Empire or nation-state:
tracing trans-national ritual networks from Southeast China to Southeast Asia
Kenneth Dean, McGill University
This paper traces a range of systemic transformations of an „actor-network‟
(Latour 2005) connecting the ritual alliances of the irrigated Putian plains over time across national boundaries into several Xinghua temples and communities in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. In some of these networks, spirit-mediums become the bearers of a new form of transnational cosmopolitanism (van der Veer 2001). By tracing these networks as they were constructed we can assemble a partial map of the social in this part of Southeast China and Southeast Asia, without appealing to a pre-defined notion of “the social” or “the nation” to explain what we are trying to describe. These
phenomena provide an alternative perspective on questions of nationalism in China.
The paper first briefly outlines the evolution of Chinese anthropology in relation to nationalism (part one) and the role of “religion” within this discourse (part two). The
third section discusses the rise of a network of ritual alliances in the Putian irrigated plain of the Xinghua bay, and traces the spread of that network to Southeast Asia and its systemic transformations over the past twenty-five years, during which time spirit mediums and businessmen (sometimes one and the same) began to return to ancestral villages in China to help re-invent their ritual traditions. The Appendix provides a lively
example of recent epigraphy celebrating these networks and relating the history of a specific temple within the network.
Part 1: Nationalism and Chinese anthropology
A number of surveys of Chinese anthropology point to the nationalistic aspects of the early Chinese anthropologists/archaeologists doctrine of Chinese cultural influence on Southeast Asia and beyond, propounded during the 1920‟s and 1930‟s (Guldin 1994; Zhou 2003). These theories have given way to other approaches but point nevertheless to the close connection between anthropology and nationalism and cultural chauvinism. More important for this paper was the rise of Chinese ethnography during the 1930‟s and
1940‟s. The early pioneers of Chinese ethnography/anthropology include Cai Yuanpei, Fei Xiaotong (who studied in England with Malinowski), Lin Huixiang (Xiamen University – trained in the Phillipines by H.Beyer, Ph.D. Harvard), Wu Wenzao of Yenching University (Ph.D.1929 Columbia, student of Boaz), and Li Fanggui (PhD. Chicago, student of Sapir and Bloomfield). Some of these and other Chinese scholars produced subtle and nuanced ethnographic accounts of what have come to be known as “national minority” communities and of some Han Chinese communities. The conditions of the Sino-Japanese war delayed further research until after Liberation, at which time Soviet models of ethnographic minority studies were imposed and carried out under the auspices of the National Minorities Institute and its linked system of training colleges for minority cadres. In this mode of ethnography, “religion” is defined in a functionalist
fashion as a fundamental, if reactionary, aspect of minority culture. This mode of analysis was not however applied to Han Chinese society, which was judged to have been largely secularized by the Chinese revolution and by the revolutionary processes of
th modernization underway since before the beginning of the 20century. The four fields of
North American anthropology (archaeology, socio-cultural anthropology, linguistics, and physical anthropology) were eventually divided up and assigned to different specializations and levels of research support.
Chinese ethnography of “national minorities” in the 1950‟s and early 1960‟s was mostly engaged in researching, and to a certain extent “fixing” the religious beliefs and
ritual practices of a number of “minority peoples”. At the same time, one of the world‟s largest social surveys was underway across China as part of the land reform movement. This incredible archive has yet to be fully accessed, but it promises to eventually provide extensive insights into many aspects of Chinese society and culture.
During these years, Western and some Chinese anthropologists working on Chinese culture in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, including notably Maurice Freedman, (1974) proclaimed the unity of Chinese religion “as a system”. Freedman based his claims in part on the earlier ethnographic work of J.J. DeGroot in Batavia and in Xiamen, as shown in The Religious System of China (1892-1910) as well as the
theoretical writings of Marcel Granet in Paris, as exemplified by The Religion of the Chinese People, 1922.
