Saturday, 25 January 2014

Family and Religion : the Cornerstones of Taiwan Anthropology

Postmodern Ghosts Drink at Starbucks! (Photo: Scott Simon) 

        Foundational texts by Arthur Wolf (1974) and Stevan Harrell (1985) hark back to the golden age of sinological anthropology on Taiwan. According to the Web of Science, the oracle of value for research, Harrell’s article has been cited a respectable 36 times, with a peak of interest between 2009 and 2012. Wolf’s book, cited in over 600 journal articles, is an undisputed classic. Subsequent scholars (e.g. Boretz 2010) continue to pay homage to Wolf by incorporating the triad of gods, ghosts, and what-not into the titles of their books and articles.
        Harrell attempts to understand economics in cultural terms, arguing that Chinese “rationality is determined in terms of a particular kind of family-centered economic goal” (1985: 224, emphasis added). This goal is an entrepreneurial ethic: “the investment of one’s resources (land, labour, and/or capital) in a long-term quest to improve the material well-being and security of some group to which one belongs and with which one identifies” (1985: 216). As Harrell explains, this group is generally the family and male descendents, which is why women seem not to share this ethic until marriage and childbirth. A focus on family leads to a situation in which neither managers nor workers function efficiently in large industry (1985: 222). Francis Fukuyama has notably elaborated this idea, speculating that Chinese societies are poor at building trust beyond family networks, thus possessing a cultural constraint on development. From Harrell to Fukuyama, one gets the impression that economics are somehow determined by cultural values.
        Wolf explains the kinship-religion meshwork elegantly, showing how the patrilineal kinship system and the Chinese imperial political system are reflected in Chinese religious beliefs. Gods reflect imperial hierarchies, ancestors the deceased of one’s own family, and ghosts dangerous outsiders. From an epidemiological perspective (Sperber 1996), this suggests that the Chinese imperial system is especially contagious, as it continues to propagate a century after the fall of the last dynasty. As for ghosts and ancestors, this distinction originated in the violent frontier history of Taiwan. In a society marked by war against the aborigines and even struggles between Chinese from different village origins, people necessarily feared strangers and depended upon kin for survival. Strangers became ghosts and family members became ancestors (Wolf 1974: 174-175).  
        Wolf makes a strong thesis statement: “The most important point to be made about Chinese religion is that it mirrors the social landscape of its adherents” (1974: 131). Change has happened. The imperial system is long gone, and Taiwan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Stove gods are rare in urban Taiwan, marriage practices no longer include such practices as sim-pua (adopted girls who later become the wives of their new brothers), and Taiwan is even contemplating same-sex marriage. So, how can we explain the resilience of gods, ghosts and ancestors in Taiwan’s colourful temples and festivals? How can we explain ghost offerings at Starbucks and McDonald’s? Although much work remains to be done, these classics laid the cornerstone for a new anthropology in construction.  

A Bigger Picture of Ghost Month (Photo: Scott Simon)

Boretz, Avron. 2010. Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Harrell, Stevan. 1985. “Why Do the Chinese Work so Hard? Reflections on an Entrepreneurial Ethic.” Modern China 11 (2) : 203-226.
Sperber, Dan. 1996. La contagion des idées: théorie naturaliste de la culture. Paris : O. Jacob.
Wolf, Arthur. 1974. “Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors.” In Arthur Wolf (ed.).  Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 131-182.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Facing Down Time : Edmund Leach on Orchid Island

Facing Down Time : Edmund Leach on Orchid Island

        Sir Edmund Leach (1910-1989), known for writing about egalitarian social organization in highland Burma, began his anthropological musings on Botel Tobago (now Orchid Island) in 1936-37 after aborting a business career in China. He may have acquired his first ideas about egalitarian societies from the Yami.

        Leach described the island as “a test case of applied ethnology” (1937: 420), arguing that the Japanese attempted to extend Yami culture (Taiwan’s most egalitarian society), while modernizing their lives. Leach later reflected upon the Yami as “primitive” Oceanic society. Trying to understand how humans become aware of time and its measurability, he argued that calendars arise from a need to pre-arrange festivals and undertakings. People must link seasonal and solar years, finding mechanisms to adjust lunar and solar calendars, often with non-human assistance (e.g. flying fish). This is apparently subconscious, as “this does not imply that primitive peoples necessarily appreciate the existence of a solar year” (1950: 262).

