Anthropologist David Jordan and Daniel Overmyer, a historian of religions, present a joint analysis of the most important group of sectarian religious societies in contemporary Taiwan: those that engage in automatic writing seances, or worship by means of the phoenix" writing implement.
Originally published in 1986.
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The Flying Phoenix
Aspects of Chinese Sectarianism in Taiwan
By David K. Jordan, Daniel L. Overmyer
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
OVERVIEW AND CONCLUSIONS
Fieldwork and Chinese History
Understanding human beings and their social groups is the essential goal of both the discipline of history and the social sciences. When the groups are contemporary ones, we usually proceed by directly or indirectly observing or questioning their members, and say that we are engaging in social science. When the groups are extinct ones, or when our concern is with contemporary groups in earlier times, we resort to the use of written documents, oral tradition, and archaeological remains. At that point we say that we are studying history.
The skills (and temperament) required to do effective historical research differ, of course, from those required to do effective social science, and it is a commonplace (if discourteous) observation that many historians are "naive" about social science, while many social scientists are "incompetent" in the use of historical materials. Such impressions are not surprising. Past events and dead people simply leave a very limited residuum for analysis, and certain questions cannot be asked. Historians are "naive" only if they believe that all such questions are unimportant. They can hardly be faulted for not being able to deal with them. That is in the nature of historical data. For the same reason, social scientists, at least when pursuing problems that cannot be pursued in long historical perspective, can hardly be expected to be very historical about them. They can be faulted for ignoring the historical record that is in fact available (when they do), but hardly for its absence.
Human beings being as they are, however, it is not surprising that scholars engaged in history tend to hold that what is of most interest about our life on this planet is exactly what does leave a record, or that social scientists tend to hold that that record is too incomplete to be of interest very much of the time. And it is not surprising that neither group picks up many of the skills of the other.
The Limitations of Ethnography in the Study of History
In the present book we are concerned with both the history and the ethnography of Taiwan sectarianism. We hope to shed light on an important aspect of contemporary life in Taiwan, but we also hope that our findings will prove productive of new insights into Chinese sectarianism more generally, including sectarianism in late Imperial times. We clearly cannot assume that sects in Taiwan today are identical with sects in earlier centuries of Chinese history. The difference in political climate alone is enough to preclude that, even if economic development, universal education, and a different rural-urban balance could be discounted, which they cannot. Accordingly, we cannot expect the ethnography of a contemporary Taiwanese pai-luan group to tell us anything directly about sectarian groups earlier in Chinese history or in other parts of the country.
On the other hand, we must also be chary of regarding Taiwan today as utterly disjunct from earlier China. It clearly is not. The statements that modern sectarians make about their religious affiliations are not necessarily fundamentally different from the views that might have been expressed by sectarians in early times, had they been approached by reasonably sympathetic ethnographers. There is no reason to exclude the probability that, to the extent that there are commonalities in Chinese popular sectarianism, the sects of modern Taiwan participate in them. What Taiwan sects can do for our understanding is to provide us with a least a few examples of Chinese sectarianism that can be examined by direct participation and observation as well as by the written records they generate. That operation will both point out and help to fill a variety of lacunae in our understanding of Chinese sectarianism. Our suspicion is that the modern pai-luan groups are in fact very closely representative of the institutions supporting an important kind of Chinese piety throughout the whole of late Chinese history, and that the motivations of our informants in Taiwan are similar to the motivations of earlier sectarians. The more evidence we have reviewed, the more convinced we have become of this. Still, it can never be more than a suspicion. For the historian, modern ethnographic evidence can by definition be only provocative, not definitive.
An important concern for us is the way in which pai-luan sectarianism uses the resources of Chinese culture to create and sustain religious experience and sectarian groups. Pai-luan, after all, like Chinese sectarianism more generally, involves the active and self-conscious manipulation of a vocabulary of traditionally defined Chinese cultural symbols to provide what are clearly vivid supernatural and moral experiences for participants. What an ethnographic study can do is to provide us with an understanding of the way in which pai-luan integrates Chinese cultural material into a unique institution, give us some idea of the scope of a pai-luan's appeal, and outline for us something of the variety of motivations that may contribute to members being attracted to it. Ethnography can help expose the internal dynamics of such groups, the kinds of decisions that help them to succeed or fail, and the ways in which cultural symbols are manipulated to make them salient in the lives of members.