DeGroot and Granet have pointed the way to an understanding of how in
modern times the vast hierarchised society of China might be seen to
display a single underlying religion taking many guises.” (1974:34).
The concept of a (closed) system of Chinese religion developed by these Freedman and other Western anthropologists was a structural-functionalist one. There was great emphasis placed on the timeless sphere of religion/culture within Chinese society – this notion of the inseparability or near equivalence of religion with culture was furthered by notions of religion as a cultural system developed by Geertz. We will return below to the problematic nature of this early anthropological discovery of “the unity of
Chinese religion”. The close connection between these static and unified concepts of religion and/as culture in anthropology with colonialist and Orientalist modes of knowledge production was pointed out by a number of critical anthropologists, including Fabian and Asad (1993). This mode of post-colonial critique, along with objective changes in the conditions of anthropological research, led to a critical reflexive crisis of representation within anthropology as a whole (Clifford and Markus 1986).
The influence of these critical movements within anthropology took a rather long time to impact China anthropology. Here I will comment on only a few of these responses. One important response was the articulation of calls for an indigenous “native
anthropology”, which sought the development of theoretical paradigms from within Chinese experience, rather than merely applying anthropological concepts elaborated in Africa and elsewhere to the Chinese case, or generalizing findings from one place (Taiwan) to all of China (Murray and Hong 1994, Zhou 2003).
Stephan Feuchtwang had long argued for the double (official vs. popular), if not multiple and potential contradictory dimensions of Chinese ritual practice (local gods as simultaneously protective and demonic). He argued for local decenterings of power within discrete traditions of “contested authority claims” and “historical references”. This perspective still had difficulty disentangling itself from a model of an internally contested but still unified cultural system (Bell 1989). Feuchtwang and Wang Mingming have gone on to conduct a series of comparative studies of local politics and place-making (what Feuchtwang refers to as the establishment of “minor sovereignties”) in Taiwanese and in Chinese communities (Feuchtwang and Wang 2001, Feuchtwang 2004).
Wang Mingming‟s own work on popular uses of space within Quanzhou raised the question of local forms of cultural resistance to hegemonic projects of national unity.
Robert Weller‟s work initially worked within a framework of cultural unity while attempting to bring out the disunities and well as the unities of Chinese religion and culture. His later work on alternate civilities (1999) rejects the imposition of Western models of modernization or civil society and imagines a different trajectory for local communal ritual traditions and emergent modernist religious movements in new forms of construction of the social and the national unique to Chinese societies. In general, his work can be read to move beyond a notion of the unity of Chinese religion or culture, and implies a fragmented, multidimensional China, or the coexistence of multiple Chinese cultures.
Allen Chun (2000) attacked the root of Freedman‟s notion of the unity of Chinese
culture and religion through his deconstruction of the sacred cow of the lineage form in his study of Chinese village property relations in Hong Kong. His critical work also includes an incisive critique of processes of cultural nationalism in post-49 Taiwan and a biting expose of the complicity of Taiwanese anthropology in these processes. In addition, his examination of the limits of the concept of diaspora in the Southeast Asian context raises critical perspectives on emerging claims to an alternative modernity within neo-Confucian (and neo-liberal) Overseas Chinese business networks (a subject to which we will return below).
Mayfair Yang (2000) has raised interesting questions about contemporary ritual in China (especially Wenzhou) as a form of resistance to capitalism, arguing that it can be seen as part of a general economy of excess. Much interesting work has also been done in other fields of anthropology as well, such as medical anthropology (Farquhar, Chen), the anthropology of work, gender and everyday life (Rofel), and more critical reassessments of the tradition of minority studies (Harrell, etc). Some of these studies also address the role of nationalism in the everyday bodily practices of contemporary Chinese everyday life.
Anthropology in China itself has focused primarily on questions of urbanization and the modernization of the peasant way of life. These aspects of developmental anthropology were provoked by the incredible speed of hyperdevelopment in China,
which coincided with the re-establishment of anthropology as an academic discipline in China in the early 1980‟s. Some Chinese anthropologists worked to translate, introduce and apply a broader range of socio-cultural anthropological approaches in the 1990‟s.
