Ritual Economy and the Market. About Mayfair Yang’s « Re-enchanting Modernity »

In Re-enchanting Modernity. Ritual Economy and Society in Wenzhou, China, University of California Santa Barbara anthropologist Mayfair Yang graces us with a rich and innovative contribution with a very MAUSSian touch. Her proposal of a “religious civil society” in China confronts the secularist usage of the concept in the West. Based on the writings of Mauss and Bataille, her most thought provoking proposal however might be that the extremely rapid development of a market economy and the as rapid and vibrant religious boom in China in the post-Mao reform period are coextensive and intertwined. A must read.

Mayfair Mei-Hui Yang (2020) Re-enchanting Modernity. Ritual Economy and Society in Wenzhou, China. Durham and London : Duke University Press, 384 p. ISBN 9781478007753 (29.95USD paperback)

With this very rich book, Mayfair Yang confirms her place among the best social science researchers on China, a list that includes Vincent Goossaert, John Lagerwey, David Palmer and Fan Lizhu. The anthropologist, professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, did not initially go to the semi-isolated coastal region of Wenzhou in the 1990s to research religion, but the topic imposed itself given the intensity of the religious boom that has been taking place in the so-called post-Mao ‘reform’ period. Rather than simply delivering an ethnography that is supposed to be self-sufficient, Yang delivers a masterful demonstration worthy of the best old-school anthropology by summoning a host of authors from several disciplines to interpret her multi-layered material, thereby restoring the constitutively ‘layered’ (Mauss) nature of the facts she portrays. Better still, she refuses to confine popular religion to a specific sphere, multiplying her probes into the realm of the economy and the workings of the state for instance. As Mauss suggested a century ago, it is by reporting the religious dimensions of the social facts studied to the social whole and by unravelling transversal social logics that we can hope to produce best analyses.

It is futile to attempt to give an account of the entire book, and it would be boring and unhelpful to detail the contents by chapter. A better sense of the book can be gained by carving a winding trail through its dense narrative.

Yang first shows how China appropriated the ideals of what James C. Scott has called ‘High Modernism,’ namely “the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society,” as well as the ‘the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs’ (p.9). Referring in turn to Bruno Latour, Yang writes that if the West “has never been modern” according to the former, the same cannot be said of China, which has “’outmodernized’ and ‘outpurified’ the West” (p.7) when it comes to differentiating social spheres and distinguishing between the human, the natural and the spiritual. In terms of pursuing High Modern ideals, China does appear to be one of the most if not the most radical and extraordinary human laboratory of the last century.

As far as religion is concerned, the Chinese modernizing project meant an unprecedented transformation whereby traditional religion, which was strongly ritualistic, was transformed in conformity with the model of post-Reformation Western Christianity and its emphasis on belief, exclusive belonging and the elimination of superstitions. In this respect, it is clear that the Maoist period essentially continued the work of republican reformers, for whom it was necessary to eliminate religion in order to develop a modern state, a modern society and a modern economy. Attacking religion meant not only rejecting the Confucian tradition in which the elites were steeped, but also, and perhaps most importantly, attacking the pillars of popular religion and of the Chinese social structure itself : the local temples. Indeed : “The removal of gods and ancestors who had sacralized local communities and territories facilitated the new identification with a massive new and abstract nation-state.” (p.8) In this respect, modernization succeeded to the extent that, by the end of the Mao era, the structures of the party-state had spread to the remotest localities and even within the families.

This historical contextualization makes all the more evident the tremendous shift that took place in the reform period, which began after Mao’s death and was aimed primarily at transforming the planned economy into a ‘socialist’ market economy. As virtually every scholar of contemporary China has pointed out, this radical transformation in the field of economics has had far-reaching effects on all spheres of society (except as concerns democratization), especially religion. Thrown into the arms of economic globalization, the Chinese have massively turned to religion in order to answer the question of their own individual and collective identity, according to the author. This has affected the recognized therefore strongly instituted ‘religions’ that are controlled by the State, but also and perhaps first and foremost the popular religions that find their center of gravity in the local temples that have been (re)built in Wenzhou as everywhere across China in the last decades.

