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  • Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China.
  • David A. Palmer (bio)
Adam Yuet Chau Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006xviii, 317 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 0-8047-5160-9.

More than an ethnographic case study on the revival of a local temple cult in Northern China, Miraculous Response is an intellectually stimulating engagement with the anthropological approach to Chinese local society, politics, and religion. Through his description of the Longwanggou temple complex in Northern Shaanxi, its boss, its networks with political actors and local communities, and its festivals, what Chau unpacks is not so much an exclusively "religious" world of gods and rituals, but a dense nexus of social and political relationships that are enacted through the cultural resources of the temple.

Shaanbei can be contrasted with coastal southeast China, the popular religion of which has been most researched in two ways: first, the relative simplicity of rituals and virtual absence of ritual specialists such as Taoist priests; second, the absence of economic prosperity and ties to overseas Chinese has been no impediment to a revival in popular religion that seems to be comparable in scope and influence to what has been observed in parts of Fujian and Zhejiang, for example.

After presenting the reader with an overview of the history, society, culture, and religion of the area, each subsequent chapter treats the reader with a new concept to understand familiar themes of popular religion from a new angle. In chapter 4, Chau describes the "communal hegemony" achieved by villagers' mandatory (though not exclusive) worship of village deities, enforced through gossip of divine retribution against nonparticipants and dissenters. He then proposes a typology of five modalities of "doing" Chinese religion: the "discursive/scriptural", the "personal-cultivational," the "liturgical/ritual," the "immediate-practical," and the "relational" (p. 75).

In chapter 5, the author proposes to understand the multiplicity of textual inscriptions to be found at the temple-the steles, plaques, couplets, cliff inscriptions, poems, and so on-not in terms of content or form, as has been privileged by most scholars, but as "text acts" that assume a "fetishistic power" not through the meaning or beauty they convey, but through their "sheer presence," which is felt by an audience that rarely stops to read them, but nonetheless produces effects of awe, submission, recognition, or legitimation (p. 97).

Chapter 7 compares funerals and temple fairs in order to propose that both types of activity can be seen as "event productions" that have two aspects: a ritual-procedural or liturgical aspect, and a hosting or guest-catering aspect. Until now, most scholars have focused their analytical gaze on the liturgical aspect, with its specialists in esoteric knowledge, while neglecting the guest-catering aspect, [End Page 387] which Chau argues is actually more important to the hosts of these events, in terms of maintaining relations with both the deceased/gods and with community members. The skills and organizational procedures involved in organizing a "religious" event production are basically the same as those used in "secular" life: "volunteerism based on principles of reciprocal labor assistance, division of tasks among helpers and specialists, and the symbolic weight put on the importance of being a good host" (p. 40), as well as "a combination of paternalism and folk democracy, and a system of informal networking and contracting (e.g., the hiring of specialists) (p. 143). Chau concludes by arguing that the resilience of popular religion in the face of persecution (by the state or by orthodox religions) lies in this fact, in its "intrinsic socially-embedded nature" (p. 61), according to which most of the organization of ritual events does not require specific religious skills (for which specialists are hired).

The next chapter proposes to look at ritual through the notion of "red-hot sociality," drawing our attention to the affective and social product of the "hot and noisy" (renao) or "red and fiery" (honghuo in local speech) co-presence of large crowds of worshipers at festivals, who share the same space and feel each other's presence, but may not otherwise have any pre-existing social relationships or meaningful interactions. Focusing on the strong...


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pp. 387-389
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