Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Sacred Geography: Constructions and Representations

We cannot map sacred geography, nor can we see it the way that gods see it, bound as we are to the person’s-eye view of the world. [Note that “the way gods see it” is different than the concept of the god's-eye view, as I use it in this module, because the god’s-eye view applies to physical geography.] Nevertheless, there is no shortage of descriptions and representations of what it looks like and how it is organized. According to K.E. Brashier, late imperial Chinese constructed one zone of sacred geography—hell—as “a spectacle, as a display intended for public consumption.” The hell scrolls in this collection vividly depict the punishments meted out on those who misbehaved in their lives on earth, indicating that Chinese representations of sacred geography existed in part to encourage particular forms of behavior among the living. The scrolls also express a key feature of Chinese conceptions of sacred geography: it is a bureaucratic realm, in which deities hold hierarchically-arranged ranks and perform specific functions, like magistrates within the imperial bureaucracy. The paintings show deities as judges reviewing cases, and lesser divinities as functionaries carrying out punishments, mirroring the judicial system of imperial China. Japanese representations of hell, such as this scroll of the realm of the hungry ghosts, also depict an area of sacred geography as a place of suffering from which liberation through proper action is possible.

In both Chinese and Japanese conceptions of sacred geography, divine beings dwelt everywhere. For Japanese, kami imbued all elements of the natural, physical world, whereas for Chinese, certain ancestors retained a sort of numinous presence in the lives of their descendants. Both sets of divinities observed and influenced the day-to-day activities of human beings, yet many had limited ranges of movement and activity. Kami and Chinese deities often had specific links to particular physical locales (see, for example, the geographic origins in China of the deities Kaizhang Shengwang and Mazu; or the territorial links of a kami known as Kotohira), ancestral spirits paid attention only to their descendants, and the bureaucratic Chinese deities could only perform the functions specific to their posts within the pantheon (see, for example, the protective powers of the deity Chenghuang Ye). Therefore, Chinese and Japanese placed boundaries upon sacred geography, and especially around its inhabitants.

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