Text modified: 1999-06-02
File last modified:
This book is a case study of Chinese religion. It is about religion as it is lived in one village, here called Bǎo'ān 保 安, at one point in time: the present. That pseudonym Bǎo'ān means "safe-guarding harmony"; religion in Bǎo'ān is directed to that end. The nature of the harmony, the dangers that threaten it, and particularly the means by which it is preserved will be our theme.
In preparing the book, I have had three objectives. Most obviously, but least importantly, the book is a description of a southern Taiwanese village. As such it is one of a small number of accounts in western languages of particular Chinese villages and is a contribution to the available data on rural Chinese life and its variation across space. Anyone who has tried to study regional variation in China on the basis of ethnographic accounts realizes how tantalizing it is to discover differences between ethnographies and not know whether they are due to regional differences or to differences in the experiences and interests of the ethnographers. The more ethnographies we have for a region, the clearer the picture becomes. The concentration of work in Táiwān and Hong Kong in recent years is at last beginning to provide a certain depth of coverage in these areas that allows us to set how they are different and how similar. One goal of this book is to contribute to this collection of data.
That objective is subordinate, however, to a second, for I am attempting to provide a new perspective on rural Chinese society by focusing on the tight relation between religious beliefs and practices on the one hand and social structure, particularly family and village structure, on the other. When one approaches Chinese religion from this point of view (essentially from the point of view of social anthropology), what attracts one's attention is not so much the customs of the great tradition, such as cleaning the tombs at the "clear and bright" festival or giving money to the children at New Year, but rather practices that are directly relevant to the functioning of society at the local level —the constant re-ranking of local gods, for example, or the distribution of local ghosts. My second objective, then, is to provide a view of southwestern Taiwanese religion as an integral part of a living society, rather than merely as a catalog of customs.
In working with these materials, it has become evident that Bǎo'ān religion is concerned with human relationships with three kinds of supernatural beings: gods, ancestors, and ghosts. It is difficult to say which of these is most important —they are all essential to the scheme— but surely the gods with their temples and oracles are the most prominent to the casual visitor to the area, and the ghosts the most striking to the analyst seeking explanations and interconnections in the events that make up the history and the daily routine of Bǎo'ān life. Not surprisingly, therefore, I have devoted less attention to ancestors, somewhat more to gods (and their oracles), and most of all to ghosts. If such a procedure seems jarring —it is, after all, near]y the exact opposite of what most of our stereotypes of Chinese religion lead us to expect— it is well to remember that studies of Chinese folk religion are few, that such studies written from the standpoint of social and cultural anthropology are fewer, and that anthropological case studies of specifically Taiwanese religion are virtually nonexistent. We must expect surprises. I rather suspect —though it is only a guess— that work guided by a range of interests and mode of analysis similar to mine in the study of Bǎo'ān would yield totally unexpected results from almost any area of China, results that would contrast with our presuppositions and probably also with my data from southern Táiwān. The "jarring" quality is a function —and perhaps an advantage— of remaining true to a local tradition even when it runs contrary to the great tradition, and of seeking to understand a local religious manifestation in its relation to local problems.
A third objective is made possible by the second; that is, to examine the dynamic of the relation between society and religion in Táiwān. I shall seek to discover the way in which the relation between the social life and the religious beliefs of rural people adapts itself to the shifts and changes of day-to-day life and to subtler changes wrought by the passing of longer periods. The picture that emerges is one of much greater flexibility than we usually imagine in connection with Chinese religion.
My conclusions occur passim in the text, because many of them are unintelligible without the data from which they are derived, and because many of the data are confusing without immediate interpretation. Even the data alone are rather intricately related to one another at times. It is hardly possible to present all the facts simultaneously, and so it is useful to begin by summarizing the picture about to emerge before moving ahead with the detailed material.
The first chapter sets the scene. It describes the agricultural village of Bǎo'ān on the southwestern Taiwanese plain. The fact that Táiwān was settled as a frontier area in the seventeenth century makes its history somewhat different from that of other provinces of southeastern China, and we shall consider the effects of its frontier position on the development of lineages and ancestor worship, two institutions of Chinese life that so often seem to Westerners the essence of all that is Chinese. I shall argue that frontier conditions were inappropriate for the elaboration of either of these traits, and shall show how a different social group, defined by residence and surname and unified by religious allegiances, became the basis for much social activity throughout most of the history of Bǎo'ān and the neighboring villages.
How do these "unifying religious allegiances" work? The allegiances, we shall see, involve patron gods, who enter into alliance with a village, and who are believed to protect it against certain kinds of dangers. The manipulation of these gods, I shall maintain, allows the playing out of a variety of relations between and among villages, as well as the governing of various activities within the village.
But how do people "manipulate the gods"? The process by which such manipulation is accomplished is divination, particularly divination through spirit mediums. We shall consider the role of rural medium in some detail, for it is he who must keep religion and social action in a productive interplay with each other. The village, of course, is not the only group of importance. The name of China is almost synonymous with the notion of family. We shall find that the same alliance that obtains between gods and villages can also obtain between gods and families. We shall set how families and groups of families parallel the village in the way they enter into relations of reciprocity with the supernatural, informed by the same understandings and enacted through the same symbols as occur at the village level. The dangers that threaten families, however, are somewhat different from those that threaten villages. I shall argue that there is an ideal image of the family, to which village people try to make their families conform, an image summed up in Chinese by the twin notions of "roundness" (structural completeness) and "harmony" (the smooth functioning of things). When violations of harmony occur-in other words, when people get sick, when financial ruin threatens, or when family relations deteriorate-divine revelation often blames ghosts. And ghosts, it develops, are often shades of family members involved in irregularities in the structure of the family: violations of roundness. We are thus provided with the beginnings of a theory of ghosts, a theory relating belief in ghosts, ways of coping with family disaster, and Chinese ideals of family structure. A theory of ghosts is something new in books about China, and we shall examine the ghosts of Bǎo'ān rather carefully.
From frontier settlers to village and surname alliances, from alliances to patron gods, from patron gods protecting villages to patron gods protecting families, from protection of families to dangers that threaten them, we shall arrive in the end at a fuller understanding of the relations among a variety of kinds of rural Taiwanese supernaturals, and at a model of Taiwanese religious explanation and ways of coping with the world. This model differs from the usual functional models of anthropologists because it is logically independent of changes in social structure, capable of continued functioning in the face of the evolution of social relationships in Bǎo'ān. Far from being rigid and unresponsive (as we are accustomed to think of traditional religion as being), Taiwanese folk belief is fluid and adaptable, capable of providing explanations for and means of dealing with a wide range of human problems in conditions of changing values and practices.
Go to top