HomeLandscape Rivers and Rocks

RIVERS AND ROCKS


In Xiakou, as physically dramatic to the eye as the loss of the trees, and as fundamentally important to the sustainability of agriculture as changes in the soil, are recent alterations in local hydrology. As recently as 1984, the river that passes in front of the village was a patchwork of big boulders and deep pools; now the water runs shallow and wide as the boulders have been quarried and sold as building stone. In addition, farmers complain that erratic rainfall patterns are making agriculture more difficult. While the land is said to be more dry than in the past, heavy rain and flooding have also become more severe. This chapter will not only analyze farmers' descriptions of these changes, it will also explore the mythology of flooding. Floods and the associated phenomenon of mudslides or "collapse" are believed to be manifestations of "the dragon." A close look at post-reform religious belief and practice connected to the dragon reveals how locals conceptualize the relationship between environment and politics, and how they insert themselves as active forces into this relationship.

SOIL EROSION


"Soil erosion" is translated into Chinese as "water soil slip flow," ( shuitu liushi ), a new term created to reflect a Western scientific concept. Soil erosion for farmers in Ya'an county is associated almost uniquely with the local phenomenon of "collapse" ( kua fang ), the rock slides and mud flows that come with steep mountain slopes and abundant rainfall. While collapse has always existed in this area, asking the question of whether there is more collapse today than before, and whether it is "natural" or caused by human actions, reveals a range of opinion. Because collapse has always been present, many individuals maintain that there is nothing unusual in its occurrence today. Such people point out that when collapse occurs, trees are frequently pushed over, so the deforestation that has taken place is irrelevant. Many others, however, and particularly older people, assert that while collapse has always been a part of life in these mountains, they believe it is a growing problem. These individuals connect the increase to a variety of factors including deforestation, infrastructure developments, and rock quarrying. People are also apt to comment on how strange the weather has been in recent years. Weather, a significant factor influencing collapse, tends to be classified as "natural" at the same time that its altering pattern is overtly connected to human actions.

 

Wu Guangxing was telling me how the traditional lunar calendar is synchronized with the sun by adding a thirteenth month every other year, and how they also plant by the songs of the birds and when the trees flower. I asked if those two methods, the moon on the one hand and the birds and trees on the other, ever gave conflicting messages. The conversation that followed from this question was revealing of how farmers perceive such idiosyncratic weather patterns:

 

No, that does not happen. Or if it does, it has to do with nature ( da zi ran ) like the 93 year cycle of disaster which I read about in the paper and which I told you about--the one that has been causing the droughts that are effecting Sichuan this year.

 

I then asked about humans as agents of disruption in nature, and he replied,

 

that has to do with people ruining the area around here--the trees being cut and the soil erosion problems that have caused the water to change and the weather to be hotter.

 

I explained to him the idea of a global greenhouse effect and he had no problem accepting the possibility as valid, but I thought it was interesting how he held side by side two notions of environmental disruption, that it is caused by natural cycles and by human interference, without apparent contradiction. Although weather is "natural," locals have no problem seeing alterations in the pattern as a function of human actions. While possessing separate categories for what is natural ( zi ran or "self-so") and what is caused by humans ( ren de yinxiang ), farmers do not fail to see the sense in which natural events and political events are intimately connected.

 


Xiakou farmers see clearly that their landscape is changing in conjunction with larger political changes. Their landscape is not untamed nature where human action is of a separate sphere. For example, in beliefs about feng-shui , a rock which is placed by humans is no more or less efficacious than one which is naturally situated. Rather, the landscape is an environment in which the rules of nature are manifest to humans who recognize and work with those principles in all spheres of life . In this way the landscape and the people are part of a single reality. The term "natural" in Chinese means "self-so" and the term nature means "big self-so". The principles of nature are like the grain in a piece of jade. People should work with this grain, but they may go against it. If they go against it, the land will bear the mark of an ugly scar. To act naturally is a moral as well as aesthetic principle; when one recognizes the natural principle and acts in accordance with it, one is acting morally; this is the kingly way for Mencius.

 

 

RIVERS AND ROCKS

 

The stone of this region, found in the riverbeds and on mountain faces, is good quality building stone. In the Old Society, local stone was quarried to create monuments to social achievements. Wealthy people in the past had fine stone courtyards laid out in front of their houses to create platforms where grain was dried and people work and play. Although all families made use of stone to build their house foundations and pig sties, stone courtyards were significant markers of wealth and prestige . Other stone monuments have left a braille-like expression of the Old Society's landscape of social relations and moral values: great stone bridges, walkways, and temple walls memorialize the elite with inscribed tablets recording their donations; tombs are crucial markers of family success and concrete examples of filial piety; monumental and elaborately carved arches honor the chastity of widows ( jie ), an important principle of Song Neo-Confucianism; stone spires for the ritual disposal of the written word ( zi ku ) reflect the awe for literacy and education; local gods, goddesses of mercy, and arhats , literally carved out of the landscape, are constant reminders of popular and Buddhist religious teachings. Stone is an enduring medium through which each generation encounter their past, and on which they leave an impression in the landscape.

