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Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters

Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society

Avron Boretz

Publication Year: 2011

Demon warrior puppets, sword-wielding Taoist priests, spirit mediums lacerating their bodies with spikes and blades—these are among the most dramatic images in Chinese religion. Usually linked to the propitiation of plague gods and the worship of popular military deities, such ritual practices have an obvious but previously unexamined kinship with the traditional Chinese martial arts. The long and durable history of martial arts iconography and ritual in Chinese religion suggests something far deeper than mere historical coincidence. Avron Boretz argues that martial arts gestures and movements are so deeply embedded in the ritual repertoire in part because they iconify masculine qualities of violence, aggressivity, and physical prowess, the implicit core of Chinese patriliny and patriarchy. At the same time, for actors and audience alike, martial arts gestures evoke the mythos of the jianghu, a shadowy, often violent realm of vagabonds, outlaws, and masters of martial and magic arts. Through the direct bodily practice of martial arts movement and creative rendering of jianghu narratives, martial ritual practitioners are able to identify and represent themselves, however briefly and incompletely, as men of prowess, a reward otherwise denied those confined to the lower limits of this deeply patriarchal society. Based on fieldwork in China and Taiwan spanning nearly two decades, Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters offers a thorough and original account of violent ritual and ritual violence in Chinese religion and society. Close-up, sensitive portrayals and the voices of ritual actors themselves—mostly working-class men, many of them members of sworn brotherhoods and gangs—convincingly link martial ritual practice to the lives and desires of men on the margins of Chinese society. This work is a significant contribution to the study of Chinese ritual and religion, the history and sociology of Chinese underworld, the history and anthropology of the martial arts, and the anthropology of masculinity.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. v


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pp. vii-viii

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Note on Translation and Use of Foreign Terms

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p. ix

Fieldwork involved the use of several languages and dialects, including Standard Chinese, Southwestern Mandarin, Taiwanese Holo, and Bai. For Standard Chinese, I use the pinyin system of romanization, except for persons and places whose customary (non-pinyin) spelling is already familiar to most readers (for example, “Taipei” and “Chiang Kai-shek”). ...

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Chapter 1: Introduction

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pp. 1-20

I am a student of the Chinese martial arts. Beyond practice, however, I have always been fascinated by martial arts culture and history. I first followed that fascination by reading every book and article I could track down on the martial arts. I borrowed an old copy of the out-of-print Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing by Robert W. Smith from my...

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Chapter 2: Violence, Honor, and Manhood

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pp. 21-57

Walk into any shrine or temple just about anywhere in China and you will be presented with a tableau that differs little from place to place.1 If a devotee of Chinese popular religion from the mountains of Yun-nan happened to venture into a typical Taiwanese temple, he would immediately recognize its purpose and, once he got past a few obvious ...

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Chapter 3: Taidong: The Mountains and Beyond

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pp. 58-86

The renovation of a local temple in late imperial China was an event that brought officials, local gentry, and commoners together in common cause. Stone steles, inscribed with a testimonial written by a well-placed patron, were often erected to commemorate temple renovations. The act affirmed the position of the...

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Chapter 4: Fire and Fury

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pp. 87-114

The walled prefectural city of Dali, in western Yunnan Province, rests in a valley, strategically equidistant from mountains and water. Like Taidong, it sits on an active fault zone. Like Taidong, a massive, sheer mountain barrier rises up from the valley, and lower, but equally rugged, peaks protect and isolate it on the north and...

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Chapter 5: Tales from the Jianghu

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pp. 115-175

The Taidong Lantern Festival procession winds a tightening spiral through the city’s Japanese-era grid of downtown streets and alleys. The center of the spiral, the procession’s endpoint, is the courtyard of the city’s oldest and largest temple, the Tianhou Gong. As the gods and their retinues arrive, they are ushered, two by two, into the spacious courtyard to pay obeisance to the temple’s...

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Chapter 6: Wine, Women, and Song

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pp. 176-203

For most men in Chinese society, joining friends and associates for a night on the town can be as much obligation as indulgence. Both senses are captured in the two phrases most often used to describe such socializing: yingchou, “reciprocal entertainment,” and he jiu...

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Chapter 7 Conclusion: Faces of the Gods

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pp. 204-211

“Young men should not study the Water Margin; old men should not read the Three Kingdoms” (Shao bu du Shuihu, lao bu kan Sanguo) . Reflecting on this aphorism, kung-fu master and raconteur Cheng Jiamiao explained that from these two great Chinese classical vernacular novels, and in their effects on men at different stages of life, one can discern the trajectory of a man’s life. Since young men are naturally hot-tempered...


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pp. 213-246


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pp. 247-254


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pp. 255-268


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pp. 269-273

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860714
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824833770

Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794925341
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters

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Subject Headings

  • Martial arts -- Taiwan -- Religious aspects.
  • Violence -- China -- Religious aspects.
  • Violence -- Taiwan -- Religious aspects.
  • Masculinity -- China.
  • Masculinity -- Taiwan.
  • Martial arts -- China -- Religious aspects.
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