Yang emphasizes a phenomenon that secularization-based approaches can only misinterpret : the explosion of religion outside the official category of religion (zongjiao), namely rites, offerings and prayers to deities, pilgrimages, consultation of mediums and spirit writers, ancestor worship, placating of ghosts and other practices such as divination and fengshui (geomancy) (chapter 3). These practices, which were previously denounced and repressed in the name of the fight against ‘superstitions’ have benefitted from a significantly changed attitude on the part of both national and local authorities, who now favor (not always, but largely) their expansion. Indeed, the term superstition has been progressively replaced by the notions of ‘popular beliefs’ and ‘popular customs.’ The popular practices associated with Taoism (chapter 4) and Buddhism (chapter 5) have been affected in the same way. Social actors have taken advantage of the possibilities of renewal offered at the local level, especially in the shadow of the control exercised over institutions. The ethnography presented in these chapters is meticulous, rich and comprehensive. Like other more anthropologically oriented works on religion in China, the picture turns out to be quite different from that painted by sociologists, for example Fenggang Yang’s team in the remarkable Atlas of Religion in China (Brill, 2018). While sociologists remain mostly attached to an institutional vision of religion that favors the major officially recognized religious traditions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism) and considers manifestations of popular religion only marginally, the works of anthropologists, on the contrary, highlight the primarily non-institutional and non-instituted nature of religious effervescence in post-Mao China. These works show better than the standard sociological approach the nature and dynamics of the profound rupture represented by the Chinese Communist Party’s 1978 turn towards the market economy.

A notable phenomenon, also described by other authors, is the way in which UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) category, which allows for the listing, recognition and protection of tangible and intangible heritage, is used by both the central party and local authorities to promote the construction or renovation of temples and other places of worship such as ancestor halls (lineages are also making their return). ICH also entails the re-legitimation and even promotion of practices that had sometimes almost disappeared because of decades of repression. What is interesting is how this reversal of fortune is linked to a new type of nationalism based on the pride of a successful China that has finally exorcised its status as the ‘sick man of Asia.’ The useand abuseof the ICH category has also been activated as a lever to promote economic development, notably through tourism, pilgrimages and festivals. In this way, a ‘secular’ category hides the formidable development and return of religious practices. The author gives the example of a procession and festival that went from being suppressed and forbidden to actively promoted by the locality in the space of two years. In other words, if the short twentieth century, until Mao’s death in 1976, was marked by a radical purification program, the post-Mao period is marked by the development of the market and the generalized ‘hybridization’ through which the boundaries between social spheres, and especially between the economic and the religious, are eroded.

The author delineates three analyses that are particularly important. The first concerns what she calls the constitution of a ‘religious civil society’ (chapters 6 and 9). Yang’s approach to this issue is of interest to the social sciences as a whole. Civil society is generally understood as a form of society or social formation which, while not being highly institutionalized, still manages to organize discourses and activities that are oriented toward conceptions of the common good, at a distance from both the state, the market, and private socialities (cf. pp. 162-3). Like so many other concepts, that of civil society has been developed in the West on the basis of questions arising from the Western context. Several authors have thus questioned the appropriateness of applying this concept outside of its original context. Research has tended to take one of two paths : the first has taken the concept of civil society as it is and applied it to China, usually concluding that China does not have a formal civil society. The second approach, which has become increasingly popular in recent decades, especially in the field of postcolonial studies, concludes, after deconstructing the concept, that it is inherently imperialistic and is therefore best left aside. In doing so, one then supports the idea, explicit or implicit, that Chinese facts are incommensurable and that they can only be thought of with indigenous concepts. To combat the essentialism contained in the concept of civil society, in other words, one espouses another essentialism, that of a China as either eternal, or on a unique pathway (pp.259-65).