 


Graham (1961, p.177-179) has gone so far as to suggest that people in Sichuan had a tradition of tree and stone-worship. As evidence, he points to the existence of " tan shen ," a spirit that occupies a stone carved like a pillar dias which may be placed in a families' altar rooms. Tan shen , in Xiakou, were said to be leftover spirits of the "barbarians" who had once inhabited this area. The local gods ( tudi ) with which they consorted were themselves often carved out of one side of naturally placed boulders and other larger temples frequently had more important shrines carved out of natural rock outcrops. While the idea of "worship" is misleading, rocks, like trees, are significant for the influence they hold in the flows of energy through the landscape. Whether natural or placed, stone boulders or carvings have significant influence on feng-shui. Building and burial sites conform to local stone features, and can also be improved through the judicious placement of stone monuments. Feng-shui can also be destroyed by the improper placement of a monument or by tampering with the natural environment.

 

If stone has a long history of significance in this region, this significance has only intensified with the emphasis on economic development in recent decades. Before the 1970s very few local people were skilled in rock quarrying and until transportation was developed in the area, there was little opportunity to sell the building stone. Increased quarrying in Xiakou began with the building of the two irrigation canals that pass above the village on either side of the river, built between 1965 and 1976. At that time, outsiders who knew how to break rock came to live in Xiakou from other parts of Sichuan . Rock was quarried from high on the hillsides to line the sides of the irrigation canals and in the process, local people began to learn the work of rock quarrying.

In the late 1970s there were significant new economic investments taking place in the region and Ya'an was expanding. A new factory was built a few kilometers from Xiakou, retaining walls were constructed along Ya'an's downtown riverbank, and a new bridge was constructed to cross the Qingyi River . At this time, Xiakou's second production team began to quarry local rock and sell it to Ya'an city for wall and bridge construction. Because the production team was in debt, individuals did not receive much cash for their efforts, but the work points earned did help determine the amount of grain families received. More importantly, as a result of developments in transportation and skill at quarrying in the 1960s and 1970s, at the time of the reforms in 1982, locals were poised to further develop the rock economy. Throughout the 1980s, rock quarrying became an increasingly important source of income for the farmers of Xiakou.

 


The exploitation of rock resources drastically changed the local ecology. There is general agreement over the impact of the quarrying and infrastructure developments on soil erosion. When the large boulders found in the mountain croplands are cut into sections and taken away, the top soil has less to anchor it and so its tendency to slip downward is increased. In a similar way, after the boulders in the river were quarried, the river itself was destabilized. Before the boulders held firm in times of flooding. Now the riverbed is made up of only smaller stones which flood waters turn into a churning mass of grinding destruction. As a result, the banks of the river appear raw and cut away and flood damage is increasingly extensive. The river was first altered by the construction of the canals and dams for hydro-electric stations; one particularly large one in Xiali had been completed in 1973. Until 1984, when another downtown bridge claimed Xiakou's river rock, the river in front of Xiakou was still dominated by a series of large boulders, many more than thirty feet across. The river bed boulders proved to be among the most convenient stones to quarry, and by the mid-1980s they were almost all gone.

 

The authorities were at least aware of the process. As early as the late 1970s, when rock quarrying had just begun in earnest, the Ya'an government produced a study which concluded rock quarrying in the riverbed was a hazard since it increased erosion along the riverbanks. The warning was apparently not heeded, and in 1985 and 1986 the county government reportedly spent 500,000 yuan on the construction of a cement support built on the riverbed in front of Xiakou. Ironically, this construction project was designed to imitate the stabilizing action of the boulders that had been so recently destroyed. The government went to such great lengths to undo the damage done because when the bank collapses on this section of the river, there is a serious and immediate economic impact--the only road to the Zhongli district becomes closed to vehicular traffic. When the road is closed, milk cannot be transported to the milk powder plant, and is left to rot. In consideration of this and other factors, rock quarrying in the river bed has now been made illegal.

 


With the accelerated economic expansion of the post-reform period, local contractors emerged as middlemen between teams of laborers who worked the stone and government units who wished to purchase the stone. This new economy further transformed not just the ecology, but the larger moral landscape of which it was a part. Although the quarrying of river rock was made illegal, some who are rich and/or well-connected have been able to persist in cutting rock in the riverbed along the road since the political climate is tolerant of such corruption. In addition, when an important government-managed project requires building stone, again exceptions have been made and permits given out to contractors. In 1992 when it was said to be illegal to cut river rock, I noticed a large truck which daily drove down to the river and filled up with building stone. It was pointed out that this truck belonged to a local building contractor who was very wealthy and had managed to win an exception allowing him to obtain rock to build the foundation of his own new home.

Later that winter and into the spring, permits were given to a select group of contractors who were allowed to cut stone in the river for a new public works project. Anyone who cut rock for these contractors was allowed to work in the riverbed. People in Xiakou resented this system which gave some privileged individuals permits and left others out (contractors could earn as much as four or five times the wage of a normal laborer), and as a result of the special permits, the whole village turned out to cut rock-- with or without permits-- to reap the bounty and play cat and mouse with township officials.

 

Poor management of shared resources seems a certain consequence of an unjust political system. The prohibition of rock cutting had little effect except the unintended consequence of highlighting what locals consider unfairness, corruption and social decay. Many villagers feel economically left out by the recent second wave of reforms that followed Deng's Tour of the South. They feel that they are the victims of increasing government corruption which puts a heavier economic burden on the backs of the farmers.

