While very much enjoying the seminar on Martin Holbraad's paper "Can the thing speak?" I have been wishing that we had a bit more ethnographic data to discuss. This link will take you to a set of photographs taken in 1970, during my first fieldwork in Taiwan. In them you will see critical moments in the ritual by which my Daoist master, Tio Se-lian, consecrated the statue of Lao-tzu, which I had purchased for the Puli Hai-kok-tong, Master Tio's storefront temple, partly as payback for letting me hang around and partly because I was eager to get photographs of this particular rite. 


As an experiment, you might want to pause a bit and see what the things in the photograph say to you before you read my explanation....



You may have noticed the importance  of  sunlight, fire, and blood from the comb of a white cock in this ritual. All are, in Chinese terms, filled with Yang, the bright, active, masculine energy associated with gods and deployed to control or exorcise Yin, the dark, passive, feminine energy associated with ghosts. The most straightforward reading of the ritual process as a whole is that, during this consecration, the statue of Lao-tzu is being charged with Yang energy to make it a proper embodiment of the god invited to occupy it. Also, care is being taken to expel any ghosts who might try to slip in instead. 


The detail to which I wish to call attention, however, is not in the photographs. It is in the notes I took when discussing the ritual with Master Tio. I asked him what he would do if no white cock were available. You could, he said, use cinnabar dissolved in rice wine to make a red ink instead. 


There is a lot going on in this simple-seeming substitution. Cinnabar is mercury sulfide, a mineral long famous for its unusual scarlet red color and mined in the West at least since Roman times as a source of mercury. In China, red is the color associated with Yang. The alcohol in the rice wine also has Yang properties. Adding Yang to Yang in this way makes the red ink a fair substitute for the red blood from the missing white cock.

But that, of course, raises the question, why, if the red ink is an adequate substitute, bother with the white cock in the first place? This is, of course, only one instance of a question that can be raised about all ritual that involves more than what is strictly necessary to achieve the purpose in question. (Why, for instance, to note  a more familiar example, do families bother with lavish weddings, when a quiet visit to the registry office or justice of the peace will produce an equally legally binding marriage?)


The answer, I suggest, has to do with considerations similar to those that preoccupy advertising creatives when we move from proposing to executing ideas — when material details, the things on the set, may make all the difference in the world between humdrum and compelling.  Perhaps if we took more seriously the connection between ritual and theater....

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Comment by John McCreery on January 26, 2011 at 5:00am

Keith, thanks for this extraordinarily rich and interesting comment. To me it recalls an important point about the anthropological study of ritual that informed the choices that shaped my dissertation research. To put the matter bluntly, most anthropological accounts of ritual are based on rare, frequently one-off exposure to the rites in question. There is, then, no solid evidence on which to base a decision whether a particular instance of ritual symbolism is (1) mandatory for the rite in question, (2) a common alternative within an established framework, or (3) an innovation that may or may not be condemned as an error. There is also a strong tendency to not consider these possibilities and rely on the preconception that ritual is, as the dictionary puts it, the repetition of set forms.

I was lucky that, by spending a year and half trailing around behind my Daoist master, I got to see dozens of rituals, the simpler ones frequently several times a day, and was also in a position to pose questions like the one that pointed me to the problem  of the red ink versus the white cock. I could, thus, write with greater confidence about variations in symbolism that my master's repertoire demonstrated. 

Even so, I was shocked when, visiting a fellow disciple of the master, an elder brother in the art, I found that the way in which he performed one of the rites with which I thought I was familiar in a way visibly different from the way I had seen our master perform it.

That led to the writing of a piece called "The Parting of the Ways" which appeared in the Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica. In it I reflected on the relationship between masters and disciples and noted that in the Chinese context, no master of any craft will teach his disciples everything he knows (this applies to truck mechanics as well as Daoist magicians). On the one hand, the Master has to share something of what he knows to attract and keep disciples. On the other, to share everything he know would transform them into rivals. The outcome resembles the transmission of love magic described by Malinowski in The Sexual Life of Savages. Disciples acquire fragments of traditions from their masters, pick up other bits by observing what other practitioners do, assemble their own versions of rites and try them out empirically, settling on what seems to work for them. 

