What terms to use?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Andrew B. Kipnis. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.026


What terms to use?

A response to Stephan Feuchtwang and Magnus Fiskesjö

Andrew B. KIPNIS, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Australian National University

Response to comments on Kipnis, Andrew. “Governing the souls of Chinese modernity” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 217–238.

It is always a privilege to have one’s work read carefully. I thank the readers for their appreciative comments but focus here on their questions or criticisms. Many of them have to do with the use of grand terms, like analogic and naturalist; ontology and ideology; modernity, nature/culture, and singularity. Any set of categories can be deconstructed, and the ones under consideration here have been ruthlessly criticized in a variety of ways. But without categories we cannot think at all. So the question must be what is gained and what is lost when using a particular set of terms. If we completely abandon a set of categories, what questions do we no longer ask? Is the loss really worth it? Is there something to be gained by attempting to use the terms in a more flexible manner?

Stephan Feuchtwang asks what is naturalist and analogic in the death rituals I discuss. The distinction to me, to rephrase Philippe Descola, is the way in which the interiority and physicality of the soul is imagined. In the naturalist imagination, the only thing about the soul that lives on is a subjective spirit that can be embodied by other human beings. We might consciously emulate or, especially in the case of our own parents, unconsciously reproduce the subjective habits of those who have passed away. But in an analogic imagination, other modes of continuity are possible. If ignored, the dead may become ghosts and then wreak [250]death and destruction on both those who ignored them and innocent bystanders. The dead also might become gods, as in the case of Mao Zedong, or ancestors. Gods, ghosts, and ancestors, which come in a huge variety of forms, have material effects on the world by means of alternative physicalities, material ways of operating in the world that differ from the ways in which ordinary living humans affect the world. Feuchtwang argues that the ancestor does not “have an effect, she or he is the effect.” Try telling that to a geomancy (fengshui) master working at a Chinese graveyard. For a fee, these experts will tell you how to locate a grave to enable the ancestor to bring good fortune to his or her descendants. The good fortune is the effect. In the naturalist imagination there is no alternative physicality. The spirits of the dead may be embodied by the living, but in that case the physical processes by which they influence the world are the same as with all other living mortals.

Souls in the analogic and naturalist imaginary do share something, however. In both imaginaries, the living proclaim the souls permanent. I am not certain that this would be the case in the animist and totemist cultures that Descola explores. Thus, part of what captures my imagination in Descola’s categorization is the way in which it allows us to consider what distinguishes analogism and naturalism, what they share, and how what they share may not be accepted by everyone and thus still be “cultural.”

A similar problem can be seen in Thomas Laqueur’s (2015) treatment of the history of burial in Europe. He discusses in great detail the shift from burial in churchyards to burial in cemeteries. He mentions in passing that burial in churchyards allowed clergy to pray for the soul of the deceased, thus increasing its chances of going to heaven. But in his conclusion he emphasizes the great continuity in the different ways humans have treated mortal remains across history. Whether one is a secular humanist or a devout Christian, remembering the dead is about connecting the past with the future and constructing a sense of continuity in human society. I agree, but I also feel that Laqueur does not give enough emphasis to the difference between a Christian focus on whether a particular soul goes to hell or heaven, and a secular humanist sense of passing on the cultural spirit of a deceased loved one. They are not the same thing.

Of course, some modern Europeans (who bury their loved ones in cemeteries) remain concerned with problems of souls reaching heaven. Such historical continuities raise the question of whether we should bother using the term modernity or not. Both Feuchtwang and Magnus Fiskesjö seem to accept my use of the term in general, but point out the historical continuities that cross the premodern/modern divide in China. Yes, there were crafts-people and hence “careers” in premodern China. Yes, there were debates about lavish funerals and the existence of ghosts in premodern China. Yes, the state in China has a very long history and many aspects of statecraft that are associated with modernity in Europe go back more than a millennium in China. But the onset of rapid industrialization, urbanization, time-space compression, high literacy rates, and demographic transition still mark a historical transformation. People have been reading and writing for a very long time in China, but it matters whether it is 5 percent or 95 percent of the population that does so. Not everyone farmed and lived in a village in premodern China, but more than 95 percent of the people did. Now, even if they do end up farming, [251]almost everyone faces the dilemma of first going to school and then having to decide what sort of work to do afterward. The point of using a term like modernity is that these shifts have consequences for the way many experience and think about the world, as Fiskesjö implies. Though analogic and naturalist conceptions of soul have existed together in China for quite some time, I suspect the manner in which they have been mixed and the percentage of people attached to one concept or the other has shifted. As Feuchtwang graciously mentions, I tried to theorize this view of modernity in my book, From village to city (2016).

