Saturday, 25 January 2014

Family and Religion : the Cornerstones of Taiwan Anthropology

Postmodern Ghosts Drink at Starbucks! (Photo: Scott Simon) 

        Foundational texts by Arthur Wolf (1974) and Stevan Harrell (1985) hark back to the golden age of sinological anthropology on Taiwan. According to the Web of Science, the oracle of value for research, Harrell’s article has been cited a respectable 36 times, with a peak of interest between 2009 and 2012. Wolf’s book, cited in over 600 journal articles, is an undisputed classic. Subsequent scholars (e.g. Boretz 2010) continue to pay homage to Wolf by incorporating the triad of gods, ghosts, and what-not into the titles of their books and articles.
        Harrell attempts to understand economics in cultural terms, arguing that Chinese “rationality is determined in terms of a particular kind of family-centered economic goal” (1985: 224, emphasis added). This goal is an entrepreneurial ethic: “the investment of one’s resources (land, labour, and/or capital) in a long-term quest to improve the material well-being and security of some group to which one belongs and with which one identifies” (1985: 216). As Harrell explains, this group is generally the family and male descendents, which is why women seem not to share this ethic until marriage and childbirth. A focus on family leads to a situation in which neither managers nor workers function efficiently in large industry (1985: 222). Francis Fukuyama has notably elaborated this idea, speculating that Chinese societies are poor at building trust beyond family networks, thus possessing a cultural constraint on development. From Harrell to Fukuyama, one gets the impression that economics are somehow determined by cultural values.
        Wolf explains the kinship-religion meshwork elegantly, showing how the patrilineal kinship system and the Chinese imperial political system are reflected in Chinese religious beliefs. Gods reflect imperial hierarchies, ancestors the deceased of one’s own family, and ghosts dangerous outsiders. From an epidemiological perspective (Sperber 1996), this suggests that the Chinese imperial system is especially contagious, as it continues to propagate a century after the fall of the last dynasty. As for ghosts and ancestors, this distinction originated in the violent frontier history of Taiwan. In a society marked by war against the aborigines and even struggles between Chinese from different village origins, people necessarily feared strangers and depended upon kin for survival. Strangers became ghosts and family members became ancestors (Wolf 1974: 174-175).  
        Wolf makes a strong thesis statement: “The most important point to be made about Chinese religion is that it mirrors the social landscape of its adherents” (1974: 131). Change has happened. The imperial system is long gone, and Taiwan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Stove gods are rare in urban Taiwan, marriage practices no longer include such practices as sim-pua (adopted girls who later become the wives of their new brothers), and Taiwan is even contemplating same-sex marriage. So, how can we explain the resilience of gods, ghosts and ancestors in Taiwan’s colourful temples and festivals? How can we explain ghost offerings at Starbucks and McDonald’s? Although much work remains to be done, these classics laid the cornerstone for a new anthropology in construction.  

A Bigger Picture of Ghost Month (Photo: Scott Simon)

Boretz, Avron. 2010. Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Harrell, Stevan. 1985. “Why Do the Chinese Work so Hard? Reflections on an Entrepreneurial Ethic.” Modern China 11 (2) : 203-226.
Sperber, Dan. 1996. La contagion des idées: théorie naturaliste de la culture. Paris : O. Jacob.
Wolf, Arthur. 1974. “Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors.” In Arthur Wolf (ed.).  Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 131-182.

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