 


While the political atmosphere is reflected in the management of the rock resources, it is also measured by the ability of the state to protect citizens from the ravages of natural disasters and to develop and maintain the nation's infrastructure. In the flood of 1992, a large section of the river bank below Xiakou was washed out by the grinding action of the rocks during a flood and the road had to be closed intermittently throughout the winter. Late in the winter, the government finally organized a works project to build a large retaining wall in front of Xiakou. For a month, the men of Xiakou worked long hard days on contract and under pressure to try to finish the wall before the busy agricultural season began. Even as the wall was being built, everyone knew there was a problem, and no one seemed surprised when an untimely early flood brought the wall down right to the last stone. The villagers were not bothered by its collapse in as much as they would still be paid for their labors and the road still reached as far as their village; nevertheless, they did not fail to see it as symbolic of the social and political situation today. Zhu Congde explained by tapping his pocket with a knowing look: "It was greed," he said, "that made the wall fall down." Because contract jobs are now managed to maximize players' personal gain, shoddy quality work has become ubiquitous. The government bureau which had contracted the wall had allowed too much sand to be substituted for cement in order to skim a greater profit from the project. This kind of skimming, along with kickbacks from contractors, is very definitely seen as typical of the times.

Thus rock quarrying can be seen as a locus of economic, ecological, social, and moral forces transforming the village landscape. One important way this transformation is expressed is in the latent notion that the quarrying has had an impact on the cultural landscape and its feng-shui. Rock outcrops have certain histories and particular associations and myths. Chinese often spend considerable energies discussing how particular geological formations are reminiscent of animals or personalities, since the feng-shui character of a location can be determined by such associations. In the road building of the early collective period a locally famous "golden cat, silver rat" rock outcrop was destroyed above Xiakou. This rock was believed to have had the capability of becoming an actual rat and/or cat on occasion. That it was destroyed in the building of the road is sometimes masked by a particular myth which asserts that Japanese spies came to the area and tried to steal the golden cat, whereupon it jumped off the cliff into the river chasm below, never to return. The rock in which the local god ( tudi ) of team two resided was also destroyed by the building of the road, and a recent expert determined that the feng-shui of Xiakou's Chuan Zhu temple had been "ruined" as well. The myth about the spies suggests to me that people for some time have felt the landscape was changing with the intrusion of an outside world, but, not wishing to oppose the building of the road itself, displaced the destruction that came with it to a more general national trend of foreign invasion. That the temple is said to have had its feng-shui ruined, however, demonstrates that the contradictions between local interest and national trends are now perceived as more blatant.

 

MUDSLIDES

 

The connection between the course of nature and the course of human action emerges clearly in the local interpretation of mudslides or "collapse" ( kua fang ). Collapse is considered a natural and ever-present part of life in these steep mountains. Nevertheless, when farmers discuss particular incidents of collapse, they do not fail to look for the influence of human actions. For example, one family theorized that a large rockslide was the result of another family having opened fallow land on the steep slopes above. An even more common observation is to blame collapses on leakages in the irrigation canal and the quarrying of rock.

 


The worst-ever flooding that local people can remember occurred in 1982. That year a severe collapse killed 30 people in a nearby village when an entire hillside was suddenly transformed into a moving river of mud. The large flood entirely washed away an island that used to be in the river in front of Xiakou. In former times the island had been covered with large trees, but later it was converted into 20 mu of prime cropland. Importantly, it held the graves of most of the Wu ancestors who had lived in Xiakou and so its destruction by the flood was seen as particularly tragic. At the same time, house walls and courtyard floors in Xiakou's first team began to show cracks indicating that their ground, too, was moving and liable to collapse. The government assisted the residents of team one to locate new house sites and move their homes before the situation turned catastrophic. People of team one explained that the movement of the ground under their old houses was a result of leakages in the nearby irrigation canal which had been built in the 1970s. As the canal transports water horizontally along the hillside, it frequently develops leaks and water seeps under ground in places not accustomed to draining such intense quantities of water. Instead of a normal pattern of water flowing down the mountain in natural crevices, the entire top layer of soil in broad areas begins to slip.

 

Just as the family that opens fallow land must do so responsibly to avoid collapse, if the government builds canals, they need to be carefully maintained, and if locals wantonly destroy the boulders in the river, there is a price to be paid. In as much as the government is responsible for maintaining the canal and regulating rock quarrying, a weak or corrupt government will result in an amplification of flood related destruction. Thus environmental disasters in Ya'an are empirically understood in terms of their political/human causes; but the connection between political life and the landscape goes deeper than this. A look at beliefs about the dragon demonstrate the sense in which Chinese see nature and politics as part of a single greater unity, a seamless field of connection.

 

THE DRAGON

 

For many people in the area floods are believed to be the "dragon passing", and some say they have seen dragons as a pair of lighted eyes in the flooding river, or as a section of the dragon's body in the turbulent waters. Dragons appear as part of flood waters or watery landslides and could be described as an aspect of them, just as flooding could be said to be an aspect of the dragon. Here we have a category, "the dragon," that from a western perspective is not purely "natural" and not purely "political," but which incorporates elements of both. While I have attempted to make clear the way in which natural and political phenomenon are associated in China, both conceptually and empirically, I now hope to demonstrate how the dragon embodies this association.


The mythology of dragons in China is extremely complex and multifaceted. The dragon in Chinese mythology is a symbol of divine rule; a controller of rain and drought; and a guardian of paradise (Birrell 1993, p.298). Some analysts have emphasized the differences between various types of dragon, for example isolating the "responding dragon" as the dragon which controls rain and water. Other commentators do not differentiate dragon types in their analysis, but rather stress that dragons are a dominant symbol of Chinese cultural identity. In this brief encounter, I am at once focusing on the flood dragon and drawing connections between it and other common aspects of dragon mythology.

