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Reviewed by:
  • De Jiao: A Religious Movement in Contemporary China: Purple “qi” from the East, and: Spectacle and Sacrifice: The Ritual Foundations of Village Life in Northern China
  • Yves Menheere (bio)
Bernard Formoso. De Jiao: A Religious Movement in Contemporary China: Purple “qi” from the East. Singapore: NUS Press, 2010. xvii, 259 pp. Paperback $32.00, ISBN 978-9-9716-9492-0.
David Johnson. Spectacle and Sacrifice: The Ritual Foundations of Village Life in Northern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. xiv, 390 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-6740-3304-7.

Questions of unity and diversity have a long history in the study of Chinese religion and society. In the 1970s and 1980s, the variety in things labeled “Chinese religion” gave rise to a debate whether something called Chinese religion existed or not, whether behind the variation there was an order of some sort. Ritual diversity is one of the themes of David Johnson’s recent Spectacle and Sacrifice: The Ritual Foundation of Village Life in Northern China. Why were rituals held on the same occasion in “villages literally within shouting distance of each other” (Johnson, pp. 10–11) so diverse? Ritual, according to Johnson, was of the utmost importance, as “Chinese culture was a perfomance culture” and ritual was the “highest form of action or performance.” Chinese philosophers had for a long time been “more concerned with how people should act, and what counted as good actions, than with using logic to prove propositions” (Johnson, p. 8). This recalls James Watson’s argument that “performance took precedence over belief ” and that “it mattered little what one believed . . . as long as the rites were performed properly” (Watson 1988, p. 4).

Whereas Watson was speaking of funerary rites, Johnson focuses on communal rituals, carried out by individual villages or by rituals units of villages called she. These rituals are defined by Johnson as “scripted performances through which villagers interacted with the Powers . . . that they believed had a certain degree of control over their fates” (Johnson, pp. 1–2). He makes a further distinction between offerings and exorcisms, and between seasonal and liturgical rituals.

Johnson first discusses seasonal rituals that were carried out around the Yuanxiao festival in four different villages in Shanxi and Hebei. The rituals, all described in great detail, do show important variations — the rituals themselves, the people participating and the role they take — what Johnson calls the “intensity” of the rituals. He argues that the differences between the villages are larger than should be expected on the basis of the geographical distance between the villages. To account for the variation, Johnson introduces the notion of “village ritual autarky” (Johnson, p. 140). Ritual creativity was the result of the relative isolation of northern Chinese villages. The fact that food offerings were not an important part of the Yuanxiao festival made sure that there was no need for a “liturgical structure in which the sacrifices were embedded, and hence less need for ritual professionals” (Johnson, p. 142), which, in turn, made the emergence of ritual norms less probable. [End Page 435]

In the second and third part of the book, Johnson shifts his attention to rituals of the liturgical kind. He discusses three sai, great temple festivals of southeastern Shanxi. The sai were organized by ritual alliances of villages called she and involved vast amounts of resources. According to Johnson, their focus was more on offering than on exorcism, but they did show elements of the latter. As an offering to the deities, opera was an indispensable element of the sai. Johnson argues that it is impossible to draw a line between “(serious) ritual and (entertaining) opera” (Johnson, p. 4) as both were “facets of a single festival performance complex” (Johnson, p. 323). However, at the sai he describes, opera and other rituals were performed by different kinds of specialists. The operas performed at the sai of southeastern Shanxi were performed by a hereditary group called “entertainers,” who during ordinary times had their own territories in which they had the exclusive right to perform at funerals, weddings, and other occasions. The other rituals were carried by the “masters of Ceremonial,” local yinyang masters who were the...


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