        Japanese colonial surveys said little about time, except that headhunting followed the millet harvest. Perhaps the Japanese assumed Taiwan’s “primitive” peoples were timeless until colonial administrators introduced the Gregorian calendar. The Seediq have words for year (kawas) and month (idas), but claim they had neither calendars nor watches until the Japanese came. Indeed, they use Japanese to express time of day, day of the week, and dates. It must have been difficult for Leach to grasp, but perhaps naming specific dates was unimportant in egalitarian societies without written words. Living close to the equator with no major seasonal differences in length of day, moreover, Oceanic peoples had few reasons to be concerned with the solar year. Besides, the fish seem to keep track of seasons well enough. People just have to follow the fish.

        Maurice Bloch identified two kinds of time: 1) cognitive understanding derived from interactions in the world; and 2) ideological representations of ritual cycles and unchanging order. Since the latter tended to serve ritual specialists and hierarchical order, they were absent in egalitarian societies (Bloch 1985). Complex calendars required writing to keep everyone literally on the same page. And in colonial situations, people combine different calendars in creative ways (Huang 2004).  

All creatures experience cognitive time, time lived in a process of simply being in the world. It is intrinsically based on relations between species. The Yami thus calculate seasons upon the arrival of flying fish, the Wogeo adjust theirs to the palolo worm, and the Runa of Ecuador await “ant season” every year (Kohn 2013: 79). Canadians rejoice in spring at the return of the geese and the flowing of maple sap. The living world lives cognitive time by thinking it together.  

If calendars correlate with political systems, it is best not to judge societies by what they lacked, but rather by what they had. These were neither stateless societies nor timeless societies, but rather societies without states and without calendars. The Yami, like us, are becoming more attuned to industrial ideology, marching along to the ticking of clocks, calendars, and smartphones. Perhaps we lose something if we move away from the interspecies relations that form the web of cognitive time.  

Bloch, Maurice. 1985. “From Cognition to Ideology.” In Richard Fardon (ed.). Power and Knowledge: Anthropological and Sociological Approaches, pp. 21-48. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
Huang, Shiun-wey. 2004. “’Times’ and Images of Others in an Amis Village, Taiwan.” Time & Society 13 (2/3): 321-337.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Leach, Edmund. 1937. “The Yami of Koto-sho: a Japanese Colonial Experiment.” Geographical Magazine 5: 417-434.
______. 1950. “Primitive Calendars.” Oceania 20 (4): 245-262.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Liminality: Using Anthropology to Understand Taiwan

Stéphane Corcuff, one of the world’s most prominent Taiwan Studies scholars, has long been interested in applying anthropological concepts to political science. In his recent essay (Corcuff 2012), he reinterprets the familiar concept of “liminality” as an alternative to “marginality.” As Corcuff notes, he adds a spatial dimension to the concept. Corcuff thus remains close to the word’s Latin root limen, meaning “threshold or margin.”  Interestingly, Corcuff refers to Taiwan as “a threshold of China” (2012: 62).

The concept, however, is very loaded due to its history in anthropology. Arthur Van Gennep crafted the concept in his 1909 book on rites of passage. In ceremonies related to marriages, funerals, or transition from one age-set to another, people go through preliminal rites of separation, liminal rites of transition, and postliminal rites of incorporation (Van Gennep 1960: 11). Victor Turner elaborated liminality into “betwixt and between” states of ritual, most elaborate in initiation rites. Paraphrasing one of Turner’s key articles (Turner 1964), liminal persons are structurally “invisible,” neither boys nor men, neither living nor dead. In some societies, initiates might even be treated like corpses. Borrowing from Mary Douglas, Turner showed that liminal bodies were often perceived as polluted. A further characteristic of liminal beings is that they have nothing. Liminal people experience complete submission in relation to authority and complete equality in relation to each other. Liminality can be a period of reflection, an encounter with the sacred, endowing people with capacity to adopt new social roles.    

Corcuff does not attribute all of these characteristics to Taiwan. As a political scientist, he may be concerned that Taiwan is often invisible in International Relations discourse – where scholars often assume the island’s fate will be decided by Beijing and Washington and ignore the perspectives of the country’s 23 million people. Many scholars fail to see that the Republic of China on Taiwan is an independent, sovereign state; but this means it is the ROC and not Taiwan that is invisible. Corcuff probably is not suggesting that Taiwan is polluted, or in a special relationship with the sacred. Indeed, Corcuff is most concerned about discourse, and hopes that the word “liminal” can somehow restore to Taiwan the “power of words” (Corcuff 2012: 55).

