Purdue University

Interview with Professor Robert Weller

Robert Weller is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Boston University and Research Associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs there.  His present research is concerned with the development of the environmental movement and nature tourism in China and Taiwan in the context of economic growth. He is also looking at the role of local voluntary organizations as mediators between state and society in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, and he has consulted on poverty and unemployment relief in western China. He has written numerous books and articles on Chinese political, social, and cultural change, often with a focus on the relations between religion and civic life. His latest book, Ritual and Its Consequences: an Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (co-authored with A. Seligman, M. Puett, and B. Simon; Oxford, 2008) has just appeared.  His current research focuses on the role of religion in creating public social benefits in Chinese communities in China, Malaysia, and Taiwan.


1.  Could you briefly tell us the reasons you are interested in Chinese religions, particularly folk religion?
My interest in China was an accident.  It came simply from taking some college courses that really sparked my interest.  I took more courses, and finally started learning the language just after I graduated from college.  So the choice was somewhat arbitrary, but I have never regretted it.  Religion, on the other hand, was always something of a puzzle for me.  My family was never religious, and my father passed along a scientist's skepticism to the children.  For me, religion was something strange, and the desire to understand it is what attracted me to the topic for a long time.  Why folk religion in particular?  I suppose partly because I wanted to do something quite unlike my own society (so not Christianity), partly because it was and remains the most frequent religious activity in China, and partly because I just enjoy the 热闹of it.


2.  In your first book, you have discussed the “unity” and “diversity” of Chinese religions.  Could you tell us the theoretical background and the main points of this book?  In the past 30 years, what kind of debate was brought forth by this book?
At the time I was working on this first book (which began as my PhD dissertation), French structuralism was still very important in anthropology, and I felt it had dominated much of our understanding of Chinese religion.  Part of my goal was to challenge its idea that meaning lay just in mental structures by emphasizing the act of interpretation as it led to different meanings in different contexts.  This tied to a big argument in the anthropology of Chinese religion at the time, over whether we should think of the complex array of religious practice as one unified religion (as Maurice Freedman argued) or as multiple ones (as Arthur Wolf argued).  My emphasis on interpretation in context led me closer to the "diversity" side of the debate.  In the years since that book came out (only 21 years, not 30!), many others have also contributed to that debate.  Steven Sangren's book came out at roughly the same time as mine, and he tended more toward the unity side of the issue.  As time went on and we continued to write, he was often taken to represent a more structuralist understanding of Chinese religion, and me a more post-structuralist one.  Neither one of us is entirely comfortable with those labels, though.  The debate itself has been somewhat reframed as anthropology's understanding of Chinese religion has become so much more sophisticated over the years.


3.  You co-edited Unruly Gods, which overthrew the stereotype of Chinese gods.  Gods are not necessarily serious imperial officials in the celestial world, but there are also gods who are ruthless warriors, lascivious immortals, drunken clowns, patricidal sons, and unfilial daughters. What social reality do these gods reflect?  What is the theoretical significance?
This book also began as a response to existing anthropological understandings of folk religion.  Many people will explain that Chinese folk deities are really like bureaucrats, and anthropologists had developed this into the basic framework for understanding them.  It's true in many ways, of course, from deities' dress as officials in many cases, to the structure of temples or the reading of formal petitions by Daoist priests.  And yet many of us were increasingly uncomfortable with the dominance of this image.  What about female deities, not even to mention the less respectable figures you mention in your question?  Our hope was not just to broaden the image of Chinese deities, but to question the idea that deities just "reflected" the social world in any simple sense.  The idea that deities "represent" the political system seemed like too simple an application of Durkheim's understanding of religion.  What if instead we asked what are basic Chinese conceptions of power, and how do those affect both the religious world and the political world?

Then we start to see that bureaucratic control is just one of many forms of power in China, and that deities both reflect and shape them all.  In part, the flexibility of interpretation—that you could have lascivious immortals and all the rest in spite of their apparent lack of morality—ties closely to the lack of a strong institutional structure of control in Chinese temple religion.