 

On the whole, myths about the dragon commonly deal with problems of how to harness colossal physical force and elemental energy (Birrell 1993, p.60). The yellow dragon symbolized the Emperor and imperial authority. It is also a symbol of the yellow river with its power to bring life to the Chinese people, but also to cause destruction (Su 1991). Michael Loewe (1987) describes a "cult of the dragon" in ancient China where participants fashioned models of dragons out of clay to entice rain during drought. James Watson (1991) analyzes the appearance of dragons in local myths of South China as a metaphor for the imperial state and demonstrates how such myths reveal local ideas about the role of the state. Loewe, in concentrating on the dragon's association with rain, emphasizes the natural side of the dragon; while Watson's focus on the Imperial state underscores the political. The association of the dragon with the Emperor, however, himself ascribed the role of mediating between humankind and the cosmos, is suggestive of his status as something which is neither of nature nor of society but is rather a complex of ideas that focuses attention on the interplay of nature and society. The idea that the dragon embodies a blend of references to nature/politics can be further elaborated by an examination of beliefs about the dragon which were encountered in the field.

 


That dragons are deeply connected to social order is further substantiated by the fact that they are said to avoid polluting things ( Douglas 1970) such as human urine and afterbirth. There were frequent accounts of landslides careening down a mountain only to dramatically alter course as they approached a human urinating or a house where a woman was giving birth. It was furthermore told that if a person disposed of afterbirth in a watery crevice, the crevice would close up. In Ya'an it was also said the dragon would avoid fire. After the severe flood in 1982 locals lined the river banks with burning tires to drive the flood waters back. This practice is most likely based on Yin/Yang beliefs rather than any ideas about pollution, an attempt to harmonize the yin of the stormy dragon by presenting the yang of firelight. If the dragon was merely representative of "nature", however, it would be difficult to explain the avoidance of pollution; if it were merely representative of "culture" it would be difficult to explain the association with rain. The anthropologists' structural dichotomy between nature and culture does not apply here since the dragon embodies the unity of social and natural elements.

 

The dragon is a defining feature of the moral landscape. People in Xiakou tell a story about a woman who married into the village and then invited her father, who lived in Zhongli, to sell his belongings and come live out his old age with her and her family. She appropriated his money and then failed to care for him, leaving him to beg for food. After she died, a mudslide tore open her grave. Moral action can also turn the dragon away. Above Xiakou a severe landslide tore up a section of the mountain and then suddenly stopped. Locals then built a temple-- the assertion of moral order-- called "Dragon Turns Back" (Hui Long Si) on the location in order to "get" (punish, zheng ) and control the dragon. In the bad flood of 1982, one family in the village where so many people died took pride in the fact that the dragon had veered from destroying their families graves. Of course, not every mudslide is the dragon but rather its identification depends on what people interpret. As with feng-shui , people's moral fibre has an effect on a specific location and the dragon is sensitive to these factors.

 

The flood dragon is a dragon in rage--it is destructive. An Yiyu told me that when (this) dragon appears it always goes over bridges destroying them, never under them. Watson (1991) found that where the dragon was a metaphor for the state, the image of the "sleeping dragon" had the most appeal for villagers. Similarly, Weller (1987, p.154) points out that in a temple he studied, people welcomed the presence of the dragon but aimed to pacify it. The moral action represented by a temple has the power to pacify the dragon whether one is interpreting it as a representation of the state or a river in flood, and the fact that it embodies both is clearly significant.

 

THE TEMPLE OF THE DRAGON-TAMER

 


The way in which temple-building can pacify the flood dragon, and the connection between this dragon and the state, is exemplified in a temple revitalization movement which took place in Xiakou in 1992-93. Before the Communist Liberation the village had a temple associated with it in which the principal god was Er Lang or Chuan Zhu who is said to have the power of "taming the dragon ( jiu long )." At the time of Liberation, the temple was taken over as the headquarters for the township government, and in 1992 one could still see Great Leap Forward slogans on the walls as testament to the years that it functioned as the locus of government. In the 1960s some of the outer buildings were removed to the township proper where they were reconstructed to build the new township government building. The principal old temple building was left to house the commune grain stores and one or two old pensioners who had been in the service of the government in days past. People say that there were always people who would surreptitiously burn incense at the temple site and thus it could be said that except in times of extreme political control, the temple never really ceased to function. After the 1981 reform, there was no longer need to store communal grain for the production teams had ceased to exist. In early 1991, the last man (Wu Guanglin) who had lived in the temple died and the stage was set for increased activities. From 1992 the temple was revitalized by local farmers and through this revitalization many farmers expressed their feelings toward the changing social and political climate.

 

When we first went to the temple in late 1991 there was nobody around, just some small old relics that to us had no apparent significance, a sword that had once been part of a statue, a shoe, some old bits of carving all set on a stone platform or altar. Significantly, at about the time of Deng's southern tour the local residents commissioned the carving of a wooden statue of Chuan Zhu and the temple was informally opened. It did not have official authorization from the government but was a purely spontaneous, bottom-up creation.

 


Before liberation the Chuan Zhu temple held an annual festival on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth lunar month, a big event with people coming from villages all around to share a feast. On this day the statue of Chuan Zhu was traditionally escorted to a second temple building located in the township, where he resided throughout the summer rainy season to protect the town from flooding. In June of 1992 plans to celebrate the first festival day in four decades were just starting to be organized when the local township government, disapproving of "feudal superstitious" behavior and no doubt aware that the temple was starting to bubble with activity, decided to assert their authority and destroy the new statue. This was just two days before Chuan Zhu's festival day and the action of the township government marked the beginning of a series of 'miraculous events' in the new life of the temple. First, two officials from the township government entered the temple and tried to burn the Chuan Zhu statue's clothes, but they would not light. Then they knocked off his head and carried off his mutilated remains to live in a ground floor back-closet of the township government.