The question of singularities versus process and what William Matthews calls homologism are interesting ones. I agree that philosophical analyses of Chinese thought and practices derived from this thought (including much Chinese medicine, ritual, and divination) more often focus on processes of transformation than stable entities. Moreover, this focus on process can elide the distinction between interiorities and physicalities (resulting in homologism). Such monist thought might be quite common among philosophers of many traditions, including anthropologists such as us. But I am still not quite willing to give up on singularities. In practice, if not in philosophy, a process becomes a thing when the transformations it is undergoing proceed very slowly compared to other transformations. A god, ghost, or ancestor can be a stable entity for many ritual and practical purposes. I also suspect that dualist modes of thinking can reemerge for monist philosophers at various moments in their lives.

The reemergence of dualist modes of thought brings me to my own relation to the nature/culture dichotomy. For a long time, even before I took my first course in anthropology, I found the nature/culture distinction spurious. Aren’t human beings and human culture a result of natural evolution? Aren’t all landscapes marked by the presence of humans? Aren’t all urban environments full of insects, plants, and animals? Anthropological critiques of the nature/culture dualism mostly echo what I already thought. But after reading Descola and writing this essay, I realized that I had never given up the dualism in at least two contexts. First, my anthropological interest in human culture forces its reemergence. Don’t I believe that humans everywhere are subject to the same natural, biological laws but are still able to look at the world in culturally diverse ways? Don’t you? Second, from my very secular humanist soul, when I think of the deaths of my own parents, relatives, friends, or teachers, I do not worry about whether they are in heaven or hell, or the form of their reincarnation, or whether they are a god, ghost, or ancestor, but I do think of their cultural legacy, of what they have passed on to me and others. As the article suggests, this is a very naturalist way of imagining their souls.

That I might implicitly reproduce a nature/culture dichotomy in some circumstances while rejecting it in others raises the question of how we might blend or mix various ontologies. One form of mixture is to think and act in different ways in different contexts. But in this article, I tried to show how a certain ambiguity between analogic and naturalist souls was maintained in a single context: contemporary, urban, Chinese rituals of memorialization. In part, this mixing takes place under a deliberate veil of silence. To varying degrees in different urban contexts, open belief in analogic souls is politically stigmatized and must be veiled, or ameliorated by going to great lengths to pay homage to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But in addition to the political or social circumstances that enable or lead to [252]the blending of ontologies, there can be logical circumstances that blur the distinction between different ontologies. Animist and naturalist ontologies create clearer boundaries between interiority and physicality because the distinction between interiority and physicality is overlain with a distinction between plurality and unity. I suspect that totemism and analogism more easily slide into homologism because they do not reinforce the distinction between interiority and physicality in the same way.

The blending of analogic and naturalist assumptions in China relates, in part, to a specific form of political repression there. My discussion of this repression marks the politics of this essay and I am not sure of the extent to which Fiskesjö and Feuchtwang agree with my stance. There certainly is common ground, but perhaps also a few distinctions. Fiskesjö is extremely critical of the CCP regime and its appalling human rights record. For the most part this criticism is fair enough, but I do think it possible to take it too far, thereby reinforcing cold war prejudice. Though I find some Chinese officials to be arrogant at times, I do not feel that all Chinese officials are always arrogant. The funeral Fiskesjö depicts from 1983, as he acknowledges, cannot be taken as representative of the majority of funerals today. Contemporary farewell meetings are conducted in a manner that is much more sensitive to the emotional condition of the grieving. This liberalization reflects both a less repressive attitude toward religious expression than existed in the Maoist decades and the commercialization of the funerary industry, which leads to better service for its customers. While 1983 is after Mao’s death, the socioeconomic conditions of the early 1980s reflected a Maoist ethos much more clearly than today’s conditions do. Fiskesjö also suggests that much could be gained by using the term ideology instead of merely pointing at the political manipulation of ontologies. I am not so convinced that this distinction is valuable, and further fear that it masks the fact that ontologies can be manipulated in a wide variety of ways for a great diversity of political purposes. I doubt very much that there can be any one-on-one mapping between particular ontologies and particular political stances. Moreover, however they are manipulated, ontologies are also tools for seeking truth and guiding ethical practice. Feuchtwang might be more sympathetic toward the CCP, but seems to worry about the effects of unrestrained commercialization on the funerary industry in China. I agree that the industry requires regulation, but worry more about political repression than commercial exploitation in the contemporary Chinese context. I also worry more about the social stigmatization of those working in the funerary sector than whatever strategies they may employ to increase their rates of remuneration. For the record, one-stop dragon entrepreneurs are not state-registered employees. They typically do not register their businesses (at least in Nanjing), and avoid state regulation and taxes as much as possible.


Kipnis, Andrew. 2016. From village to city: Social transformation in a Chinese county seat. Berkeley: University of California Press.[253]

Laqueur, Thomas W. 2015. The work of the dead: A cultural history of mortal remains. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Andrew Kipnis
Department of Anthropology
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Shatin, New Territories
Hong Kong