BOOK REVIEW: The Impossibility of Self: an essay on the Hmong Diaspora by Nicholas Tapp


BOOK REVIEW

The Impossibility of the Self:  An Essay on the Hmong Diaspora





TAPP, N.  2010. The Impossibility of Self: an essay on the Hmong Diaspora. Lit Verlag: Munster, 320pp. €29.90

 

The book, “The Impossibility of Self: an Essay on the Hmong Diaspora,” is a well thought out book which attempts to place the Hmong self into an anthropological context. The book is separated into four parts.  The first part examines theories and approaches relating to the ‘self’. The second part of the book familiarizes the reader with the Hmong. The third part of the book discusses the changes that relate to Hmong identity and sociality. Finally, in the fourth section, there is an examination of the Miao (the Chinese Hmong) and a critical evaluation of the theories which explore the concept of the self. Tapp spends much time on well-known and sometimes not so well-known works relating to the subject of the self. The book examines the ‘self’ from the point of view that there is a dichotomy of the pre-modern, or production, self and the modern/postmodern, or consumption, self and discusses the different disciplines which have reflected upon the self. The premise of the book is primarily based on the work of D. Bell (1978) and D. Miller (1987; 1993). Bell’s perception of the self is a mirror of the ‘authentic’ while Miller’ perception of the self is that of a decontextualized self. The weakness of the book’s argument is that both Miller and Bell appear to perceive the world from a primarily Western perspective which troubled me throughout the text. However, putting that aside for the moment, let’s examine the text and the positive additions it makes towards Hmong studies and to the greater anthropological discipline.

 

In the first part of the text, the book examines both anthropological and non-anthropological approaches to the self. Tapp considers how we as practitioners have viewed the self, either from a medieval European model, a classical Unitarian model, a romantic model or as a decontextualized modern, post-modern model.

 

Part two examines the social-historical context within which the Hmong are situated. Tapp examines how the Hmong’s past, and those voices which have shaped our present-day impressions of them, affected both Hmong perceptions of themselves and how Hmong specialists’ view them. He suggests that the writers of the past had particular frames of reference and objectives that in turn either mystified the Hmong or made assumptions about them. Priest, missionaries, soldiers and ethnographers had particular preconceived thoughts about who and what the Hmong were. Their views are sometimes romanticised images of the Hmong, or sometimes positive or negative, but all have an accumulative effect on the present Hmong and /or others’ opinions[i] about them. Tapp’s main point is that history and historic writings are perceived through the lens of the present[ii]. As a result when one reads about the Hmong or any group, for that matter, the writers’ objectives in the past should be considered. Tapp’s analysis deconstructs common perceived notions of who the Hmong were understood to be.

 

In the latter chapters of part two Tapp examines the Hmong’s multiplicity of self, as he terms it. He proposes a different conception of ‘self’, which is multiple and contested through the examination of shamanism and funeral rituals contrasting them with globalising trends. Tapp argues that the Hmong have a new selfhood that is fragmented, modernist and textualized, creating a unified self. In addition, new modes of communication, such as mobile phones and internet/email, reinforce connections with distant, far off places and family, to create a borderless Hmong ‘national’ community. This perception of a national identity appears seemingly close to Anderson’s (1984) construction of “imagined communities”[iii]. However, Tapp discusses the Hmong’s national identity as attached to a virtual place, in other words detached.

 

The third part of the book explores the Hmong as transnationals, as Tapp delves further into their understandings of themselves in the world. Earlier in the text he argues that the Hmong have been part of a globalized world at least since the time of colonialism. However, contemporary Hmong have a vision of themselves with a virtual homeland (since they spread throughout Southern China and Southeast Asia and have had a very long history of being up-rooted). They see themselves tied to a mythical ancestral Chinese homeland, but envisage Laos or Thailand as homelands as well. This portion of the book examines how the Hmong attach themselves to places and formulate relationships either through marriage between transnationals who may have grown up on different parts of the globe. These transnational Hmong use the medium of the internet to reconnect or by visiting places such as China or Thailand to create a common sense of kinship, nationalism, and nostalgia.

