SPEAKER 1: The following is part of Cornell Contemporary China Initiative lecture series under the Cornell East Asia program. The arguments and viewpoints of this talk belong solely to the speaker. We hope you enjoy.
SPEAKER 2: This evening, we're here to welcome Professor Robert Weller, who comes to us from Boston University, where he's been for the best part, or the longest part, maybe not the best-- they're all good, all good parts, of his career. He finished a PhD in anthropology in 1981 from John Hopkins, was briefly at Duke for a few years before going to Boston University, and has published widely on a broad range of topics on Chinese anthropology.
Most recently in 2012, he has a new book out, Rethinking Pluralism. He I had to think about it for a moment. Mostly, I had to. And in English, most recently, in 2012-- and in Chinese, he has a book out just a year ago.
So tonight, he's going to be speaking to us about this connection between urbanization and what it does to communities' religious beliefs. So please join me in welcoming Robert Weller.
ROBERT WELLER: Thank you. So as you can see, there's actually a co-- I wanted to say co-author, but no words are actually written on this thing. It's in a very early stage.
And so I particularly welcome your comments, actually, as we do this. Some of it represents fieldwork from a couple of years ago, some of it just from last summer. So it's really pretty fresh stuff.
So let me start with this slide, and I actually don't want to talk about most of it. Some of you may recognize it. It was the winner of a visualization contest that the World Bank held for a report they did on Asian urban growth in the last 10 years, 2000-2010.
So that's the China one. I don't want to talk about it. I only want to talk about these numbers down here, actually.
They studied 18 countries in Asia. Of those, it won't surprise you at all to learn that the one with the largest increase in urban population, absolute numbers, was China. Of course it was China. China has the largest population.
The growth rate was 38%. You probably can't read that from the back of the room-- it doesn't matter. Growth rate was 38%, which sounds enormous-- and, in fact, was the fastest growth rate of any of those Asian countries, but not by very much. So the average was 35%, 36%, something like that, so it was a little bit faster.
The more interesting figure is the urban population density one. So you would think, if you're adding that many people to a city-- over 100 million people to Chinese cities-- that population density must go up. But in fact, as you maybe could see, population density has hardly gone up at all. It's only increased by 1.5%.
And of those 18 countries, it doesn't rank first. It actually ranks 11th, so it's in the bottom half for density increase. How do you do that?
There's only one way. It's the obvious way. You have to take over the land next to the city and build new space.
And as those of you who know China know, this is happening all over the country at a very rapid pace. And it's those people I want to talk about. Rather surprisingly, there's not much literature on these spaces. Spaces that were rural 10 years ago or 15 years ago-- people living in the countryside and farming-- are now cities of high-rises and Starbucks.
There's not much studied about those particular spaces. You probably know there's a good literature now on migrants to Chinese cities, but not on these people, who live sort of like migrants-- that is, they've been displaced from where they lived before. They often have lost their jobs. Certainly, their farming jobs have disappeared. In many ways, their lives have been transformed.
And yet, they're living exactly where their ancestors had lived for generations. So they're not migrants at all. They're the most local of local people.
They're not very studied. And the religious side of it, as far as I know, is completely unstudied. So this is really a first shot at how to understand what's going on there.
So partly, we have things other people have documented. When you get urban construction like this, the old kinds of spaces of village life are gone. Your neighbors aren't necessarily gone-- that is, they're resettled usually in multistory Western-style apartment complexes, building after building after building, all identical to each other. Again, those of you who know China have seen these kinds of things.
And yet, the spaces of interaction-- the public spaces, the plaza where people met to hang out in the shade on a hot day-- all those spaces are gone. The kinds of social interaction that are possible are gone. They're reshaped. And at the same time, while those place-based networks become weaker because of the changes in space, those other kinds of networks become more and more important. Other kinds of jobs, new kinds of media, these kinds of things that I think are fairly well-known.
At the religious end, temples are torn down. They're fairly obviously torn down. And they're not rebuilt. That is, when the urban planners design these new apartment complexes for people to live in, they never design a temple into the new apartment complex.
So village temples aren't rebuilt. So the residences of the gods are as gone as the residences of the human beings. And so are what in Chinese you would call the yin residences, the yin-ji, the residences of the dead. The graves are gone.
In rural China, after all, most graves are simply in the agricultural fields. In Changzhou, which is the area I'll be talking about today, almost invariably, there's just a mound of earth in an agricultural field. Those are all gone.
The 6 million number comes from the Stanford historian Tom Mullaney, who's doing a study of displaced bodies in the last 10 years in China. That's his number. I don't know that it's a very convincing number, but it's the only number that we have. It's some huge number on this order, though.
