Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

which had been going on for over 30 years. Various aspects of the reconstruction required government approval, and the temple official was under pressure to reduce the temple's rituals or face denial of his requests. There was considerable popular opposition to any restrictions. The planning group finally agreed that they could not require the people to bring vegetarian offerings but that they would strongly encourage the reform. On the day of the ceremony, however, everyone brought the usual large meat offerings, including the people from the village of the ambitious village head. Each year the officials expressed their position, and each year the people ignored them. Thus, even local temples lack the organizational power to impose their own version of the ghost festival.

The Nationalist government failed to discourage lavish expenditures on the Universal Salvation for the same reasons that the traditional government failed. First, it created no institution that could impose its own version of ghosts as the correct reading. The meetings sponsored during the first years of its regime were a step in that direction, but they probably did not reach the public any better than did rituals of the state cult. Second, popular interpretations of ghosts continue to be shaped above all by an emphasis on marginality. As long as the interpretation of ghosts is tied to real experience of marginality, supported by a symbolic structure of contrasts with gods and ancestors, it cannot be countered by a new set of ideas that contradicts both the social and symbolic understandings of marginality.


Conclusion

Ghosts are tied in part to a symbolic structure in which they contrast with gods and ancestors. Long-term government attempts to define ghosts simply as ancestors (by emphasizing filial piety), or as low-level bureaucrats (by recognizing them as minor bureaucrats in the state cult) were unsuccessful. The ritual contrasts that set limits on the interpretation of ghosts have not changed over the years, but the interpretations of today differ from those of the late 19th century. The move from dangerous political ghosts to pitiful kinship ghosts occurred because the marginal group in the population has undergone a parallel change. The uprooted workers of the last century have become the abandoned old of today. A change in the political economy of Taiwan has changed the daily experiences that inspire specific interpretations of the Universal Salvation. These interpretations were never rationalized into an explicit ideology, and there has never been any social mechanism to separate orthodox interpretations from heterodoxy, or to propagate "correct" beliefs. The meeting at Sanxia's community temple illustrates that even local popular temples did not have this authority to require people to bring certain kinds of ritual offerings.

Many anthropological theories of religion seek to determine the ideas behind a set of symbols, to decode the message of the ritual. Such theories in Taiwan give us a description of ghosts as marginal beings opposed to both ancestors and gods. This description sets the parameters for popular interpretation of ghosts, but it does not determine those interpretations. We cannot simply read a cultural

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