 

Part four of Tapp’s book initially examines the Chinese Hmong, or Miao. Tapp first explores the concept of romanticism in China, which gauges the metaphors of the ethnic other in China. However, historically, romanticism may arguably be based on a European or Western philosophical tradition and, therefore, may be a bit of a problematic fit. Nevertheless, Tapp endeavours to situate Chinese ideologies into a romantic mould. He concludes that aspects of romanticism did not exist before the 19th and 20th Century in China. He then, discusses the Miao from a contemporary Chinese perspective. The Chinese perceive the Miao as a romantic primordial Chinese. They are seen by the Chinese as backward and exotic country bumpkins, which has justified national public discourse to deny their participation in the modernisation project. Tapp suggests there is a valorisation/denigration of ethnic minorities at the same time. As a result, he situates Chinese Hmong as an ethnic minority who have a public Chinese self and private Miao self[iv].

 

In the second half of part four, Tapp challenges the theories regarding the modern self and then removes the Hmong from its contradictory labyrinth. Tapp argues that the ‘self’ defines significance and meaning and that spirituality and ritual secure the meaning of the self. Thus, the Hmong shaman reconstitutes the self in a post-modern world; in a post-modern world, where the self has become referenceless. In contrast, the Self anchored in ritual and religious belief and is the primary foundation of identity for the Hmong where ever they may find themselves in space or time.

 

In conclusion, Tapp’s attempt at examining the self from an anthropological perspective is daring. However, the most troubling part of the book was the theoretical arguments he decided to use and ignore. Tapp has decided to avoid Eastern perceptions of the self. The Hmong self should be considered from this Eastern philosophical milieu within which they exist. The Hmong, even with religious change and transnational migration, have been able to maintain non-western perspectives as was observed and illustrated by (Fadiman 1997). Tapp, himself, in his earlier work mentions that the Hmong have many shared cosmological aspects with Chinese cosmology such as how they divide the world into a sky world, a living world and underworld (Tapp 1989). This Chinese cosmological aspect and its relationship to the Hmong self has not been investigated in his book. However, if it had, it might suggest that Hmong perceptions of self could be understood very differently and, to some degree, have common cultural representations of the self with those of Chinese philosophical constructions. He does mention Eastern ideas of self, but merely in passing.  

 

In the conclusion of this book Tapp states that Hmong spirituality and “ritual is the hypostasis which reinserts the self into a timeless and communal narrative of history” (p274). It has been argued by many in Hmong studies that the Chinese/Hmong religious cosmologies and spirituality share some similar foundations. He does suggest that the Chinese self was different and not based in romanticism, but it manifests questions about what the Hmong and Chinese selves have in common, if anything. However, if this omission is overlooked, Tapp makes salient points that might be taken into consideration when doing fieldwork or when (re)examining texts with regards to the Hmong. The text is a good overview of the work done in Hmong studies and although the premise about the ‘self’ is not fully explored, it presents a good place from which to begin thinking about the Hmong self.

 

 

Dr. Simeon S. Magliveras, The American College of Greece, Deree College & Nanyang Technical University, Singapore

 

_________________________________

REFERENCES

 

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, Verso.

 

Bell, D. 1978 The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Basic Books. New York

 

Fadiman, A. (1997). The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York, Farrar, Staus and Giroux.

 

Frentress, J. and. C. Wickham (1992). Social Memory. Oxford, Blackwell

 

Herzfeld, M. (1997). Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation - state. New

York, Routlege.

 

Hirsch, E. and C. Stewart, (2005). "Introduction: Ethnographies of Historicity."

History and Anthropology 16(3): 261-274.

 

Jenkins, R. (2008). Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Exploration. London, Sage Pub. Ltd.

 

Miller, D. 1987;1993 Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Basil Black-well, Oxford.

               

Tapp, N. (1989). "Hmong Religion." Asian Folklore Studies 48(1): 59-94.

 



[i] Jenkins 2008 discusses how ethnic groups envisage themselves suggesting that how a dominant groups categorise a subordinate group, positively or negatively, effects a subordinate groups perceptions of themselves.

[ii] Frentress and Wickham (1992) and Hirsch and Steward (2005) suggest that memory and history respectively are remembered, viewed, and understood, in the context of the present. Frentress and Wickham also suggest that those things which are not understood are then easily forgotten.

[iii] Anderson (1983) suggests that the national identity began with print capitalism. Tapp infers the Hmong boundless ‘national’ identities may be a function of electronic media in the same way.

[iv] Tapp’s understanding about concealment resembles Herzfeld’s (1997) concept of cultural intimacy, where public personae’s are expressed while at the same time private personas are cherished and shared with like individuals who share the same representations of the other. Herzfeld calls this type of behaviour, disemia. He used the example of the Greeks Hellenistic public personae and their private flawed Byzantine/ Romios self which contemporary Greeks would share with among themselves in private.

