Coming up with Terms of History

Ethnography as Method and its Significance
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm

  • Organised by Yang Shen
  • Jacob Tischer, Chair
  • Yang Shen, “The Appearance of History: Approaching Lottery Divination in Chinese Buddhist Temples in China Today”
  • Jacob Tischer, “Making History in the Field: Appropriating Pak-koan Ritual Music from the Central Margins of Modern Taipei”
  • Ruslan Yusupov, “Semiotics of Authenticity: Islamic Signs and the Question of History in the Xi Jinping Era China”
  • Daniel Murray, “A Spatial History of Communal Temples: Urban Anthropology and Local Historical Documents in Xiamen”

Chinese Studies have much potential to contribute to general reflections about perceptions of history, historical imagination, and history-writing. As anthropologists, we are interested in pushing this potential by using ethnography as a reflexive practice of historical inquiry. While recognising the history-making potential of any human being, we emphasise that the making of history also depends on the meaning-making of history. Hence, ethnography—which is based on fieldwork participation among the people who produce and manage the meaning of history in their own ways—gives scholars a unique footing to discuss the problem of history as it is experienced by those who live through their times. The panel draws together the concerns of diverse interlocutors who we encountered through fieldwork, ranging from average temple-goers in Chinese Buddhist temples, Taiwanese ritual musicians, southwestern Muslims, neighbourhood temple attendees, and so on and consider how they understand, talk about, and engage with terms of history. At what kind of moment in history do these various actors perceive themselves to be living? How do they account for their practices in the midst of controversies, suspicion, cynicism, and/or denials? In each case, how do our interlocutors negotiate the significance of past and present and mark their presence in a future that is historically convincing? Instead of projecting any meta-narrative of religion, we focus on how our interlocutors situate their practices in a history that is meaningful to—hence, part of—themselves. In this way, we provide an anthropological ground to rethink the historiography of Chinese Studies.

Yang Shen, “The Appearance of History: Approaching Lottery Divination in Chinese Buddhist Temples in China Today”

In late socialist China, divinatory arts persist, although the stigma of “superstition” still overshadows the public accounts of divination. What is at stake is the public representation of a popular potential. The socialist teleology of modernity poses only select rationalists as “pioneers” in history and leaders of the future. Accordingly, it freezes popular divinatory activities in an image of a past “residue” that is doomed for demise. Then, what accounts are empirically produced when divination is seen as a force in current history and affecting one’s relation to the past and future? In Temple Commons, a Chinese Buddhist temple in the City of Glory in East China, and its branch temple in the city’s rural outskirts, the presence and the absence of divination triggered vastly contrasting emotions, conflicting views, uneasy ambivalence, heated disputes, and immediate reactions. The controversy surrounds the practice of “seeking efficacious lot” (qiu lingqian) or lottery divination, which involves a self-help diviner shaking a hand-size container of wooden sticks until only one lot emerges. The paper investigates various stances approaching lottery divination in contemporary Buddhist temples and discusses how temple encounters disrupt a stereotypic discourse of divination. It suggests that temples’ non-discursive spaces are crucial because they allow public contacts of divinatory performance, which, in turn, dissolves ideological abstractions and make biographies and lives the centre of talk about divination. With these fragmented but meaningful personal conversations, we might re-imagine the appearance of history as a play of possibilities.

Jacob Tischer, “Making History in the Field: Appropriating Pak-koan Ritual Music from the Central Margins of Modern Taipei”

This proposal engages two questions: Does anthropology, especially in its post-colonial guise, have something to offer Chinese Studies beyond contributing a methodology? And: What place does Taiwan occupy in relation to China? Doing ethnographic fieldwork with younger adults in Taiwan shows that the latter question not only occupies researchers but also their interlocutors, who have to navigate the role of (Chinese) traditions in the framework of a modern, sovereign, democratic state and an increasingly localising society. In this paper, I analyse how the members of a religious association playing Pak-koan 北管 music negotiate questions of identity that arise from the historically and geographically Chinese origins of their brand of music, its traditional cosmological backgrounds, and their application of this music in a modern, urban context in contemporary Taipei. In part, their struggles reflect contradictions inherent in Taiwanese modernity, in which political institutions promote cultural expressions, including Pak-koan music troupes, as living traditions that authenticate and anchor—“centralise”—Taiwanese history in concrete practices. At the same time, runaway modernisation shapes distinctly urban attitudes, expectations, and stigmata among residents regarding noise, privacy, and individual-based cultural consumption. The changing preferences of urban denizens create pressures on religious troupes to adapt and innovate, thereby driving cultural change, while also implicitly undermining—“marginalising”—the ability of troupes to uphold the traditions so prized as authenticating practices.

Ruslan Yusupov, “Semiotics of Authenticity: Islamic Signs and the Question of History in the Xi Jinping Era China”

Muslim communities in China have for centuries used qingzhen sign to mark the religious safety of their eateries and food in the wider society characterised by the cultural valorisation of pork and alcohol. However, the increasing appearance of halal sign alongside qingzhen in the past two decades has recently attracted the suspicion of the current Chinese government. Equating this novel phenomenon to the worrying trend of Arabisation and Saudisation, it has embarked on an ambitious campaign to clamp down on the proliferation of halal and thus to recuperate the “pristine” Chinese Islam from the otherwise radical influence from abroad. Drawing on the interviews with Chinese Muslims, this paper shows, however, that this campaign loses sight of the Maoist China history during which Islam was instrumentalised to create ethnic Muslim minorities separate from the Han majority. As Islam became ethicised, qingzhen has lost its religious credibility, the very credibility that the adoption of halal is now aimed at remedying. It then follows that by pitching Arabic signs against Chinese ones, the Chinese state is actually neglecting the period that was critical for its own formation. By looking at how Chinese Muslims enduring through the campaign historicise the claims of the government, this paper thinks about how anthropology might provide critical historical insight that is indispensable for our understanding of contemporary China.

Daniel Murray, “A Spatial History of Communal Temples: Urban Anthropology and Local Historical Documents in Xiamen”

Over the past thirty years, the shift towards local and regional histories of China has developed substantial new perspectives of late imperial society and culture. This work has brought together the study of local documents, such as land deeds, genealogies, stone inscriptions, and liturgical manuscripts, with fieldwork conducted where these texts were composed. Yet, despite the progress made through this interdisciplinary research, these studies generally do not account for the events of the twentieth-century or contemporary situations. This paper attempts to address modernity in China through a history of infrastructures and urbanisation, rather than secularisation. I use Xiamen, a coastal city in southeast China, as an example of the multiple waves of infrastructure projects that occurred over the past hundred years from Overseas Chinese business people, local and national governments, and the return of overseas investment since the 1980s. Each wave of development has had differing relations to the existing structures of local organising such as communal temples and lineage halls. To construct this history, I draw on local historical documents produced by communal temples (stone inscriptions and temple gazetteers) gathered during fieldwork as well as sources about urban planning and development. By thinking these two sets of documents together, I avoid presenting ritual in opposition to modern infrastructure and present communal temples and their participants as actors in urban history. This then leads to a consideration of how temple attendees today present the history of their communities and their potential futures.

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Room H
Ethnography as Method and its Significance