Fairbank Center Workshop: Mediating Religion: Text and Object in Chinese Religion


Friday, December 8, 2017, 9:30am to 5:00pm


CGIS South, S354, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA

POSTER9:30 AM     Workshop Opens

9:45-10:45     Playing with Corpses: Assembling Bodies for the Dead in Southwest China

Speaker: Erik Mueggler, University of Michigan

This paper describes the ritualization of death in a “minority” community in Yunnan Province, China, called Júzò in the local Tibeto-Burman language. Here, people are heir to an extraordinary range of resources for working on the dead, including abundant poetic language. Work on the dead takes the form of making them material and immaterial. Social personhood, involving relations among living and dead, is mutual entanglement through shared substance; dead persons are subjected to a long labor of disentanglement with the final goal of severing them from the shared world of matter and memory. Through work on the dead, people assess social relations and envision the cosmological foundations of the social world. In this context, a long history of official interventions meant to reform death ritual has been deeply consequential.

The focus of this paper is the assembly of fully social dead bodies in the reform era, when death rituals were re-established after a hiatus of two decades.  To attend to the active fashioning of dead bodies is to build on the focus that the tradition of the anthropology of death has maintained on the corpse and its transformations, while running counter to that tradition’s tendency to take dead bodies as given, if problematic, entities left over after death. In Júzò, kinship begins with the assembly of dead bodies. Living bodies are made through generative relations of nurture and care; dead bodies are made through the materialization and actualization of ideal relations. Procreation and bodily health among humans and domestic animals and plants depends on life substance channeled through filial relations with dead parents. This process depends upon the successful fabrication of dead bodies out of idealized, formal images of the relations in which the dead were once suspended in life. Through work on the dead, the dead body is made into the image of an entire social world. This world contrasts with another social whole, “society,” the foundation of political discourse in the socialist era and post-socialist eras.

11:00-12:00    Mother Ghost Seeks a Human Son-in-Law: Ghost Shrines in Taiwan

Speaker: Wei-ping Lin, National Taiwan University

This article, inspired by the studies of material religion, reconsiders the concept of ghosts and the relationships they build with humans by means of a detailed analysis of a particular type of religious architecture, namely the ghost shrine. Ghost shrines in Taiwan are usually located outside of settlements; compared to temples, they are shabby, isolated, and off the beaten track. By studying the material composition, naming, and rites of these shrines, this paper will show how ghosts are conceived of as asocial and individual beings, gathering mostly in single-sexed groups. This forms the basis for understanding the central incident investigated here of a “mother ghost seeking a human son-in-law.” In contrast to previous research that describes human-ghost relations in terms of the troublemaking and threatening roles of ghosts, this story importantly shows that it is not only ghosts who take advantage of human beings. Motivated by greed, humans also cross the spatial boundary separating humans and ghosts to coerce the latter for their own selfish ends. By dramatizing the gender contrast of ghosts and humans, the story of the mother ghost epitomizes people’s ridicule and condemnation of human greed.

12:00 PM      Lunch on your own

1:30-2:30     Envisioning Paradise: Maitreya’s Utopia in Medieval Mural Paintings at Dunhuang

Speaker: April Hughes, Boston University

Maitreya Buddha’s terrestrial paradise was one possible afterlife for medieval practitioners.  My paper considers how Maitreya’s earthly utopia was imagined visually in the cave-temple mural paintings at Dunhuang by examining the following episodes: the three assemblies; scenes related to the Wheel-Turning King; and scenes of daily life in the paradise.  I argue that in retelling the Maitreya story the artists established a distinct version of the narrative.  In these murals, the painters not only opted to depict specific scenes from the broader Maitreya story, they also modified and enhanced elements that were derived from the canonical scriptures.

2:45-3:45     The Stuff of Power:  Politics, Ideology, and Virtue in China’s Mid-19th Century Civil War

Speaker: Tobie Meyer-Fong, Johns Hopkins University

A military handbook compiled in central China during the Taiping Civil War dedicates significant attention to the physical appearance, practical function, moral affinities, and political power of material artifacts mobilized by or against the Taiping cause.  The objects are never presented as politically neutral; they reveal absolute ‘moral truths’ otherwise obscured by the fog of war. First, the authors use things (of power) to elevate and denigrate the Taiping polity as an aspiring, but ultimately failed, dynastic regime.  To that end, they catalogue and in many cases illustrate the politically charged objects in circulation in Taiping territory. At the same time, the legitimacy of these politically charged artifacts had to be negated; they had to be fake, flimsy, or insufficient.  Second, the authors use objects, including food and clothing, to document social and regional difference, and thus to reveal the Taiping and their adherents as a core group of violent and uncouth savages surrounded by an outer layer of coerced captives looking to flee.  Finally, the handbook describes manifestations of virtue in the material world by way of the strange behavior of objects, including especially human remains. Here, the textual representation of material objects produced moral and political boundaries between self and other, orthodox and heterodox, civilized and savage.  A consideration of how objects functioned in this text provides insight into how the authors of this text, and by extension, the Qing and their militia allies, used “things” to articulate their ideological and strategic agendas in the context of the Taiping Civil War.

4:00-5:00     Texts and Objects in Statues: New Vantage Points onto Chinese Local Religion

Speaker: James Robson, Harvard University 

Over the past ten years or so I have been involved with a large-scale collaborative research project on small polychrome statuettes from Hunan province.  The first phase of the project involved cataloguing five collections of statues that total around 8,000 images.  Now that the cataloguing is completed we are able to move into the next phase of analysis. What is most distinctive—and of scholarly importance—about these images is that they have a small niche carved into the back that contains (among other things) materia medica and manuscripts that were interred at the time of consecration. The manuscripts provide us with an unprecedented amount of information about the date of the image, its precise provenance, the patrons, and the reasons for the statue’s consecration. Scholars of Chinese religion are often frustrated by the fact their sources only allow them access to rather elite levels of practice. These statuettes, dating from the Qing dynasty to the present, however, take us down to the level of village and even domestic religious practice.  In this talk, I intend to tack back and forth between the documents inside of the statues and what we can know from other types of local sources to see what new vantage points they provide us onto the local religious landscape of Hunan province. I also intend to introduce some recent research the I have done on some of the non-textual objects inside the statues and how we might also utilize them in developing a more complete sense of the contours of that religious landscape.