 

 

Views: 677

Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for this thorough and informative review, Simeon. You raise an issue that has long plagued anthropologists working in Asia. How do they relate to the (primarily textual and historical) body of scholarship on Asian religions? Once they settle for privileging their own ethnographic fieldwork, this leads them away from such traditions and towards dialogue with others who lack much knowledge of Asia. Inevitably they discuss and use theories drawn from the predominantly western discourse of academic anthropology. This has led to some unfortunate developments where important ideas are made to fit into a binary East vs West or postcolonial vs orientalist framework. Some anthropologists have taken up a similar stance in opposing the indigenous thought of "Melanesia" or "Amazonia" to that of "Euroamerica". I am not convinced of the value of these dichotomies. As someone who straddles the divide in your working life, how do you approach this problem?

Have any anthropologists considered the framework developed by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his monumental Sources of the Self?

Gentlemen,

I have contacted the reviewer to join in the discussion. The topic is an interesting one, as once anthropologists leave the field and enter the institution through which they compete for notoriety and place, there is a need to present the Other within a western framework of understanding. I am interested in seeing where this discussion leads...

Greetings,

After serving in the Vietnam War and then living in SE Asia for two years, I had direct contact with the people of Laos and Cambodia (Laotians and Hmong) on many occasions.  Later in California, my Asian graduate advisor (who actually had a Miao student live with her in the states for two years) and who specialized in research concerning the tragedies of refugee women in the settlement camps in Thailand directed me to do my internship in the Cambodian community in Long Beach, CA (which happens to be the largest outside of SE Asia).   I would, therefore, be very much interested in seeing this discussion develop and would gladly contribute whatever insight I can from those experiences...my best to all and happy new year...tchau

Keith,

I think extensive fieldwork mayhelp in understanding the self. Only by understanding the motivations of the people studied from a holistic point of view can we come close to understanding such personal experiences. This is a very typical anthropological response to how we should better understand a group of people who have a very different culture from oneself. however,  I do not think western writings about subjects which are not a tight should be disregarded completely. I think western philosophies about the human condition can be important tools to understanding humanness, However I think the cosmologies of others should be examined thoroughly and takes as a basis of knowing from which to begin a discourse. The self has not been a particular well developed concept in anthropology (other than C. Taylor mentioned below by John). It may be that the perseption of the self is particularly a personal experience internalized understood by people of the same culture.  Maybe it is the job of native anthropologist to examine. Moreover, the self has been a subjet considered by pshycology and not so by anthropology. 

The Hmong are a group which have been categorized by early writings as tribal and shamanistic which did not allow discourses about "eastern" philosophies and religious influence to be taken into consideration. Nor were they ever discussed as part of a global world to which they had obviously been linked.

Finally,I do not find these dichotomies we are discussing particularly represents a 'real' image of a particular group. However, to discuss a subject we are linguistically bound to subjects and paradigms of the past as a point of departure. They must be understood for their weaknesses and strengths. This is part of what Tapp is actually arguing when he discusses early authors on the Hmong. 

Keith Hart said:

Thanks for this thorough and informative review, Simeon. You raise an issue that has long plagued anthropologists working in Asia. How do they relate to the (primarily textual and historical) body of scholarship on Asian religions? Once they settle for privileging their own ethnographic fieldwork, this leads them away from such traditions and towards dialogue with others who lack much knowledge of Asia. Inevitably they discuss and use theories drawn from the predominantly western discourse of academic anthropology. This has led to some unfortunate developments where important ideas are made to fit into a binary East vs West or postcolonial vs orientalist framework. Some anthropologists have taken up a similar stance in opposing the indigenous thought of "Melanesia" or "Amazonia" to that of "Euroamerica". I am not convinced of the value of these dichotomies. As someone who straddles the divide in your working life, how do you approach this problem?

Simeon, I think we agree that dividing the world into the West and the Rest or Civilizations and Tribes is not very helpful. We also agree that peoples previously treated as being outside or without history should have their proper place in the world movement and that their beliefs and practices should be given appropriate weight in terms that respect the natives' point of view. I am not sure if the best account would necessarily come from an insider and this is because anthropology is not just ethnography. I am all for widening the range of anthropological discourse to include as many non-Western voices as possible. But I also believe in the power of a cumulative anthropological tradition that originated in a few Western countries over the past two or three hundred years and is now practised around the globe in all kinds of interestingly different ways. It is this variety that we hope to tap into through the OAC, although language is a major inhibitor in this respect.

