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An Attempt at a History of Mentality in Late Imperial China

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Some elements of Puritanism in Chinese tradition are obviously different from the well-known intellectual phenomenon in the West; in the Neo-Confucian ambit the key question concerns “order–disorder,” “harmony–disharmony” in society and inside one’s personality, rather than “sin” and “purity” in personal morality. Yet we also find that chastity is involved in the contrast between the two concepts of purity and pollution and the idea of “obscene” (meaning “inauspicious,” “ill-omened,” “profane”) allows us to uncover a darker side to sexual representation. Death seems another source of active or passive pollution: this effect occurs after contaminational contact with human or animal remains. Thus death is the source of “desecration,” or of “contamination,” especially when it is the consequence of violence. This means that in Chinese culture, a sense of impurity seems to be driven by the horror of death and the fear of being overwhelmed by the passion of love; respectively, thanatos and eros. Other topics may also be associated, such as mental insanity referring to what is different, abnormal, strange, and socially subversive. The clean–unclean distinction originally responded to a basic visceral feeling—horror and repulsion/disgust—that is typically associated with hygienic worries and matter that is perceived as repugnant and inedible. But these basic ideas seem to have been symbolically extended to cope with the subconscious and metaphysical spheres: the horror of death and the fear of being overwhelmed by passion, the mysteries which lie behind these emotions, and the attempt to sublimate such fears into an impulse to transcend the red dust of our limited existence.


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