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Chapter 9

Structure and Change

In closing, something should be said about the extraordinary model we have been slowly assembling of perceptions of disaster and religious ways of coping with it. It seems to me that this model is logically independent of the social practices to which it is attached and is therefore able to accommodate social change without suffering displacement. When one deals with a culture as longevous as the Chinese, such systems are doubly suggestive.

It is truly striking that the structural principles involved in membership in a descent line should be so well internalized and so important as to result in ghosts when violated. In a sense, it is amazing that an infant girl who died after a year of life should thirty years later be so alive in the memories of the living that her ghost is thought to have come back for a husband or to demand a cult.

But how closely is this system of explanation actually tied to these principles and these explanations? We recall that the real "professors of the system" (Groot's happy phrase) are the tâng-ki and the readers and wielders of the kiō-á. These men are free to reify a ghost and attribute particular motivations to it within the range that their clients believe credible and that other oracles are apt to confirm. These two important provisions are highly limiting within any one time, place, and family context. Such limits make the system intensely conservative, for at intervals it lays open the family history to community critique, and the medium solemnly decrees that this or that irregularity, this or that failure to follow out descent-line obligations in a particular way, has brought about disaster and will continue to do so until the family takes steps to undo the mischief it has brought upon itself. We have seen how an innovation such as sharing the descendantship from a remarried widow brought censure upon the house, in theory from the widow herself, in fact from a community that thought this a violation of its principles.

Nevertheless, such a system is also able to accommodate change, if slowly. We must not overlook the fact that exactly the same personnel could manipulate exactly the same supernaturals to explain exactly the same disasters with a very different set of reasons, and they could propose a different set of solutions. Decisions about ghosts as the cause of disaster, about whether the ghosts should be exorcised (formally dismissed) or accommodated (caused by ritual manipulations to conform to the structural norm), provide opportunity for a variety of ways of manipulating and operating the system so that it remains in concord with contemporary expectations, norms, morality, and, in general, the world as it actually is.

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The only restriction is that the principles on which the ghosts are asserted to function be principles within the Taiwanese system of practices. Should these practices change, there is no reason at all why the ghosts should not change their demands as well.

To the Taiwanese (whose focus is on the ghosts), the pattern is clear: ghosts not properly following certain explicit principles are malicious, and the Taiwanese are obliged to do something about them (and probably should avoid producing them). To the outside observer (whose focus is on behavior), the pattern is also clear: the framework of gods, ghosts, tâng-ki, and whatnot allows plenty of room for these principles to be applied differently or to change utterly from time to time, place to place, application to application with comparatively little adjustment needed in anything more than the proportions of different kinds of decisions made by the tâng-ki (read: community).

One way change is accommodated is for certain social principles to be openly contravened and set aside. Thus, not only is exorcism used to drive out the ghosts that nothing can be done about (as those who die by drowning), but to drive out ghosts with a good case (the cuckold's mother), who are inconvenient on other grounds (local solidarity and support of "their man" against an anonymous outsider). Without trying to judge whether this particular case represents a new practice in Táiwān (which I doubt), we can see that room is made for the accommodation of new social practices when there is a shift in the understanding about which ghosts can be exorcised and which must be humored: in Taiwanese terms, a shift in the power 力量 of a certain kind of ghost. Seen the other way about, there is a shift in the estimates of the power of particular categories of ghosts as social practices change. We can easily imagine that over time social practice and power of certain kinds of ghosts change together in a kind of mutual accommodation.1

Footnote 1. We cannot see this happening because of the lack of historical material on ghosts in Táiwān. The point is the flexibility of the system. not whether it has in fact changed or not. My prediction is that it has and it will.

There is another way, too, in which such a system is able to accommodate change, and that is in the kinds of cases that may be dredged from the family history and made into ghosts, and the kinds of reasons that may be given for their being ghosts. Returning to our earlier vocabulary, there are changes in what is socially irregular enough to excite local interest, curiosity, or censure. This can work to shift the corpus of available ghosts. Some evidence in this direction is provided by the examples in the text.

We saw that in recent ghost marriages the groom's illness was explained by reference to his wife's deceased sister. Although deceased girls have turned into ghosts for years, informants maintained that their special passion for sisters' husbands was a relatively recent development. We cannot predict this development by reference to the groom's closer emotional relationship to his wife's family than in previous times (if indeed that can be firmly established!), however we do know that this has its effects in making it credible to him that a ghost should be found in his wife's family to explain his illness, whereas informants say this would (probably) not have been the case half a century ago. A change in social pattern seems to have cleared the way for a change in available supernatural explanations, resulting in explanations from a body of ghosts previously unavailable for this use.

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Can changing social patterns also restrict the body of credible ghosts? We noted that in many Bǎo'ān families the family-head's father is worshipped as an ancestor but his grandfather is not, whereas in other families the grandfather continues to be worshipped. Presumably in earlier times in Táiwān worship extended back further. It seems certain it did on the continent, even among classes unable to support lineage halls for the worship of truly remote ancestors. If that is so (and for Táiwān we do not know), then might there have been a period in which unworshipped grandfathers stalked about serving as explanations for the illness of their unfilial descendants?2

Footnote 2. The closest we come to this today is word-of-mouth tales of appearances of dead parents to their children "in a certain village —I am not just sure where" to complain of inadequate food or shelter in the land of the dead and to ask for more offerings. Grandfathers seem to be quite out of focus today.