So the graves are gone. So, if you like, ghosts have lost their houses, gods have lost their houses, people have lost their houses. So the argument-- I always like to start with the conclusion, just in case-- the argument I want to make, really, is that this, far from really damning religion, condemning religion, destroying religion, has led to a burst of religious creativity in these spaces. And that's what I want to talk about today, as well as to think about just how to understand, in a more theoretical way, what's going on.
So just a couple of pictures. One of the areas, the one I was in last summer, is on the eastern edge of Suzhou city. It's called the [CHINESE], usually just called [CHINESE] in Chinese, because I guess that sounds better than-- "an industrial park" doesn't sound as good as just "a park."
So this park area-- it's five townships. Population was something like 100,000 people-- all wiped out. Just bulldozed under, everything-- people, temples, graves, everything I just talked about-- wiped out.
This is the last little patch that hasn't been completely wiped out yet, but you can see-- they're actually not living in that building. But there are some people still living there, but not very many. And it'll be gone-- could be gone today, as far as I know, even though I was just there a few months ago.
I pulled this one off the web, so the quality is not very good. But those are graves that had been bulldozed the night before. The government came in, just wiped out the graves. People had been resisting, and they were wiped out.
And if you look online, you'll see protest after protest over this kind of thing. All in order to develop the land. So that's the kind of endangered infrastructure of life.
I would show you a wiped-out temple. They told me that the temple of the major community god in this town was still there, and some old guy took me off to see it. Empty lot. So instead of showing you a picture of an empty lot, I just showed a building that's still kind of standing.
So that's one kind of thing that I want to talk about. But there's another aspect for religion that's quite important, and that's actually the urban planners. Even in China, where we have a stereotype of the government being anti-religion, it's not really right. It's anti- a certain kind of religion.
But it's quite in favor of a different vision of what religion should be. So those village temples, those village graves where people would worship-- gone, gone, gone. The government does, in fact, have zero interest in replacing that world.
On the other hand, the kind of religion it thinks of as modern, as appropriate to a country like China, they're all for. So this, again, is in that industrial park area of Suzhou-- Protestant church. It seats 1,000 people. They fill it up twice every Sunday.
And you can just see the mammoth scale of this building, totally done with government approval, serving absolutely nobody in the local community. That is, this was built just like every other building except the shabby apartments where the people have been resettled into-- was built for high-end outside people moving into Suzhou. So the people who fill this up-- and they really do fill it up-- those people are not local people. They're all outsiders who've moved into Suzhou. Very different kinds of people than the ones who lived there initially.
So here, we usually talk about the immigrants in China as being the weak ones, the helpless ones, the screwed over ones. Here, it's actually the immigrants who are the wealthy ones, for whom this whole area was created. So that kind of site's encouraged.
These are not from newly constructed areas, but still give you an idea of the kind of religious life that the government thinks is appropriate. So these are Muslims. This is Nanjing Jinjue. This is one of the older mosques on Qurban, a major Islamic festival.
But you can just see the size of the crowd. In fact, you can't see the size of the crowd. Most of the people here are out of sight.
So there's another courtyard beyond-- I was standing in the way, way, back. There's another courtyard beyond that. Where the [CHINESE], where the imams are standing, you can't even see that, not to mention the women who are in a building behind me. So huge crowd.
This is fine with the government. It's like having 1,000 people in the Protestant church. Kind of anonymous-- so yeah, a few of these people-- they come in groups of three or four.
They know each other. But they don't form an independent social community. I think that's the idea that's OK.
One more like this. This is Suzhou-- again, not these newly constructed places, but this is Xijuan. So this is one of the major temples of Suzhou, on New Year's Eve. Now, I don't know how many people are in that picture-- 10,000?
And just like in the mosque a second ago, three or four of them standing next to each other. They know each other-- you don't really go alone on New Year's Eve to something like this. You go in small groups. But as a group, they have no social identity at all.
And that's not just this temple. Every major Buddhist temple, at least in this part of China, looks exactly like this on New Year's Eve. So that's the urban planner's image of what religion is meant to look like. Not shabby little village temples, not the spirit mediums that I'll be talking about in just a minute.
So I've been thinking of this in an ecological kind of way, and I mean it in a fairly literal sense. That is, I don't mean this as a metaphor with ecological life. I'm taking ecology in a broad sense here as complex systems, complex communities made up of groups that interact in a way that involves a lot of complexity and ability to change.
So what I'm thinking of in the social sciences above all is probably the 1920s and 1930s so-called Chicago School of urban sociology, which talked explicitly about urban ecology and used ideas from what was then the brand-new science of ecology as they were thinking about systems. And I'm partly drawing on that, but partly trying to draw on more modern ideas of how ecosystems work, rather than some of the assumptions from that 1920s ecology. And in particular, it's the idea of disturbed ecosystems that I found useful to think with for this.
