From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (35)—Longshan Temple

[a] Dragon Mountain Temple RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote.
This fieldnote is part of a series that I wrote about a Sunday trip through temples, alleys, and restaurants in the southern part of the northern city of Taipei. The Longshan Temple is magnet for a wide variety of divinatory practices. It is a syncretic blend of doctrines, and the setting around it is bustling with markets, Snake Alley, and various prognosticators. This is the place where I first became interested in how horoscopes and divination "work" in Chinese society. 

The note itself is (this a familiar refrain of mine) not analytical enough. Still, the purpose of fieldnotes, from my perspective back then and now, is just to do them. Almost any level of detail will "call to mind" the material that an ethnographer needs in writing at more advanced stages of the process. Most of this note, however, is contextual, and represents a path toward explanation for people who tend to think about "multiple religions" in confrontational ways. The syncretic traditions I mention are key to understanding cultural life in China and, indeed, the rest of East Asia. 

The "Confucian in the morning, Daoist by midday, and Buddhist by evening" idea is one that I first noted here, but have used in all sorts of ways in my teaching and writing over the years. It is a fairly common way of discussing syncretism in a Chinese context. It is as if to say that one can "live" all three doctrines, and that they merge and flow within individual and social life. For me, the most significant thing about this note in my career is that even this rather mediocre set of observations led me toward a great deal of further study and clearer articulations of this fascinating phenomenon which has different doctrines living side-by-side in everyday life.

2 February 1986
From the narrow, grimy stalls of Snake Alley we moved across the street to the Long Shan Temple. My nostrils made a quick adjustment from snake bladders to smoky incense. Huge tables of food, rice wine (the whole supply this summer is suspected of being contaminated with tainted maize; people won’t drink it themselves, but they give it to the gods), and paper money were set up at the temple’s entrance. The Long Shan Temple (龍山寺) is one of the oldest and most frequented temples in Taipei. It is, strictly speaking, a Buddhist temple, but even most Chinese people can’t (or don't) distinguish between them. Chinese religion is characterized by tolerance (this is how Westerners often put it) and syncretism (this is far more accurate).

Syncretism. It has been said of Confucian scholars during the imperial era that they were Confucians in the morning, Daoists after a nice midday meal, and Buddhists in the evening. In Taiwan it is not unusual to find two or three doctrines within a single family. One of my friends has a Buddhist father and a Christian mother—without anything approaching the conflict that would likely create in the West. Chiang Kai-shek, to give another example, was a devoted Christian and Confucian, but had much more tolerance for free religious expression than he did for political heterodoxy. The most important aspect of Chinese religion is its Chinese character—how the doctrines have been adapted to Chinese culture. 
[c] Temple morning RF

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