AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 578

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Session 578: Science and Religion in China - Sponsored by the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions

Organizer: Jonathan E. E. Pettit, Purdue University, USA

Discussants: Michael Stanley-Baker, Max Planck Institute, Germany; Marta E. Hanson, Johns Hopkins University, USA

This panel engages with various ways in which religious practitioners and their techniques crossed borders of intellectual disciplines, geographic realms, historic periods, social classes and epistemes of perception throughout Asian history. The papers have varied topics, from entomology, medicine, and divination to tantric ritual and sericulture, but find common ground in understanding that the discursive formation of these techniques illuminates processes that facilitated social mobility, education, and health care. Ranging from the Shang Dynasty to the Nationalist period, from India to Japan, these techniques crossed boundaries that surrounded, but were also internal to, China as a geographic, cultural and historical entity. Grounded in the histories of Buddhism, Daoism, and common religion, the juxtaposition of these papers build a more complex understanding of the co-dissemination of technical and religious knowledge. We begin with papers highlighting how the semantic structure of technical knowledge encodes and externalizes conceptual structures already present in society. These papers argue that interpretive schemes are embodied in the technique itself, rather than configured by religious thinkers. The second cluster of papers sees the formation of science and religion as a dynamic process whereby interlocutors (discourse participants) constructed meaning in an ongoing dialogue. These panelists argue that techniques were strategically positioned vis-à-vis pre-existing knowledge, which suggests authors played active roles in shaping the transmission of practices. Leaving extended time for audience participation, our panel crosses disciplinary, conceptual and methodological borders to analyze the problematics of science and religion in and around China.

Religion as Technology in the Tang Dynasty Cult of Marici
Geoffrey Goble, DePauw University, USA

My paper will explore the validity and usefulness of approaching religion and technology as two separable spheres of human endeavor in the context of medieval China. Technology, as the study or knowledge of a skill or craft (techne), and its functional equivalent or wellspring, applied science, are aimed at the manipulation of the physical world. This manipulation is based on an understanding of physical properties, forces, or laws—the nature of the physical world. To posit a distinction between religion and technology is, therefore, to imply that religion is not predicated on a manipulation of the physical world or that religious practices are not predicated on an understanding of the physical world. In regard to religious traditions of medieval China, this is clearly not the case. Though perhaps not informed, strictly speaking, by an empirical method, medieval Chinese religious traditions and practices are heavily invested in the manipulation of the physical world. And this manipulation is predicated on an understanding of the fundamental structures, components, and characteristics of the physical world—sometimes understood to be impersonal, sometimes not. My paper will, therefore, address not religion and technology in medieval China but religion as technology in medieval China. As a case study of this phenomenon I will discuss the cult of Marici. The personification of dawn, she was originally the Vedic goddess Usas. She was incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon from an early period as the goddess Marici. Through knowledge of Marici and her associated ritual techniques a practitioners were able appropriate or manipulate her power to his or her own ends.

Starving the Tapeworm: Religioentomology in Daoism and other Sinitic Religions
Paul Jackson, Arizona State University, USA

“Chong,” or “bug,” represents a semantic category fundamentally associated with insects and worms. The “chong” category extends to insectine or wormish actions: wriggling, corrupt officials, nibbling away, stupidity, and other loathsome or denigrating lexemes. “Chong” represents the alienness of the other, as may be seen in “southern barbarian” (man). In Daoist and other religious texts, “chong” stands in for any number of malefic forces or unpleasant, dangerous effects. “Chong” represents a semantic category of abstractions that one should be rid of; they are the target of apotropaic efforts, the wages of sin, parasitical impediments to enlightenment, or inflictions meted by the demon armies sent to plague mankind. In this paper the author focuses on the connection between entomology and Chinese religious thought, and the treatment of the “insectine” category in Chinese religious texts and practices. This paper assumes a religiolinguistic model, where religiolinguistics is (1) a heuristic model to find phenomena of religious language; (2) a hermeneutical model to analyze the phenomena using tools from the field of linguistics; (3) a theoretical model that links religion and language to cognition and epistemology. In this paper, the author argues that general cultural backdrops form part of the very understanding and application of the concepts of religion, meaning, truth, knowledge, and language. Different uses of language—in this case, the insectine category of language in the Sinitic family—determine how a person perceives, evaluates, and reacts to the world.