So a classic example is the forest that burns down. What happens after the forest burns down? Disturbed ecosystem.
So all kinds of things change. Obviously, the trees aren't there anymore. The soil changes, because all this ash from the trees has now become part of the soil.
The light changes-- from a shady environment, now you have a very bright and open environment. All kinds of things change because of that lack. The air, in some senses, is also different.
This creates a bunch of new opportunities, and new things move in. There's a kind of classic ecology-- the early ecology was about this kind of thing. So you get new patterns, new plants that move in.
And then those plants, in turn, get replaced. That is, they change the ecosystem, again changing the soil, changing the light, changing other aspects of the environment. And that, in turn, is transformed again.
So for me, what's useful about this is the idea that rapid environmental changes aren't just a disaster. Our old functionalist anthropology way of viewing change-- we had an equilibrium, and change comes and wrecks everything. But rather, there's opportunities for certain kinds of things, even as other kinds of things become impossible. That potentials that were simply dormant before-- and I'll talk about this more in a second-- become realized because there's a new environment out there. And then I like the idea that changes like that continue to alter the environment, making further change, further transformations possible.
So I mentioned old ecology and new ecology. The biggest difference is old ecology really, in the end, saw ecosystems moving toward an equilibrium. A climax state was the usual term for that.
Most ecologists today don't do that. They really think of themselves as disequilibrium theorists. So there are forces that push towards an equilibrium, but you can't assume that that's a natural goal. And real forests, after they burn down, don't necessarily return eventually back to where they started.
So in that sense, I'm with the more modern ones. This is absolutely not meant to be an equilibrium view at all. I say this especially for the anthropologists, because the move in anthropology has often been done in a very equilibrium-based kind of a way.
So let me get to the actual cases. I have three cases that I want to talk about today with you. They're all from southern Changzhou.
So this is-- I assume this crowd more or less knows China-- but so China starts here and goes to the wall, or something like that. So we're just dealing with a bit of the east coast. Here is Shanghai, in case you need to get your bearings.
So this is the area right around Shanghai. We usually take the Yangtze River as the divider between North and South China, so we're right on the south side there. So this white is the province.
And so this area, where I've been doing research. And the examples today come from this classic Wu dialect region around Taihu, this giant lake right here. Changzhou, Changshu, and Suzhou-- those three.
So they're really-- they're quite close to each other culturally, linguistically, and physically. So driving, you can drive from here to here. It takes about an hour.
So the three cases are three different ideas that I've gotten off this idea of disturbed ecosystems. The first is that one thing that happens after forest fires is seeds that have lain in the soil dormant for years, for decades sometimes-- the fire allows them to grow, allows them to break open, and the new seedling bursts forth from the ground. Sequoias like in California-- that's a classic example of this kind of tree. The seeds fall down, they go underground, and they just sit there.
And the reason they don't sprout right away is there's no light, and they can't grow. And somehow, in the genetics of the tree, it knows that. And so it won't open-- the seed itself, the seed case won't open until a really high temperature is reached outside of it. That is, until there's a fire.
And then it cracks open. The heat cracks it open, and then the seedling can sprout. So that's the dormant seed idea. And that's not the only species. There are many species that are adapted to fire in exactly this kind of a way.
The second is a classic post-fire thing that happens is pioneer species, or weed species, settle the area. Annuals-- they grow really fast. They take advantage of all the sunlight that's available, of the soil that's now quite fertile.
And they can move fast. They reproduce really fast. So pioneer species that are able to come in-- that'll be my Changshu example about spirit mediums.
And then the third thing, the third kind of dormant power that's there that can come out is-- if we were talking about biological organisms, it would be genetic variants that are there. We all know a genome is not the same as a phenome, that what comes out physically in you is a product of your genes interacting with the environment. There's lots of potential in your genes that's never realized unless the environment really changes, and then you have these new possibilities. So these are all things that were there to begin with, but didn't really have an opportunity to grow in the same way.
So to the first case. The first case is Changzhou. Ghost City was the name of a CCTV documentary about I guess what in English we would call ghost towns. So a ghost town in English is a place that was once a real town, and now everybody's gone, and there's nothing left but empty buildings.
So ghost cities, [CHINESE], the way it's used in Chinese isn't exactly the same as that, because nobody ever lived in these. So this is when developers build a gigantic new urban settlement, and nobody moves in. [CHINESE], ghost cities. So CCTV-- this is a nationwide issue-- did this on a particularly notorious area for this kind of problem, Changzhou city. And the segment was called Ghost City.