For anthropologists, the main issue is that “liminality” evokes a transition from one state to another, an argument that Corcuff cannot make without falling into teleological speculation. Is Taiwan in transition from the “Republic of China” to the “People’s Republic of China,” or from “dependence” (another concept explored in the same article) to “independence”? Due to the original meaning of the concept, Corcuff’s description of Taiwan’s liminality as cultural or geographical proximity to China remains somewhat unsatisfactory as anthropological analysis.  Perhaps borderlands, defined as “an interstitial zone of displacement and deterritorialization that shapes the identity of the hybridized subject” (Gupta and Ferguson 1992: 18) would have been more appropriate. Corcuff has done an excellent job of showing how Taiwan is culturally and historically so complex that it cannot be accurately reduced to the avatar of some trans-historical “China.”  He is less convincing in his use of one anthropological concept, but this inherent pitfall of interdisciplinary research detracts only barely from his main argument.

Corcuff, Stéphane. 2012. “The Liminality of Taiwan: A Case-Study in Geopolitics.” Taiwan in Comparative Perspective 4: 34-64.

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 6-23.

Turner, Victor W. 1964. “Betwixt and Between: the Liminal Period in Rites de Passage.”  Internet resource:, last accessed January 10, 2014.

Van Gennup, Arnold. 1960 [1909]. The Rites of Passage: A Classical Study of Cultural Celebrations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Meaning of Tadao Kano to the Anthropology of Taiwan

This semester at the University of Ottawa, I am teaching a course ANT4105 Anthropology of Taiwan. We began the class with a documentary film about Tadao Kano
A precursor to the anthropology of Taiwan, he attended high school in Taiwan, where he began his studies of Taiwanese insects as a high school student. He frequently skipped classes, as he was drawn to the high mountains and their indigenous inhabitants, but his free-thinking school principle decided that he learned more on his own than he would have from books, and let him graduate. He eventually got a Ph.D., making important research contributions not only to anthropology, but also to biology, geography, and geology. Kano’s research collections are now on display at the National Museum of Ethnography in Osaka, which is beyond a doubt one of the best anthropological research institutions in the world. 

Thinking about Kano’s work reveals a number of things about anthropology, and about Taiwan. First of all, it shows how anthropology as a discipline evolved out of the naturalism of the colonial period. Kano had relatively free access to Taiwan, its mountains, and its indigenous peoples because he was Japanese, and Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. He attended elite schools, so the mountain police tolerated his excursions into restricted areas that needed special permits for entry. His language skills and his propensity to adopt native ways made him accepted into indigenous communities where few outsiders had ever been welcomed before. 

Kano was certainly no colonial administrator, and even had his differences with the Japanese state at the time. For example, he published his book on the Yami people of Orchid Island in English – during World War II when such an action risked having him suspected of sympathy with the wartime enemy. But he wanted the entire world to know about Taiwan and its indigenous peoples. The Japanese military responded by sending him on a wartime mission to Borneo, where he disappeared at the age of 38. His wife said that he probably took up life with the forest peoples and forgot to return home. So, Kano’s anthropology was enabled by the fact that Taiwan was a part of Japan at the time. 

Second, colonialism created a certain way of thinking about the world, including ways of classifying the peoples, plants, and animals of the colonies. This context led Japanese anthropologists and others to think of Taiwan, or Formosa, as an entry into Oceania. Anthropologists at the time studied the indigenous peoples of Taiwan as representatives of the Malayan or Malay-Polynesian world. In a way, this discourse opened up Japan’s southward expansion. It certainly provided some ideological justification, as it showed the Japanese as the modernizers, making local peoples and natural phenomena into objects to be counted, measured, and codified. Japan brought colonial governmentality to Taiwan for the first time in the island’s history. Kano was not “guilty” of colonizing Taiwan, but he was able to follow his intellectual interests, and get funding from Tokyo, because this social context valorized his work. 

The disciplinary boundaries were not so rigid in those days, which is why Kano could let his imagination run free, studying people along with clouds, glaciers, rocks, mammals, and insects. He loved Taiwan, its mountains, and its people. The colonial context aside, he points the way towards a living anthropology, an anthropology that affirms life in all its diversity and embracing its affinities with related fields such as biology. Kano remains an inspiration for researchers in the 21st century. 

Throughout the semester, students and I will be blogging about our readings and our thoughts on the Anthropology of Taiwan. Stay tuned for more!