To achieve an understanding of how culture is actually used, an ethnographer tries at once to be a participant and to be unobtrusive. As the ethnographer pursues interviewing and participant observation, the record created is quite different from what can be obtained in any other way. Ethnography creates "texts" of a kind that historians can rarely obtain directly. On the one hand, the ethnographer can interview the people he studies, conducting long conversations in which they are encouraged to offer material relevant to the questions which he is trying to answer. He is in the privileged position of inspiring a text directly suited to his analytical problems and perspective. Also, because the ethnographer contrives to make himself a constant and eventually inconspicuous participant in the group's activities — to become a "piece of furniture" — he is in a position to offer a first-hand account of both routine and extraordinary events and the way in which members reacted to them. Events are the stuff of which human history is made, and by witnessing the events themselves, rather than being given merely secondary accounts of them (or generalizations about them), the ethnographer gains an understanding of them that is limited only by his situation and preparation and by his knowledge of the cultural situation, including history and background. His own secondary account is often diminished by incomplete understanding of what he sees and of what the native participant experiences, but it is often also enlightened both by methodical observation and by the ability to view what he sees in relation to theory and generalizations that fit it to other events and other experiences of quite different peoples. Not only does he have the perspective of a "neutral" outsider; he is an unusually educated and uniquely oriented outsider. He is, in other words, a special participant, at once a better and a worse informant about an event than the native informants he interviews. (Most of us hope we are better rather than worse.)
Asking how cults and sects work is different from asking who participates. Who participates is also an important question, but a different one. Intellectually it is perhaps an easier question, but logistically it is harder. It is easy, especially for a non–Chinese, to wonder how anyone could possibly find pai-luan compelling, to ask what leads to such a belief. If the answer were sloganistically unicausal — if they were all psychotic painters, all deracinated urban slum dwellers, or all persecuted second sons — that would be particularly satisfying, since the phenomenon could be easily placed in an indisputable context, and we could be done with it. Unfortunately for simplicity, trying to identify who the pai-luan sectarians are, in contrast to the rest of the population of Taiwan, is somewhat like trying to determine how American Presbyterians are different from the rest of the American population. A close sociological survey, if it were feasible to conduct one, possibly could reveal statistically significant differences from the population mean in wealth, education, sibling order, or whatever. But the overwhelming impression one gets is that Chinese sectarians, like Presbyterians, are quite usual people. Psychological differences would no doubt be more interesting than the sorts of differences that might turn up in a sociological survey, but a broad personality survey is even more difficult to envision, considering the kind of interviewing required, the number of people who would have to be interviewed, and the climate of Chinese opinion in which the work would have to be done. Without a prior cultural study, however, broad survey statistics, if they did turn up a consistently distinctive profile of an average sectarian, would still tend to miss the point of what pai-luan is all about.
We think, then, that ethnography does have a "message" for the historians. What can be provided by ethnographic research is a much deeper understanding of the way individuals of a group interact with each other in ways that sustain, diminish, or reshape the group's previous character, whether as a social or as a cultural entity, or that affect the personalities of its component individuals. Briefly, some of the specific findings that seem importantly provocative for our understanding of past sectarianism and of Chinese sectarianism in general are the following:
1. There is no ready way to characterize all or most members of most of the groups visited. Therefore we must avoid the temptation to represent sectarians as uniformly different from non–sectarians.
2. The individual groups examined in detail revealed that different believers were there for quite different reasons. These different interests were met by different religious activities. Groups that particularly focused their attention on one activity rather than another were differentially attractive to various kinds of believers.
3. The activities which believers found central to their interest in the sect rarely directly depended upon the explicit ideological (especially cosmological) system espoused by group leaders when asked to provide one. Individual believers frequently engaged in religious practices or beliefs which they thought were part of the group's religious system but which were unknown to other members or were ignored by them. Some "subcults" are incompatible with each other.
Therefore we must be alert to the extent to which most or all sects have served as parts of the religious worlds of their participants, who integrate them in all sorts of ways with all sorts of other, sometimes idiosyncratic, understandings.
4. It was possible and productive to distinguish a "manipulative" or "logistic" level of awareness from an "ideological" one in all or nearly all of the believers interviewed. Therefore we must not assume that Chinese religious belief naively rejects more work-a-day understandings of causation in human affairs — sectarians do not normally seem to loose their pragmatic moorings in the world.
The Anthropological Problem
Aside from historical provocation, can the ethnographic study of Taiwan pai-luan cults enlighten us in any other way about Chinese society? Or can it contribute to making ethnographic endeavors in general more sophisticated by calling attention to a theoretically significant phenomenon or to a better way to conduct our investigations or our thinking about our work?