So, while endorsing a move towards more locally sensitive ethnography, I would also like what is claimed to be new in its findings to be juxtaposed critically to the most important literature in the established anthropological tradition. With this in mind, it just isn't true to say that anthropologists haven't considered the self. Just to mention the most striking example, Marcel Mauss's lecture on the subject has generated a lot of discussion: 1985 [1935]. A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of the Person; the Notion of Self. In M. Carrithers, S. Collins, and S. Lukes, eds., The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1–25. The editors are an anthropologist, a philosopher and a sociologist who is Durkheim's biographer. I can think of other significant contributions from American anthropology, some of them in explcit dialogue with the school of social psychologists that included Mead, Thomas, Cooley and later Erving Goffman, who did his PhD in social anthropology: it was called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

I have had this argument throughout my life and I acknowledge that my position may be challenged strongly on several grounds. It is largely a matter of metaphysics in the end and therefore in a sense beyond argument. When I was teaching in the Carribean long ago, a student asked me "Why are we reading Hegel when we haven't read Walter Rodney (a local historian)?" My reply was that Hegel was a powerful interpreter of historical changes that he lived through and have since become more widely distributed in the world while taking on new features. Would non-western physicists do well to scrap what the world learned from Newton and Einstein, even as scientists everywhere take us beyond them? Should we start thinking afresh about economy without taking into account Smith, Marx and Keynes? I believe that anthropologists too should be in some sort of dialogue with our own major thinkers and the ethnographic move can be a way of shirking that responsibility. But it need not be and the new open access journal, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, is a significant move in the right direction.



Simeon Magliveras said:

Keith,

I think extensive fieldwork mayhelp in understanding the self. Only by understanding the motivations of the people studied from a holistic point of view can we come close to understanding such personal experiences. This is a very typical anthropological response to how we should better understand a group of people who have a very different culture from oneself. however,  I do not think western writings about subjects which are not a tight should be disregarded completely. I think western philosophies about the human condition can be important tools to understanding humanness, However I think the cosmologies of others should be examined thoroughly and takes as a basis of knowing from which to begin a discourse. The self has not been a particular well developed concept in anthropology (other than C. Taylor mentioned below by John). It may be that the perseption of the self is particularly a personal experience internalized understood by people of the same culture.  Maybe it is the job of native anthropologist to examine. Moreover, the self has been a subjet considered by pshycology and not so by anthropology. 

The Hmong are a group which have been categorized by early writings as tribal and shamanistic which did not allow discourses about "eastern" philosophies and religious influence to be taken into consideration. Nor were they ever discussed as part of a global world to which they had obviously been linked.

Finally,I do not find these dichotomies we are discussing particularly represents a 'real' image of a particular group. However, to discuss a subject we are linguistically bound to subjects and paradigms of the past as a point of departure. They must be understood for their weaknesses and strengths. This is part of what Tapp is actually arguing when he discusses early authors on the Hmong. 

Holistic understanding is a wonderful ideal and a useful reminder to pause and consider, both during fieldwork and writing up, what we are neglecting. That said, it may be useful to consider what "holistic" might entail if the population in question is larger than a small, highly localized community. Here is a somewhat extreme example from my chapter on traditional Chinese religion in Ray Scupin, ed., Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus.


Words to the Wise

As we look more closely at all these aspects of Chinese religion there are several key points to keep in mind. There are temples; there are sects. There are private belief and public practice. But there is no Church separate from the State, no sharp boundary line that separates religion from other institutions. Chinese religious cosmology reflects this social reality; there is no transcendent God, only spirits who are part of the social and natural order, just like the human beings whom they outwardly resemble and whose fundamental nature they share.

We should also bear in mind that while we speak of "Chinese religion," China is a very large country with a population that is now around 1.2 billion people, a quarter of the world's population. Chinese religious attitudes exhibit every conceivable shade from fervent belief to indifference and active atheism, and a wide range of variation can be found in rural villages as well as towns and cities. In a study of religious belief in a village in Taiwan, anthropologist Stevan Harrell interviewed fourteen villagers. Three, he found, were religious enthusiasts, village theologians who had each developed his own idiosyncratic version of Chinese religious cosmology. One, an old woman, was the village atheist; she stated bluntly that traditional religion is nonsense. The other ten participated in ancestor worship and festivals because, "It's the custom."