But I don't care about that kind of ghost. I care about the other kind of ghost. I had a whole career writing about the other kind of ghost.
So remember what I said at the beginning, that the yin residences are wiped out, too, that the graves are gone, six million, not all in Changzhou, but a significant number in Changzhou.
And waterways-- if you know Chinese ghosts, a waterway is a place where ghosts typically hang out. So that at the ghost festival, you have to float lanterns down the rivers, because there's so many drowned ghosts there. Those are wiped out by this kind of urban development as well.
Now, always in China-- always-- I don't know. But for a long, long time in China, the possibility of haunting of ghosts was always there. But most of the dead, most of the time-- they're quiet. They don't bother us. Changzhou-- and remember, all those empty housing developments are crushing the dead beneath their foundations.
So this is just a single case of a single woman, Mrs. Yan. So Mrs. Yan was having a tough time. Mrs. Yan's head hurt.
Mrs. Yan was having a lot of fights with her husband. Maybe that's why her head hurt-- I don't know. Or maybe it was the other way around.
But she's feeling lousy, a lot. And so she goes to a hospital, and the hospital says, there's nothing wrong with you, and we don't do husbands. Go home. But she still feels lousy. This hasn't helped her.
So she goes to a spirit medium. And the spirit medium, Mrs. Gu, had been a factory worker. She'd spent her life as a factory worker, but suddenly, in the last few years, the spirit medium business got really good. And that's kind of the point of the story here.
The spirit medium business really took off, because a lot of people were having problems like this. And so she quit her job as a factory worker, because she could support herself just on her spirit medium earnings. So she sings the way spirit mediums in this area often do. She's possessed, and she sings with the spirit of this [CHINESE], this divinity.
And the first thing that the god says is, so where do you live? And Mrs. Yan says, well, I live in this new building, blah, blah, blah. And the god is like, ugh, it's so obvious!
Why are you even asking? You know what's wrong. There's some spirit underneath the building that's really unhappy and is haunting you.
And so she goes on actually to diagnose it. She's able to figure out that the spirit is a ghost of a woman who had been murdered by the Japanese. And, as you may know, the Japanese occupation in this part of China was particularly brutal. We're very close to the provincial capital of Nanjing, where the famous massacre was.
So at this point, we're ready for a new specialist, another woman, Mrs. Chun. Mrs. Chun knows how to do the exorcism ritual to get rid of this problem. So Mrs. Chun says, here is what you have to do. You have to buy this paper money, the way you burn for spirits in China, paper clothing-- which is just paper with clothing printed on it-- and get in bed and turn off all the lights, but leave the door open.
So late at night, Mrs. Yan's in bed. Mrs. Chun comes in with a knife. And Mrs. Chun walks up to the bed, and she pounds on the bed with a knife, hard. And then she's got the money. It's like carrot and stick, right?
You come with me, I've got a present for you. You don't come with me, I kill you. And that was it. So then the spirit follows her out.
That's how, in China, almost all these exorcisms work. Spirit follows her out. They go to a crossroad.
It's always a crossroad. She burns this paper money and paper clothing for the spirit. Problem solved.
So this is an old story. Those of you who know these kinds of things-- you've heard stories like this before. What's new is the epidemic nature of the story. That there's so much of this-- that's what's new, that's what's changed here.
So here we have these dead rising from their graves. Anonymous dead, in this case. This is not somebody anybody remembered. It's not the boy who, 30 years ago, drowned in the village pond that people remember.
This is anonymous dead who didn't bother anybody. So she was killed in-- who knows, 1940? So 70 years go by. She didn't bother anybody. And now, suddenly, because she's been crushed by this building, she's back. And so are many, many, many other ghosts just like her.
So this, like the buried seeds-- or there's a different theoretical turn you could make about a return of the repressed, a more Freudian turn, which I don't think would be a bad way of trying to approach this, either. But I'm trying to play with a different thing here today. That's the first case-- the sequoia seed, the dead rising, in a sense, from their destroyed tombs.
And the second one-- now we're moving to Changshu. This is Tan Hongchun. Tan Hongchun is a spirit medium on a huge scale. So this area always had spirit mediums, like most of China, or maybe all of China.
This guy operated on a scale bigger than any that I'd seen before. So he was what they locally call a [CHINESE], an incense head, an incense leader. Incense leaders in this part of China do one or more of three different functions.
One is serve as spirit mediums. They cure by being possessed. One is they organize rituals for you.
So if you need a funeral done at home, something like that, they'll hire the Taoists. They'll hire the sutra singers. They'll hire the musicians. Whatever you need, they'll arrange it for you.
And the third thing they do is lead pilgrimages. Some of them do all three. Tan does all three of those functions. Some of them only do one or two of those functions. He does all three.