 

The very next day, the day before his festival, a tremendous and quite localized flood swept through the area. In Xiakou the event was particularly dramatic. As water poured down the steep mountain sides with forceful intensity, a large boulder above Xiakou's third production team was cut loose. On the near side of the river, in team two, farmers in their courtyards saw the huge rock begin to roll down the precipice. They yelled across the river to the people in the team 3 houses to run for their lives. As a result of their vigilance no one in team three was killed, but the boulder left a swath of destruction in its wake. It struck the canal above the village and so added the force of the canal water to its own destructive capacity. The stone rolled over a house flattening it before it found its final resting place along the river bank. The next days, two more houses were destroyed by the water from the canal pouring down the hill.

 

The flood also caused extensive damage in another nearby village where several people were killed, and it wreaked havoc on the township center, at the very place where in the Old Society, Chuan Zhu was moved in order to protect the town from floods. It demolished the local high school in Longxi and for the next year classes had to be held in the township government's own offices. For weeks the work-units in Ya'an city took collections from their employees to help the farmers who lost their homes in this flood. The school has yet to be rebuilt. It is important to note that the damage from this flood was considered by many observant older people to be particularly severe as a result of the specific pattern of recent development--both the irrigation canal and the quarrying of rock in the river bed being seen as significant amplifying factors, not to mention the severe weather itself. Several villagers commented on the sound of the churning stones in the flooded river, a sound they had never heard before because the boulders would have prevented such movement in the past.

 


The God of the temple, Chuan Zhu, is the canonized identity of a historical figure, the "upright official" Li Bing of the early Qin dynasty. His ability to "tame the dragon" refers to his work overseeing the construction of a vast and sophisticated irrigation system, still in use after two millennia, that transformed the Sichuan basin from flood-prone lowlands to the fertile and stable agricultural region it is today. Naturally enough, the flood on the eve of Chuan Zhu's festival day, following on the heels of his temple's desecration, only served to arouse more local interest in reviving the temple. Moreover, the fact that Chuan Zhu is a paragon of "upright officialdom" made the township government's suppression of the revival all the more galling, and set up an unflattering comparison for local officials. The act of suppression and the castigation of the temple's spontaneous revival as "feudal superstition" was a recognition of the inherent challenge the revitalization movement posed to the legitimation of party authority: a challenge in that it was 'spontaneous' and uncontrolled, and a more subtle challenge in the form of an ideal of 'good government' that the authorities fell short of. This conclusion is supported by the simultaneous appearance of other "heterodox" phenomena, such as prophecies of impending doom and millenarian texts in the temple itself.

 

After the big flood in June 1992 (and unconnected with it) there was the change of leadership at the local township government in Longxi, and the new party secretary Gao arrived. Gao reversed the government's position toward the temple and decided to support it. Once a new statue was returned to the temple, Gao went to inspect it, and when he leaned closer to look at Chuan Zhu's shoes, the statue fell on top of him. By the time word of this new "miraculous event" reached us, conventional wisdom had interpreted it as a happy portent: "Chuan Zhu performed the ` ketou ' to party Secretary Gao in thanks for his support." Rumor also circulated that Gao's father and brother were both ` daoshi ' (daoist priests) and so he was himself sympathetic to the temple. In a meeting called to organize a leadership structure for the temple, Gao's own explanation for his support sought to minimize his own initiative and ground the decision in "orthodox" principles; namely, the leadership of the party, the party's official policy on religion, and the party's call to "develop the economy and develop tourism" in the "spirit of `document number two'" (the policy formulation of Deng's trip to the South). In one of the many ironies swirling through this story, Gao was late for this meeting because of problems in the local irrigation system.

 


In his speech, Gao repeatedly emphasized two themes: the temple must have (party) leadership, and "superstition" (which he characterized as "spiritual possession, faith-healing and exorcisms") would be "severely punished." In addition, developing the temple was legitimated as "developing tourism," and "following the party's policy on religion" meant recasting the temple's identity to conform with state-sponsored Buddhism. These were the cornerstones of the authorities' attempt to give their own meaning to the temple's revival, to co-opt it.

 

Chinese religious policy allows for religious freedoms under the condition that religious activities remain unified under the communist cause. Official documents have recognized the potentially constructive role religion can play in the cause of maintaining order and in attracting economic development. The emphasis on unity resonates with a traditional idea of a single universe under one leadership ( da tong ). Thus bottom up activism is tolerated by the government, even welcomed, as long as it remains congruent with and can be controlled by the official government agenda.

In this way, the temple revival has been able to continue as a grassroots movement. Local people have donated their time and money to rebuild the temple and it has continued to expand as a result of their energies. Individuals have donated money for which their names have been read aloud during temple ceremonies and/or their name is written on paper which has then been displayed on the temple walls. In 1993, Chuan Zhu's temple festival saw villages throughout the area donating commemorative cloths and other gifts to Chuan Zhu. The temple was so crowded it took ten minutes of waiting in line just to get into the door. The giving of gifts, and participation in the temple reconstruction, and even just attending the temple on festival days have given the community a new focus and renewed context for creating and reinforcing individual and community identities.

