Academic journal article China Perspectives

Shenming Yu Shimin. Minguo Shiqi Shanghai Diqu Yingshen Saihui Yanjiu (Deities and City Dwellers: Research on Popular Processions in Shanghai during the Republican Era)

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Shenming Yu Shimin. Minguo Shiqi Shanghai Diqu Yingshen Saihui Yanjiu (Deities and City Dwellers: Research on Popular Processions in Shanghai during the Republican Era)

Article excerpt

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Yu Zhejun, Shenming yu shimin. Minguo shiqi Shanghai diqu yingshen saihui yanjiu (Deities and City Dwellers: Research on Popular Processions in Shanghai during the Republican Era), Shanghai, Shanghai Joint Publishing Company, 2014, 312 pp.

This work discusses the make-up of civil society in Shanghai in the time of the Republic of China and the role played in this process by popular religion. The importance of this question clearly goes beyond mere historical interest, which is one of the reasons why this excellent study deserves attention.

Focusing first on the title, two points should be highlighted. The first is, of course, the use of the Chinese term shimin... which, on the author's own admission, retains a certain vagueness in Chinese, and which can be translated indiscriminately today as "citizen" or "city dweller"; the doctoral thesis behind this work, which was written in German, uses the term Bürger, which does little to clarify the translation to be favoured. At this point, we can look to Rousseau's admonition: "Most people take a town for a city and a bourgeoisfor a citizen. They do not know that although the houses make the town, it is the citizens that make the city." Nevertheless, historically, the Chinese term shimin originally referred to "civil" and "citizen": bürgerliche Gesellschaft, the term introduced into modern political thinking by Hegel, is translated in Marxist texts as shimin shehui. However, when referring to "civil society," the term gongmin shehui is today used most frequently, at least in mainland China, where the expression refers to "public affairs," insofar as civil society, in the sense attributed to it in this case, is that which participates, of its own accord, in public affairs. In any case, in the work relevant to us here, it is "citizens" - and those of the Chinese city at the peak of "modernity" - that are potentially the actors of a civil society in gestation. It therefore appears to be very difficult to separate the two connotations of the term.

The second point that needs highlighting relates to the expression yingshen saihui.... This refers to the processions in which the statue of a god is carried, thus marking its territory, and it is therefore the inhabitants of this territory who welcome the deity's visit. The author correctly notes that although the character sai ... has today taken on the meaning, above all, of competition, the expression saishen ... alludes to an offering or thanksgiving sacrifice (p. 60). The type of processions referred to here concerns local deities, responsible for a territory; the departure from a given territory (a temple or hall) and the journey through a marked space at fixed times of the year form the heart of the ritual in question. It is the inhabitants of the given territory, rather than the clerics, who organise and participate in the ritual.

The work opens along the lines of Paul Katz, who suggested that studying civil society and the formation of a public space in China cannot disregard the study of popular religion (see Demon Hords and Burning Boats: The Cult of Marshall Wen in Late Imperial Chekiang, a line of analysis rejected by Yves Chevrier, for example, for whom the emergence of civil society cannot be reduced to any independent manifestation of the social with regard to the political). Kenneth Dean's studies of ritual spaces and civil society are also recalled a little later in the work.

The first part, which probably holds less interest for the foreign reader, focuses on the Western concept of civil society and on its applicability (or not) to the Chinese context. Concerning this final point, the studies of Rowe, Rankin, and Wakeman are described in detail. Although the question remains open as to the possibility, extent, and mode of China's adoption of the Western model of civil society, the author defends the heuristic value of this model to account for societal changes in China. …

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