Stephan Feuchtwang, Popular Religion in China : The Imperial Metaphor

This book is in fact a second edition of a previous work, published in 1992
with the two parts of the title reversed. The first seven chapters are virtually
identical; the final eighth chapter focuses on the changes in popular religion
in Taiwan and the PRC over the past century. This new edition is also finally
available in paperback; the previous edition was by a different publisher and
priced so expensively that it was really only for libraries.

The book focuses primarily on local festivals and their territorial cults
(p. 24); it is not, as the title might suggest, primarily an analysis of the imperial
metaphor. One of the authorís main points is that it is both the similarities
and the differences from the imperial order that gave power to popular religion.
Based on fieldwork that began in Taiwan in 1965 and including studies of and visits
to many parts of mainland China, the book is full of interesting observations
and analyses.

Chapter 1, History, identification and belief, begins by distinguishing
three types of ritual and celebration for people in China: 1. classical, based
on textual traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, the Three Peopleís Principles,
or Mao Zedong Thought, among others; 2. familial, based on gatherings at annual
occasions as well as birth and death days and days celebrating recent ancestors;
and 3. local, based on the temple fairs and festivals often based on extraordinary
events in the past. Feuchtwang argues that regardless of whether the individual
believes in them or not, or participates because of social obligation or out of
wholehearted enthusiasm, each type of ritual marks out a dimension of time and
a dimension of inclusion and exclusion (p. 2). The dimension of time is created
by repetition and the recreation of memories. The dimension of exclusion and inclusion
can range from the territorial and political definitions of being Chinese, to
more restrictive identifications by clan and family, as well as by festivals to
local gods, which are the subject of the book (p. 3).

The book criticizes Emily Ahernís use of transactive and interpersonal language
to describe the relations between spirits and humans. It notes that the phrase
relations between the living and the dead either assumes that the dead exist
or that the description translates what might have been said by participants
(p. 8). But this agnostic acceptance and translation of references to spirits
as if they were actors masks the contexts of the ritual, and fails to state what
else is implied by the ritual. The book also rejects as Eurocentric James Watsonís
distinction between cultures that emphasise ritual and those that emphasise belief
(pp. 9-10), and critiques what it views as Maurice Freedmanís and Steven Sangrenís
assumptions of a fundamental social or cultural essence (p. 15). The author nevertheless
still argues for a basic meaning for Chinese religion saying religious representations
proclaim or gesture towards a more basic and ultimate unity. Ö They join and they
exclude. One of the joins [sic] is between past and present, other worlds and
this world (p. 18). There is also a discussion of tradition and memory, noting
that the book will not concentrate on the content of tradition but on the assumption
of traditionality, and on the imagery and ritual that metaphorically mark the
community boundaries and seek protection. He makes the important point that though
gods are often said to use the imagery of the imperial court and bureaucracy,
the differences between the historical and secular models give the metaphor a
power beyond that of historical re-enactment (p.19).

Chapter 2, The Annual Apocalypse, discusses Chinese new year rituals and
the annual cycle of festivals in a northern Taiwanese village. Special attention
is given to the Daoist jiao ceremonies of expelling demonic forces. A major
point of the chapter is that the imperial metaphor was not just bureaucratic
(p. 58). Female gods and gods who threaten harm and chaos unless worshipped have
no place here. Furthermore, a more militaristic vision of the cosmos is common
in many village temples (p. 59). One could add that the female deities are among
those who can violate bureaucratic logic based on mercy and forgiveness towards
their petitioners.

Chapter 3, Official and Local Cults, emphasises the differences between
two sets of ritual: The one is kin ritual, memorialism, officials, and tablets.
The other is god ritual, magic, priests, and images (p. 74). The author emphasises
that there are not only similarities and differences between the two, but their
juxtaposition (e.g. use together at one occasion or in different temples) is especially
important for creating meaning and drama in politics and religion. The chapter
discusses local processions, feasting, and the peace and security sought by participants.