But again, it's the scale that's different here. He does it on a huge scale and in a way that he says is all new. It's all a creation. So it's in this sense.
So I asked him, is this something your father did, or your mother? No. Is this something where you have a teacher? No.
So how do you know how to do it? He had visions of the Buddha, starting from when he was a teenager when he was sick all the time-- again, a very typical story there. He had visions all the time, and the Buddha taught him how to do it.
So a denial of any kind of formal institution of passing along the skill set. Everything's created anew. So you can imagine, if every spirit medium feels like this, every spirit medium is empowered to make up the system from scratch. This may have to do with an earlier disturbed ecosystem, the one of the Cultural Revolution, that cut off the mechanisms that existed to train spirit mediums.
And he's huge. A constant stream of people coming into his temple, where he's sitting right there. He has a network of people affiliated with him. So when a medium like him has cured you, sometimes you also get the ability to cure.
But unlike other cases, where those people usually just then set themselves up as their own spirit medium, he has a network of people who have a formal master-disciple relationship, teacher-student relationship with him, dozens of people. So really, a huge number. I've never seen anything quite like that anywhere else.
This same way, his network of ritual specialists he calls on to organize rituals-- very, very large. And when he leaves a pilgrimage, there are hundreds of people. So he'll have a whole caravan of hired tour buses to go on a pilgrimage someplace. So the scale is just really big.
I would just add that my impression is, regionally, there's been a big increase in spirit mediums. The ones I was working within Suzhou over the summer-- when I asked them, has there been an increase or decrease, they all said, there's two periods in their lifetimes when the numbers of spirit mediums really increased. The first one was the Cultural Revolution. The second one was the last 10 years.
Why? Because in both cases, the temples were destroyed. And they said, the gods have no house. They have no place to go. So they have to take our bodies.
So it's unexpected. The Culture Revolution was a horrible time to be a spirit medium, and it was horrible for the spirit mediums. But they all said, I didn't want to do it.
But I had to do it. The god made me do it. So there's been a huge increase in mediums. So I think not just so that he is an extreme in what he's doing, but the whole area has really shown this kind of phenomenon.
Just a picture of-- this is his altar in his temple. I'll show you his temple in a second. But that's the altar. It's Shakyamuni Buddha as the main deity on the altar. It's kind of a simple altar.
This is one of his disciple's altars. Maitreya is her god. That's actually Tan Hongchun. That llama-looking fellow-- that's Tan Hongchun dressed as a llama.
That's his temple. Well, that's his house. You can see that the spirit medium businesses is not bad, right? That's quite a house.
This is very typical of this disturbed ecosystem. This was a rural area 10 years earlier. But if you had money, you got houses like this. So it's a whole row of houses a lot like this one.
And inside, it's all marble. It's really high-level stuff. That's the temple-- that garage, that's the temple.
So he's got money, he's got followers, he's got everything. What does he have a stupid garage temple? So there's a story there.
He had-- still, in that garage, he had had a much more elaborate setup inside with dozens of deities in there. Sort of like a supermarket of deities-- whatever is wrong with you, I've got the god for you. He was that kind of spirit medium.
And then, as he told the story, an enemy turned him into the police. Now, I don't know what the enemy was, exactly, but this guy was a big operator. He dealt with gangsters. He dealt with the police.
So these police who came over-- they were his friends. So they came over, and they said, you've been accused of doing feudal superstition. This isn't legal.
And they said, we're really sorry that we have to come over, but there's been a formal complaint. We don't have any choice. We're the police.
And he said, yeah, I'm really sorry. And they said, so listen-- just scale it back. Don't operate on such a big scale. Get rid of all these gods.
There's too many. Just have a simple altar. We can say it's a household altar.
So his business didn't decrease at all, but he simplified the altar. So then I said, so what happened to those other dozens of gods? And he said oh, they're in my new temple.
What? Your new temple? So his new temple turned out to be this [CHINESE] place.
A brand-new temple, cost $30 million US dollars to build. Straight Buddhist. The name looks Taoist. I know-- there's a reason for that, which I won't tell you.
But a straight Buddhist temple with monks, Buddhist association. Just straight up, government-approved Buddhist temple. The cost of the construction was covered by the Buddhists themselves, but the land was contributed by the government. So again, you can see the state is actually there.
So I go to this temple, and his images are in this back room. There's all these other images. And I asked the abbot-- I said, you know this guy Tan Hongchun, right? He said, yeah, we're friends.
And I said, you know what he does, right? He said, yeah, he does his thing. I do my thing. There's not really a problem.
So what do you mean, there's not really a problem? Buddhists in China are really quick to start criticizing. They led the attack on Falun Gong. They're really quick to attack.
