The Spirits are drunk. Comparative approaches to Chinese religion

Paper, Jordan. The Spirits are drunk. Comparative approaches to Chinese religion. SUNY Press. 1995

This is a completely original book on the religions of China. Instead of following the repetitive mantra of the existence of three religions and describing them more or less accurately, which as the author demonstrates is a Western construct that does not reflect the religious activities of the Chinese, it examines the main religious manifestations of the people of China, and even without attempting to provide an exhaustive view of all aspects in which that religion manifests itself, it suggests a number of ideas such as to force any scholar of religions to rethink everything he thought knew. This is an indispensable book, which must be read by every person interest in Chinese history and culture.

As the author warns in the preface: (XV) “This work will attempt to counter this understanding by presenting alternative models as well as by focusing on those elements often ignored: ecstatic religious experience, both functional and non-functional; religio-aesthetics; and female elements.”

In chapter 1. The study of Chinese religion, he states that Chinese religion is an ethnic religion. When you live in China you realize that even in these times of atheism under the Communist Party, the system repeated in books that there are three religions in China is an artificial construct, which does not conform to the reality of people’s beliefs, which are still based on ancestor cults and nature cults. This concept has been taken as their own by Chinese researchers, like many other Western influences, who today differentiate the religions of the Chinese, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, from those of the national minorities: ancestor cults and nature cults. The latter two, on which the essence of Chinese culture is based, are ideologically degraded and attributed exclusively to peoples considered culturally backward.

In Paper’s work, the origin of this belief is pointed out in the influential works of Matteo Ricci, which on the one hand reflected the mentality of the time, considering a religion as a set of beliefs opposed to those of other religions, founded by a personage and centered on transcendence, and which on the other hand concealed his true missionary interests, since considering the emperor as the high priest of a religion based on nature and ancestor cults would have prevented him from remaining at his service.

Paper provides a new definition of Chinese religion: “religion in China is a single complex of considerable antiquity, held together by the practice of frequent ritual offerings of elaborate meals to departed members of the family and to nature spirits, and embellished by many related subsidiary practices, including fertility rituals and rituals of social bonding.” (p. 10).

The second chapter is “The essence of Chinese religión”. Here this essence is described,  which can be summarized in the following concepts: Chinese religion is best studied through an examination of ritual patterns. A singular, specific core of Chinese ritual can be traced from the Neolithic period to the present: is a communal meal that is often shared with (sacrificed to) spirits, primarily ancestral. An awareness of this ritual core is the key to understanding Chinese religion. it is clear that the rituals of Chinese religion focus on the communal (including spirits) sharing of food… Chang (1977:42) notes that the fundamental symbol of political authority in this period, a set of bronze ding (three-legged sacrificial heating vessels), were basically cooking pots!

The Chinese understanding that the concept of «human» included both the living and the dead. Furthermore, it was during the sacrificial rituals that the dead become present in the living.

Chapter 3 deals with Chinese shamanism. For the author, the ancient religion of China was clearly shamanistic: “in the Zhuangzi are hints that the xian originally was a shaman more powerful than the wu médium. In the «Li sao» and a number of other poems, the primary reference to shamanism and the focus of the poem is the heavenly ascent. The ascent motif which was symbolic of shamanic power becomes a metaphor for the free spirit:

Shang king function, via divination and sacrifice, of communicating with his ancestors to mediate with the powers, it is not too distant from the shaman. In part, it also represents the chief sacrificer, the Shang king himself, the institutionalized shaman-chief, whose essence was the ability to interact with the spirit realm and who, upon death, will ascend to Heaven to merge with the spirits as a clan ancestor.”

Chapter 4 deals with mediums.   In this chapter, he traces the presence of mediums in ancient Chinese religion, examines the animals that could represent the deities that take possession of mediums, and relates in detail the process by which young aristocrats were possessed by the spirits of ancestors during ceremonies in which they represented them

Chapter 5 is a somewhat transitional chapter, where it shows us that: “The loss of social function also shifts ecstatic religious experience toward the individualistic. In summary, the mystic experience, which apparently occurs in all cultures and potentially to all humans, becomes valued over other ecstatic religious experiences when the culture disintegrates.”

In the chapter 6, Paper proposes that the mystic experience was a major stimulus to the primary pastimes of the traditional elite: aesthetic activity. As well, aesthetic expression was the solution to a problem found in all cultures: how to express the ineffable mystic experience. China is unique because the aesthetic activity itself became an alternative mode of religious behavior for the traditional elite. Jonathan Chaves (1977:200) has articulated the relationship between religion and calligraphy in China: “The fact [remains] that Chinese writing originated in an environment of magic, perhaps even of shamanism, and that these roots were never entirely forgotten.” The poet and thinker Su Shi explicitly relates trance to artistic activity in a poem. At least by the Han period, playing the qin had religious connotations.

In chapter 7 is argued that the ground and tools of aesthetic activity also are replete with religious import. Among the enduring aspects of Chinese aesthetics are the emphasis on the written word and the tools for creating writing, as well as the love of stones as the natural object par excellence. When these are combined, one encounters the height of Chinese religio-aesthetic sensibility. it is the palette on which the ink is ground and prepared, rather than the brush, ink, silk, or paper, that is most valued. As with landscape painting, to focus one’s attention on a stone is to place one’s mind within ultimate reality, the natural realm of creation.

In chapter 8 it is insisted that, although the society was patrilineal and there are traces of this rank since ancient times, the religion has always considered the world formed by a masculine part symbolized by the sky and a feminine part symbolized by the earth, of equal importance. Only the vision of a male god of the Jesuits and Westerners in general transformed this aspect of Chinese religion to the point of making it unidentifiable.

Chapter 9 deals with Christianity from the perspective of Chinese religion and is based on a comparison of the understanding of the Christian scriptures by Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping’s founder, with a contemporary Chinese believer, as both of them indicate virtually identical interpretations, they suggest a Chinese theological predilection that would be based into the three recurring major themes of Hong’s comments on the New Testament, labeled (1) «Mediumism,» (2) «The Trinity,» and (3) «The Kingdom.»

From the Postface I can remark (p. 270): “Only in Western culture, which explicitly separates religion from government, does the opposition of «secular» and «religious» make sense. For only in the West did priests lose the competition with warrior-rulers for sociopolitical authority, the papal state now reduced to a few hectares. China presents an entirely different situation. The priest and warrior class was one, with the ruler also being the chief priest of the society-secular and sacred cannot be meaningfully distinguished. Similarly, the contemporary Western tendency to remove aesthetic pursuits from what has been their normal religious context since the beginning of human culture at least thirty thousand years ago, has, in effect, deemed art irrelevant to most people.”

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The Spirits are drunk. Comparative approaches to Chinese religion," in Ethnic China, 17 julio 2021,
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