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Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters

Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society

Copyright Date: 2011
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  • Book Info
    Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters
    Book Description:

    Demon warrior puppets, sword-wielding Taoist priests, spirit mediums lacerating their bodies with spikes and blades—these are among the most dramatic images in Chinese religion. Usually linked to the propitiation of plague gods and the worship of popular military deities, such ritual practices have an obvious but previously unexamined kinship with the traditional Chinese martial arts. The long and durable history of martial arts iconography and ritual in Chinese religion suggests something far deeper than mere historical coincidence. Avron Boretz argues that martial arts gestures and movements are so deeply embedded in the ritual repertoire in part because they iconify masculine qualities of violence, aggressivity, and physical prowess, the implicit core of Chinese patriliny and patriarchy. At the same time, for actors and audience alike, martial arts gestures evoke the mythos of the jianghu, a shadowy, often violent realm of vagabonds, outlaws, and masters of martial and magic arts. Through the direct bodily practice of martial arts movement and creative rendering of jianghu narratives, martial ritual practitioners are able to identify and represent themselves, however briefly and incompletely, as men of prowess, a reward otherwise denied those confined to the lower limits of this deeply patriarchal society. Based on fieldwork in China and Taiwan spanning nearly two decades, Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters offers a thorough and original account of violent ritual and ritual violence in Chinese religion and society. Close-up, sensitive portrayals and the voices of ritual actors themselves—mostly working-class men, many of them members of sworn brotherhoods and gangs—convincingly link martial ritual practice to the lives and desires of men on the margins of Chinese society. This work is a significant contribution to the study of Chinese ritual and religion, the history and sociology of Chinese underworld, the history and anthropology of the martial arts, and the anthropology of masculinity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6071-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Note on Translation and Use of Foreign Terms
    (pp. IX-X)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    I am a student of the Chinese martial arts. Beyond practice, however, I have always been fascinated by martial arts culture and history. I first followed that fascination by reading every book and article I could track down on the martial arts. I borrowed an old copy of the out-of-printSecrets of Shaolin Temple Boxingby Robert W. Smith from my college library and renewed it at least five times. I faithfully subscribed to enthusiast magazines likeBlack BeltandInside Kung Fu.

    As my engagement with the practical training deepened, I began to sense that the very kinetics of...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Violence, Honor, and Manhood
    (pp. 21-57)

    Walk into any shrine or temple just about anywhere in China and you will be presented with a tableau that differs little from place to place.¹ If a devotee of Chinese popular religion from the mountains of Yunnan happened to venture into a typical Taiwanese temple, he would immediately recognize its purpose and, once he got past a few obvious differences in architecture and decoration, would have little trouble identifying its main features: the large incense burner outside the main entrance; the dimly lit open hall within; the elevated altar along the rearmost wall, on which stand, centered and symmetrically...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Taidong: The Mountains and Beyond
    (pp. 58-86)

    The renovation of a local temple in late imperial China was an event that brought officials, local gentry, and commoners together in common cause. Stone steles, inscribed with a testimonial written by a well-placed patron, were often erected to commemorate temple renovations. The act affirmed the position of the patron, but his lavishing of attention and resources enhanced the prestige of the temple as well. The texts of these inscriptions often preserve details of local history otherwise unaccounted for in official accounts. Yet the texts tend to be formulaic, couched in clichés of elite officialdom. There are oblique references to...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Fire and Fury
    (pp. 87-114)

    The walled prefectural city of Dali, in western Yunnan Province, rests in a valley, strategically equidistant from mountains and water. Like Taidong, it sits on an active fault zone. Like Taidong, a massive, sheer mountain barrier rises up from the valley, and lower, but equally rugged, peaks protect and isolate it on the north and south. Lying to the east, again coincidentally like Taidong, is a large body of deep water.¹ In Dali, that water is the Erhai—literally “ear-shaped sea”—which covers most of the valley floor. East of the lake stretches not the empty vastness of open ocean...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Tales from the Jianghu
    (pp. 115-175)

    The Taidong Lantern Festival procession winds a tightening spiral through the city’s Japanese-era grid of downtown streets and alleys. The center of the spiral, the procession’s endpoint, is the courtyard of the city’s oldest and largest temple, the Tianhou Gong. As the gods and their retinues arrive, they are ushered, two by two, into the spacious courtyard to pay obeisance to the temple’s patron, the goddess Mazu.¹ Each troupe tries to upstage the others in energetic displays of ritual zeal. Groups of young, barefoot trance performers, called “sorcerer’s troupes” (H.hoat-a tin), act out wild, animated possessions, lacerating head and...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Wine, Women, and Song
    (pp. 176-203)

    For most men in Chinese society, joining friends and associates for a night on the town can be as much obligation as indulgence. Both senses are captured in the two phrases most often used to describe such socializing:yingchou,“reciprocal entertainment,” andhe jiu,“drinking” or “carousing.” Alcohol, in fact, is crucial to Chinese commensality; its importance in both religious and social practice can hardly be overstated. From solemn official banquets to raucous village feasts, from the cultured meetings of literati poets to the backstreet revels of gamblers and gangsters, the meanings and manners of alcohol consumption have been among...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Conclusion: Faces of the Gods
    (pp. 204-212)

    “Young men should not study theWater Margin;old men should not read theThree Kingdoms(Shao bu du Shuihu, lao bu kan Sanguo). Reflecting on this aphorism, kung-fu master and raconteur Cheng Jiamiao explained that from these two great Chinese classical vernacular novels, and in their effects on men at different stages of life, one can discern the trajectory of a man’s life. Since young men are naturally hot-tempered, theWater Margin’s stories of injustice, adventure, rebellion, and violence would encourage them to be insubordinate and violent; if one has avoided the dangers of a life of violence and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 213-246)
  13. Glossary
    (pp. 247-254)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 255-268)
  15. Index
    (pp. 269-274)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-278)