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91 Economies of Ghosts, Gods, and Goods: The History and Anthropology of Chinese Temple Networks Michael Puett Stanley Tambiah’s work in linking history and anthropology for the study of Thailand and Sri Lanka has been a constant inspiration for my own attempts to do something of the same for the study of China. In particular, I have been inspired by Tambiah’s studies of the interrelations of religious, political, and economic anthropology in ways that force us to rethink our old distinctions between tradition and modernity. What I will be focusing on in this piece is the history and current workings of temple networks in China. These networks once spread throughout China and Southeast Asia, ran much of local society in China,and played a crucial role in the development of the huge maritime economy in Asia that developed over the several centuries before European colonization. And, right now, the networks are emerging again. The study of these networks opens up several issues in the history and anthropology of China. To explain why this might be of interest,allow me to sketch a widely accepted narrative of recent history in China—a narrative with which I will take issue in this paper. F5920.indb 91 F5920.indb 91 12/17/12 3:00:40 PM 12/17/12 3:00:40 PM 92 Michael Puett Traditions of Modernity It is often—and I will argue mistakenly—asserted that the connections between early and contemporary China should be explored in terms of a basic distinction of tradition and modernity. According to such a view, traditional China should be characterized as having maintained an assumption of harmonious monism— in other words, as having seen human beings as part of a cosmos in which everything was linked by chains of inherent correlation, and in which humans and the natural world were in harmony. Such a cosmological vision of harmonious monism was part and parcel, the story goes, of a traditional agricultural world based upon harmonizing with the shift of the seasons,themselves read as the natural movement of the larger cosmos. This traditional world was also a lineagebased system, in which the living were, as the saying goes, “under the ancestors’ shadow.”1 Modernity, under such a paradigm, would be defined as the breakdown of this assumption of a harmonious, correlative universe and the emergence—for better or for worse—of a humanistic ethos,a freemarket economy, and an entrance into a global economy. Things as different as environmental degradation, capitalism, and individualism are often attributed to this shift to modernity. Such a modernity argument still underlies a surprisingly large body of social scientific theory. I disagree strongly with this paradigm on several grounds, but let me begin with an empirical disagreement.As I have argued elsewhere (Puett 2001 and 2002),there was no assumption of a harmonious, correlative cosmos in pre-twentieth-century China. Such a claim arose during the past two centuries as a means of distinguishing China from either the “West,” or “modernity,” or both. There are certainly texts one could point to from pre-twentieth-century China that argue that the cosmos is harmonious, but these were always claims made against contrary positions, and were never assumptions. In conceptualizing, therefore, the complex ways that past practices —be they ancestral rituals or temple networks—are currently reemerging and being appropriated in contemporary China,we need to begin with a different vision of what these earlier practices were, and we need to have a better understanding of the historical appropriation and utilization of the practices throughout subsequent history. F5920.indb 92 F5920.indb 92 12/17/12 3:00:40 PM 12/17/12 3:00:40 PM The History and Anthropology of Chinese Temple Networks 93 Domesticating Ghosts, Creating Gods To sketch an alternate view, let me begin with a seemingly odd place: ghosts. Ghosts (gui)—often, and equally accurately, translated as “demons”—are pervasive in China.2 The landscape in China, from as far back as our written sources go, is a haunted one,a world filled with ghosts. In fact, ghosts are the natural result of every death: when someone dies, their energies are released and form highly dangerous ghosts, often seething in resentment at those still alive. Their fury is often directed particularly at their close relatives, and to a somewhat lesser extent at others with whom they had associations—those they knew while alive, or those involved in professions similar to...


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