Debunking “living fossils”

Ethnography and history

Ethnographic fieldwork is likely to be diachronic, embracing not just synchronic observation but also oral history going back at least several decades, and indeed the collection of historical artifacts.

A master of both history and ethnography, John Lagerwey ponders wisely how to bring the constant tensions between them into dialogue. While suggesting that “the historian has more to learn from the ethnographer than the other way around,” he summarizes (2010: vii):

The historian who has concentrated on a single period or tradition, when she sees how all the various traditions form a coherent whole in the present, cannot but wonder whether it was not always so and, when she sees how much of the past is still contemporary, cannot but wonder what she thought of as historical change characteristic of her period is in fact but a temporally local expression of perennial structures.

 Conversely (Lagerwey 2010: 171–172),

The ethnographer might want to tell the historian that her written records disclose very little about local society, even in late imperial China, and that, if one wants to have some basis for imagining how local society might have worked in the past, she really has no choice but to look at the work of ethnographers.

Still, while Lagerwey’s fine accounts of Daoist ritual in Taiwan occasionally suggest clues to changing ritual practice in modern times, “our primary interest […] is less to give a complete description of actual practice […] than it is to analyze the deep structure of that practice” (Lagerwey 1987: 91)—an influential perspective that tends to lead to the noble yet arcane goal of studying texts as evidence for the ritual structures of medieval times.

So despite all these voluminous field reports on household Daoist groups in south China, details on their changing social lives and ritual practices since 1949 are sparse. Such work is hardly of a type that anthropologists would recognize as ethnography. The whole enterprise was made possible by observing ritual and collecting material in the field, but it still tends to focus on salvage; even the oral history there usually refers to recollections of the period before 1949.

Dean, while yielding to none in his historical erudition, was one of few to further document the 1980s’ ritual revival in detail. As he tellingly observes (1993: 18),

I do not intend to contrast a sinologist’s dreamlike vision of an ideal traditional China made up of ritually self-contained culturally rich villages in opposition to a modern society deprived of essential cultural resources by the strict imposition of state control.

 Salvage may indeed be a valuable aspect of fieldwork. But a focus on recreating former glories tends to downplay modern change. This is an issue in music (including Chinese music) too; one naturally seeks to document songs or instrumental pieces that are no longer part of the living tradition. But dangerously, Chinese musicology still remains prone to the “living fossils” craze that was rife in the 1980s, with fieldwork often seeking to glorify the majesty of early Chinese culture.


In a sense, it’s a red herring that our fieldwork happens to take place mainly under the conditions of a post-Communist society, and that oral history from earlier living memory now largely concerns the Maoist decades—both periods irredeemably tainted for the classical sinologist, and exceptionally dramatic and rewarding for anyone else. If we had been able to do fieldwork in the 8th century, we would also document the present as much as the past. Changes since the 1940s may be unprecedented, but thick description for this period is our only detailed evidence about how ritual is, and was, performed. So we should neither dismiss the present by seeking “living fossils” nor romanticize it by ignoring change. In the current Chinese myth, ancient “heritage” and modern “development” are both good—it’s everything in between that gets neglected.

Fieldwork reveals the limitations of what historical sources can teach us, prompting questions that might otherwise never arise. Most scholars of Daoism may be reluctant to describe the subtle changes wrought since around 2000 by migration, mobiles and motor-bikes; or fees, the pool of disciples, degrees of expertise within a band, flexibility in choice of ritual segments and texts, the changing discrimination of patrons, and so on. Yet to neglect the modern period is to ignore the only thick description available to us, the only data that can give us firm clues to lives and performance. My aim, then, is to study a family of rural Daoists, providers of vital religious services for a local community in change, in the context of modern China—without regard to how ancient, venerable, or abstruse their tradition may be. While hoping to recreate as much of the past as possible, I avoid privileging it. I try to show what it is, and was, like to be a village Daoist—now, under Maoism, and before the revolution.

Just as most textual scholars skimp on context, those who do detail modern society tend to feel ill-equipped to engage in detailed textual study. So in detailing ritual practice—rather than just listing ritual manuals, ritual segments, or melodic items, in a vacuum—I seek to show how performance may vary according to circumstance and over time. Setting forth from what I can witness (from daily diaries to the dovetailing of percussion interludes between the verses of hymns, or the syncopated cadential pattern on drum and cymbals), I further seek such historical clues as can be gleaned, while lamenting the silence and inadequacies of ancient texts.

Scholars of Daoist ritual tend to privilege manuals over performance; and they tell us little about the men (and they are men) who perform it, or how it is performed. In south China, the material heritage is so voluminous that personality and modern practice are perhaps inevitable lacunae in research; the bits that don’t fit the ancient picture are downplayed or ignored. Of course fieldwork is always selective. I am merely arguing for greater attention to the living scene—not only since it can provide by far the most detailed material, but also because it can help us contextualize the artifacts and practices of the past. Despite the exciting breakthrough of using fieldwork, a gulf remains between Daoist scholarship and social ethnography.

Those mainly concerned with ancient texts may be content with salvage, but if we wish to understand how ritual is performed, our main material can only be observation. The manuals will also be helpful, if inconclusive, in suggesting how practice may have changed. Though the rituals that the Li band still performs may be fewer and less complex than before the 1950s, even from their manuals it is doubtful if they ever reached the kind of elaboration sought by scholars of Daoism. But even if manual collections turn out to be small and unexceptional, we need to document them as we find them—within their changing social context. As I suggested, context may be more important than text, and performance and sound must be integrated into Daoist ritual studies.

So while engaging fully with ritual texts and performance, my work with the Li family suggests a less compartmentalized, more humane context-based model for Chinese ritual studies; an interest in people’s lives and life stories, thick description, and even modest participant observation, will all bear fruit.