would cut the dragons pulse and disaster would follow. I made no sense of this, but in the next big rain the undercut slope failed, and several houses were destroyed by the landslip. The peasants said: "See, this is what happens when you cut the dragons pulse." At that time, Western science had no better explanation for slope failure; geologists invoked the angle of repose, an entity as obscure as the dragon. Since then, our understanding of materials and their failure points has advanced, but the point remains: traditional people, and many modern ones too, can perfectly well link cause and effect. Where they go wrong is in the inferred linkage: what is inside the black box where the cause actually operates to produce the effect.
The Chinese think of storms as caused by dragons in the air and also as judgments. One can offend the dragons. Many a storm is punishment for foolishness. The short-tailed dragon is especially irascible—some say because his tail was cut off—and his fury causes typhoons; so I was told on the Hong Kong waterfront. My sailor friends had sometimes seen him, or thought they had seen him, in the writhing, wind-torn clouds. Indeed, in the dark and violent storm, ones fear can easily make one see huge reptilian forms half-hidden in mist. Many a Chinese painting shows this dramatically. Weather in general was natural, but was under control of these dragons and of the Sky God, who could be implored for help. Sailors burned incense to him at dawn and evening when they were going to sea.
In old China, ordinary people were much more prone to see the earth as having dynamic channels and fields of energy, as well as supernatural animals and spirits, within it. Mountain gods, locality gods, rock spirits, tree spirits, and other local shen were universal and intimately involved in peoples lives. Every specific, localized, conceptualized feature had its spirit. The spirit of the house was worshiped at a tiny shrine to the right of the front door as one entered. The kitchen god was worshiped at the large brick stove, or, in households lacking that, at a small shrine in the kitchen. Family ancestors were worshiped at a household shrine, lineage ancestors at a lineage hall or local temple. Ghosts haunted particular spots. In addition to millions of localized shen, there were countless general ones. (For general descriptions of Chinese religion, see E. Anderson 2007 and sources cited there; Mair 2005, with selections from relevant texts of all sorts.)
People had no idea why weather, illness, and luck happened as they did. The gods were assumed to have some disposal over these, but one of the commonest proverbs was "Even the gods are subject to luck." (A variant made them subject to fate rather than to luck; the concepts were very close. Ming "fate," ling "disembodied supernatural force," and jie or yun "luck" are at issue here.) Luck and fate were disembodied natural forces, and luck could be made better by many behaviors. Tangerines were called lucky fruit because it was fortunate to have them at New Year. Other citrus, as well as peach flowers, lotus nuts, and many other flowers and foods, were lucky or had special powers over gods and fate.
Such "black box" situations are always the test of science. There is a strong human tendency to assume agency until proved otherwise (Atran 2002). Countless surveys show that most Westerners still believe that God or saints or other active, conscious beings are in the box: classic dei ex machina. Todays Chinese are much less prone to do so, after six decades of "atheistic" Communism, but the old beliefs are far from dead.
Connecting these folk beliefs with the higher and more abstract religious thought of classical China has rather rarely been done, but the gap is not large. Chinese elite and folk cultures were not separate; they constantly intermixed and blended. Elite ideas trickled down through the temples and temple fairs, and folk concepts rose upward through these and through household, village, and town connections. Readers of novels like The Story of the Stone (eighteenth century; Cao 1973-1986; Y. Zhou 2013) will know that even the highest elite were constantly dealing with servants, estate overseers, and impoverished relatives. My work in Hong Kong showed that elite poems, philosophical taglines, and stories were widely known; illiterate farmers and sailors could quote many, especially from the hallowed works of Confucius and Mencius (E. Anderson 2007).
Chinese science seems, today, to blur the lines between magic, science, and religion. Of course, early Western science did that too. Modern writers may note a "curious combination of medical and magical thinking" (Wilms 2002: 33) in the writings of Sun Simiao in the seventh century, but Sun would not have found anything curious; he was merely writing about the medicine he knew. However, he did make skeptical remarks about many magical practices, so he seems to have had some idea of the difference (Sun Simiao 2007). Western medical writings of the time were the same sort of "curious combination."
