Documenting religion in China

Gansu miaohui FK

Temple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Ian Johnson’s recent book The souls of China is just as fine as its many reviews say. I’ve praised it in some detail in several posts (notably here and here), so here I’d like to discuss responses to it; my comments here also relate to my article on the brief of ethnography.

The religious revival in China since the late 1970s is hardly news: it has long been a major topic within the confines of academia. Scholars like Ken Dean have described local temple organizations as “China’s second government”. But by contrast with most studies within a narrow scholarly milieu, the great strength of Ian’s book is that he engagingly places religious practice within the changing context of Chinese society, blending the personal and the political with rare insights into the lives of Real People.

The souls of China has already been reviewed by some noted scholars of Chinese religion (such as here and here), but given that it laudably reaches out to a wider audience, some reviews have come from more general observers of contemporary China and the modern world. While this is clearly A Good Thing, amidst some fine reviews I find others that tend to somewhat misrepresent the book.

Preaching to the converted?
A comment in the publisher’s blurb gives me pause:

This entrancing and engaging book challenges the modern assumption that religion is a thing of the past; on the contrary, the dramatic resurgence of spirituality in China, after a century of violent persecution, suggests that it is an irrepressible force that may in some sense be essential to humanity.

Such an evangelical tendency may be Buddhist or Daoist (or indeed Islamic—Ian’s book wisely focuses on the Han Chinese), but it will often be Christian commentators who see the revival simply as “an astounding miracle”. Even less doctrinal readers may read The souls of China as a mere paean to “freedom” and some abstract “spirituality”—as if the Chinese revival represents some great victory for Western liberal values. This constitutes a handy stick with which to beat the Communist Party, quite lacking the nuance of Ian’s writing. Would pundits latch with such enthusiasm onto a notional (and unlikely) resurgence of religious faith in north Europe? It seems unlikely too that a study on the growth of atheism in China would be so enthusiastically received abroad.

To be sure, religious groups in China have often taken a stance against the regime, notably at times of extreme pressure, like collectivization, famine, and the Cultural Revolution—well, that just about covers the whole Maoist period. And more recently too, religion may indeed—in particular cases—act as an alternative sphere upholding moral values in public life, as is clear from Ian’s chapters on the Early Rain Christians of Chengdu.

His fieldwork sometimes blends with his own personal search for some kind of purpose—engaging in fine “participant observation” through involvement in meditational retreats and qigong (which indeed the CCP leadership first seized on with enthusiasm and then sought to suppress; note also Ian’s book Wild grass). But The souls of China manages to be both involved and dispassionate—covering a range of behaviours within what several scholars have called the “religious market”, with rich ethnographic detail on the diverse, messy, and inconvenient grass-roots situation.

Excesses
Religion can be a lucrative business. And—just like the Communist Party—it may sometimes serve as a cloak for highly reprehensible behaviour. The Party pounces on (and sometimes fabricates) instances of financial scams and sexual crimes among religious groups, although Party members themselves are renowned for such abuses. But they’re covered by the criminal code—even if it may be easier for Party members to escape the long arm of the law; so it makes no more sense to ban sectarian groups than it does to outlaw the CCP (now there’s a thought).

Religion may serve as spiritual inspiration, or to spur social action; but (as we can see in “democratic” societies like the USA or India) it can also be a socially conservative force—which is why in China (and Russia) the Party now co-opts its “traditional values”. During fieldwork in China, like De Martino in post-war Italy, I’ve sometimes been shocked at the delusions of religion, observing cripplingly poor rural familes unable to afford even basic healthcare yet spending vast amounts over New Year on a barrage of deafening and evanescent firecrackers. Or a vignette from my book on Shaanbei (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and the main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership to the disaster, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

Only later did I put together further pieces of a grisly jigsaw. Under the tradition of posthumous marriage (minghun), revived in northwest China, within five years after the death of an unmarried male over the age of 15 sui, a suitable dead unmarried female is found. Indeed, shawm bands often perform, and a Daoist may officiate. The unnatural deaths of many men in unregulated mines were bad enough, but newspaper reports in 2007 revealed that women (often disabled, or from poorer provinces) were being murdered to cater for this market.