Semiotics and Sacrality in Early Imperial and Medieval Chinese Pyro-plastromancy
Stephan N. Kory, Reed College, USA

A technical, artificial, and inductive form of divination with origins preceding the mid-second-millennium BCE, pyro-plastromancy—the application of fire to a turtle plastron and the interpretation of resultant cracks—is well-documented in Chinese texts dating from the Late Shang (ca. 1200–1045 BCE) to the early Republican era (1912–1918) and is still carried out under imperial auspices and at local shrines in Japan. While methods for the fabrication of oracle cracks define the technique and appear to have remained relatively unchanged over the course of its more than three-thousand-year history, the same cannot be said with regards to function or interpretation. Adopting Umberto Eco’s calls for the reintegration of non-linguistic signs into modern semiotic theory and exploring J. Z. Smith’s notion of “sacred persistence,” the central argument of my paper proposes that roughly first millennium CE renditions of pyro-plastromantic interpretive techniques can be fruitfully analyzed and compared using the science of signs and analogous approaches stemming from the field of religious studies. Intending to reconstruct the discursive formation of a single traditional divinatory tradition in early imperial and medieval China, I contend that the real advantage of such an approach rests in the direct accountability it forces upon the implicative logic, interpretive schemes, and systems of signs embodied in the technique itself. All of this has important implications for how we choose to envision the cultural categories highlighted in the present panel.

The Chinese Buddhist Discourses of Silk Production
Stuart H. Young, Bucknell University, USA

By the time Buddhism was transmitted to China, during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE), silk had long been the lifeblood of the kingdom. Over the course of some millennia prior, silk production, use and trade had spread to every corner of the Chinese imperium, and sericulture—the process of raising silkworms and producing silk from their cocoons—had grown into a truly ubiquitous commodity industry. During the medieval period Buddhism developed into perhaps the most influential and widely practiced religion in China, while the role of sericulture as keystone in Chinese society, economics, and material culture was further solidified. What do we know about the relationship between these two behemoths of traditional Chinese industry and religion? Almost nothing. This paper presents a preliminary investigation into the discourses of sericulture in medieval Chinese Buddhism, examining the ways in which sericulture technologies were couched in Buddhist philosophical, ethical, socio-political and ritual terms. Contrary to popular belief, not all Chinese Buddhists were cloistered hermits far removed from the cares of material existence; rather, many were deeply involved in the industrial and technological development of medieval China. Buddhist sericulture discourse offers a useful example of how religious devotees disseminated scientific knowledge in premodern China, and how religion and technology were seen as inextricably intertwined. Buddhist authors worked to construct a distinctive niche for their religion in the culture of silk production, fashioning a specifically Buddhist moral, ritual, social and soteriological framework for sericulture that could help situate the sangha advantageously within Chinese society more broadly.

Celestial Surgery, Butter Baths, and Shiva’s Magic Medicine: Translating Buddhist Medical Practices in Medieval China
Pierce Salguero, Penn State Abington, USA

The eastward transmission of Buddhism resulted in the introduction to China of Indo-European medical doctrines, practices, and technologies that differed greatly with pre-existing Daoist and classical traditions. Focusing on a medieval sutra on the visualization of healing deities and medical procedures, this paper investigates the translation practices that allowed for this foreign medical knowledge to be understood and accepted in China. By applying the model of “conceptual blending” developed in the cognitive sciences to the sutra-text, I analyze how novel medical content from abroad was strategically positioned vis-à-vis indigenous knowledge. The text establishes parallel relationships between foreign and domestic medical imagery to increase the relevance of foreign medical procedures for contemporary readers, while simultaneously asserting hierarchical relationships to argue for the superiority of Buddhist healing. When put into practice, the meditations prescribed in the sutra thus would have infused the meditator’s mental space with graphic pictorial demonstrations of Buddhism’s compatibility with and superiority to Daoist and classical medicine. Following the sutra’s instructions, the meditator would reconstruct and rehearse these nested vertical and horizontal conceptual blends, reinforcing and internalizing the author’s original act of translation through his own mind-body practices. This three-step process of authorship, readership, and internalization serves as a model of how the introduction of Buddhist scientific knowledge to medieval China was not merely a question of the “encounter” or “hybridization” of two cultural traditions, but a sustained and active process of cultural translation at the mental, physical, and cognitive levels.