Still, the bulk of the work in China had an understandable focus on the applied anthropology of development.
Within the newly cross-fertilizing fields of socio-cultural history and anthropology a number of new perspectives emerged on local ritual practices in China. Prasenjit Duara‟s Culture, Power, and the State (1988) introduced the concept of a
cultural nexus of power of traditional Chinese society in the Shandong area. Another group of scholars who sought to combine anthropological approaches with historical research were those working in the Pearl River delta and in Chaozhou, Guangdong . This group includes David Faure and Helen Siu, Liu Zhiwei, a student of Liang Fangzhong, and Chen Chunsheng (Faure and Siu, 1995). At Xiamen, the students of Fu Yiling including Zheng Zhenman, continued Fu Yiling‟s emphasis on the collection and study of local historical materials, and broadened their investigations to include local ritual traditions in addition to socio-economic questions. Recent studies by Liu Yonghua and Huang Xiangchun and others continue this trend.
This kind of local or regional history has had to defend itself against claims of irrelevance or of its inability to speak to larger themes of national history. These demands for national, homogenous historical narrative were directly challenged in Duara‟s second
book Rescuing History from the Nation (1995). Clearly, powerful nationalistic and
institutional forces continue to demand the unification of historical narratives, but these new schools of local history, with their methodological links between history and anthropology, have worked productively with a new focus on the lives of common people based on local historical documents gathered during fieldwork in local communities. This school is in fact somewhat internally divided, with Faure (2007) and Liu recently arguing for models of cultural integration and identification with the state (a position recuperable by nationalism) while others such as Zheng Zhenman are more interested in the spread of elite techniques into different local communities and the local appropriations of those techniques and concepts for very different purposes. Despite or perhaps because of these debates, a significant challenge to nationalist historiography has emerged in these studies.
Zheng‟s work on the Family-Lineage Organization and Social Change in Ming and Qing Fujian (2001) also demonstrated that the Chinese lineage was a highly malleable form, which could go so far as to transform into a trans-national joint-stock corporation in which unrelated individuals could buy shares. This model explodes the earlier A-Z scale of lineage forms proposed as modifications of the Freedman model. We will see below one example of this kind of “super-lineage” linking Putian with Southeast Asia.
Part 2: Religion, anthropology, and nationalism
If anthropology has had a fairly hard time establishing itself as an academic discipline in China, the same is also true of religious studies (see Yang 2004). Within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, religious studies ranks very high, just below Marxist Leninist thought. But this was originally because of the importance of analyzing ideological formation that were by definition alienated and potentially reactionary. In order to merge theory with practice, the implementation of policy emerging from this critical analysis of religion was the purview of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. There are still relatively few programs in religious studies in China. The earliest ones (Sichuan, Renda and Nanjing) were established in the 1980s. In the past 15 years there has been an exponential growth of this academic field, involving the translation of many overviews and monographs of Western religious studies but still very few empirical studies of contemporary Chinese ritual traditions.
Within Western religious studies, a recent movement has carried out a critical reflection on the ideology of religious studies, and interrogated the processes of the invention of world religions and the study of comparative religions (McCutcheon 1997, Dubuisson ( tr. 2003, Fitzgerald 2000, Masuzawa 2005). This critical movement questions the universalization of the notion of religiosity, which they trace back to Western theology. Some of these critics suggest instead a more self-conscious sociology of religion, based on paradigmatic changes to the field introduced by Stark and others who talk in terms of a pragmatics of religion as a set of rational choices within differing ritual marketplaces (Stark and Finke 2000). An extended sociology of comparative religion may not however completely escape the critique of the founding notions of the field as a whole. Within anthropology, Asad (1993) also called for the rejection of the
term religion in place of the study of specific ritual traditions and disciplinary practices. In his subsequent work he has also urged the exploration of the impact of modernization theory, notions of secularization, and the institutionalization of Western definitions of religion on non Western societies.
