Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Many seams, far from exhausted (Culture.tw)

Academics are often so specialized that their ideas reach only a narrow audience. American anthropologist David K. Jordan [pictured right] is one scholar who has achieved a broader reputation, at least among English-speaking people living in or interested in Taiwan.

His book Gods, Ghosts & Ancestors - Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village, published by the University of California Press in 1972, has won a lasting readership among expatriates and visitors in Taiwan.

The book's nine chapters include sections on: divination; ancestor worship; the supernatural protectors and enemies of the village in Tainan where he did most of his research; and tang-ki - spirit mediums who, while possessed by gods, cut themselves with swords or pierce their cheeks with long needles.

One of the attractions of Jordan's book for general readers is that its focus on religious practices sheds light on other aspects of Taiwanese society: The preponderance of certain surnames and the customary insistence on surname exogamy; clan rivalry; and the crucial importance of male descendants.

Printers on the island sold pirate editions of the book during the 1970s and early 1980s. The success of these illegal reprints led to a 1985 legal reissue by Caves Books Ltd.

Jordan begin teaching at the University of California San Diego's Department of Anthropology in 1969. Since 2004, he has held the post of professor emeritus.

In a recent interview with culture.tw, Jordan recalled that, when he first arrived in Taiwan in the autumn of 1966, he found himself in a near-ideal environment for doing fieldwork.

Despite language difficulties, and the island being under martial law, he found that he had "nearly unrestrained freedom to go anywhere and talk to anybody. I assume that things might have been somewhat different if I had been doing research on island politics or political protesters or something like that, but frankly such questions have never interested me very much."

Local residents greeted Jordan's research aims with enthusiasm. "Tainan County was a very rich area for research because of its long traditions of religious practice, and because of the high salience of religion in the minds of most people," he said. "I remember arriving in 'my village' and people saying, in effect, 'It's about time people came to study our customs. We are fascinating...'"

To read on, click here.

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