The communist revolutionaries who founded the People's Republic of China were heirs not only to Karl Marx's conviction that religion is "the opiate of the people" but also to a long indigenous tradition of scholarly skepticism. It was, after all, Confucius himself who said that while a gentleman acts as if the spirits are pre- sent in ritual, he devotes himself to worldly affairs and keeps the spirits at a distance. Many educated Chinese continue to follow his advice.

In attempting to understand Chinese religion we cannot, therefore, be satisfied with statements that say "The Chinese believe this" or "The Chinese do that." Our goal must be instead to discover the range of possibilities for religious belief and practice that the world of Chinese religion provides and to understand the motives that incline individuals who occupy different positions in Chinese society to act on some of these possibilities while, perhaps, rejecting others.

We must recognize, too, that attitudes may change depending on circumstances. Even in pre-modern China, a mandarin who seemed a sober Confucian while holding imperial office could still be a Buddhist or Daoist mystic in private life and hire Buddhist monks or Daoist priests to perform their rituals at his parents' funerals. A despiser of "superstition" might still turn to a Daoist magician or medium when faced with disease or misfortune. Even a modern intellectual can feel the pull of "superstitious" beliefs if her child is sick or when death draws near at the end of life.

How Do We Study Chinese Religion?

Here we will use two approaches to explore the possibilities that Chinese religion provides. Our first approach is historical and based on the observations of historians and archeologists. Here we must always keep in mind the sources on which their conclusions are based.

Three points are critical: First, China is the world's oldest continuously literate society, and the sheer volume of historical texts is enormous. One source suggests that the twenty-five imperial histories alone would require 45 million words in English translation. In Chinese the Buddhist Canon is 74 times the length of the Christian Bible, while the Daoist Canon is a library that runs to several thousand pages in its latest edition. In contrast the number of scholars who study these materials is small. In history as well as in archeology, new discoveries continue to appear. Suppressed texts, hidden away sometimes for centuries, surface periodically.

Second, while the overall volume is enormous, what is available varies widely from one point in Chinese history to another. Relatively few texts survive from before the invention of woodblock printing on paper during the late Tang (581-907). Starting in the Song (907-1276), the trickle of materials suddenly becomes a mighty river.

Third, almost everything we have in writing represents the views of an educated, literate minority, the scholar-gentry from whom the mandarins who governed imperial China were recruited. As a consequence, we may know a great deal about what went on at the imperial court and almost nothing at all about religious beliefs and practices in towns and rural villages away from the imperial court. This bias is especially strong in descriptions of pre-Song religion.

Our second approach will be through the work of anthropologists who have studied Chinese religion first hand. For historical and political reasons, most of this research has been concentrated in Taiwan and Hong Kong, overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, and, more recently, in parts of Southeast China. In ad- dition, much of this work has been done in rural towns and villages. The primary focus of this research has been on the relationship between Chinese religion and forms of social organization in rural society. What Chinese religious life is like in North China or in modern Chinese cities is something we know far too little about. There is a certain irony here, for, to begin our historical survey, we must start on the North China plain. 


First I would agree with much of Kieth's summation about reading various theorists. We must be aware of both native and non-native perspectives. In my experience  local literature follows cultural constructions of their society, however, it is important to take what they say into consideration. Sometime very different and enlightened ideas can be expressed by native  writers. in regards to the 'self', I do find value in writers like Carithers et.al. writings about it but the problem is in defining the self (not an easy prospect) and the discourses that follow. This is why I stated I thought the self was fully analysed. In some cases the self is confused with agents  and agency (see Sokefeld 1999). But, this might be beyond our discussion. 

 I would also agree with John is his posting about Chinese culture. The Hmong originally came from China.They speak a sino-tibetan familyof languages which is in the same subfamily as Yao-Mien. Both groups fled China in the 17th and 18th Centuries ending up dispersed in the regions of South China and South east Asia. The Yao-mien had writing while the Hmong were basically an illiterate people. More recent writings have suggested influences from Taoist and Buddhist cultures. As well as the colonial and post-colonial periods. Obviously one cannot generalise about all Hmong as a homogeneous group either. The Hmong who immigrated to France, etc or there agree those who have returned to their villages in Laos. There collective experiences will have been very different. 