A wonderfully concise insight into this viewpoint is found in a tract on iron mining by Qu Dajun of the early Qing Dynasty. After giving a perfectly factual description of iron mining in Guangdong, he says:
Splitting a body of iron ore layer by layer, one finds that each [layer] has a tree-leaf pattern.... If the mountain has a certain type of tree, then that trees leaf pattern will be found in the iron ore.... When it is extremely cold in south China... the leaves do not [normally] fall from the trees; it is only on mountains which produce iron that the leaves fall, and these are absorbed by the essence of the iron.... This is an example of the Way of "metal conquering wood." The iron ore has a spirit, and to this the furnace-master must sacrifice devoutly before he dares to operate a furnace.... According to tradition, the wife of a certain Mr. Lin, when her husband was in arrears in his official iron quota, threw herself into the furnace in order to make it produce more iron. Today those who operate the furnaces always sacrifice to her. (Wagner 2008: 49-50)
Here we have what to Qu was a simple, straightforward description, but it seems to the modern Western reader to be a wonderful mix of fact, religion, and folklore. Note that, as in very many Chinese sacrificial-rite stories, the woman was supposedly a real person, revered only after her death. More interesting is the accurate observation interpreted according to cosmology. As Wagner points out (52): "The leaf pattern is fairly common for water-deposited minerals," but it would not take the form of the local trees' leaves! The shedding leaves are real too. Iron ore bodies tend to be high, rocky, and infertile, and sometimes the mineralogy makes the soil stunting, dry, or even downright toxic to plants. I have myself observed leaves being shed prematurely in iron-rich hills in south China. But Qu has interpreted it according to Five Phase theory.
Management ideology and religion played out on the ground via fengshui (for more extensive accounts see E. Anderson 1988, 1996 and references therein; E. Anderson and M. Anderson 1973). Fengshui literally means "wind and water" and is the art of sitting dwellings and graves such that wind and water will benefit them rather than damaging them. It thus taught that houses should be leeward of hills, thus protected by side ridges from storms and other damage. They should be sited where water pools up, not where it rushes by to be lost.
Fengshui taught that groves should be preserved around villages, houses, and temples, not only because trees have good spirits, but also for the wholly practical values of their shade, timber, firewood, fruit, and so on. Common experience taught that without the spiritual aspect, groves were always quickly depleted. Spiritual values as promoters of good fortune were key to motivating communities to work together to preserve the groves. I saw this happening in the New Territories in Hong Kong; the government was continually trying to lay out roads, power lines, and other public works through the fengshui groves but was always stopped by public protest. Sometimes these protests were all too negotiable for money, leading to a good deal of cynicism about fengshui. But in the end most groves were protected, and many are there yet. No groves not considered keys to sacred security were saved from such threats. In China proper, fengshui and Buddhist temple practices preserved groves for thousands of years, until the Communist government ended such "feudal superstition" and did incalculable and irreparable harm by eliminating the groves (E. Anderson 2012). All or almost all the minority peoples had comparable sacred or protected groves.
Fengshui also taught that houses should not sprawl onto cultivated land or be built on floodplains. Disregard of these rules has had the inevitable consequences. I first realized the importance of this during the great June floods of 1966 in Hong Kong; all the traditionally sited villages were above water, but all the new construction on the plains was flooded.
The supernatural element entered through the belief in immaterial influences of good and evil. Evil travels in straight lines, so doors, gates, winding roads, shrines, and trees were set to block it. These also discouraged more tangible evils, like bandits and rogue soldiers. Good influences are attracted not only by trees but also by pagodas, sacred rocks (often shrines to local spirits), and the like, so these were positioned appropriately.
Among the crystallizations of yang and yin energy are the dragons and tigers that live in the hills. A high, rough mountain ridge looks like a dragon and has the dragons yang qi in it; less educated traditional people believe (or believed in the 1960s and 1970s, anyway) that there was an actual dragon within any such ridge. Lower, smoother, rounder ridges and hills are tigers— that is, they have tigers' yin qi or have actual giant spirit tigers within. A house should be located where the dragon dominates the tiger, as yang should dominate yin—a bit of old-fashioned sexism playing out on the landscape.
