Purdue University

Interview with Professor Kenneth Dean

Kenneth Dean is the James McGill Professor and Drs. Richard Charles and Esther Yewpick Lee Chair of Chinese Cultural Studies in the Department of East Asian Studies of McGill University.  He is the author of seven books, including The Return of the Gods: introduction to a survey of village temples, regional alliances, and ritual activities in Putian, Fujian, China, and Ritual Networks:  A survey of village ritual alliances in the irrigated alluvial Putian plain, both forthcoming from E.J. Brill in Leiden.   He is also the author of over forty articles on various aspects of Daoist ritual and local ritual traditions of Southeast China.


1.  Could you please tell us why you are interested in Chinese religions, folk Daoism in particular?
My background in graduate school was in Chinese literature, especially Tang poetry, and I studied Chinese poetry and literary criticism with Prof. James J.Y. Liu at Stanford University. While at Stanford, I was able to take courses with Michel Strickmann at U.C. Berkeley. Strickmann brought the new field of Daoist studies to North America, and I quickly became interested in this area of research. I continued these studies with Prof. Kristofer Schipper, the leading expert in the field of Daoist studies, at the EPHE in Paris. Schipper kindly introduced me to his “xuebai xiongdi”, Daoist Master Chen Rongsheng in Tainan, and so I accompanied Master Chen to Daoist rituals he performed in and around Tainan for a year (1983-84). These rituals reminded me of similar festivals I had been fascinated with as a child in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where I lived for 15 years before attending college in the US. In 1984 I went to Xiamen for two years to continue my doctoral research on the Daoist ritual traditions and local popular cults of the Minnan area, which had spread to Taiwan from the 17th century onwards. I arrived just as the founding temples of many of the major cults of the Minnan area (those of Baosheng dadi, Mazu, Guangze zunwang, Qingshui zushi) were being rebuilt or repaired, and was able to attend the performance for the first time in several decades of Daoist rituals in these temples. My doctoral thesis and first book documented these developments, and speculated on the importance of Daoist ritual to popular cult worship in Minnan culture.


2.  In your book, Lord of the Three in One, you studied the religion Three in One.  Could you briefly talk about the theoretical background and the main points of this book?
The Three in One religious movement was founded by Lin Zhao’en (1517-98) to combine Buddhism and Daoism with Confucianism. There are now over 1000 Three in One temples in the Xinghua region (made up of Putian and Xianyou counties), and in Xinghua communities in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. In these temples, Lin Zhao’en is worshipped as a god, alongside other popular gods of the local Putian popular religious pantheon. Rather than carry out a philosophical analysis of the doctrines of Lin Zhao’en, which had been done by Judith Berling, I focused on a historical treatment and a discussion of the liturgical practices and organizational forms of the Three in One in Putian, and in Southeast Asia. In order to do this, I developed a concept of the “syncretic ritual field” and the “ritual-event” which folds in the entire field and unfolds it in the course of the ritual-event. Another key contribution of this book was the discovery of the presence in village ritual of multiple liturgical frameworks expressed in the simultaneous performance of parallel rites by different groups of ritual specialists. Generally speaking, I sought to demonstrate that the Three in One provided a new liturgical organization that enabled groups of villagers to practice self-cultivation and perform morality in ritualized forms openly in village life on a supplemental, voluntary plane of action, in addition to their participation in local village temple ritual activities.  I suggested that these organizations and ritual activities responded to socio-economic tensions that were beginning to pull local society apart in late Qing Putian.


3.  Your studies have mainly focused on the folk beliefs in Southeastern China.  From your books, we have learned that the traditional beliefs in this area have been reviving.  According to your research, what are the causes of this revival?
This is a very large question, which cannot be responded to adequately in a short paragraph. First I would like to say that I have difficulties with the expression “minjian xinyang” because of its reliance on “belief” and the representation of belief in symbol and rite. Such a form of analysis has been questioned by many scholars in the critical turn within religious studies. Each cultural region of China requires the development of new concepts and historical explanations for its ongoing re-invention of its cultural traditions and ritual practices. Generally speaking, different forms of local ritual practices are now flourishing across most of south China in the rural areas. Some local ritual practices have been documented in the northeast (Dubois), in Shaanxi (Bujard), in Western Hunan (Fava), and in Sichuan (Hu Tiancheng). Much recent research has examined cultural and ritual practices of “minority” peoples in the face of increasing tourism (both from Han Chinese and from non-Chinese visitors). Much more research needs to be done before any satisfactory answer to this very profound question can be formulated. In the case of southeast China, the richness and often highly local nature of the multiple layers of ritual practices have provided the cultural resources for some new developments in ritual and communal experimentation. This has been aided by the ability of these ritual forms to fold in (rather than being overwhelmed or denatured by) forces of capitalism and ethnic nationalism. Increasing wealth has allowed (and perhaps demanded) a re-investment in symbols and practices of community, solidarity, and collective morality such as temples and rituals. The role of Overseas Chinese groups in this process has been extremely important (especially in the early 1980s), but it is worth mentioning that by now most of these activities are largely self-supported by the local communities themselves. Village temple committees are involved in a complex negotiation with the forces of modernity. So far, they have been able to attain a degree of local autonomy that enables them to carry out ritual-events, although there may well be political limits to the scope of these activities.


