ANR Shifu
Elder masters and new generations of religious specialists in China today

Research program

Coordination: Adeline Herrou

Program “Elder masters and new generations of religious specialists in China today: ethnographic fieldwork on daily life and anthropology of social change”

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© Adeline Herrou

This research program is concerned with the daily lives of Chinese religious specialists today, in a context where the roles of religious dignitaries, and in a larger sense the religious landscape itself, have undergone massive changes. This program takes as its subject different aspects of what are commonly called Chinese religions – Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, local religions – and compares them in their current forms. Focus is placed on the old masters of these diverse traditions who entered the religious life before the Cultural Revolution or even prior to the Liberation (1949). Witnesses of these periods of great turbulence of the 20th century, these senior masters are today able to narrate these events from their own points of view. Most importantly, the remaining few who are still alive today are the only ones capable of providing information on their methods of performing specific rituals and ascetic techniques, as well as explaining how they used to manage their daily tasks and responsibilities. In the 1980s, it was often these old masters who perpetuated the transmissions that had been interrupted during the long period of prohibition.

Today, they are the last heirs of specific knowledge and practices that are on their way to extinction. Paying particular attention to their oral accounts, our goal is to understand – through their own memories, and those of their forebears and disciples – what changes have occurred between the last generations of religious specialists. By drawing their ethnographic portraits and considering, in great detail, their life narratives and their actual activities, the team members seek to describe several facets of today’s Chinese religious world, and to better understand the historical ruptures of the second half of the twentieth century. The enterprise of restoring temples began in the 1980s, along with the opening-up policy. Since then, religious practices have been re-authorized within a new, official framework prescribed by the State. While transmission was traditionally based on master-disciple relations, the responsibility of training clergy has been entrusted to newly-made academies. On this basis, contemporary religious communities reorganized themselves sometimes by adapting to the new standardized framework, and sometimes by escaping it. The pivotal generation of the “elders” has already passed the torch to new generations. Thus, the time seems appropriate to study the manner in which these local Chinese traditions have been perpetuated, and on which bases the religious renewal, characterized by deep changes and reinvention, has been accomplished. A team of sinologists has been gathered in order to question what, from now on, “makes” the Daoist master, the Buddhist monk, the geomancer, the diviner, the spirit-medium, the Yi nationality bimo, the ritual musician…. Most of them are ethnologists and sociologists with a long history of fieldwork experience, enabling them to make contact with elder masters of these traditions and to compile a new corpus of first-hand materials. The idea is to document their daily life and their life experiences within the current religious context, which is both inherited from, and in conflict with, their knowledge.

The several local ethnographies that this research project will provide will describe specific religious worlds, most of which are currently quite unknown. In a larger sense, this comparative and interdisciplinary project invites us to question the raison d’être of these different religious masters in China today, and to understand the peculiar virtuosity that characterizes them in such a changing context.

Mis à jour le 2 December 2014