- Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society
As the title of this book implies, the "gods, ghosts, and ancestors" approach typical of many anthropological studies of Chinese religion is for Avron Boretz a point of departure. His book situates Chinese popular religion in the context of gangster culture in Taiwan and southwestern China. In this rich ethnographic study, the author explores the relationships between the underworld culture of the "rivers and lakes" (jianghu) and folk religion, martial arts, and masculinity.
Bortez received his doctorate in anthropology from Cornell University and is currently program director of the United Board in Hong Kong. This book is the result of his extensive fieldwork as both observer and participant, spanning the 1980s and 1990s, in Taidong, Taiwan, and in Yunnan, China. Building on the previous studies by J. J. M. de Groot, Barend ter Haar, Stephan Feuchtwang, Donald Sutton, Meir Shahar, Kam Louie, and others, the author makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussions on popular religion, the underground culture and society, and masculinity in China.1 For Boretz, martial arts are at the center of Chinese popular culture and folk religion. As he argues throughout his book, without an understanding of the history and culture of martial arts, our knowledge of Chinese society, culture, and religion would remain incomplete.
Despite the fact that popular religion has been continuously vilified by Chinese authorities as superstition and heterodoxy, it has never been eradicated and [End Page 212] remains today as strong as ever in many parts of China and Taiwan. What has most irked successive governments is the penchant for both real and symbolic violence that characterizes many of the rituals and celebrations associated with popular religion. Indeed, as Boretz and others have pointed out, ritualized violence and violent rituals are central features of past and present Chinese folk religion. He gives the examples of the Blasting Handan Ye Festival in Taidong and the Torch Festival in Dali, both well known for their displays of violence and bloodshed. For a number of years in the 1980s, the former festival was banned in Taiwan because of its association with hooliganism and gang fights. During the Cultural Revolution, the latter was outlawed along with other religious activities. In recent years, however, both festivals have made comebacks, despite the hooliganism and violence that is still closely associated with them. Following up on Helen Siu's work on the Pearl River Delta,2 Boretz agrees that the resurgence of folk religion in the People's Republic of China (PRC) should not be considered as simply revival because the old society and power structures that had previously given meaning to the rituals have disappeared. Today, in light of the global commercial culture and tourism, the festivals in both Yunnan and Taiwan have taken on new meanings.Nonetheless, as in the past, both festivals are important markers of community self-identity, as well as newly imposed identities from outsiders. Now such festivals are emblematic of local color and authenticity.
Both festivals are associated with the values of what Boretz calls the gangster subculture and identity. This association, however, is most obvious with the Blasting Handan Ye Festival, whose main sponsors and participants are members of the nefarious world of the "rivers and lakes" (jianghu), that underworld of gangsters, vagabonds, con artists, gamblers, drug dealers, and prostitutes. In chapter 5, what the author calls the "ethnographic pivot of the book," Boretz analyzes the martial ritual performance troupes—the Military Retainers (jiajiang)—and spirit mediums (jitong, or in Taiwanese, tangki), who represent the dark side of popular religion because of their flamboyant displays of blood spectacles. These ritual performers are composed mostly of marginal, lower-class male youths and young adults, who are gang members and martial arts enthusiasts. Theirs is an unconventional masculine culture of violence, anxiety, and risk taking...