Yang rejects these two avenues in favor of a ‘Middle Way’ that is much more fruitful in my view, arguing that we ‘historicize, contextualize and indigenize’ the concept of civil society (p. 266). Citing Dipesh Chakrabarty and her call to ‘provincialize Europe,’ the author argues for an extension of the meanings and uses of the concept of civil society to avoid measuring non-Western social realities against the yardstick of a ‘Western normality’ on the one hand, and the pushing aside of the concept altogether on the other. For the author, if it seems indeed abusive to speak of a civil society in China in imperial China, that is before the constitution of a fully modern state in the twentieth century, the concept of civil society proves very useful to examine the dynamics of purification and later re-enchantment in Wenzhou.

The notion of civil society in the West was constituted without any relation to religion. In fact, one could even say that this concept emerged partly against religion, in the sense that it aimed to qualify a modern ‘secularized’ society. It is on this point that contextualizing and indigenizing the concept in the case of China shifts its meaning the most significantly with respect to its Western inception. In a China where the rapid expansion of a market-driven economic sector has taken place without the state’s hold on society being radically loosened, the constitution of an intermediary fabric of sociality from the grassroots upwards has taken place to a great extent around temples and other religious places (hidden under a cultural and nationalist veneer) as well as in those moments of gathering such as festivals, especially in rural areas or small towns. Hence the stimulating idea of a ‘religious civil society.’ As Yang writes : “First, this rural civil society is both ritually and religiously inspired and driven. Second, rural grassroots civil society is tied up with the ritual expression of locality and community. The notion of locality means that temples are generally tied to a geographical space or delimited territory, and their constituencies tend to form local identities and collective memories.” (p.269)

A second issue concerns the role of women in this emergence of a religious civil society (chapter 8). Women are indeed at the forefront of the religious revival (as elsewhere in the world). Yang distinguishes five modes of women’s agency which have the effect of “reinforcing, adjusting or transforming” (p.253) the patriarchal structures rather than contesting them. Women are therefore not only victims or objects in the dynamics of production and reproduction of male domination : they are actors of these structures, participating in both their reproduction and transformation. Once again, the path taken by the author is fruitful, avoiding the opposite pitfalls of a reading only in terms of domination and victimization on the one hand and, on the other hand, of a too quick equivalence between agency and resistance.

A last (but not least) issue must hold our attention. In chapter 10, which is arguably the most interesting and innovative, Yang relates the tremendous economic boom in the Wenzhou region and the development of an autonomous entrepreneurial culture with the concomitant explosion of religion, and in particular of popular religion, during the same period. Drawing on the work of Hubert and Mauss, the author distinguishes between sacrifices and offerings, rites and festivals, donations and charities, the construction of ritual sites, the circulation of gifts and donations, and ritual services (ritual performances, spirit possession, divination, geomancy, and chanting) (p.282). This fragmented and complex set of practices constitutes what Yang calls the ‘ritual economy’ of Wenzhou, which she argues is important and even necessary factor for economic development. This exciting proposition is inspired by the works of Georges Bataille, an author whose interest for thinking contemporary religion is underrated. Yang defines the ritual economy as the total

“expenditures of wealth on ritual, religious, ethical, and social bonding practices, forms of consumption that do not directly lead to profit accumulation and indeed often eat up profits and savings for nonutilitarian ends. A ritual economy involves human transactions and economic exchanges with the divine world of gods, ancestors, nature spirits, and ghosts. It diverts a segment of wealth from the material economy. Unlike the profit economy, which stresses accumulation of wealth and the intake of profit, the ethos of ritual economy is generosity and self-abnegation and the willingness to give out or part with one’s material wealth. An important aspect of the ritual economy is the spirit of private donations by ordinary people of all walks of life. No less than the building of infrastructure, the ritual economy is part of the Wenzhou Model and the growth of its thriving markets and rural towns. It deploys the gods in its redistribution of wealth, reconstruction of community, and promotion of the public good. Thus, its internal logic of ‘giving out’ often acts counter to the capitalist logic of accumulation, or ‘taking in.’” (p. 281)

