The film footage of Harry Caldwell
Fujian province in southeast China remains one of the most vibrant regions for folk religious activity (see this introduction).
Harry Caldwell (1876–1970), a Methodist missionary from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, first travelled to China in 1900, inspired by his brother’s missionary work there, making a base in Fujian with his family until 1944. An avid hunter and naturalist, in his book Blue tiger (1924) he showed how hunting with the locals for man-killing tigers paved the way for effective missionary work [file under fieldwork techniques—SJ], and he discussed the delicate diplomacy required to negotiate peace between soldiers and bandits in his attempts to spare villagers caught amidst the fighting (cf. the Italian Catholic mission in Gaoluo).
Apart from filming agricultural, military, and daily scenes in Fujian, he also paid extensive attention to local religious life there—and now, in an enterprising project (click here) by the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) under the direction of Megan Bryson, ten clips on religious ritual that Caldwell filmed in the 1930s have been restored and made available online, with extensive annotations by UTK students.
The evocative clips (alas silent!) comprise:
- an opulent deity procession
- a divination session, with a Buddhist monk presiding
- a fertility ritual, with Daoist masters wielding ritual swords and horns at an elaborate altar
- a Daoist healing ritual to protect children (cf. Crossing the Passes, e.g. Gansu and Shaanxi), with exuberant ritual dancing and the burning of a paper boat
- an apotropaic ritual: pasting a talisman, a fishing net, and cacti at the family lintel
- a Bathing the Buddha procession, and women offering at small shrines
- Methodist church activities—including the distribution of baby chicks to the congregation
- “Hell puppets”
- plague-dispelling rituals, with paper boats sent off
- a grand Buddhist funeral at the Yongquan si temple in Gushan.
Watching such footage, one always wonders what became of all these people over the turbulent decades to come. While the project offers precious glimpses of ritual life in Fujian before the 1949 revolution, all such practices still thrive in the region; with the addition of colour and sound, one might almost suppose many of these clips to come from Ken Dean’s wonderful 2010 film Bored in heaven (among many films listed here). I hope to see comments on Caldwell’s footage from scholars working on ritual life in Fujian—perhaps providing some more precise locations.