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Chapter 7

The General Homology Between Village and Family

We have seen that in Táiwān a widely shared ideology assimilates all supernaturals to the dead: the gods are the virtuous dead; the ancestors and ghosts, all the rest. The supernaturals —gods and ghosts— form the integration between social structure on the one hand and a generalized state of harmony or inharmony in the world on the other. The ghosts are used primarily as an explanation for disaster. Disaster is averted or (if it has already struck) expelled by the gods, and for this reason alliances are struck with the gods on the basis of mutual obligations.

We have also seen that this scheme works almost identically at the family and the village level. Both the family (taken as an internally undifferentiated unit) and the village (taken as an internally undifferentiated unit) involve themselves in cycles of mutual obligation to protecting divinities, and both deal with disaster through exorcism of ghosts using similar ritual dramas. The dangerous supernaturals, the ghosts to the north of the village, are dangerous for both. (The point is dramatized by the necessity, during the Xiètǔ rite, of carrying the pot of evil influences outside the limits of the village, not merely out of the house.)

In general, the relation between the village and its protecting gods and threatening ghosts is the same as the relation between the family and its patron gods and threatening ghosts. The discovery of such a detailed homology between different sets of religious data isolates a set of cultural constructs for religiously construing and manipulating the world which is independent of the particular units involved in any one instance or manifestation of the set (and that presumably is also available for use in the organization of additional contingencies not covered by the instances at hand). We are provided with a kind of least-common-denominator formulation of Chinese religious conceptions whereby contingencies in the human world are guarded against by organizations of people forming alliances with gods and exchanging worship for divine protection. The size and nature of the human unit involved seems to be related to the nature of the disaster guarded against (other villages, say, as opposed to individual bankruptcy), but the approach is consistent, even to the rites involved. And for this reason it is basic to our attempts to understand Chinese village religion.

The organizational elements common to the members of the homology are not the only features of note about them, of course. At least two extensions occur. One concerns the village. The village, unlike the family, makes use of its patron god as a symbol of itself, both internally, and in its participation in a complex pattern of relations with other villages. The patron god is used (as to some extent are other gods that have come to be seen as its special protectors, such as those with long established mediums in the village) as a symbolic point of cooperation and coordination in integrating groups of villages or groups within the village. We saw this in the instance of King Guō, whose worship by all people of Bǎo'ān involves them in the Guō faction, including other Guō-dominated villages that also worship King Guō. Among other things, the handling of the god's statue forms the context for a dramatic enactment of both present and past tensions and alliances between villages throughout the Xīgǎng region. The same pattern of self-symbolization by means of one's patron god does not seem to occur at the family level. When a god is used for self-symbolization by his worshippers, his role is being extended beyond his more basic function as a protector. This extension at the village level does not find parallels in family action.

That is not to say that the self-symbolization function could not occur at a sub-village level, but only that in Bǎo'ān it does not. In considering parallels between family and village, it is tempting to consider the loosely organized god-worshipping groups as parallel to groups of villages sharing a patron god. For the time being at least it is probably also wrong. In a god-worshipping group we do not actually find parallel patterns of self-symbolization by means of a god in contrast to and in competition with other god-worshipping groups. The worshippers of His Highness Chí, for example, are not played off against (or allied with) the worshippers of Māzǔ. Nor are members of such groups ordinarily recruited on principles standard and explicit enough for us to expect that that would happen.

This does not say that it does not or could not happen at other times or in other villages. The cult of His Highness Chí is locally a Zhāng cult, after all, and one can imagine that in a more factionally inclined village than Bǎo'ān, god-worshipping groups could easily be involved in factional groupings based on surname, kinship, or other principles. Perhaps if the historical battles of Huáng and Guō had not left such a clear mark in local memory, the symbolization aspect of the village-surname cult of King Guō might not be so clear as it is. Possibly the self-symbolization function of a worshipper's god is potentially as readily available to the family in its relations with other families through its god as to the village in its relations with other villages through its god. The former just does not happen to be the case in Bǎo'ān.

The second extension concerns the family ghosts, whom we shall meet in the material yet to come. The family ghosts are specters of particular family members who are structurally irregular in the context of normal family and descent-line expectations.1 These shades haunt only their own families and are embodiments of the failure, mismanagement, or violation of various explicit principles of social organization, inevitably connected with the maintenance of a descent line. They are post-hoc explanations for perceived inharmonies, and typically they must be pacified by correcting the irregularities before the disaster they are reified to explain can be relieved. We shall return to them in a moment.

Footnote 1. The specters that concern the village as a whole are not those anomalous in these ways. but rather those who died in "unnatural" ways. Hungry ghosts might endanger either village or family; what distinguishes them is their anonymity. Hungry ghosts are the ordinary ghosts of other people's families all across Táiwān (or perhaps all across China or all across the world). The frequent sacrifices for their pacification keep their sad condition constantly in mind and set the stage for the appearance of family and village ghosts, but they are seldom exorcised or charged with responsibility for particular instances of inharmony.

The homology between village and family is enlightening, but it cannot be pushed to extremes. It is perhaps more an overlap than an isomorphism.

Table 4: Family-Village Homology

Village Family Behavior
Gods used as symbols of the village. (none) Inter-local festivals, war.
Gods worshipped as village protectors. Gods worshipped as family protectors. Sacrifices.
Outside ghosts that must be defended against. Outside ghosts that must be defended against. Forts, exorcism.
(none) Ghosts of "unstructural" family members. Social restructuring: deification, postmortal adoptions, spirit marriages, etc.

It seems to me that the homology between village and family, even if it is not complete isomorphism, is still important. It means that within certain limits a single conceptual scheme is being applied to both realms, that within certain limits membership in one is seen as similar to membership in the other, and that problems in one might be solved as they are in the other. But more importantly it means that for the natives themselves this conceptual system, including the way in which it organizes experiences of success and failure and the way it meets potentially baleful contingencies by alliances (be it with a god, another village, or other members of a god-worshipping group), is separable from any specific context and is a more general set of principles which may be applied in other contexts. We should expect to meet the same phenomena again and again among diverse social groupings. In a religious idiom, we would expect to see the same scheme reproduced at, say, town or county levels. (Can we identify the cult of the "city god" 城隍 here?) But interactionally, we might wonder how much of a transformation is needed to relate this scheme to one describing Chinese social alliances in general.


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