I’m still absorbing insights from Ian Johnson’s new book.
As he points out (16),
This is not the China we used to know. For decades, we have been used to thinking of China as a country where religion, faith, and values are marginal. Our images of Chinese people are overwhelmingly economic or political; of diligent workers in vast factories, nouveau riche flaunting their wealth, farmers toiling in polluted fields, or dissidents being locked up. When we do hear about Chinese people and faith, it is either about victims—Chinese Christians forced to worship underground—or exotic stories of wacky people walking backward in parks, hugging trees, or joining scary cults.
I would add: one might suppose that all the field reports on local ritual would help correct all this, but they bear little on the issue since they generally avert their gaze from modern society.
Apart from Ian’s chapters on the Miaofengshan pilgrims, the Li family Daoists, the Chengdu Christians, and so on, his fascinating outline of the Eastern Lightning sect (ch.25) calls out for further local fieldwork in its birthplace of rural Henan—none too easy to achieve.
Clearly discerning periods within the reform era since the 1980s, Ian is good on the recent state rebranding of “traditional culture”, the latest exploitation of religion at the hands of commercial interests (e.g. 229, 255, 257, 276–81), and the hijacking of the Clayman Zhang figurines (ch.27) by the “China dream” (358):
The government campaign, he said, is a misuse of culture. If China’s past and its beliefs are presented as static, they are more easily controlled.
In a passage on Miaofengshan (232–3) he gives a fine instance of “What they said and what they meant”, also a popular tradition in the West:
Just as the pilgrimage associations had their flags, the party had its slogans.
Printed on big red banners, they festooned the square:
PROMOTE CULTURAL VALUES, DEVELOP A CULTURAL INDUSTRY, INSPIRE THE VILLAGERS’ SPIRIT.
PROMOTE THE BEIJING PARTY CONGRESS’S SPIRIT, SPEED UP THE INTEGRATION OF XITIEYING WITH THE CITY.
Parsed, these two slogans meant
CREATE NEW VALUES BECAUSE NO-ONE BELIEVES IN COMMUNISM, MAKE MONEY OUT OF CULTURE, MAKE THIS POOR AREA FEEL LESS HOPELESS.
DO WHATEVER THE LATEST PARTY CONGRESS INSTRUCTS, TEAR DOWN XITIEYING AND MAKE IT ANOTHER SUBURB.
An announcer read out the names of the dignitaries present: the head of the Bejing Daoist association, a local representative of the Beijing Municipal Congress, various experts and officials, too numerous to list. Chief among them were representatives from the Intangible Cultural Heritage office. I thought back to the local official from my earlier trip here: it’s not religion; it’s culture. Worshipping a goddess is just culture. Repeat after me.
Such analysis of the nexus and dynamics of power is just the kind of thing historians of religion do for earlier periods like the Tang dynasty; yet it remains rare among supposed ethnographies of contemporary religious life—precisely the period for which we can collect detailed material.