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.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (36)—Temple Divination

[a] Temple Life 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.
The fieldnote below is an example of a basic, pablum-like "insight" growing into a particular instance of cultural life. It is the reason I think it is one of the better notes from my first year of ethnographic work. Don't get me wrong. It has all sorts of problems, but I am not sure that any particular fieldnote's problems really matters much. The whole point of writing fieldnotes (this is something I teach in every "methods" class) is to...keep writing fieldnotes. No individual fieldnote matters, but fieldnotes matter. It is the bulk that of material that contains little nuggets of insight or observation that matter. This is the key. Keep on writing.

Once in a while there is a detail (or set of them) that really gets a person thinking. It is not so much the way it is written as the things it calls to mind that is important. As the introduction to this series shows, there is plenty of time left for getting the wording right. The more important thing is to get the image onto "paper" so that further thinking (and analysis) can swim forward from there. That is what happened in this post, and it is not exactly what I thought it might "mean" at the time. Without specifically mentioning it here, I tapped into an interpretation that is "out there" in a way that I didn't really intend. That would be the preference for male children (it's hinted here) that predominates in the way that Westerners think about modern China. As I have written elsewhere, this has become a far more nuanced issue today than it was even twenty-five years ago. Still, one of the things I find interesting about this fieldnote is the (what I would regard as unintended) subtext plays upon preference for male children. 
[c] Temple round/square RF

Today, that is not the issue. What matters is the detail, and the frustration of a certain male at the 送子殿 speaks details, if not volumes. That is the purpose of fieldnotes, from my perspective, and the reason I have posted a good deal of "drivel" in this series. The point is that we never know what is going to trigger work that could "take off." The other day, I posted a note that was particularly inept (in my view). It also triggered one of the most productive themes in my writing. This note seems to have the kind of detail that makes this "better" than the other note. My point is that we never know. This worked for me, but the "inept" one had much more scholarly power over the last two decades. You never know, so keep writing—anywhere (e-mail, Facebook, handwritten fieldnotes...anywhere).

Although this came out as one fieldnote in 1986, it might have broken into two. That is another challenge of fieldnote writing. How long is a fieldnote? I often say that it is "one idea." Boy, do I wish I had a better way of knowing "how long." Some are 100 words and some are 1,000. Here's the deal: I don't think you can go much beyond a thousand words and have what I regard as a "fieldtnote." While it is important to realize that a fieldnote might "want" to "keep going," it is equally important to keep them in manageable units. Although a few anthropologists disagree, I don't think that there is such a thing as a twenty-page fieldnote. That's a narrative. 462 words (this fieldnote)? It might be one or it might be two. That's the way I see it.

Tudi cups (土地杯) are common at Chinese temples, and have a wide variety of applications. The various interpretations of "convex" and "concave" are legion, and Chinese almanacs usually only show one or two possibilities. This makes interpretation about a father and daughter at the (送子殿) "Sending Children" shrine much more fluid than the fieldnote itself reflects. I have spent the last twenty-five years studying the subtleties; I had no idea at the time.

2 February 1986
The temple has many different shrines, each for a different kind of "request." At one we saw students, their hair cut close to their skulls in schoolboy fashion—the way Chiang Kai-shek would have wanted it—praying for success in the examinations. At some shrines we saw old men and women invoking the spirits in a rote fashion they had clearly used all their lives. In others people prayed as if, out on a Sunday stroll, they thought it would be a good idea to check in. Many people talked and ate ice cream. Taiwanese temples are not like American churches. They don’t have “services”—they don’t open or close at all. Like holding church services at a supermarket, they are composites, combining the religious and the social. The temple, to anthropomorphize, has its eyes on the heavens, and its hands on the pulse of humanity. 
[d] Request RF

The most interesting shrine was the "sending children" one—送子殿. I watched for half an hour as parents came, dropped reddish, wooden ovals on the ground, picked them up, and left. If you want to request something from the gods, the method to follow is this (it’s different from buying a snake bladder): First, you need a pair of yin and yang-like ovals. One is concave, the other convex. Standing before the shrine, you silently make your request, then, from chest height, drop the ovals. With a loud, wooden click, they strike the ground and come to a rest. The idea is to get three consecutive fitted shapes in a row, one concave, the other convex (there are other configurations used in other divinations).

I saw two particularly interesting scenes at the shrine. The first was a young man and woman, about twenty-five or so, each with a set of red ovals. They stood on opposite sides of the shrine, dropping the ovals, picking them up, and dropping them again. Depending on whom you ask, you can drop the shapes as many times as you want until you get three in a row. Some people can’t quit. This couple continued for ten minutes, picked up their ovals, and left. Maybe they canceled each other out. Another man, holding his little girl by the hand, dropped two consecutive fitted pairs. On the third, he gripped his ovals, mumbled a few words in anticipation, and dropped them to the ground. One landed convex. The other bounced astray, also landing convex. His jugular pumping and nostrils flaring, he grasped his daughter’s hand and stomped away.       
[e] (Con)vexing RF

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