Chapter 4, Local festivals and their cults, describes the household as the
smallest territory, then the locality god Tudi Gong, then demons and their guardians.
The chapter then move onto the broader levels, discussing the local temple and
the processions and birthday festivals that bring different temples into contact
with each other. In the middle is a discussion of the ways descent (compatriotsí
and devotional temples) and locality (territorial guardians) can interact and
be superimposed. This chapter, like the book as a whole, has many interesting
observations. For example, there is a discussion of the Foundation God, who is
worshipped with silver paper money (like ancestors and hosts, not with gold paper
money as for the Earth God) and who is identified as requiring offerings because
he owned the land before the Chinese arrived. The author notes that this is not
an aboriginal deity because it exists in Fujian as well, but in Fujian it is referred
to as the founder of the household site (p. 100).

Chapter 5, entitled The incense-burner: communication and deference begins
with the observation that burning incense is an act of opening communication
by formal deference (p. 135). The chapter notes the social definition of ling
(potency) that is common in Taiwan, with informants saying ling is where
there is most activity, most incense burnt (p. 143). This chapter focuses on
patronage, both of the village temple leaders and the cultural bureaux on the
mainland that seek to promote religious activities as folk arts avoiding any superstitious
elements (p. 149). Especially valuable is the description of the rise and decline
of local temples, closely related to changes in patronage (p. 145-146), which
offers an important historical perspective lacking in many village studies.

Chapter 6, Daoism and its clients, examines Daoism from the point of view
of the participants in the territorial cults, which Daoist masters serve. The
chapter is an important alternate view from the works of Schipper and Lagerwey,
who are more steeped in the Daoist cannon than most participants in popular religion.
At the same time, its discussion of the management of the jiao relates
it to Daoist symbolism but also emphasises its political leadership.

Chapter 7, Ang Gong, or the truth of puppets, explores a variety of local
explanations of the origin and meaning of the village god Ang Gong. The author
argues that each representation is its own identity and power and that together
they all tell of the godís power (p. 200). The chapter also discusses the ways
in which Daoism, the imperial cult, and modernism use writing to establish authenticity
and authority. The author makes the interesting argument that The burning of
incense bears no metaphoric relation to any other image. It is and stands for
the authority of a communication with an honoured past and of deference to it
(p. 207).

Chapter 8, The politics of religion and political ritual, is the new chapter
in this edition. It focuses on the attempts to control religion by the Republican
(mainland and Taiwan) and PRC governments, and highlights change while earlier
chapters tended to highlight a more synchronic social symbolic perspective. The
chapter also examines the political rituals of Cultural Revolutionary China from
1964 to 1978. It notes that collectivism has created a set of values and emotions
that can be used even today to criticize corruption, and that traditional demon
imagery was used for those of ëbadí class status. The chapter concludes by noting
that the leaders of contemporary temples in China are not part of the government
structure but who form a parallel nexus, next to and not beneath
governmental structures (p. 249).

The book is not always easy to read, in part because the author is attempting
to convey the complexity of popular religion and avoid a single narrative or a
single overarching meaning. It is also complex because it mixes rhetorical styles.
Part of it is dialogue with previous authors however, and there, the text and
arguments are clear and stimulating. Ethnographic sections, with their descriptions
of rituals and explanations of their logic, will interest most readers, yet other
discussions of concepts are likely to only interest specialists. In addition,
the discussion is not always clearly laid out, so that sections of chapters, though
interesting in themselves, often do not seem to contribute to the argument of
a chapter (especially true of chapter 5) or to the overall book. The overall argument
of the book is not highlighted; an introduction and concluding chapter would have
made the authorís aim and views clearer. Perhaps a rhetorical style of a lawyerís
brief would seem pedantic, but the book requires careful reading and re-reading
to follow the arguments and grasp the points. Where the book does make a major
contribution is in its emphasis of the ambiguity in popular religion (e.g. the
earth god who is a protector but also demands respect and cash for protection
against harm he can do [p.105]). This is not an introduction to popular religion,
but it is essential reading for specialists in Chinese religion.

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