 


It is important to note that local people did not express outrage at the stipulation that the government be involved in guiding the temple movement forward. The creation of the temple seemed intended to build a sense of local community and moral imperative that would incorporate the officials as well as the common folk. Thus there was a consensus welcoming government participation and a general spirit of accommodation on both sides. The locals were pleased at Secretary Gao's interest in the temple. One woman told us how her son had objected to her becoming active in the temple, apparently feeling that people would read into her actions an implicit criticism of his own filial performance. Not only did she insist on continuing her involvement in the temple but quoted herself as telling the branch party secretary in the village that he too ought to be involved in organizing temple activities. When he declined, she allegedly berated him saying, "what kind of party member are you?" According to her understanding a party member ought to be an activist in community projects with moral content. Interestingly, her understanding of what it means to be a party member was abstracted to the idea of a moral pillar for the community which, in these times, was appropriately expressed through activism in the temple revival.

 

While locals welcomed the participation of the official bureaucracy, they nevertheless had a specific idea about the terms on which the bureaucracy ought to participate; it was important that they should respect the farmers' conception of the temple's identity. For example, a man who frequently went to the temple told us on a temple day that,

 

The township head and party secretary both came here today. They kowtowed, of course ! They are officials, but they are still one of the people. It's important for an official to show that he is one of the people, the same as us. An official needs the support of the people. Officials and the people should have mutual respect. The farmers have culture, and there are intellectuals among the farmers. This kind of event, with musicians and people reading scripture shows that farmers have culture and knowledge.

 

This statement reveals both an ideal of good government and a strong sense of pride, an assertion of the essential worth of villagers who are often made to feel like second-rate citizens by officials, city people and intellectuals. Later, the man praised the new party secretary and township head for their solidarity and respect for the people, shown by their respect for Chuan Zhu, and complained about the old officials (who had tried to suppress the temple) and their unfair and disrespectful practice of withholding taxes from farmers' incomes.

 

In this sense the temple provided some scope for the villagers to assert their interests as distinct from those of the officials and win. A representative sent from the county government to help guide the movement did her best to channel the activities from local eclecticism toward orthodox Buddhism. It was in this spirit that she and a Buddhist nun she touted, suggested the temple be renamed from " miao " to " si ", " si " signifying Buddhism. Locals welcomed well enough the Buddhist rituals she organized, but suggested a separate building be constructed for the Buddhist 'Goddess of Mercy' ( Guanyin Pusa ) which could bear the name si , and held firm that the temple's traditional name and identity not be forsaken. In principle, locals welcomed government involvement but wanted it to take account of their own local sensibilities and not merely overrun them.


 

The mood of accommodation may have been a product of mutual expectations of monetary advantage--the people of the temple hoping to get a grant from the government for construction costs and the government hoping to reap rewards from potential tourism development-- but there was another sphere in which they shared a common vocabulary of interest, if not exactly the same conclusions. This was the sphere of changing values. The officials for their part hoped that the revival would help put a check on soaring crime rates through the development of "spiritual civilization." Similarly, the farmers' general complaint was that everything nowadays is for love of money, not love of humanity. But through this one can see in the temple revival both a broad critique of changes in society and an implicit criticism of now-rampant official corruption.

 

 

APOCALYPSE

 

Bearing in mind this sense in which the connection between politics and nature is a total connection, we can look at the religious revitalization in and around Xiakou in order to further understand the moral landscape that such religious beliefs perpetuate, and how they relate to local ideals with respect to resource management.

 


The local temple represents divine order, an ideal that is meant to reinforce proper behavior in mundane life. The notion that there would be divine retribution for bad behavior was represented at several levels within the space of the temple. The notion was visually represented by the arrival of a pair of statues for the City God ( Cheng huang ) and his wife ( Cheng Huang niang niang ). In the city of Ya'an , the City God had a history which paralleled that of Chuan Zhu. The City God's former temple had been appropriated by the government during the revolutionary period and continued to be used as a government storehouse during the period of fieldwork. When I first arrived in Ya'an, however, people were regularly burning incense on an outer temple wall that protruded into a wooded city park. At the time when Chuan Zhu was having his statue reinstated in his temple, the City God, too, was enjoying increasing attention and a small shack was set up in the park to contain a shrine in his honor. Without adequate space to place new statues of the City God and his wife, the devotees of the City God made an arrangement with the leading group of the Chuan Zhu temple to place the statues in the Chuan Zhu temple ten kilometers from Ya'an. If Chuan Zhu brought forth the ideal of an upright official, the City God through his position as king of the underworld served as a vivid reminder of the perils of ignoring such an ideal. Cheng Huang's realm is darkness ( yinjian ) and it is he who keeps the records of people's good and bad acts and has authority over birth, death, and reincarnation. It is he who determines to which of the eight levels of hell an individual will be assigned.

 

The written word was also employed to echo a call to order. A hand-printed text, graphic in its detail and threatening in its this-worldliness, was passed around inside the temple. It was a millenarian call to repent from evil ways and follow the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) for salvation in the terrible times to come. The text began with the story of a woman from Hunan who believed in Guanyin and faithfully "recited scripture" ( nian jing ). She died but seven days later Guanyin brought her back to life and out of hell because of her piety. The story goes on to describe a time when the good will be separated from the evil by two successive years (1992 and 1993) of disaster and calamity, including: epidemic diseases, famine, poisonous snakes, mad dogs and tigers, great storms, poisonous water, apocalyptic wars, bandits and the unleashing of demons and monsters from hell to attack people night and day. The text portended that evil people will be the victims of this onslaught, even the wealthy, the high, the mighty and the learned will not be spared: warriors and generals will be consumed, physicians will not be able to cure their own diseases. Finally, eighteen concentric pits will devour the evil ones, and they will be ground between millstones and transformed into monsters. The apocalypse will heighten to a crescendo of disaster, with those not dying at first finding themselves destroyed in the end by progressively debilitating disease, and the second year of disaster more ferocious than the first.