So what did that mean? What I'm pretty sure it means is if Tan Hongchun and other local incense leaders didn't take their followers to this temple, nobody would go to this temple. Temples rely on these incense leaders, because incense leaders organize every kind of ritual activity. So there's this unexpected symbiosis between these urban planning kind of temples-- I don't have a photo of the other one-- and these guys. These frontier species who spread-- these spirit mediums who have spread like weeds, or, at least, from a certain point of view, like weeds, and the political environment that surrounds them-- there's an adaptation there that's somewhat unexpected.
The third case is this Suzhou Industrial Park area, the eastern side of Suzhou. So they tore down dozens of villages, resettled all of the villagers in these identical housing complexes. And I don't really know how many temples were destroyed. Some people said 50, some people said 100. My guess is at least 100.
One person told me they had buried 1,500 images of gods. So that gives you some idea of the scale. And these were very small temples that didn't have many gods in them.
However, they did something clever. So you may know in other parts of China, when there is this massive urban expansion and displacement of local people, when there's protests against it, temples are often an organizing node for those protests. So they did something I thought was really clever.
They said, well, local people, we're so sorry we have to tear down your temples and your houses. But because we respect your beliefs and your local culture, we're going to build new temples-- really nice, big temples with Taoists in them, Taoists who know how to pray to your gods way better than you know how to pray to your gods. It's going to be really good.
And we're going to carve new images. They're going to be prettier and bigger. And they did.
So they planned five of these temples. So far, they've built two. And this is the one that I was mostly hanging out in. So they did this. They created these temples that house all the local deities.
So that's kind of what they look like. Creating order is what the Taoists in charge were intending to do. So they recarved all of the images.
The head of it was really proud of what they had done. He said, we've rationalized everything. [CHINESE]. He just kept saying, [CHINESE] over, and over, and over. We've rationalized everything. It's really good.
So they recarved all the images so they weren't those little, dingy, crummy, primitive-looking images. They're all pretty. They're all the same size. They all have name plates on them.
So he's really proud of figuring out the names of all these deities. As, if you know Chinese religion, you know that people don't always know the name of their local deity. In fact, they often don't know the name.
So he'd figured all this out, and he'd rationalized it. So he'd say, the big god in this one township was somebody called [CHINESE]. You don't know him because he's really only worshiped in this one place. But a number of villages had temples to this guy. So they built this temple, and each of those villages goes and says, you have to put [CHINESE] in there.
And the Taoist says no, are these people are stupid or what? There's only one god, there's only one image. He put his foot down about how this was going to work. So that was part of his rationalization, too.
This is actually a basement area. So one problem they ran into was some of the deities in these little village temples were obviously Buddhist deities. And the Taoists just couldn't bring themselves to put the Buddhist deities in respectable places of honor. But they had a duty to the urban planners, I think, to house all the gods.
So in the basement, they did for the Buddhists what they had done for the non-Buddhist deities upstairs. So they're all lined up. It just gives you an idea. There's one, there's one.
This is actually the main central altar. It's a reclining Buddha. I know you can't really see the image there. And then there's more, and more, and more, all around. So that was the image of the people who made the temple-- the urban planners plus the Taoist association.
On the other hand, there were some unexpected developments. One of them was cigarettes. So this is the entrance to the temple on-- it was the lunar 1st or lunar 15th, important worship days.
These old ladies went out there everyday. But you can see they're dressed up in their traditional old lady clothes, the very regional kind of dress, with a huge pile of cigarettes. That's for people to worship with.
And those were water pipes that used to be used for smoking tobacco. Not cigarettes, but they're being used as cigarette stands so that you can stand up your burning cigarette as if it were a stick of incense on the altar. And you can take one of those to use as a cigarette stand, And Then the old ladies come and collect them and lend them to the next person who wants them.
And here, you can just see some-- I don't know how well you can see, but cigarettes standing on end, one after another. And I have just-- I don't know-- dozens of photographs of different deities and piles of cigarettes. So here's something new. We asked them-- Keping, my co-author and I, asked these ladies, when did you start worshipping with cigarettes? And I wrote something about cigarettes being used to worship in Taiwan, so I was really interested in it.
And they said, what? We've always done this. What do you mean?
We're Chinese. We've done this since the Han dynasty. Yeah, well, they haven't done it since the Han dynasty!
And then there's that. So it turned out-- so we're in the temple, the very first time-- this was three years ago. I'm in this temple, and there's a lot of people in one room in the temple. And I said to this chief Taoist, what's in there?
And he said, oh, you don't want to go in there. [CHINESE] We haven't put it in order yet.
He said, don't go in there. So we had to go in there, right? Had to go in there.
