A forfeit for theorists


As I noted in my book (p.366), while in many ways my work on the Li family Daoists has rather little in common with the numerous Chinese field reports on local Daoist ritual, one feature (blessing or curse) that it shares with them is its economy with theory.

Theoretical reflections on Chinese ritual come largely from Western scholars—though they speak mostly not to such disciplines as performance studies or visual anthropology but to the realm of the sinological historian. To be sure, such discussions may be instructive, such as Helen Siu’s theory of ritual fragmentation, or the recurring discussions following from James Watson’s ideas on orthopraxy or the Wolf–Freedman–Weller debate on unity and diversity in Chinese culture.

Theoretical discussion, “like cunnilingus, is dark and lonely work, but someone’s got to do it”—to cite Joseph Heller on tending sheep (in England the bon mot is usually applied to coal-mining). Don’t get me wrong, when done well it can yield great rewards (and Heller’s analogy still applies).

For thoughtful integration of theory with ethnographic detail, one thinks of Clifford Geertz, or (closer to my field) Adam Chau, and Rachel Harris. And indeed Catherine Bell, whose two fine books Ritual theory, ritual practice and Ritual: perspectives and dimensions provide a useful overview of the gamut of polysyllables—phenomenological, redemptive hegemony, and so on—and how useful they may be. Allegedly.

BTW, I like to think of “Bourdieu’s habitus” as a tiny sylvan dwelling, made out of twigs, where elves live; and I imagine him in a little red pointy cap, poking his head out.

Again, such terms (like local, emic ones) can be instructive, as long as they are thoughtfully adopted and adapted. Anyway, anthropologists should hope both to “do things” (fieldwork) and to theorise; but (as with religion) some excel at, or prefer, one or the other. And I guess they themselves will identify “ludic” qualities to their own language.

In the introductions of earnest PhD theses the homages to Foucault, Bourdieu, Gramsci, and so on, often seem like an obligatory kowtow to the God of the Soil (拜土地爺). We also liked to use this expression in our early days of fieldwork, when courtesy visits to the local officialdom were a sensible precaution before “going down” [sic] to the villages.

* * *

As a forfeit for such polysyllabic obfuscations, I hereby decree that henceforth, whenever scholars wish to introduce any abstruse theoretical perspective (“negotiation of identity”, “dialectic of objectification and incorporation”, and so on), they should have to add a line from Wei Hui’s 2001 novel Shanghai Baby (“a story of love, sex, and self-discovery”. Grrr), a trail-blazer in the budding, nay pert, genre of Chinese chick-lit:

 she moaned, as he nimbly slipped off her CK panties. [1]

That’ll learn ‘em. Apart from the exotic foreign brand-flaunting, I may add that just for extra racist value—the potent Other—her lover is German. Anyway, you get the gist—it makes Jackie Collins look like Wittgenstein, and the Chinese people may justly be offended that the book wasn’t shortlisted for the Bad Sex Awards.

As a litmus test of our noble conceptual terms, we might try translating them for our peasant friends, or The Plain People of Ireland. Their bemused expressions may remind us of the limitations of such theories, rather than discrediting them.

But “I didn’t get where I am today” [at home with a bottle of Bombay Sapphire—Ed.] by peddling such flapdoodle. Conversely, do consult the wise reflections of Catherine Bell on ritual studies.

[1] The translation, otherwise less reproachable than the book itself, gives “underpants”, surely less idiomatic.

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