 

Evil here is characterised in two basic ways: the first is the pursuit of greed and the abuse of one's fellow human. The second is the failure to follow prescribed rituals, including not only the worship of Guanyin, but also the apostasy of not hanging traditional rhymed couplets around the door and not maintaining a central ancestral room. The good is defined in terms of correctly following these ritual practices; the call to "help the poor"; and in terms of attitude, maintaining a "rectified heart", a sincere pursuit of the good and a true belief. Also, it was noted throughout that these evil times are not the doing of Guanyin, but brought about by people on themselves.

 


Another example of this kind of religious vision which wove historical and religious references into a commentary on modern political economy was a song we heard sung by a local spirit medium in 1993. The man was one of the poorer families in his village who had no doubt greatly valued the advantages of the old cooperative system. He had recently experienced a personal tragedy as his daughter had run away to Hubei in hopes of a better life-- but likely was helped and encouraged in her escape by someone hoping to profit from her sale into marriage. He planned to take his message to the people, and had been visiting families in several nearby villages. He said that most people find his message "interesting" or "significant" ( you mingtang ). People we talked with told us he was crazy, although it should also be said that the points he made about unstable prices and diminishing agricultural returns and references to chaos fit with many people's current political and economic concerns. Whatever one makes of the legitimacy of this spirit medium, his song offers a rich text of social commentary:

 

 

I am the proclamation official for the Father of Heaven, the Mother of Heaven and Guanyin .

 

Heaven rules over the people; there is heaven, then there is earth; there is land, then there are people; there are people then there are all the forms of life.

 

Everyone must quickly respect heaven and earth; only then will good days come back again; 80 to 90% of the people must believe in heaven and earth, only then will good days come back again.

 

First make iron, then make steel; when there is steel then there is production; to till the land you need a hoe, to plow the paddy you need an ox.

 

If there is no heaven there is no earth; if there is no earth then people will starve to death; if there are no people then all the forms of life will disappear; all will be blackness and no smoke will come from the people's chimneys forever .

 

Blood will flow like a river; bones will form a mountain. It will be very dangerous.

 


We must want the good days to come back again; respect heaven and earth; respect Guanyin and respect the local gods; then socialism will flourish for 10,000 years.

 

I am the proclamation official, the only one for this dynasty; the next dynasty will have three proclamation officials.

 

The people are ruled by heaven; the underworld also manages the people; the people of this world don't believe because they can't see, they can't feel it, but when the time comes they will know... the people of this world only have the public security bureau to control them, but in the underworld everything will be taken into account:

 

People who curse heaven and earth will have their whole family die...

 

Officials must be good officials; they must do good things for the people; they should build bridges and repair roads...

 

People who steal and rob, people who are not filial ( bu xiao ) will be struck dead by lightning; one in a thousand will be punished to make others see...

 

Today the market is very unstable; rice will be as precious as gold ...

 

The high mountain will open its mouth ; tigers and wolves will come out and eat people, they will eat people's intestines in only five minutes...

 

There will be darkness and destruction...

 

In every dynasty the peoples' hearts are not as one; 80-90% of the people must believe in heaven and earth, then the good days will come once again.

 

Punishment will be decided through research and meetings.

Locusts will come and eat the crops. People are now wasting the nation's money on pesticides; the more they use the more the crops are eaten; you have to go through the medicine god's (yaowang) permission and use herbal medicine to kill locusts .

 

Many spirits are proclaiming to people in this world; Tiangong, Tianmu Guanyin and the Jade Emperor have sent a proclamation official ...

 

Now all the Pusa are requesting the people to rebuild them temples; they have `eaten thirty years of bitterness'; if you don't let them come back then the people living on the temple sites will have their houses burned.

 

Everyone must believe in them; only then will they save the people."


 

He then sang a `music from heaven' blessing and implored the Gods to spare us from disaster. Then he sat in silence and occasionally explained in speech the things he had said during his trance. One of the comments he made was that when 'the good days return' the corn will have three ears. Much of what he said had to do with crops and how they have been bad, and with the general diminishing returns of agriculture. He emphasized the `instability' of prices as a disaster in itself and as a portent of more disasters to come.

 

The song reflected a strong historical consciousness as it drew from the revolutionary experience of the past forty years political slogans and ideals with which people today still can identify. The song vindicated ideals crystallized during the revolutionary period in its reference to the flourishing of socialism, the making of steel and the call for use of the "research and meetings" method. Good officials ought, like officials of the revolutionary period, and like Chuan Zhu himself, dedicate themselves to infrastructural development. The song also makes explicit the connection between economic problems, a perceived spiritual and moral crisis and a religious imperative that I have implied is one of the forces behind the Chuan Zhu temple revival. The chaos of today was portrayed in both social and natural terms since reference was made both to unstable prices and increasing problems with crop pests. The images of worsening chaos to come also incorporated images of nature out of control--a landscape of terror with mountains of bones and rivers of blood; the high mountain opening its mouth to let out human-eating wolves and tigers. The song asserts that if people do not respect the old order and the traditional gods, untamed nature will consume humans in tragedy. On the other hand, rectification would not only bring stability but also progress--if the people would respect the gods, corn plants would then each have three ears, and the "good days will come again."

