Academic journal article Ethnology

Life-Cycle Rituals in Dongyang County: Time, Affinity, and Exchange in Rural China

Academic journal article Ethnology

Life-Cycle Rituals in Dongyang County: Time, Affinity, and Exchange in Rural China

Article excerpt

This article analyzes materials on the life-cycle rituals of Dongyang

County, Zhejiang Province, for what they reveal about Chinese concepts of

time and the conduct of relations with affines. It argues that Chinese

conceptions of the life cycle are bounded by a mortality at once recognized

in temporal metaphor and desire for longevity, but also mystified into

nonrecognition in the ancestral cult, which denies the "psychologically

unpleasant experience" of time's irreversibility (Leach 1961). Finally, the

article highlights the lifelong significance of affinal relations and their

centrality in life-cycle rituals, and the transactions which accompany them.

Our perspective evokes an almost Melanesian flavor in the Chinese materials,

suggesting future potentially productive areas for comparative work. (Rites

of passage, affines, exchange, China)

This article analyzes the life-cycle rituals of Dongyang County, Zhejiang Province, for what they reveal about Chinese concepts of time and the conduct of relations with affines. In the end, these insights are marshalled in support of the view that an exchange perspective is as necessary to an appreciation of Chinese social structure as a perspective grounded in notions of agnatic descent. (See Yang 1994; Yan 1996; Thompson 1988 for similar views.) The data presented here derive from fieldwork conducted in Dongyang County during the spring seasons of 1988 and 1989.(1) Much of the data on traditional custom is gleaned from Dongyang Fengsu Zhi (Record of the Habits and Customs of Dongyang County), compiled in 1985 by the county Cultural Affairs Office from the county Historical Annals (xian zhi). Similar compendia are available for all the counties of the Jinhua region of Zhejiang Province, compiled and edited by locally informed scholars in a kind of post-Cultural Revolution salvage mission to record old customs before they were lost altogether.(2)

TIME AND RITUAL

The Chinese rites of passage on the life-cycle occasions of birth, marriage, and death have attained a high degree of standardization over the centuries. Watson (1988a:3) has argued that unlike Christendom, China possessed no centralized unified church with an associated hierarchy of specialists charged with the responsibility of dispensing religious truth and policing correct belief. Thus he theorizes that Chinese imperial authorities were content to control and legislate practice, enforcing orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy (Watson 1988a: 10-11). The stress on the efficacy of the practice of Li (the proper conduct of rituals) in keeping the state on a steady course was an important pillar of Confucian theory, yet orthopraxy yielded in small ways to local inflection in the details (Watson 1988a:15-16).

The Chinese manifest a particularly strong form of the hierarchical order that Meillasoux (1978) postulates as characteristic of peasant agrarian societies, in which "those who came before" have precedence over "those who come after." The veneration of the aged and the ancestral cult in China give concrete expression to Meillasoux's hypothesis which, while made without reference to Chinese data, so marvelously captures the essentials of Confucian ideology as to give it great credibility for sinological studies. Thus, in Dongyang County, birthdays of the decades of old age (celebrations of longevity) also have something of the significance of rites of passage (Yan 1996:39, 54). One's sixtieth birthday, which completes the 60-year permutational cycle of calendrical stems and branches, is especially noteworthy.

For Evans-Pritchard (1940), rites of passage represented an aspect of structural time, in that generations of Nuer marched through the rites in age grades whose relative positions to each other never changed. While there are no formal age grades in Chinese culture, successive generations are marked in the idiom of genealogy and ritual performance and create a distinctive Chinese version of Evans-Pritchard's structural time. …

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