The souls of China does indeed document some of the less noble aspects of religious practice in China. Few commentators would regard the sectarian groups (including many Christian sects, indeed) like Eastern Lightning (ch.25) as a paragon; some of them are no less weird and worrying than they are elsewhere in the world. We do indeed need to describe them, but not necessarily to praise them; Ian’s account is admirably balanced.

Christians

Catholic vespers

Gender-segregated Catholic Vespers  in a Hebei village house-church, 2001.

Permeating Plucking the Winds, my history of the ritual association of a Hebei village (see also Gaoluo tag), is the intriguing sub-theme of the underground Catholic community there. I note the complexities of their troubled relations with both the village association (whose conflict goes back to a massacre in the Boxer uprising) and the local state:

Their presence might be seen as somewhat akin to that of a Hindu temple in an English village, which has also created frictions.

One might both admire them for their obstinacy and worry at their intransigence.

Household Daoists
All this puts in perspective my work on the Li family Daoist band (as in my recent book and film). Ian’s splendid vignettes in The souls of China (cf. also his own video clips) focus on the life of Li Bin (b.1977), who is gradually taking over the leadership of the band from his wonderful father Li Manshan (b.1946); apart from all the material in my book and film, I’ve updated the story here, as well as explaining how unlikely it is that there will be a tenth generation of Daoists in the family.

Inasmuch as they are hereditary occupational ritual specialists, they don’t quite fit into the “faith” picture—although such groups are an ubiquitous part of the religious scene throughout China. They have been doing good business since the 1980s’ revival, and particularly since around 2009—not due to any resurgence of faith, but mainly, as Li Manshan sagely told me, because the demographic is such that it’s been a busy few years for funerals. Li Manshan still needs to choose the correct date and site for the burial; for the funeral proper, his band is invited more as a duty towards ancestral tradition (“the old rules” lao guiju) than as a sign of any resurgence of “spirituality”—funeral audiences now pay scant attention to their liturgy, only crowding round for the “red-hot sociality” of the (few) entertainment interludes over the day. When the kin are required to kneel and kowtow for the Daoists’ rituals at the “soul hall”, they are reluctant to drag themselves away from the pop routine outside the gate (do watch the eloquent vignette in my film, from 30.32!). Often I am the only audience for the magnificent vocal liturgy before the coffin.

But scholars of Daoism are unlikely to rejoice in this, since it’s “the wrong kind of Daoism”; nor does this quite fit into the kind of spiritual devotion sought by other foreign aficionados of religion. The current vibrancy of the band takes place amidst the depletion of the countryside and the discrediting of traditional rural values. I can see that Li Manshan’s services have considerable value for those “left behind” in such declining village communities, but that doesn’t mean that I wish to parade them as some kind of model for Chinese society.

Following Geertz, I described a “flawed funeral” I attended with the Li band (my book, pp.343–56):

The idea of a failed ritual tacitly accepts that the aim of the proceedings is to confirm and celebrate community solidarity—and indeed that there is such a thing. That Geertz and others don’t always find this may reflect on a supposed loss of such harmony under complex post-colonial (or whatever) social tensions; perhaps by contrast with an imagined earlier ideal age, a notion that we may obviously challenge too.

Funerals in China do indeed seem to me to represent something valuable, for both kin and community. But the family is subject to scrutiny; the event is an opportunity to confirm status within the family and community, but also a moment when underlying animosities may be entrenched. And this applies to other rituals too, like the vast territorial processions of southeast China. The conditions of the 20th century have doubtless created many dislocations in thinking; and we should recognize conflicts in imperial China, between classes and lineages, different aspirations, and so on.

