Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Oral Presentation Session
Robert Weller (Boston University)
Spirit mediums have played important roles in village life in Suzhou. However, rapid urbanization in the past twenty-five years has wiped out hundreds of villages and replaced them with high-rises, shopping malls and high-speed rails. Our study at the recently urbanized edge of the Suzhou Industrial Park showed that there is an increase of spirit mediums, especially female ones, despite the destruction of village temples and their residential deities. During temple festivals, female dragon dancers have replaced male ones and female-dominated dancing troupes have replaced earlier mixed gender theater groups. In the meantime, when some local deities found a home in the newly built Daoist temples, their wives were conveniently omitted. The newly founded Buddhist-sutra chanting groups have also seen a more male-centered leadership. How do we understand gendered power relations though such feminizing and masculinizing changes? Since the institutionalized authority of male Buddhists and Daoists inevitably clashes with the female-majority spirit mediums, it is tempting to claim that urbanization brought the state closer, which caused the receding of female power. However, we argue that the increasing number of female spirit mediums who are responsible for bringing the past to the present or folding the present into the past proves the elastic nature of female authority. They realize power exactly in their repeated declaration of lack of authority and agency, and in their readiness to claim the politically “insignificant” areas of life. That is how the constantly transforming local tradition gains its resilience.