And here's these deities in eyeglasses. And they're not carved on. They're just eyeglasses from the store that somebody stuck on their heads.
And at that time, I didn't know what was going on. But when I went back this last summer, I had a much closer relationship by this point with a lot of these people and the spirit mediums. A spirit medium-- or a god had said through a spirit medium, everything's blurry. We need some glasses. Bring us glasses.
And in fact, last summer, they weren't wearing glasses. Different spirit medium, different god-- what's these stupid glasses? We don't need glasses. We're gods.
What are you doing? Take them off. So they take them off.
So that's part of this creativity that I'm talking about. But the very fact that this room exists-- what is this room? What do you mean, an unrationalized room? What is that?
And again, three years ago, I didn't really understand it. This is just another one. But it turns out, there are about a dozen places like this. Each one of these is an altar of one of these incense leaders. Each one of them is the private altar of a [CHINESE].
This guy had lots of money. He was a big one, locally. He didn't get possessed-- not a medium, but he's the kind who organizes people.
And he organized them to get money. So he got all these fancy recarved images just like the ones in the main part of the temple. These are just the local village ones. Again, what we see is this very urban planning, Taoist association temple that's been forced to compromise with local incense leaders in order to get bodies coming into the temple. So it's created a new life for this village religion in these places, a really lively life.
So the line on the previous slide about the yin world being in chaos, [CHINESE], is something one of the spirit mediums said in an interview to me. And then I liked it so much-- the yin world is in chaos-- I liked it so much I asked all the other spirit mediums if, in fact, the yin world was in chaos. And because they're all getting it directly from their gods, they don't all have the same opinion. But most of them said yes. A few of them said, well, it used to be, and now it's a little better than it was before.
So what did they mean by that? I think a bunch of stuff that I don't have time to talk about too much, but this is one. So we're actually in the same room that I showed you before with the Buddhas in it. The lying down Buddha is just off-screen, behind these ladies.
So this was Quan Yin's birthday. It was very busy in the temple. They had a professional sutra singing group that was trying to use the altar space right in front of that reclining Buddha when this lady gets possessed. So she is possessed here. If anybody really wants to see it, I have video of this that I can show you later.
She's possessed by Rulai Tathagata, which, to them, is the name of a Buddha. If you're like all Buddhist studiesy, you'll say that's wrong. But who cares. It's not wrong. It's what they say.
It's the name of a Buddha. It's the name of that Buddha, the guy who's lying down back there. He's possessed her.
And what's he saying? She's saying, he's saying-- whatever it is. He says, I'm the Buddha.
What am I doing in this crappy basement? I don't belong in the basement. I'm so much more important than those guys who are those little stupid Earth gods who are up in altars upstairs and in the front of the temple. I demand to be moved.
So what is that? That's another kind of chaos, when the yin world is in chaos. What happens when you take all the village temples and stick them in one temple?
Well, it's a Chinese space. It's hierarchical. The altar in the center is higher than the ones on the side. The ones on the yang side are higher than the ones on the yin side.
The ones upstairs obviously are higher than the ones downstairs, and so on. Suddenly, all of these villagers are competing with each other for space in the temple. And this is just an example of that kind of competition that didn't even exist before.
So the Suzhou case shows how these possibilities can open up. So this is the one I'm taking as possibilities that were always there. Again, this would look familiar, but slightly weird, to people who know this kind of religion.
I think partly, the spirit mediums have been empowered exactly by the destruction of the temples-- or not by the temple so much as by the management committees that control those temples. So the things that kept spirit mediums under control before have been much weakened by this particular change. And then again, just like in the Changzhou temple, the Taoists-- there, it was Buddhists, here, it's Taoists-- but they need these guys. They need these guys. So that's further empowered them, where you get this symbiosis between a lived religion and a planned religion.
So these possibilities were always there. Cigarettes, we have documented in the literature. Taiwanese ghosts is the one I'd written about. Adam Chau's book has a case of cigarettes being offered for Chairman Mao. Other forms of votive offerings-- you can see that.
So the point is, this new environment really allowed these things to pop up, so that as one Taiwanese anthropologist who saw these slides said, well, it's all absurd. It's like a clown version of what she studies. So that was her point, that I kind of recognize everything, but it's all out of proportion somehow. Something weird happened.
So just a few concluding thoughts about this. First, other religions, things that are officially recognized as religion in China-- there's something similar, but not identical. So while I haven't talked about it today, it's not just this urban expansion in China, but constant urban churning-- urban renewal, I guess we would call it. But whether it's renewed is an open question. But urban churning, so that neighborhoods are constantly destroyed.