There has been a great deal of interest, discussion, and criticism in anthropological circles of equilibrium models, models of social systems and belief systems that are so well integrated that they are self-correcting. Each part of the system reinforces each other part in a tight web of relations that move to maintain the stability of the entire system in the face of various kinds of external disruption. Such models have the advantage of manifesting clear pattern (which is inspiring), but the disadvantage of failing to accommodate our experience of social change (which is disconcerting). It seems to me that in the case of Táiwān the question is perhaps beside the point. The scheme of ghostly explanations of disaster and divine correctives behaves as a good equilibrium model should in adjusting things to a tightly defined, socially sanctioned norm, and it is clearly a major force in the maintenance of descent-line and other traditional principles. But it can also easily accommodate changes in the norms (or differences in the acceptable deviation from them: another kind of norm), in response to any number of impinging social realities (including those associated with modernization). And that is the essence of a dynamic model.

The same general picture seems to emerge if we turn back to the gods we discussed earlier. In the case of relationships between families and particular gods, there are at least two ways in which the role of the divine can be altered without damage to the conceptual system of alliances and reciprocity as a whole. First of all, men are free to change their allegiances from one god to another, to bring problems to any of a host of deities. A man's, or a family's, alliances may change as it is discovered or decided that a different set of gods would provide a more effective defense against current difficulties and frustrations. Gods vary in popularity over time and space in response to a variety of forces, as we have seen, ranging from the effectiveness of a god's local tâng-ki to a neighbor's success in curing headaches with prayers to another. To the extent that gods are functionally undifferentiated, or nearly so, these changes can be discounted as trivial: mere replacement of identical elements. To the extent that they come to have local associations (with medicine, say, or with crops), the changes may represent differences over time and across space in the anxieties uppermost in people's minds.

When the human unit in the alliance is a village, additional variants on this same theme are also available, all of which are built on the principle of changing the gods without switching man's alliances: one axis of movement in the system is the possibility of changing the alliances obtaining among the gods themselves (as we saw in Bǎo'ān's union with the Zhāng village). Another is the fact that, although gods are conceived of as participating in a hierarchy, local gods generally do not have known and fixed positions in it, and different views may prevail at different times. A third axis of movement is the possibility of assigning different local gods to different temporary positions to receive visiting divinities at occasions like the triennial Xīgǎng festival, thereby ordering their protégé villages anew each three years (and ordering them also according to the pervasive idiom of bureaucracy).

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In brief, the possibilities for rearrangement of the gods and of human relationships with them are endless, and each arrangement is susceptible to a variety of locally determined and understood meanings. However the gods are used by families or deployed by villages, their existence and superhuman power, and the efficacy of calling upon them for assistance are not threatened3 can be represented, explained, and to some degree manipulated.

Footnote 3. For the Chinese, as for polytheistic peoples in general, there is no problem explaining how the efforts of a single, omnipotent god could have failed to produce the desired results. The polytheistic god is easily overcome by alliances against him, whether of other gods er of darker forces, and the worshipper copes with the situation by reordering his alliances. In this way inter-village relations and individual fortunes, gains and defeats alike, can be represented, explained, and to some degree manipulated.

Changes in the exact role of the divine can occur in a second, more subtle way as well, requiring no changes in alliances or other re-orderings of the family or village religious loyalties. Much human contact with the divine is through divination of one kind or another, and (as with ghosts) there is no reason to suppose there are not changes over time in what subjects are appropriate for divination —I recall a quite heated debate over whether a political faction might choose its candidate by use of poe— or in what construction the divine, in the person of a spirit medium or a kiō-á reader, might wish to put upon a given event. The existence of on-going dialogue with the supernatural raises the possibility of constant review and updating of revelation. The gods have the ability to say something as relevant about the expenditure of village funds to install a public telephone as they did to suggest military strategies or alliances during the Qīng. Continuous revelation allows the gods to be the constant voice of public approval or disapproval and a usual peacemaker in village or family disputes and decisions. Because their ultimate source is human (the tâng-ki, the reader, the farmer interpreting his home oracles), divine morals are free to change with human morals, divine strategies with human strategies. Even very substantial changes in these spheres need have no effect upon the belief in the gods themselves, or upon the practices involved in worshipping and in communicating with them. Once again we face beliefs and practices that can accommodate change in response to evolving social reality, without themselves suffering displacement.

Ultimately this belief system will probably be undermined. It will be undermined by essentially external forces —Westernization, science, political paranoia— which maintain that there are no ghosts, that there are no gods (or that God is a Christian), and that divination is a rather perverse kind of induced autosuggestion. But it will not be undermined by its own inconsistencies or by its inability to cope with problems intrinsic to Chinese social life. And this is true because the system is flexible and geared tightly enough to the changing realities of Chinese life that it cannot be subverted by gradual social change.


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