This does not mean that either master or disciple are free to do whatever they like. Their clients have expectations about what proper rituals should look like. These are, however, like genre conventions in art or literature. Certain forms, let's call them the grammar of the ritual, have to be preserved for a rite to be acceptable. There are also expectations that affect the appropriateness of symbols; there is, in effect, an established symbolic vocabulary and conventions that affect usage. These, however, allow a good deal of freedom in how even rites in the same broad category are performed. There is, moreover, no established Church, no licensing body empowered to limit that freedom. 

There is nothing very surprising here once one frees oneself from the dictionary definition of ritual as the repetition of set forms and allows oneself to consider the relationship of ritual to poetry, theater or the arts. Remix, recombination, variations in staging and performance that may challenge but not go too far in violating established expectations are the usual state of affairs in the absence of state-backed institutions with the power to impose uniformity. (In that particular paper, I had found some useful sources in the sociology of professions and noted, for example, the state of 18th and 19th century medicine, which remained largely catch as catch can and crudely empirical, until the development of teaching hospitals, medical licensing boards, legal sanctions against those claim to be  doctors without the right credentials.)


Given this overall framework as a starting point and careful focus on systematic data collection, there remains a lot of interesting work to be done in the study of ritual. But so long as the ethnography of ritual is confined to occasional examples encountered on the fly while focused on other topics, there will not, I fear, be much progress beyond what people like Turner, Geertz and Levi-Strauss have already taught us. The devil is in the details—and no angels to be found in the realms of high abstraction. 

Comment by Keith Hart on January 25, 2011 at 10:42am

In 1967 I had the chance to witness the installation of the senior earth priest in Tongo, the main Tallensi village. Meyer Fortes had done the same thing in 1934 and had written up a major article on installation ceremonies featuring that event. I had that written account very much in mind while attending the ritual. Fortes made a big deal about a young girl splashing flour water from a calabash on the new priest's back as an act of purification symbolised by the child's innocence as well as by the white flour water. At a similar moment in my ritual I saw a hulking young man douse the priest with white liquid from a calabash.

Afterwards I asked a number of the participants about this. The family of the new earthpriest said that only the flour water mattered, not the age and gender of the person throwing it. The family of the old earth priest said this was just one example of how the new people were ignorant of custom.

I asked Fortes about it. He said the ceremony happened soon after he arrived in Tongo. He didn't speak the language yet and he refused to take his clothes off, so he stayed outside and reconstructed the ritual from what he was told. In any case, what he saw seemed pretty chaotic (an experience I shared).

At about the same time, the chief died and I heard (in the greatest secrecy) several accounts of his burial at night. My informants were all peripheral to the main ritual. They agreed that a red/brown cow had been slaughtered and the skin placed in the grave for the dead chief to lie on. It has to be red/brown they said. I also managed to get eye-witness accounts of previous chiefly burials including one half a century before when my informant was a kid. Each informant had only seen one burial, since these were not public events. Each insisted that the colour of the cow skin was vital. Each cow was a different colour. I concluded that they all thought the colour mattered, but no-one knew what the colour should be.

My last example is a sacrifice to the ancestors made by the son of the old earth priest who tended to be the master of ceremonies on these occasions, a fact that he explained by having grown up following his father everywhere as an apprentice to the earth priest's craft. He was accompanied by me and two younger brothers. This ritual took place very rarely at long intervals, unlike others that were more regular. At one stage a brother was supposed to slit a cock's throat and spill the blood over an upturned calabash, which he did without much control over the blood. "Not like that, you fool!" shouted his brother, "don't you know that you have to spill seven drops of blood on the calabash?" I have no idea whether he was making it up or had a vague memory of his grandfather, but it sure established his control over the form of that ritual.

After these and similar experiences, I decided to leave ritual to the experts and concentrate on economic life. As George Carlin indicates, our own special brand of nasal spray matters a lot to each of us, but its wider social significance is less obvious. Ritual as theatre, yes, some mileage in that, but didn't Turner and Geertz get there first, not to mention Aeschylus and the Duke of Wellington?


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