- Popular Belief in Contemporary China: A Discourse Analysis by Monika Gaenssbauer
In this book Monika Gaenssbauer offers us a new and exciting approach to the subject of popular belief in contemporary China, as a response to the call for indigenous discourse studies on culture. Through Chinese-language texts, the book constructs a unique Chinese cultural identity in its belief and religion. The power-centered models of discourse analysis seen often in European discourse field have been criticized as not adequate in research of the Chinese popular belief. Instead, the book presents a comprehensive overview of the broad range of positions that Chinese scholars take on the definition, history, status quo, functions, and future of folk belief. These scholars are from various top academic institutions in China, including the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing University, and the State Administration for Religious Affairs, hence are believed to best represent the local voices.
The definition term "popular belief" (民間信仰) is chosen over "popular religion" (民間宗教), with critique on the limited applicability of "religion" to the vastly diverse Chinese contexts. Unlike the highly institutionalized religion in the Western "orthodox" sense, Chinese popular belief is with no vigorously fixed formal organization, and is referred to as a range of beliefs active in everyday life, covering "ancestor worship; belief in great men and spirits; belief in gods and deities; belief in Nature, and belief in sorcery, magic etc." (pp. 60–61). Practiced by the broad mass of Chinese peoples, it includes agriculture activities such as spring sowing and autumn harvest, festivals such as the Spring Festival, rites de passage such as birth, death, marriage, coming of age, along with great catastrophes, and crises such as epidemics and droughts (pp. 56–57).
In a society that "is characterized by a largely top-down pattern of political communication" (p. 13), the status of Chinese popular belief has experienced ups and downs with the political trajectory of change in different historical periods. Formerly identified as the element of feudalistic superstition and symbols for backwardness and stupidity in the past, it is increasingly viewed as part of the cultural and moral system now, though the legal protection by constitution is still on its way. This tension-high relation of popular belief with political authority requires a genre of discourse with a Chinese characteristic, which has to be based on the Marxist "rational and scientific" view on belief and religion. [End Page 248] Otherwise, the very existence of popular belief would encounter unexpected fate. Thus the book lets us see why Chinese discourse scholars adopt a rather loose and open-ended definition to include and not to exclude various practices of belief of peoples of various ethnicities, and why they choose to use an "implicit" expression in particular when discussing the related potentially sensitive issues in public sphere.
Moreover, in legitimating popular forms of belief, discursive threads with Chinese characteristics are created to construct a positive image/identity of popular belief in China. Such creative and positive threads are to position the discourse of popular belief within the framework of integral cultural heritage and to promulgate it with a series of socially constructive functions. In this way, the practice of popular belief is given the significance of (1) affecting moral edification, such as the familial schooling of filial piety through belief in the king of Shun in Guiji, Shaoxing; (2) possessing economic and touristic potential, such as economic activities in temple fairs; and (3) promoting the social cohesion and unity of China, such as the reunification with Taiwan via the worship of Mazu. In this vein, the Chinese scholars work successfully on discursively depoliticize the possible conflicts incurred from contesting views and earned a precious social space for the development of popular beliefs in China, totally different from the often seen power struggle confrontation discourse in the West.
The author has convincingly argued her case; that is, such indigenous efforts—inclusive, implicit, and constructive as they are—have successfully fostered numerous folk beliefs to develop harmoniously within Chinese society on the one hand, and have established a...