A Challenge

I recently met with professor Yeh Chuen-Rong, an Ethnologist at the Academia Sinica who is a big fan of Clifford Geertz.  I was meeting with professor Chang Hsun and she suggested that I meet her colleague next door because he had a collection of video of folk rituals.  But I misunderstood her, and I thought she was introducing me to the librarian of the multimedia center. (He is the curator of the museum too, so that's how the misunderstanding happened.)

So, I immediately tried to describe what I wanted to see, at his convenience of course-I was expecting to come back another day.  What I didn't realize was that he had something on the order of a thousand videos of folk rituals in his personal collection.  He took me into another room to show me the scale of what he had, and perhaps to make it clear I didn't have any idea how to ask for something specific.

Anyway, we got off to a bad start.  While I was talking to him there was an American graduate student in Green Engineering sitting in, he was there to get some directions actually but he stayed for the first part of our talk.  After about 20 minutes, Professor Yeh looked over at the other students and said he could tell I didn't know the field and he called me Carlos Castaneda.  I retorted that Castaneda was insane.  But Yeh said, no, he was just a practitioner--who lacked rigor and perspective--he just wanted to tell his own story.

He said there is another writer he could compare me to if I didn't like Castaneda.  I wouldn't have heard of her because her book was published in Hong Kong or something...HAh, he turned out to be talking about Margret Chen!  He called her work worthless to scholars like himself, shallow! a nice coffee table picture book perhaps.  I read her book in the two months before coming to Taiwan.  For me it was a marvelous source of information on Tangki Spirit Mediums in Singapore.  But one of the reasons I didn't review it was that her comments about Daoism and the early history of Chinese religion where poorly informed.

Yeh seemed momentarily charmed by knowledge of the book and by my assertion that I also abhor shallowness.  But he quickly went back on the attack.  If I wanted to do this kind of research I would have to know Chinese cosmology really well.  My reaction was, go ahead, test me!  He started listing cosmological ideas, and then we got stuck on a translation.  He was saying ganzhi (stem and branch) which is a way of calculating auspices, so when I figured out what he meant I said, of course I am familiar with the tongshu (the complete almanac of cosmological calculations, also the oldest continuously published book on earth.)

So he pulled one out, then he showed me a drawer full of tongshu from previous years.  As I flipped through the tongshu, I had to admit that although I had spent 7 years following various indicators from the tongshu and observing a few dozen commemorative days each year, most of the tongshu was totally over my head and outside my ability to comprehend.

Having made his point, he gestured toward his collection of Clifford Geertz books.  Did I know of him?  Yes, actually, I've read a few of his books (later I revealed that my father had interviewed him on the radio).  OK, he said, have you eaten?  I don't think the kind of work you are proposing is of any use, but lets continue this conversation over some dumplings.

Over the next four hours we argued.  At one point I fired back that perhaps his work wasn't of much use because as a non-practitioner, he lacked fundamental experience!  I think he liked that. He offered many challenges.  Here are some of them:

  • Gods do not teach people to fight.

  • When people in trance possession cults fight, they are not possessed, they are just fighting.

  • The Chinese literature on the subject does not use the term trance in a continuum the way I do.  Generally trance means a specific deity is present.

  • No one else has proposed that there are different types of trance for different types of deities (Professor Chang also said this).  In other words it could be good that I'm proposing a new direction of thought but the people who belong to these cults don't make such distinctions.  So I'm dangerously close to making stuff up. (My argument is that it is implicit in the different ways trance is invoked and in the different types of movement deities use.  Also, in Daoist ritual all the deities are invoked through the visualization/embodiment of the eight generals.)

By the time I left four hours later, I had learned a lot, and he had conceded a few points too.  I also got asked to help him with a letter to the Louvre (you know that museum in Paris) and he showed me a bunch of videos!  I'll be back!