Taiwanese pai-luan sects are of anthropological interest in at least three ways. In the first place, they contribute to a better rounded view of Chinese popular religion as it is lived today. As reflected in the anthropological literature, at least, Chinese popular piety has tended to be represented almost entirely in terms of groups and their members. Thus the literature on ancestor worship, for example, stresses the corporate groups associated with ancestor worship, the relations among statuses entailed in mourning dress, and so on. Works on religious festivals tend to deal with community crisis and response (as in the rite of cosmic renewal or chiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), calendrical rites, or family crisis rites. Indeed in Jordan's work on Bao-an village, he argued that village religion effectively negated the individuality of the worshipper as a personality, and that individuals inevitably participated in Bao-an religion as representatives of family groups, even in curing rites related to their own health. Although account was taken of individuals as occupants of statuses (particularly in connection with beliefs about ghosts), little account was taken in the village religious system of their personalities.
Pai-luan sects present a quite different face of popular religion, one that contrasts with village religion (although they are often found in villages) because, at least in contemporary Taiwan, the individual is the unit of consideration. Most sectarians would agree that no family or village may join a pai-luan group: only its individual members can do so, for pai-luan is principally concerned with individual cultivation of virtue and the fate of the individual soul.
Sectarianism thus provides an important perspective on an aspect of Taiwan's modern religious situation that is easily missed if we limit our consideration to the colorful household rites and temple festivals of a typical village. Village religion, with its stress on families, ancestors, exorcism, local politics, and the rest, is quite a different world from that of the sectarian society, even though the two overlap. Modern Taiwan's sectarianism is a theatre primarily for individuals, not families. It is one where salvation awaits all humanity, not the politically assertive village. Its concern is ethics, not exorcism. All this is not to say that a successful pai-luan may not, at least for a time, dominate the religious activity of a village. Indeed, Gary Seaman (1978) has provided a detailed description of just such a situation. Rather, the sectarian pai-luan is not inherently a village phenomenon, and is not typically integrated around the same concerns that are the focus of most religious activity in most Chinese households, villages, or urban districts. What it does well is instead to provide a better focus for individual piety than do most other institutions of popular religion. One point of anthropological interest, then, is the way in which Taiwanese sects can round out our ethnographic portrait of Chinese popular religion.
Secondly, popular sectarianism in Taiwan, perhaps in China more generally, is a major means for self-conscious popular participation in the Chinese "great tradition." One may argue about how much of the "great tradition" is really represented, and about how much "participating" is actually going on in it, and about how much the introduction of such figures as the "Golden Mother" constitutes a separate tradition altogether. It is the term "self-conscious," however, that is to be stressed here. As long noted, sectarianism in China is nearly always deliberately syncretistic: that is, it involves a kind of rejoicing in the wedding of diverse, individually prestigious elements of the literate Chinese religious and philosophical tradition. Because they are united, the believer can participate in all of them. This brings us to the difficult word "syncretism."
Excerpted from The Flying Phoenix by David K. Jordan, Daniel L. Overmyer. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- CONTENTS, pg. v
- ACKNOWLEDGMENTS, pg. ix
- A PERSONAL INTRODUCTION, pg. xi
- A PERSONAL INTRODUCTION, pg. xvii
- 1. OVERVIEW AND CONCLUSIONS, pg. 1
- 2. THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND! POPULAR RELIGIOUS SECTS IN CHINA AND TAIWAN, pg. 16
- 3. BACKGROUND OF THE Chi, pg. 36
- 4. CASE STUDY I: HISTORY OF THE HALL OF THE WONDROUS DHARMA, pg. 89
- 5. PAPERS OF THE HALL OF THE WONDROUS DHARMA, pg. 107
- 6. CASE STUDY II: THE COMPASSION SOCIETY, A BRIEF HISTORY, pg. 129
- 7. A COMPASSION SOCIETY LOCAL BRANCH HALL: A POLITICAL FIELD, pg. 141
- 8. SOME COMPASSION SOCIETY BELIEVERS, pg. 182
- 9. CASE STUDY III: THE UNITY SECT (I-kuan Tao), pg. 213
- 10. WRITINGS OF THE UNITY SECT, pg. 250
- 11. CONCLUSIONS, pg. 267
- APPENDICES, pg. 289
- WORKS CITED, pg. 311
- INDEX, pg. 323