4.  The relationship between “belief” and “civil society” has been an issue concerned by the academia. You have written a paper to discuss this matter.  In your opinion, what kind of role has “belief” played in modern Chinese society?
I have argued elsewhere that the notions of civil society and public sphere may not be especially relevant to the kinds of spaces and communities created in the ritual-events I have studied in southeast China. Robert Weller makes a similar argument in his book Alternate Civilities. I did however argue in that essay that such rituals generate temporary autonomous realms of collective experimentation. If one does want to preserve the terms civil society and public sphere(s), one would have to entirely re-conceptualize them to avoid falling into a dated form of modernization theory. As I mentioned above, I am not comfortable with a discussion of the term “belief” in relation to local ritual-events. Thus it is difficult to respond to the question of the impact of “belief” upon Chinese society.


5.  You have a great understanding of reality in China, but seem to have little interest in theory; you seem to be very cautious about it.  For example, you know a lot about the sociological studies of sects, but you did not want to use the word sect to describe the Three in One religion, and you have made no attempt to dialogue with sociologists.  This must be related to your understanding of theory.  Could you comment about the application of theories in the study of religion in China and its limits?
In the Lord of the Three in One, I pointed out that the use of the concept of “sect” was closely tied to the study of the history of Christianity and the rise of Protestant denominations, and thus I attempted to use the expression “religious movement” to allow for the historical specificity of the rise of the Three in One to be examined. I have no objection to sociological theory in general (having studied with G.W.Skinner at Stanford). In my paper for the upcoming conference I discuss alternative traditions within sociological theory going back to Gabriel Tarde and up to Bruno Latour and ANT (actor-network theory) as possible sources of conceptual approaches to local ritual traditions in China. More broadly, I am interested in applying conceptions drawn from philosophic approaches such as those of Bergson and Deleuze to the study of “religious” phenomena. I note that Hent van der Vries, in his recent book Introduction to Religion: Beyond a Concept (2008), also draws upon these theorists. On the other hand, I am convinced of the need for empirical study of ritual practices, and for the importance of seeking out indigenous concepts from within local practices. Thus my recent papers have discussed the syncretic ritual field in terms of a field of forces arranged around bi-polar sources of attraction. I label “sheng (sometimes translated as saintly – emphasizing order and hierarchy) and “ling” (sometimes translated as spiritual power – emphasizing spontaneity and the irruption of power).


6.  What is your most recent research?
Together with Prof. Zheng Zhenman of Xiamen University, I have completed two parts of a planned three part collection of epigraphical materials on the history of religion (very broadly conceived to include all kinds of ritual practice) in Fujian. These were on the Xinghua region (1994, one volume) and on the Quanzhou region (2004, three volumes). I hope to complete another multi-volume collection on the Zhangzhou region to complete the survey of Minnan epigraphy. Again with Prof. Zheng, I have just completed a manuscript of over 1500 pages, including over 200 maps (using GIS technology), which surveys some 2586 temples in 724 villages in a 440 sq.km. region of the irrigated alluvial plain east of Putian city along the Xinghua bay. The survey provides the first comprehensive account of the revival of ritual traditions in an area of Southeast China by listing all the gods worshipped in a specific area and the dates of their celebrations, and by describing key annual rituals and mapping their regional ritual alliances. An extensive historical introduction explains the evolution of the 153 regional alliances of clusters of village temples in the area.  Currently, I am working on networks of temples that branched off from Putian and spread across Southeast Asia. I am also working on a film about ritual experience.


7.  What is your hope and expectation for the empirical studies of religions in China?
I hope my essay for the upcoming conference begins to address this question. I think detailed surveys of village temples and ritual activities are essential and should be conducted in as many parts of China as possible. Local historical materials (epigraphy, liturgies, scriptures, iconography, temple architecture) should be gathered and studied intensively, with the greatest respect for the practitioners of these traditions. New theoretical approaches based on empirical study of Chinese ritual practices should be developed, debated and refined.

(Interview conducted by LU Yunfeng)


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