 

CONCLUSION

 


At one level, temple activists have used the temple as a straightforward forum for encouraging people to act in moral ways. They have distributed pamphlets encouraging citizens to be filial to their elders and to do good deeds for the well-being of others. Outside the temple proper, but seemingly motivated by similar concerns, individuals have circulated dramatic stories of moral imperative. On another level, the rituals associated with the general revitalization of religious belief have worked to transform the total physical landscape into a moral landscape. People increasingly burn incense and perform kowtows at the shrine to the local god at the temple entrance as well as before the different statues in the temple itself. Temples and shrines generally are located at important geographical gateways where they are highly visible and many travellers pass. The moral landscape becomes encompassing. Even the household is meant to be demarcated with traditional sayings hung around each of the outer doorways and the central room reserved for the honor of the ancestors. Here sacred space is not so much a special location separate and cut off from other spaces but the whole landscape is, in a sense, made significant.

 

With this background in mind, a clearer picture of the logic of the dragon can be obtained. At times of political upheaval, the threat of soil erosion becomes more severe. Thus locals today point to the failure of a corrupt and ineffectual government to maintain irrigation canals and regulate stone quarrying as the main factor behind collapse and violent floods. The accelerated change to a market economy has clearly made some people feel left out. It has also brought widespread disaffection from the government and both implicit and explicit rejection of party leadership. In some of the more extreme examples, the challenge to authority is clear-- and apparent to local officials who attempt to suppress "feudal superstition" as soon as it appears, proclaiming it as "unscientific" behavior.

 

In this climate of change, farmers have spontaneously turned toward the temple as a realm in which they can express frustration and dissatisfaction with the system by demonstrating their respect for sainted officials from the past such as Chuan Zhu and Cheng Huang and time-honored values such as filial piety. They are using the temple as a forum to teach the younger members of the community about old and respected values, and in their effort to reorganize the temple they are organizing alternative networks which attract the attention of officials and open the avenues for debate and bargaining. If the temple succeeds as a tourist attraction then both sides will have gained something they seek--increased material benefits from economic development. By coming to temple meetings the government official is getting to know local people and channels are opened for potential dialogue on issues of concern. In the face of a receding constructive role for the government in the lives of local farmers, one can also see in the temple the farmers beginning to organize their own alternative networks and institutions to fill the gap. The government is welcomed to become involved in these spontaneous grassroots organizations, but will likely need to yield to local interests in any effort to co-opt them. The full scope of the message behind the revival is not lost on local officials and it is quite plausible that a revival such as this one will help to "tame the dragon."

 

See chapter on social conflict and its spatial dimension for more detail on how courtyards are the subject of social and symbolic elaboration.

In a neighboring village, we came across the scattered remains of a large stone monument to a widow who had not remarried, intricately carved and dating from the Qing dynasty. When we asked if it had been torn down during the Cultural Revolution, we learned that it was destroyed in the 1980s when locals determined that it had been inhibiting their children from succeeding in school by trapping the flows of energy within the valley. Since it was blown apart, they claim that one or two students have passed the higher-level examinations.

Kelliher (1992, p.47-48) has noted that in the 1970s China was capitalizing on improved international relations to expand its industrial infrastructure, with a particular push between 1978-1980.

Ahern (1978) points out that great care is taken to keep polluting substances out of temples. She concludes, with Sangren (1987, p.143), that in China , pollution and power are associated with things which move between, or mediate between, order and disorder.

It is interesting to note that Ahern also states that "pollution emanates from the place where childbirth occurs, not from the new mother"(1978, p.287, emphasis added)

The "office of dragon tamer" is a title which since ancient times has been associated with great or powerful leaders (Birrell 1993).

The tension between orthodox and heterodox religious expression is covered in depth in academic writings on China , for example:(Feuchtwang 1992), (Weller 1987) (Sangren 1984).

Talk given by James Thrower of Aberdeen University at Cambridge University , 1994.

This debate over values, as it related to temple activities, will be covered by my partner John Flower in his Ph.D. thesis.

A feng-shui term which signifies the ideal site, (specifically the basin of land with southern exposure, enclosed by mountains on the north, east and west sides, and with a gentle flow of water through the landscape), used in common speech to indicate that an idea has real meaning and value.

Wolf suggests that the acceptance of spirit mediums in China may have as much to do with the social position of the medium in his/her everyday life as the with the content of the message (Wolf 1992).

A Great Leap Forward slogan: xian zao tie; hou zao gang .

A slogan from the Cultural Revolution: shehui zhuyi hong wan dai .

yanjiu, kaihui -- again, if not a slogan, then rhetoric derived from `revolutionary method.'

 

 

About This Essay


Rivers and Rocks

This essay recounts how villagers describe changes in the local hydrology that occurred during the second half of the 20 th century. It also gives an account of the 1992-1993 revival of the Chuanzhu temple in Xiakou, placing the revival in the context of villagers' concern over floods and the associated phenomenon of mudslides sometimes referred to as appearances of "the dragon." As with other accounts of the revival provided on this website ("A Temple Reborn" and "The Way In") this essay also demonstrates the way in which the revival represented an effort to engage officials on issues of concern to the farmers. This essay originally appeared in Pam Leonard's 1994 thesis, "The Political Landscape of a Sichuan Village ".