John McCreery said:

Holistic understanding is a wonderful ideal and a useful reminder to pause and consider, both during fieldwork and writing up, what we are neglecting. That said, it may be useful to consider what "holistic" might entail if the population in question is larger than a small, highly localized community. Here is a somewhat extreme example from my chapter on traditional Chinese religion in Ray Scupin, ed., Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus.


Words to the Wise

As we look more closely at all these aspects of Chinese religion there are several key points to keep in mind. There are temples; there are sects. There are private belief and public practice. But there is no Church separate from the State, no sharp boundary line that separates religion from other institutions. Chinese religious cosmology reflects this social reality; there is no transcendent God, only spirits who are part of the social and natural order, just like the human beings whom they outwardly resemble and whose fundamental nature they share.

We should also bear in mind that while we speak of "Chinese religion," China is a very large country with a population that is now around 1.2 billion people, a quarter of the world's population. Chinese religious attitudes exhibit every conceivable shade from fervent belief to indifference and active atheism, and a wide range of variation can be found in rural villages as well as towns and cities. In a study of religious belief in a village in Taiwan, anthropologist Stevan Harrell interviewed fourteen villagers. Three, he found, were religious enthusiasts, village theologians who had each developed his own idiosyncratic version of Chinese religious cosmology. One, an old woman, was the village atheist; she stated bluntly that traditional religion is nonsense. The other ten participated in ancestor worship and festivals because, "It's the custom."

The communist revolutionaries who founded the People's Republic of China were heirs not only to Karl Marx's conviction that religion is "the opiate of the people" but also to a long indigenous tradition of scholarly skepticism. It was, after all, Confucius himself who said that while a gentleman acts as if the spirits are pre- sent in ritual, he devotes himself to worldly affairs and keeps the spirits at a distance. Many educated Chinese continue to follow his advice.

In attempting to understand Chinese religion we cannot, therefore, be satisfied with statements that say "The Chinese believe this" or "The Chinese do that." Our goal must be instead to discover the range of possibilities for religious belief and practice that the world of Chinese religion provides and to understand the motives that incline individuals who occupy different positions in Chinese society to act on some of these possibilities while, perhaps, rejecting others.

We must recognize, too, that attitudes may change depending on circumstances. Even in pre-modern China, a mandarin who seemed a sober Confucian while holding imperial office could still be a Buddhist or Daoist mystic in private life and hire Buddhist monks or Daoist priests to perform their rituals at his parents' funerals. A despiser of "superstition" might still turn to a Daoist magician or medium when faced with disease or misfortune. Even a modern intellectual can feel the pull of "superstitious" beliefs if her child is sick or when death draws near at the end of life.

How Do We Study Chinese Religion?

Here we will use two approaches to explore the possibilities that Chinese religion provides. Our first approach is historical and based on the observations of historians and archeologists. Here we must always keep in mind the sources on which their conclusions are based.

Three points are critical: First, China is the world's oldest continuously literate society, and the sheer volume of historical texts is enormous. One source suggests that the twenty-five imperial histories alone would require 45 million words in English translation. In Chinese the Buddhist Canon is 74 times the length of the Christian Bible, while the Daoist Canon is a library that runs to several thousand pages in its latest edition. In contrast the number of scholars who study these materials is small. In history as well as in archeology, new discoveries continue to appear. Suppressed texts, hidden away sometimes for centuries, surface periodically.

Second, while the overall volume is enormous, what is available varies widely from one point in Chinese history to another. Relatively few texts survive from before the invention of woodblock printing on paper during the late Tang (581-907). Starting in the Song (907-1276), the trickle of materials suddenly becomes a mighty river.

Third, almost everything we have in writing represents the views of an educated, literate minority, the scholar-gentry from whom the mandarins who governed imperial China were recruited. As a consequence, we may know a great deal about what went on at the imperial court and almost nothing at all about religious beliefs and practices in towns and rural villages away from the imperial court. This bias is especially strong in descriptions of pre-Song religion.

Our second approach will be through the work of anthropologists who have studied Chinese religion first hand. For historical and political reasons, most of this research has been concentrated in Taiwan and Hong Kong, overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, and, more recently, in parts of Southeast China. In ad- dition, much of this work has been done in rural towns and villages. The primary focus of this research has been on the relationship between Chinese religion and forms of social organization in rural society. What Chinese religious life is like in North China or in modern Chinese cities is something we know far too little about. There is a certain irony here, for, to begin our historical survey, we must start on the North China plain. 


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