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  • Steven Sangren, Filiality, and the Holy Grail of Chinese Anthropology
  • Christopher Lupke (bio)
P. Steven Sangren. Filial Obsessions: Chinese Patriliny and Its Discontents. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. xvi, 381 pp. Hardcover $99.99, isbn 978-3-319-50492-6. eBook $79.99, isbn 978-3-319-50493-3.

Considered by some Sinologists, such as Donald Holzman, to be the bedrock of the Chinese value system, the fundamental underpinning to ancient Chinese belief in ancestors as celestial beings, and a concept with "metaphysical" status, "filial piety" 孝 or 孝順 or "filiality" is one of the holy grails of the anthropological study of China.1 Steven Sangren's recent book on the subject does far more than fill in ethnographic detail on the notion and practice. He endeavors to totally rethink the way scholars view filial piety, applying an arsenal of theoretical tools from Marxian thought to Freudian psychoanalysis in an attempt to penetrate to the core of the notion and account for its remarkable resiliency over three millennia. The primary material that Sangren uses to anchor his study is the Ming dynasty narrative Fengshen Yanyi 封神演義 (Investiture of the gods). A layered and linked narrative with a desultory structure which some have called a novel, Investiture of the Gods has beguiled Chinese readers for the past several hundred years by touching upon subjects such as myth, religion, local power, father-son struggles, ritual, and dazzling, near-hallucinatory imagery, faith healing, and community narratives.2 A yanyi narrative, often translated as "historical romance," has no specifically dictated structure, except to say that they are narrative in form, written in late-imperial vernacular, oftentimes splice together disparate sub-narratives, and, in the strict sense of the original term, are a dramatization of exemplary behavior that is worthy of recording and transmission. Investiture was never simply a novel, structurally or in its contents, as the accumulation of narratives in it struck a chord with Chinese readers interested in religion and the relationship between the terrestrial and celestial worlds. As the third book in English published this decade on Investiture, with the other two also written by scholars whose focus is religion, belief, and in some ways anthropological disciplinary approaches, Sangren's book lingers on this narrative because it [End Page 209] forms a nodal point for many of the issues surrounding filial piety. But his goals far exceed the bounds of this single book and contain profound implications, including the way that Daoism fits into the filial calculus as well as a novel explanation for filial piety based on an understanding of desire.

After an introductory overview chapter that outlines his book, Sangren uses chapter 2 to illustrate what the "Chinese Superboy" Nezha, a "boy-god" in Chinese popular myth or legend, means to (culturally) Chinese people in assorted ways or, in other words, "multivocally." Sangren also introduces the reader to the Investiture of the Gods narrative in this chapter. Nezha, who might be a semi-divine born entity, has a tempestuous relationship with his (earthly) father, Li Jing. On one level, the conflict can be understood as one between the ill-behaving son and the father who represents social order. On another, their turbulence provides opportunities to display relations between humans and celestial figures, such as Taiyi Zhenren, who intervenes at key moments. Nezha is rambunctious and destructive, and after inviting "celestial punishment" (p. 19) upon his parents, he kills himself in an act of "filial self-sacrifice" to save his parents. He is then transformed into a spirit. Eventually, Nezha and Li Jing are forced to reconcile to take up the fight against an evil usurper emperor. The tale is set in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 b.c.e.), but the known narrative of Nezha can only be traced to the Yuan dynasty.

Featured in some Yuan vernacular drama, the best-known version of the Nezha narratives is as an important episode in the vernacular narrative Fengshen Yanyi. The Nezha story has been replicated myriads of times in various popular forms. In describing Nezha's identity as "multivocal," Sangren notes that the significance of Nezha and his story resonates in four different ways for Chinese: as a "Territorial-Cult God"; as a...