For those who might be interested in pursuing the background to these remarks, I have attached a PDF of the chapter on "Traditional Chinese Religion" that I wrote for Ray Scupin, ed., Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus.
Thank you for your interest. Let me try to answer your questions.
1. The "something else" that anthropologists have been looking for. As I noted, perhaps too briefly, in the paper, the classic approach that I associate with Arthur Wolf, ed., Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society started out with a straightforward Durkheimian/structural-functionalist view of Chinese religion. Gods, ghosts and ancestors were conceived as representations of social categories or, more narrowly, local communities or corporate groups. The structure, developmental cycles, and, ultimately, the histories of these groups were the primary focus of interest. Iconographic and other ritual details were of secondary interest compared to sociological issues in relation to which they might be used as evidence.
2. Lin Wei-ping's description of creating and consecrating a god statue is very good as far as it goes. It remains, however, a generic description. The identity of the god or goddess in question is said to be important, but no particular case is mentioned. We are simply left to assume that the statues of the gods worshipped in Wanlian were produced in this way. It is as if, shifting to my other interest, I explained to you how Japanese advertising is created, taking you step by step through the brief, the brainstorming, preparing and presenting the pitch, and then, if the pitch is successful producing the ad in question. Suppose, however, that what you really wanted to know was the specifics of how the 1993 campaign for the new BMW 5-series and how they fit into Japanese or global auto advertising at the time the campaign was produced. The process might be the same, but the copy, the art, the tone and manner, and the specific features of the car emphasized reflected particular conditions not mentioned in desceribing the process.
3. When you ask, "How do you account for the extent to which the object itself that you seek to know is not or no longer original/authentic?" I find myself perplexed. Original or authentic? is not a question I raise and the more I think about it the less sense it makes to me. On the one hand, we have no idea what the first image of Guan Di looked like—we have only the description in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. On the other, every image I mention is an authentic image to those who create or worship them or use them to promote China's image abroad. Every superscription mentioned by Duara said the right thing about the god to someone. At the end of the day, I don't see it as the anthropologist's job to adjudicate local or art historical quarrels over authenticity. Our job is to understand how the field within which these quarrels occur is structured and, thus, the significance of moves to different positions within it.
Returning, however, for a moment to 1: I would be remiss not to mention the inspiration provided by Stephen Owen's Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World. In this truly marvelous book, Owen suggests that every literary genre anticipates a certain reader. Thus, for example, British romantic poets assumed a reader for whom the words in the poem are the shadows on Plato's cave, who constantly looks behind and beyond them in search of the ideal Forms of which they are only imperfect reproductions. In contrast, Chinese poets and especially those who produced the Tang lyric that was Owen's passion, assumed a reader with a classical Chinese education, who would instantly grasp allusions to the Classics or Histories. So, for example, when Du Fu writes of riding on a boat around a certain bend in the Yellow river on a particular moonlit night, the reader for whom he writes would know that he was fleeing the sack of Chang-an during the An Lu-shan rebellion and share the pathos of the moment. That reader would be in the moment, not looking for something beyond it.
For me, one of the most memorable moments in the conference for which the first version of this paper was written, was when Lin Mei-rung, now a very senior Chinese anthropologist and expert on the cult of Matzu, said that the paper made her realize that in all of the years that she had studied Chinese religion she, too, had simply taken the god statues for granted. Now she would have to go back and take a closer look.
John, thank you for replying to my questions.
My pleasure. If you have more, I would be delighted to try to answer them, too.
After reading Patricia Chang's "On the Trail of Chinatown’s Hidden Gods", I went to Chinatown in Los Angeles yesterday.