In memoriam Dan Overmyer

Dan x2

A sad recent loss is Daniel Overmyer (1935–2021), who devoted his career to the study of Chinese popular thought, religion, and culture (see this UBC tribute).

His work on the history of Chinese sects and “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷) since the Ming dynasty was further informed by fieldwork, first in Taiwan and later in mainland China. His early books include

    • Folk Buddhist religion: dissenting sects in late traditional China (1976)
    • The flying phoenix: aspects of chinese sectarianism in Taiwan (1986, with David K. Jordan
    • Precious volumes: an introduction to Chinese sectarian scriptures from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1999).

Concerned to view the wider picture, in 2003 he edited a special issue of the China Quarterly entitled Religion in China, with articles by Ken Dean, Fan Lizhu, Paul Katz, Lai Chi-tim, Raoul Birnbaum, Dru Gladney, Richard Madsen, and others. Other useful surveys are

    • Local religion in north China in the twentieth century: the structure and organization of community rituals and beliefs (2009), with chapters on rain rituals, history and government, leadership and organisation, temple festivals, gods and temples, beliefs and values
    • Ethnography in China today: a critical assessment of methods and results (2009, with Shin-yi Chao), with thoughtful reviews of volumes in the series Studies in Chinese ritual and folklore and the ever-growing corpus of regional studies (see e.g. Dong Xiaoping’s review of field reports on west Fujian).

With Fan Lizhu 范丽珠, he was editor-in-chief of a useful four-volume series in Chinese on folk culture in rural Hebei, Huabei nongcun minjian wenhua yanjiu congshu 华北农村民间文化研究丛书 (2006–7).

In 2009 Philip Clart and Paul Crowe edited a festschrift:

  • The people and the Dao: new studies in Chinese religions in honour of Daniel L. Overmyer (introduction here).

* * *

Dan’s memoir, written for his grandchildren in 2010, is fascinating, full of detail—so please forgive me this brief summary, focusing on his engagement with China.

His father Elmer was an Evangelical missionary, assigned to China in 1940; so Dan’s first stay there began at the age of 5, when his parents took him to Hunan with his baby sister Mary Beth. They reached Changsha by a tortuous route. Vulnerable to Japanese raids, they had to flee, first to Hengyang and then to the smaller town of Youxian, where they visited Mount Nanyue.

Hunan 1943

Hunan, 1943.

They had to leave in a hurry in 1944, reaching India by plane via Kunming, and then by ship back to the USA; Elmer stayed behind for another year. Eventually they were reunited, setting up home in Hartford, Connecticut.

After the end of the war, they returned to Changsha in 1946, spending more time on Nanyue. By 1948 Dan was at boarding school in Hong Kong, where the rest of the family joined him in 1949 before travelling to Manila. By 1952 they were back in the States, ending up in Princeton; while the rest of the family embarked on another term in Manila, Dan attended college in Iowa.

Despite never having been inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he now felt drawn to religion, becoming a pastor in Chicago, engaging with social issues. As his interest turned towards the history of religions, he studied at the University of Chicago—the start of his work on Chinese religion. He married Estella in 1965.

In 1968 they went with their baby to Taipei, where Dan studied Chinese language, somewhat helped by his childhood memories of Hunan. The next year he resumed work for his PhD on “heretical” sects. Having conceived it as a historical subject, while in Taipei he happened to hear a group of Hall of Compassion sectarians (who venerate the creator goddess Wusheng laomu) performing a ritual—a formative experience that began leading him to enrich his library studies with fieldwork. With Estella Dan returned to the States in 1969, where he soon found a post at Oberlin. They returned to Taiwan in the summer of 1973, before Dan took up a position at UBC in Vancouver.

His first trip back to mainland China since his childhood came in 1978. In 1981 he went in search of sectarian manuscripts in Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai, also returning to Nanyue. By this time scholars were just becoming aware that the PRC was not only accessible again but a rich field for the study of local ritual cultures (see e.g. here). While teaching in Hong Kong in 1997 he met John Lagerwey, who soon took him on a trip to Fujian to give him a glimpse of the vibrant ritual scene there. This inspired him to see if there was similar work being done in north China—a path he pursued after retiring in 2000, working with Chinese colleagues. Meanwhile his environmental concerns were reflected in his involvement with nature conservation projects in Vancouver.

I do recommend this warm, humane memoir.

* * *

Among other great sinologists who died this year are Kristofer Schipper and Jacques Pimpaneau.

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