Over time, magic took became predominant, and today's fengshui is usually used to plan offices, house layouts, and other environments far from the storms and droughts of old China. Such attitudes have led to confusing it with mere chicanery or to diluting it to the level of an amusing game. But the original fengshui was deadly serious and thoroughly pragmatic.
The traditional landscape was shaped by a pervasive spiritual component. Large and strange-shaped rocks, large old trees, striking hills, and waterfalls were the residences of spirits, whose power was proportional to the size and dramatic appearance of the feature. Gnarled and twisted trees, knobbed and cliffed crags, and dramatic outcrops of earth and rock showed by their appearance that they were centers of the flow of powerful qi. Such places were worshiped, usually by burning three sticks of incense morning and night—the standard practice at household shrines and other religious spots. From the small crags around Hong Kong to the fantastic slopes of Mt. Emei in Sichuan, the size and dramatic quality of outcrops was proportional to their sacred power. We will examine below the effect of these beliefs on art; those magnificent trees and cliffs in Chinese paintings are not mere wood and stone.
All these beliefs had the function of saving large old trees, but also made the entire landscape a sacred and powerful place, or at least a world peopled with sacred and powerful places. "Peopled" is the proper term, because the spirits were in fact persons, though often very far from humanlike. Anything could have a conscious spirit. Spirits varied greatly in degrees of cognition and will—from mute and frail spirits of pieces of paper or wood to the powerful, world-changing gods of the great mountains. Actual communication via spirit mediums came usually from ancestors or other deceased humans, or from real gods, most of whom had been humans at one time. These gods carried the messages from the spirits of fish or hills or trees, if the latter needed to send word.
Animals were safeguarded largely because of Buddhism, which tried to protect all life and was relatively successful in regard to cattle, turtles, and songbirds. Temples in some areas still stock turtles, fish, and birds to release for karmic merit. The birds are often trained to fly back and be recaptured; some are veterans of years of doing so. Certain trees were sacred in Buddhism and Daoism because of powerful qi or associated mythology; banyan trees are associated with the Buddha and also are often huge, gnarled, and venerable, showing great qi. Ginkgo trees were revered, which is why they still exist; they are apparently extinct in the wild, having survived only in temple groves and other protected woods.
Many other species are protected locally. My fisher friends regarded sawfish, porpoises, sea turtles, sturgeons, and giant groupers as sacred and full of qi and thus would not catch them if possible. If they did catch them— especially the sawfish and sturgeons—they offered them as sacrifices in temples. (I have provided a much fuller discussion of this in E. Anderson 2007.) These and other taboos and "power animal" beliefs are often explicable because the animals are anomalous or are "natural symbols" (Douglas 1966, 1970). They look and act strange, thus showing both supernatural power and impressive qi. Dragons are, of course, the ultimate in impressive creatures.
In general, Buddhism teaches that all animal life is sacred and must be protected, though taking animal life to sustain ones own life and ones family's is not condemned as strongly as is wasteful killing. Daoism teaches something similar, especially in regard to animals somehow sacred or rich in qi. Confucianism teaches conservation, restraint, and sustainability. None of these religions ever came close to eliminating hunting, let alone fishing, but they at least slowed the pace and prevented much needless or useless killing.
As in so many other cases, one need only look at the results of Westernization—including the attitude of "struggle against nature"—in the last sixty years. Prior to that time, China was still quite rich in game and fish. Today, China has eliminated almost all of its wild food resources by uncontrolled hunting, overfishing, and habitat destruction. Clearly, economic rationality, economic need, ecological facts, and "progress" all greatly underdetermine environmental management. Obviously they affect it, and indeed are basic to our use of environments and resources, but the way use, management, and economic agency actually play out on the ground is due to choices and acts that are directly and heavily impacted by particular complexes of knowledge, ideology and, belief. Economics, like religion, involves belief systems cast as ultimate truth (Foucault 2008). Unfortunately, absent the infinite wisdom of the more remote subjects of religious speculation, we mortals must do with imperfect information. We thus act from partial knowledge filled in by inference, hope, self-delusion, blind faith in the past, and other shortcuts (Kahneman 2011).