Western studies of Chinese religion have also foundered over questions of defining the field of study. While Buddhist studies has a place in many departments of religion in North America and Europe, Daoist studies positions are extremely rare. Most religious studies programs are prepared to introduce religious dimensions of Confucianism, but many universities delegate Confucian studies to philosophy or East Asian Studies. But all the more evident for its entire absence within departments of religion is the realm of Chinese popular religion, or if one prefers the term, local communal religion. Following Asad, we may wish to call these practices local ritual traditions – the ensemble of which in any particular region would be an object of study. If Chinese religion is a unity, as claimed by Maurice Freedman, it has yet to become an object of systematic research. If it is instead a vast array of different ritual traditions, some of considerable longevity and complexity, all intertwining in different ways in different places, it is perhaps understandable why few universities have dared to approach the study of such a complex range of phenomena. Neglecting to do so unfortunately means that a vast realm of human experience goes unstudied.
Within China, the institutionalization of a particular definition of religion drawn from Marxism over the past 50 years has led to many unintended consequences. The definitions of religion adapted in China do not, I have argued elsewhere, closely correspond with the range of ritual practices found in local communities across China. Instead, they cleave contemporary practice into pieces, with some aspects considered acceptable and others not (for example, spirit possession). This is especially clear when the definition and its associated policies and institutions are applied to the field of popular local ritual traditions. There one finds no clearly distinct religious organization, religious leader, religious doctrine, or “religious” practices – in the sense of practices reflecting
specifically articulated beliefs. The ubiquity of spirit possession in this realm of ritual activity suggests an openness to revelation and altereity quite distinct from the “religions of the book”. One way that this problem has been dealt with in China is to categorize
popular ritual practices as “folk customs”, thereby making them more acceptable but also making them recuperable for projects of nationalism under the broader umbrella of Chinese culture. Here too there is a long legacy of nationalist plans for the improvement of culture, the quality of the people, and in the extreme, but still common version, the transmission of modernist culture to people who are said to have no culture.
One aspect of these definitional or conceptual problems must be discussed here, as it sets the stage for the case study introduced below. Within Chinese academic and policy circles, the study of “Chinese popular religion” has traditionally meant the study of religion and peasant rebellion – that is to say millenarian cults and secret societies, as
seen in the monumental study by Ma Xisha and Hang Bingfang entitled Zhongguo minjian zongjiaoshi (A History of Chinese Popular Religion) (1992) . In effect, the field
of Chinese popular religion has been constituted as the study of heterodoxy and superstition (mixin)- that is to say actions defined as illegal and heretical. Scholars such as Daniel Overmyer and Barend ter Haar have labored to document the limitations of this scholarly perspective by demonstrating 1) that the vast majority of popular religious movements across Chinese history have been peacable and not involved in rebellion, and 2) that those that did rebel more often than not were driven to do so by the actions of the state. Ter Haar has been particularly clear in documenting the impact of pejorative labels and unexamined presuppositions in this historical process. Well known developments in the late 1990‟s have however only exacerbated this trend of Chinese scholarship, as can be seen by the proliferation of publications on historical secret societies and a new literature on comparative approaches to cults (in the current negative sense of the term). Of course, many Chinese scholars have attempted in response to develop a more comprehensive and inclusive, not to say harmonious, approach to religious studies.
In some ways, these trends are a continuation of the dismissive attitudes of earlier Chinese elites towards local ritual traditions. In this, the Confucian elite was to some extent aided by higher level Buddhist monks and Daoist masters who sought court patronage or the support of landed gentry and local officials. Few of these groups admitted to any interest in or understanding of local ritual traditions. But even Confucian literati had to maintain a relationship with their own village temples, and mid and lower level Buddhist monks and Daoist masters were deeply involved in local ritual traditions.
