Academic journal article China: An International Journal

Turning Gwer Sa la Festival into Intangible Cultural Heritage: State Superscription of Popular Religion in Southwest China

Academic journal article China: An International Journal

Turning Gwer Sa la Festival into Intangible Cultural Heritage: State Superscription of Popular Religion in Southwest China

Article excerpt

THE SUPERSCRIBING STATE IS BACK?

In May 2006, the "Gwer Sa La of the Bai" in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Yunnan province was announced as one of the 518 "National Intangible Cultural Heritage" projects by the People's Republic of China (PRC) State Council. (1) The "success" was credited to the promotional efforts by the prefectural and provincial governments, which codified the application to the imagined viewers--the inspectors from the Ministry of Culture and the domestic and international tourists. However, the promotion significantly deviated from the meanings that the un-empowered participants are accorded, and also contradicted the previous official attitude. While the government had for years been accusing the Gwer Sa La Festival practices of being superstitious, wasteful and unseemly, it now describes how extramarital relations have been tolerated during this "ethnic festival". What caused such a radical change? How is Gwer Sa La practised and what significance do participants accord to it? Why were extramarital relations "tolerated" and how did they become the focal point? How, and in what sense did the Festival turn into an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) and what are the implications? In this article, I examine the practice and meanings of the Festival against the backdrop of the campaign to turn it into an ICH, and analyse the issues arising from the state authorisation. I argue that the state's effort to turn Gwer Sa La into an ICH is "superscription without encompassment", that is, the effort is based on an imagined, "primitive fertility cult", leading to sexual promiscuity, while the locally sanctioned practices are intended to renew prosperity and wealth through a series of encompassing powers.

The ICH campaign marks an emerging phenomenon in the chronic problems encountered in the relationship between the Chinese state and religion. Many studies portray the relations as "troubled" in modern China. (2) Some suggest that these "troubles" are the result of a surge in China's enthusiastic self-strengthening whereby practices that are deemed "superstitious", "backward" and "wasteful" are dumped into a category classified as "religion". (3) Others blame the "communist atheism" for causing the suppression of religious expression. (4) While these observations tend to presume a secularised state-society dichotomy, historical studies have highlighted the religiousness of the state. (5) Prasenjit Duara put forward the concept of "superscription" to explain the state-religion relations in late imperial China, where the emperor sustained a dynamic relation with various state-recognised religious practices through the "superscribing power" vested in the emperor's "Mandate of Heaven" (tianming). The state legitimised some cults by recognising their values shared by the state--say, for example, filial piety and loyalty, but never incorporated them into the state orthodoxy. This was the case of Guandi, the Chinese God of War. (6) Duara argues that "superscription" is an effective tool for the Chinese state to regulate popular religions and China's current government should consider restoring this power. (7)

Indeed, today's Chinese state does share a certain form of religiosity with the imperial court. Both the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its predecessor, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), wielded strong regulatory measures on religious practices through nationalising religious associations as well as creating a "superstitious regime" for suppression. (8) During the first half of the PRC regime, the state levied harsh policies to suppress religion on the basis of the religion-superstition dichotomy, (9) but starting from 1980, the state began to adopt soft measures and began to develop formal or informal types of apparatus to accommodate various religious practices, albeit with condescending disdain. (10) As Oakes and Sutton observed, in contemporary China, "[a] key theme of the reform period is the continuing state effort to co-opt and subsume religious activities, as well as (more obviously) to control and supervise them administratively and by law . …

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