Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier by Paola Demattè


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Paper presented at the TAG 2010 Conference at Brown University

Organized religions are sometimes misperceived as static practices bound by fixed places of worship and defined rituals, and are thought to be inherently different from less structured belief systems that privilege individualism and mobility in the natural landscape. In fact, landscape and movement have consistently played a major role in all belief systems. Thus, if the place of landscape in worship is prominent in cultures where mobility is a mode of life, the sacredness of particular places and the necessity for believers to go on spiritual journeys to reach them is a constant of many settled cultures. A place where the implications of this “primitive-civilized” dichotomy are shattered is China’s northwest frontier zone. There, prehistoric petroglyphs sites of Iron Age pastoralists intermingle with Buddhist caves along the travel routes that have come to be known as the Silk Road. Mountains and springs, inscribed and worshipped by pastoralists or carved to be the abodes of Buddha and Bodhisattvas, are transformed into a large palimpsest that dominates over the single religion or ritual practice. This suggests that more then the individual belief, it is the structure of the landscape that creates the sacred.

The use of particular types of sacred places in different religious practices is often the means by which belief systems are analyzed and distinguished from each other. For this and other reasons, ancient and modern beliefs variously described as shamanistic or animistic, but better understood as ancestor and spirit worship, are presented as inherently different from organized or “high” religions. This spurious distinction is enabled by (among other factors) a dichotomous analysis of the place where the sacred is enacted: Is it a cultural or a natural landscape? Built or wild?

The implications are obvious. Belief systems that are seen as less structured, such as ancestor and spirit worship, are presented as natural or spontaneous practices centered on individual spirituality, mobility and, most importantly, the natural landscape as the privileged ritual setting. To the contrary, organized religions, like Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, are seen as urban practices that inhabit the constructed or domesticated landscape and are bound by clergy, defined rituals and fixed (constructed) places of worship. As a consequence, places of worship of organized religion are carefully distinguished from those locations where participants in loosely structured beliefs systems enact their rituals, even though both may occupy the same area, contiguous locations or structurally similar spaces. Geographers and philosophers have discussed at length the issue of place and space, trying to disentangle the presumed differences that distinguish the two. In general, most researchers, such as Tuan (1977), see space as more open and less specific than place; though some have problematized this distinction (Casey 1996). I would like to move beyond this and other dichotomies and focus on a more unifying term, such as landscape, because I prefer to highlight similarities rather than differences. Nonetheless, I want to clarify that, opposite of Tuan (1977), I interpret space archaeologically, that is as a physically confined or enclosed place.

In China, these distinctions are perhaps even more pronounced, as the size of the country and its ethnic and cultural variety invite many separations and classifications of beliefs and places. Differences are assumed about the nature of a sacred place based on its position in the territory, its stylistic or structural qualities, as well as the ethnic and cultural affiliation of the local inhabitants.

Notwithstanding the creation of these artificial separations, it is clear that, aside from cultural peculiarities, there is little difference in the ways the various religions identify, obtain and use sacred places. Landscape and movement have consistently played a major role in all belief systems, no matter the complexity of their organization. Indeed, if the place of landscape in worship is prominent in cultures where mobility is a mode of life (hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, merchants, travelers), the sacrality of particular places and the necessity for believers to go on spiritual journeys to reach them is likewise a constant in the organized religions of settled cultures. Thus, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian believers are often expected or even required to participate in ritualized movement to sacred places or on ritual routes to fulfill their religious duties or to acquire a deeper understanding of their faith.

Furthermore, locations that embody the sacred often are sacred through time for different religions, either in succession or simultaneously. These continuities and contiguities are easily recognized for well-known places, such as, for instance, Jerusalem or Mecca, or for the countless pagan temples, synagogues, mosques, and churches that over the centuries have been acquired and transformed for use within a new religion. Unfortunately, these phenomena are not as readily recognized in other contexts, particularly if the religions involved in the sharing are thought to be fundamentally different. For these reasons, it is worth exploring the issue of sacred continuity and contiguity with particular regard to prehistoric ritual centers and Buddhist sites in China.
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Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier
Cults of Place: Mountains, Rivers and Beyond
→ Case Studies: Inner Mongolia: Yinshan
→ Case Studies: Ningxia: Helankou
→ Case Studies: Gansu: Heishan
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