Bataille opposed the ‘general economy’ to the ‘restrictive economy’ of neoclassical economists, centered on production and exchange alone. For Bataille, religious practices and their sumptuary expenditures as well as their sacrificial destructions participate in this general economy and constitute a condition of possibility of utilitarian exchange. For Yang, the concomitant development of the market economy and the religious revival thus participate in the same phenomenon. Her descriptions and analyses show how ritual spending circulates wealth in a parallel economy that is woven through the market economy and its profit motive. Thus, the active encouragement by authorities of the development of religious places and practices in order to foster economic development (e.g. via tourism and pilgrimage) conceals a game of complementarity by which the ritual economy “counterbalances and restrains” the market economy (p.280). This is a major proposition. It offers one of the most fruitful ways of interpreting the religious boom that is taking place everywhere on the planet in conjunction with economic globalization. It will also, I hope, incite sociologists in particular to take religion out of its differentiated sphere and restore it to the wider flows of the social.

With this thesis, Yang critiques Max Weber’s idea that capitalism, “once well in the saddle,” could do without religion and closed in on the ultimate horizon of meaning like an “iron cage” (in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). Far from engaging the disenchantment of the world and the de-ritualization and de-magification of religion, the development of capitalism in China leads to a process of re-enchantment, re-magification and re-ritualization. I would add, in the wake of my own work (cf. Religion, Modernity, Globalization. Nation-State to Market, Routledge, 2020), that it is not so much capitalism as the nation-state in its constitution phase and apogee in the twentieth century that had a de-ritualizing and rationalizing function. This observation is largely corroborated by the modern history of China. While the domination of the state described by the author for the Republican and especially the Maoist period was characterized by purification, compartmentalization, differentiation and rationalization, post-Mao ‘market socialism’ has seen a blurring of the boundaries between social spheres and the emergence of hybrid phenomena, primarily between religion and the economy. As Yang argues, the impressive economic development in Wenzhou has been and continues to be the result of “inseparable and intertwined religious and economic forces” that “support and stimulate each other in a circular movement of cause and effect” (p.318).

This work is major. My criticisms are therefore quite superficial. In my opinion, one can oppose the partly clichéd reading that the author gives of Durkheim’s notion of society (typical of the Anglo-Saxon reception of the founder of French sociology), which is presented as being overly unified and totalized, as the “equivalent of the monolithic nation-state” (p.275). Yet Durkheim had grown up immersed in the ‘Guerre des Deux France’ and the French School of Sociology was in full swing at the time of the debates surrounding the 1905 law on laïcité and the Dreyfus Affair (in which Durkheim and Mauss took position). In other words, Durkheim was certainly aware of the fact that modern societies, like archaic ones, were by no means monolithic but, on the contrary, torn and diffracted. This is a critique of what I see as a lazy reading of Durkheim that is unfortunately all too widespread and that we will have to return to. But let us just say that Durkheim was perhaps not so much saying that societies are totalized in a homogenizing unity then he might have been surprised that they still hold together, despite their diversity and conflicts, and that he was trying to determine the underlying mechanisms for this. What is interesting is that, these modifications being made, the rest of Yang’s discussion appears entirely assimilable within a Durkheimian framework.

Second, there is a certain fascination with what she calls the ‘Wenzhou model,’ a form of celebration of the resistance of its people against the state and the market. Incidentally, the author perhaps overlooks the fact that economic and religious development is happening all over China, and that the Wenzhou model may not be as unique as it seems. The region has undergone the same changes as elsewhere in mainland China, except for a delay of a decade in the change of attitude of local authorities towards popular religion. But this only reinforces Yang’s point. In my view, her proposal of a ritual economy coupled with a market economy and vice versa is valid for all of mainland China, with local and regional variations. Moreover, we see similar trends in neighboring countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, in which a similar analysis could be relevant. The focus could be widened even further in the face of the supposed ‘return’ of religion everywhere on the planet as economic globalization spreads...

François Gauthier, Université de Fribourg

// Article publié le 30 mars 2021 Pour citer cet article : François Gauthier , « Ritual Economy and the Market. About Mayfair Yang’s « Re-enchanting Modernity »  », Revue du MAUSS permanente, 30 mars 2021 [en ligne].
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