The culture of contemporary China seems impossible to pin down. The country combines a long sense of history with head-spinning modernization. It's capitalist and communist, spiritual and, during the Cultural Revolution, stripped of religion. Boston University anthropologist Robert Weller has spent more than three decades conducting fieldwork in Taiwan and China. In that time he has not unraveled the complexity of Chinese culture, but he has identified themes- many of which run against the conventional wisdom about China- that shape the way people there live today. Weller, who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this spring, spoke with Ideas by phone about some of the important dimensions of Chinese culture, including the surprising persistence of religion and the practice of democracy in local village life. (The interview has been edited for clarity.)
IDEAS: You cover a lot of ground in your work and much of it has to do with abstract dimensions of culture. How do you explain your research to non-specialists?
WELLER: All of it’s about China and Taiwan so in that sense it’s all the same. I’ve been from the beginning exploring ideas of power and interpretation and how those things fit together with each other—who has the right to impose interpretation and what does that process look like where people come to share an idea.
IDEAS: When you talk about power in China I immediately think of state power. Is that what you have in mind?
WELLER: I mean power the way anthropologists often use it, which is in the broadest possible sense—simply the ability to impose your own ideas or actions on somebody else. Certainly state power looms really large. I started my career on religion and I’m back on religion at this point and the role of the state in China looms so large.
IDEAS: We think of religion as not being very prominent in China but you say that’s not the case.
WELLER: We had assumed that religion was more or less wiped out during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, our assumption has been that since 1949 there had been increasing pressure on religion until it was squelched out completely. We’re actually starting to get access to archives from the 1950s and there was a lot more religion going on and a lot more uncertainty within the government itself about what to do about it. We’re finding more and more hidden underground religious activity. It was never as little as we thought and it’s clearly growing rapidly today.
IDEAS: You have similarly unintuitive ideas about the possibility for democracy in China.
WELLER: The authoritarian states like this argument that democracy [doesn’t fit Asian culture]. First of all, it’s empirically wrong. Taiwan shows it’s empirically wrong. It’s culturally a very Chinese place and it’s a democratic place.
China introduced village elections some years ago and nobody takes them that seriously now that it seems clear that the experiment is not expanding past the village level. But I think even at that level there’s a learning experience that goes on there. The Cultural Revolution was an attempt to say there’s no social organization outside the state. There’s only you and Chairman Mao. And that leaves people with almost no resources if democratization should happen. But since reforms in 1979, China has moved to something that looks structurally more like Taiwan in the 1960s…that is, there is much more social space than there used to be. I would argue at this point that at least the resources [for democracy] are there if the opportunity arises.
IDEAS: You’ve written about how western environmental ideas have influenced China. Can you explain that?
WELLER: The idea that becomes really important after the Enlightenment is that nature and culture are two opposed forces. There’s one discourse that says culture should control nature—that says we should build canals, railroads. Almost from the beginning there was a reaction that really valorized nature. There’s also a third stream, a pastoral view of nature. The whole mess of ideas shows up in China in the late-19th century but the one that really seems to resonate with Chinese intellectuals is the science view that we should control nature.
IDEAS: That brings to mind projects like the Three Gorges Dam and the Qinghai-Tibet railway.
WELLER: The Three Gorges Dam was actually proposed in the early-20th century, so it goes back to this period where these ideas are just becoming dominant. It’s not so different from what you saw in the 19th-century here, with the Panama Canal and the railroads across the country and the damming of the Mississippi and all the other rivers.
IDEAS: I’m going to jump again, to the Boston Marathon bombing. You write about how we live in a culturally pluralistic time, where we have to live alongside people who are different than we are. Did you think about these kinds of ideas in the aftermath of the attack?
WELLER: Terrorism is an attack on social trust, on public space and public life. It pulls apart our ability to trust a stranger, including a stranger who might look different or dress different or eat different. So, terrorism puts stress on our ability to deal with it.
IDEAS: On this question of pluralism in modern life more generally—how do we deal with living in such a culturally varied place?
WELLER: We don’t insist too hard on maintaining our boundaries, by which I mean everything that separates us from each other: class, ethnic, religious, geographical, kinship boundaries. We need to find ways to allow these categories to flex, or we need to allow ourselves to cross over and back. Ritual is one way of doing this.
IDEAS: I think of ritual as existing within cultural boundaries. How does it cross boundaries?
WELLER: One of the biggest boundaries is the sacred/profane one. Durkheim defined the sacred as that which is set apart. And rituals tell us where the line is between sacred and profane, and they also bring us over the line. They let us be in the sacred world for a little while even though we know we have to come back out of it. There’s that kind of line, the knowledge that alternate worlds are possible, which is crucial. Empathy is based on the idea that somebody cannot be me, can be really different from me in some fundamental way and yet I can make the leap into feeling as they feel.
Last month I interviewed Richard Grossman, an economic historian at Wesleyan University and another Boston-area 2013 Guggenheim Fellow. You can read that interview, titled "Historical lessons for current economic policy," here.
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