What we might call the “hippy tendency” has a foothold in Daoist studies too, from Bill Porter’s intriguing work to more scholarly quests for the timeless wisdom of white-bearded temple-dwelling sages (and again, Ian well describes the solitary truth-seekers). The gritty realities of rural society, and household ritual specialists like Li Manshan, don’t quite mesh with such a picture. To use Ian’s book to “celebrate” religious faith ignores the serious social problems he notes, that such fervour won’t solve.

One can still be amazed at the vibrancy of temple festivals in areas like south Fujian or Gansu, but the religious “revival” of the last four decades has been taking place in the context of the depletion of the countryside and rapid urbanization, along with the pervasive spread of pop and consumer culture. So while many rural dwellers have used the liberalizations to reinvent their local traditions (not necessarily “faith”), those traditions are threatened by the migrations that liberalization also engendered. Ian covers both rural and urban pictures, but the “hope” of the faithful may reside more in the latter, with their wider online networks and more “modern” discursive modalities.

Let’s hear it for secular humanism
While freedom of religion may be a good principle, it’s not the same as extolling all its manifestations. Today, vapid materialism and blind faith in the supernatural are not the only choices; religion is not the only remedy for moral decay. As I observed in my book,

By comparison with the years of Maoism, people now have more decisions to make, choosing from a range of options. They may have rituals performed and seek consultations to determine the date and select auspicious sites, but they are not entirely fatalistic. They tend their fields, save money, gamble, watch TV, play video games online, eat out in restaurants, establish guanxi networks, set up businesses, deplore and exploit corruption. State education here may lag far behind the big cities, but it has become ever more important since the 1950s.

Whether or not people engage in meditation, prayer, or charitable projects for the common good, they can and do lead ethical lives, taking part in their communities and finding meaning without creating imaginary supernatural beings. It would take courage to argue with the long-term and ongoing humanist secularization of north Europe—a choice that has followed many centuries of violent religious persecution like that lamented in the blurb I cited above. People’s faith in imagined beings (Richard Dawkins’s “flying spaghetti monster”) needs to be documented, all over the world, but evangelism is best excluded—all the more on the part of romantic outsiders.

The purpose of ethnographies of religious practice, for any society, is not to Praise the Lord; scholarship like this shouldn’t be exploited by adherents of Western religious faith. Such faith is by no means universally admired—observers like Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens (whose work may be disputed, but can’t be dismissed as merely eccentric) might be shocked by any such revival of delusion and superstition.

I’d like to see a review of The souls of China from a committed secularist like the anthropologist Mobo Gao. In his fine book on his home village where he grew up, he comments approvingly on the hygiene and healthcare campaigns under Maoism that sought to lessen popular belief in mediums, noting the 1980s’ religious revival in measured tones (Gao village, pp.77–8, 89–90, 227–31). In similarly leftist vein, on William Hinton’s return to Longbow village, where he had documented the 1940s’ land reform in rich detail, he was disturbed by many social consequences of the 1980s’ liberalizations—not least the major Catholic revival there (see also his Through a glass darkly, pp.180–82, 209). While some anthropologists may dispute such views, they are valid and quite widely held—both in China and the West.

Many will feel that religious freedom is only a minor aspect of the freedoms that China needs—basic human rights, control over corruption, freedom of the press and the judiciary, and so on. Indeed, Ian is a leading observer of these movements, as is also clear in The souls of China. In some cases religion may contribute to such freedoms, but in others it is irrelevant or even obstructive. Given the diverse social problems of Chinese people today, it may seem whimsical to trust in gods to rescue them from adversity. And such issues are far from unique to China: the current persecution of atheism in Russia is worrying.

Ian’s book is exemplary in its rapport with religious practitioners, its ethnographic detail, and its involved yet dispassionate stance—that readers would do well to note.

 

3 thoughts on “Documenting religion in China

  1. Pingback: Folk ritual: testing the waters | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Cultural revolutions | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Performance ethnography | Stephen Jones: a blog

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