4.  We have noticed that you have conducted some comparative studies in Taiwan and Mainland China.  What is the influence on religion with different development course in Taiwan and Mainland China?
You're right that I have been very interested in comparing Taiwan and the mainland, and not just for religion.  The reason is that we can learn so much by seeing how quite similar people adapt to political, economic, and social conditions that vary.  For religion, this has led to a great many differences.  For instance, Taiwan's loosening of control on Buddhism in the 1980s helped encourage the enormous growth of new charitable Buddhist groups like 慈济功德会, which have no real equivalent on the mainland.  This growth of Buddhism may also in part explain why Christianity in Taiwan has not been growing much compared to the mainland—people are turning to Buddhism instead.  For temple religion, Taiwan always allowed it to continue, so it has remained generally strong, and even grown as people got richer.  The lack of an overarching institutional control, however, also means that this form of religion always varied greatly in Chinese history, and thus while Taiwan has some unique features, so does nearly any Chinese place we might look at.  Especially as this form of religion comes back in China, the differences strike me as no greater than that might have been a century ago.


5.  There is a viewpoint suggesting that Chinese religions, in regards to personal affairs are comparatively utilitarian.  Therefore they do not help the formation of civil societies.  What do you think of this comment?
Certainly it is true that there are aspects of Chinese temple religion that are very much oriented toward the benefit of individuals or families.  But to stop the discussion there would be to miss many important aspects of these traditions.  First, temples in much of China were often the most important social unifiers of villages and towns.  Together with kinship, religion provided one of the most important reservoirs of social capital in China.  Second, because temples often deal with each other, for example by exchanging the services of their performance groups or visiting each other when they tour their territory, they can be very important in creating relationships between communities.  Having said that, though, we should also remember that this form of religion is fundamentally local, and it is not easy to build a national civil society out of it.  The other traditions also have important contributions.  We should remember that at least since the late Ming Dynasty, Chinese urban charitable associations became very popular with elites, who almost always drew their inspiration from Buddhism.  This has grown even further with large Buddhist groups in Taiwan.  Religion was an important aspect of the argument I tried to make in Alternate Civilities, that many forms of Chinese social organization might be important, even if they don't look like traditional "civil society."


6.  Could you briefly introduce the theoretical contribution of Social Anthropology to the study of Chinese religions in the past several decades?  And, what will be the research trend in the future?
Our understanding of Chinese religion has changed greatly as more anthropologists have done work, and as many historians have also begun to take a more anthropological approach to their materials.  We have a much better idea now, for example, of the enormous extent of variation in folk religion.  We see this even in a small place like Taiwan, thanks to all the work there by local anthropologists.  We also have a much better understanding of how religion could vary over time, as historical conditions changed.  As I mentioned above, we also now have more sophisticated ways of thinking about the relation between spirits and secular life, and about the broad social influence of religion beyond just temples, mosques, or churches.


7.  What is your most recent research?
Let me mention two projects.  First, several colleagues and I have just published a more theoretical consideration of ritual, called Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.  In it, we think about the role of ritual in allowing people to live with difference, and about the possible negative effects of the anti-ritualism that has been dominant in the West since the Reformation, and which has had such strong effects on the project of modernity.  Only part of the book discusses China, but both the Confucian ritual tradition and modern changes come into the analysis.  Second, I am currently in the middle of a collaborative project looking at the charitable role of religion in three Chinese societies—on the mainland, in Taiwan, and among Chinese in Malaysia.  We are trying to understand what appears to be a general increase in the role of religious groups in promoting broad philanthropy.


8.  What is your hope and expectation for the empirical study of Chinese religions?
Well, in a word, I hope for more:  Many more studies of more varieties of religion.  We still have such a thin understanding of how religion was practiced across China in late imperial times, how that changed over the twentieth century, and even of what is happening right now.  Related to this, I would also like to see more comparisons within Chinese contexts and between China and elsewhere.  Beyond that, my hope is that the anthropology of religion will simply be a wide open field, leaving room for all kinds of different approaches, sensitive to global theoretical debates, but rooted in strong ethnography.  The religious situation is changing very fast in China now, making it an exciting time to be working in this field.

(Interview conducted by LU Yunfeng)


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