In Nanjing, I found a 1983 list of all the Buddhist temples in Nanjing with addresses. So a friend of mine had all her students go out and try to find the temples. And they came back-- they didn't find a single temple, which wasn't that surprising. They couldn't even find the streets that the temples were on.
That's the point. The neighborhoods themselves were gone, totally gone. So that you can see even though there's things that already were urban, there's kind of the same effect. So place-based religion is really much weakened when you do something like that, when you destroy all those temples.
And the same is true of mosques. Mosques in Nanjing-- Nanjing had a very large [CHINESE] community with neighborhood-based mosques. And they're basically all gone. There are only three now. And so all of this population is concentrated into those three.
This is Hangzhou, a different province, but same cultural region. The new mosque-- that's actually an architect's rendering, but it's actually constructed now. Huge, just really, really huge, on the outskirts of the city.
Again, it's that same, let's build a mega religion and get rid of these little social groups. On the other hand, it doesn't entirely work, just like we saw in the spirit medium cases. So a lot of Muslim worship is not happening in mosques now in China, even in this eastern part of China. It's happening in back rooms of halal restaurants, things like that.
Christians, too-- something very similar. Neighborhood churches get destroyed in this process of urban change. Well, house churches don't always get destroyed, but they're being pressured, at least right now. But this kind of thing-- totally done with government blessing. So just to say there's another kind of disturbed environment, but not totally different with some kind of similar religious results.
So I ran into this ecological idea I thought was helpful, and that's this hypothesis of intermediate disturbance. So there's an idea that's been out there. It was popularized in the late '70s.
That it's areas where there's some disturbance, but not too much, tend to create the largest amount of diversity. So again, think of after the forest fire there, and you get-- annuals take over, and then you get perennials, and then you get shrubs, and smaller trees. And then finally you get what's supposed to be the climax state-- takes 200 years.
But what if there's another fire? What if there's a fire every 70, 80 years? You get stuck someplace-- not stuck, but you keep coming back to this. The argument there is if you have constant disturbance-- if it burns down every year, you're not going to have much diversity here.
If you have almost no disturbance, you're not going to have as much diversity either, because these few dominant species are able to take over-- the best adapted species. When you have-- so what does intermediate disturbance mean, exactly? That's a critical question. But whatever it is-- someplace in the middle encourages the most diversity.
Now ecologists, I think, think this thing is too simple, but not totally wrong, either. And I find it especially helpful for this region. One of the things that makes religion in this region a bit different from other parts of China is they have a constant history of destruction of temples. In fact, I think really, this could probably go back to the Ming dynasty, but certainly early Ching, Kangxi period. As those of you who know the history, there was this big, famous destruction of [CHINESE], obscene temples, under Kangxi.
That's this area. That's exactly this area, and exactly deities that are still important in this area. The Taiping Rebellion-- their capital was Nanjing. So this area was hit very, very hard by the Taiping Rebellion. They wiped out temples wherever they went.
Republican area. Capital was Nanjing. But if you live near Nanjing, you really don't want the capital to be there, I think. Republican area had all these temple conversions-- convert them to office buildings, convert them to schools, whatever. Again, hit this area very, very hard.
Japanese, hard. And then you've got the PRC stuff that we normally think about. That is, I think we have a situation where there's just an adaptation at this point to temple destruction. And it helps these kinds of spirit medium worlds who are able to continue aspects of their tradition without going on-- without having to have the temples there or rebuilding them every few years.
So here, just as a summary slide, we have this periodically disturbed world where these kinds of ecological processes happen. A rise from dormancy, the flooding in of pioneer species that may not last over the long term, genetic variants that hadn't been realized in the past. This new symbiosis between planned and lived religion comes out here.
This is just a speculation, because I haven't really looked at other parts of China, but it's interesting that there are basically no Protestants in this community. None. That's kind of unusual for China.
And my guess is, so Protestants are a kind of frontier species too, right? Able to move into a disturbed environment. And we do have studies suggesting that it's where the state has been harshest on all religion, the Protestants have done the best.
And this is kind of the opposite, where there's already an adaptation to having temples destroyed. People can deal with it. And so the Protestantism comes in-- not going to have so much appeal to them.
And I just would stress again-- it's not an equilibrium view. I don't think there's a climax ecosystem. I don't think spirit mediums take over the world. Though it would be an interesting world.
On the other hand-- so I don't think it's going back to the old pattern. But I don't think it's going back to the urban planner idea, or going to the urban planner idea of mega religions, either. For now, I would just conclude that it's a creative zone, it's in continued flux, and it's still exactly in that constant change period of the ecosystem. So let me stop right there and take questions.
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Robert Weller, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, details the impacts of rapid urbanization on local religious practices and sites of worship in China. Recorded October 17, 2016 as part of East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative.