Ritual studies mildly censored

 

I’m happy to see a Chinese translation of the Appendix “Ethnography, performance, and history in Daoist ritual studies” of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, just published in the fine series Dayin (“Ritual soundscapes”—which, BTW, is always full of excellent field reports) from the enterprising Centre for Chinese Ritual Music Research at the Shanghai Conservatoire 上海音乐学院中国仪式音乐研究中心:*

  •  “Daojiao yishi yanjiuzhongde minzuzhi, biaoyan he lishi” 道教仪式研究中的民族志、 表演和历史, Dayin 大音 vol. 13, pp.112–30.

This Appendix explores many of the main themes in my research, not just on the Li family Daoists but on my whole fieldwork on ritual practice in rural China. I worked on the translation together with Zhang Lili, whose recent PhD thesis explores my relationship with the Hebei village of Gaoluo, as in my ethnography Plucking the winds. She’s thoroughly familiar with my work.

Dayin p.1

Amidst current anxieties over censorship (for Chinese pressure on Western academic publication, see e.g. this NYT article), my own arcane publications hardly merit much attention. But here at last I did come up against a little issue.

Earlier this year in my talks in Beijing I noted an impressive candour about modern history amongst Chinese colleagues (cf. this article), and Chinese social media and websites resound with yet more controversial material (such as on aisixiang.com, including this recent English translation); but print publication is a rather separate matter.

As we worked on the translation, we very occasionally adapted a phrase to read more naturally in Chinese, but left my content intact. It was then accepted for the Dayin series—which is gratifying, since while I stress the crucial role of soundscape in ritual, my Appendix contains rather little material on “music” as such. And Dayin also makes a suitable home for my work since the Centre for Ritual Music Research (despite its name) has long advocated the use of the term “soundscape”, while taking a broader anthropological view than other Chinese “music” journals.

Later during the editing process, the doubtless well-meaning editors were mainly concerned about the potential political sensitivity of one sentence (in bold below) under “The 1949 barrier”, where I explore the status of research on ritual in the PRC:

Scholars of Daoism recognize the historical importance of politics, describing machinations at imperial courts, or campaigns in the Republican era. But then their enquiry abruptly stops. So religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

Indeed, early history has long been a safer topic in socialist countries, as Vesna Goldsworthy notes for Serbia. In the discussion at one of my Beijing talks, a senior Chinese scholar made a similar point, even while noting greater freedoms in research since the 1980s’ reforms; and I’m sure personally the Dayin editors (like everyone in China I know in the field) concur with it. I’ve made such observations in many previous English (and even some Chinese) publications, read by my Chinese colleagues and their students; after all, the dominant theme of my research is the maintenance of ritual activity under Maoism and since. Though my critique applied as much to Western as to Chinese scholars, some—even within the PRC—have published honorable ethnographies that I often cite.

But constrained by the current climate, the editors observed that if I wanted to retain the sentence in bold above (indeed the whole passage—see below), then it would need to be submitted to a whole chain of meetings of Higher Authorities, which could be both time-consuming and tedious. Reluctant to do a King Canute, and bearing in mind the fieldworker’s maxim “abide by local customs“, I found myself willing to make a certain compromise.

Our Chinese draft had gone:

因此,解放以来的宗教活动,无论是残忍的镇压还是心照不宣的维护,似乎仍是一个敏感的问题。

For “whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained” the editors at first suggested a softer 无论管得严还是松 (“however strict or lax the control”); it’s not quite what I wrote, but I liked it since it read more idiomatically. I wasn’t privy to later stages in editing, and the final version turned out closer to our own—but at the expense of a cunning adjustment to the previous phrase. In the end the sentence came out as

道教学者认识到政治对于历史的重要性,描述了朝廷的阴谋或民国时期的运动。但随后他们的调查停止了。在不同的历史阶段的宗教活动无论是压制还是心照不宣的维护,似乎仍是一个敏感的问题。

Thus, following “But then their enquiry abruptly stops” (from which the deletion of “abruptly” also subtly transforms my intent), the sentence now reads

So religious practice in different historical periods—whether [“savagely” cut] repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

In other words, they’ve replaced my “religious practice since 1949” with “religious practice in different historical periods”. That totally garbles my point: it’s not the whole political history that’s sensitive, just that since 1949!

Of course, the beauty of it is that precisely by censoring the sentence they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly showed that it was… Ha! I rest my case.

Leading on from that idea, our translation of the following section has also been garbled in the publication:

Ironically, modern history (as for earlier periods) is not entirely about political campaigns; general social and economic trends also need discussion, but they too are casualties of this taboo mentality. It is ironic, or significant, that this self-censorship has largely emanated from projects led from Hong Kong and Taiwan—their caution perhaps deriving partly from not wishing to implicate mainland authors and subjects. But such idealization of both present and past feeds into the rose-tinted patriotic subtext of recent cultural heritage projects.

Of course, this is a far wider issue than ritual studies, involving the whole historiography of modern China. The next paragraph also received subtle yet significant editing:

Actually, it is not only religion that is sensitive. When discussing with Chinese colleagues the lack of detail on modern history in reports on local folk culture, one often hears the riposte “Everyone knows [again they’ve added “tacitly” here, which I like] what happened since 1949—there’s no need to discuss it.”
*Such a conspiracy of silence is both erroneous and dangerous [that phrase altered], repressing memory. There is a remarkable ignorance among younger Chinese of basic details about modern history [that whole phrase cut, and thus the following two words]; even older people who lived through the period must have had different experiences, that are still poorly documented.* If we refrained from writing about World War Two because “everyone knows what happened”, we might assume that the experiences of people of various classes in Latvia, Puglia, and Singapore were similar and so not worth recording.

For the record, here’s our draft of that further offending passage (between asterisks above):

这种保持缄默的密约是错误和危险的,它抑制记忆。年轻的中国人对近代历史基本细节的知识很有限。即使是生活在那段时期的老年人也一定有不同的经验 ,这种记录仍然很缺乏。

Of course, Western editors can be critical too—but this is a translation of a published work, not a manuscript submitted for assessment. Our Chinese version may not always have read well, so I welcome stylistic suggestions—but here there’s also another agenda for editor and author to ponder. I didn’t write my book, or any of my other English works, with a view to publication in Chinese; while always sensitive to the condition of Chinese people, I carry out my research in the context of Western academic discourse. But reading my original, perhaps you will think me naive not to have engaged in self-censorship even while working on the translation.

Innocuous enough, the incident may not be the end of the world, but it’s a slippery slope. Whatever the result, now I’m free to document it all here, somewhat salving my conscience, and I’m not blaming the editors in the least. Everyone involved acted in good faith—these are just the kind of issues with which we all have to grapple through variable political climates.

Anyway, I am glad to see my Appendix in Chinese—very nearly complete, and more or less accurate. Far more impressionistic translations, in both directions, have doubtless been published.

The same volume also includes updates on research on Buddhist and Daoist “music”—which, though I dispute such concepts, are useful if one reads between the lines, just as my own article suggests.

 

* BTW, following my peeve about the Western academic convention of disrupting authors’ melliflous prose with garrulous parenthetical in-text citations, the name of the Dayin editorial committee would make another fine case (Shanghai yinyue xueyuan Zhongguo yishi yinyue yanjiu zhongxin Dayin bianjibu weiyuanhui 2018, personal communication).

One thought on “Ritual studies mildly censored

  1. Pingback: Blind minstrels of Ukraine | Stephen Jones: a blog

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