Most likely, it was the close connection between Celestial Master Daoism and local communities across China (especially in the south) that led the Qing court to become suspicious and decrease and eventually deny court patronage to this branch of Daoism. But local communities continued to sponsor Daoist rites, providing the economic support necessary for the preservation and expansion of the many local ritual forms of Daoism, which evolved independently in relation to local communal ritual traditions. Under post Liberation models of the state and the citizenry, the new theory and practice of religion led to far more invasive forms of control than the sporadic, unsystematic attacks of the late imperial state. Thus the seeming continuities in approach to popular religion belies a serious and significant change in definitions and policies related to the rise of a modern nation-state with new bio-political powers.
thIn early 20 century Western scholarship, Daoism was treated as the degeneration of an ancient and noble philosophic movement, or at best as a form of personal magic with little connection to communal life (Weber). Only after the “discovery” of Daoist
ritual in Taiwan by Schipper and Saso in the 1960s was there a gradual rethinking of the complex interconnections of Daoism with local ritual traditions. As research into different Daoist ritual traditions across China has slowly proceeded over the past 25 years, a somewhat clearer picture of the multiplicity of ritual frameworks within distinct mixes of localized Daoist ritual traditions interacting with evolving local ritual traditions with different local pantheons has emerged. These local traditions, and their appropriations of the elite ritual traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, defy easy generalization into a unified system of Chinese religion. This exuberant multiplicity recalls the complexity of Greek local ritual traditions prior to their systematization under a unified pantheon of Olympian gods. Underlying this multiplicity are manifold forms of complex local organization.
In terms of sheer numbers, this is a massive phenomenon, and it always has been one, even if ignored by both traditional and modern scholarship. Of course, one‟s perceptions of China are much affected by what one sees. The hyperdevelopment of Chinese economy is visible in every city and town and many villages across the country. Nonetheless, over 650 million peasants still live on less than $2 USD a day, and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow at an alarming pace. The experiential gap
between urban and rural everyday life expands equally quickly, despite the spread of modern telecommunications. In many rural areas the revival of ritual practices appears to be taking hold, especially in those areas close enough to expanding urban centers but far enough away or sophisticated enough (due to historical reasons) to preserve some local cultural autonomy. Due to the nature of the issue, there will never be an objective count of the people involved in these local practices, although the number is sure to be in the hundreds of millions.
Inside Chinese academic and religious policy circles, there has been a clear recognition of the advance of secularization of the urban population along with a greater openness towards the activities of the official religions. The local offices of the Bureau of Religious Affairs now include minority and ethnic affairs under their purview, which would seem to indicate some pragmatic acknowledgement of the broader cultural dimensions of local ritual practice amongst Han Chinese as well as among the “national minorities”. Unfortunately, or perhaps predictably, this has led to a bureaucratic bean-
counting approach, where local temples are now often officially registered as “Daoist” in order to fall under some acceptable official classification. (Parenthetically, in Singapore and Indonesia Daoism was not recognized as an official religion, which led the majority of the Chinese populations of those states to define themselves as Buddhist). This allows for closer supervision and regulation of financial and other aspects of local ritual organization. This is a process that repeats in some respects the developments on Taiwan over the past 50 years in official policy towards “popular religion”. Some interesting local flexibility in the application of these categories and concepts has been demonstrated by the designation of temples of the Three in One movement in the Xinghua area as “sites of local religious activity”. The concept of a “local religion” moves beyond the limits of the policy of the five official religions and shows greater awareness of the complex lived experience on the ground. This breakthrough is a mutual accomplishment as the Three in One movement has petitioned for this kind of official recognition for decades.
One way to explore these issues is to start from the ground up, by examining contemporary ritual life and organization. In a number of papers, I have suggested an alternative approach to local ritual traditions as the intensification of everyday life, rather than the establishment of a separate, sacred space or a private domain of individualized