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Conceptualizing Gods through Statues: A Study of Personification and Localization in Chinese Popular Religion

Thursday Lecture Series, Animation

dateMarch 14, 2013 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

Although widespread in Taiwan and China, god statues have received little attention from anthropologists. By examining god statues, Professor Lin attempted to answer several important questions in Chinese religion: how are Chinese deities perceived by ordinary people, and what is the nature of their power? Are they seen as bureaucrats, as Arthur Wolf argues, or is there also a non-bureaucratic understanding of the supernatural? By considering the internal and external strategies of animation developed by Gell (1998), Professor Lin discovered that two crucial symbolic processes, personification and localization, bestow power and efficacy (ling) upon a god statue. She showed that the personification process engaged Chinese ideas of the body/soul and the social person, in which kinship relations are stressed. She also demonstrated that localization is built upon traditional cosmological models, which, in Taiwan are encapsulated by the ideas of the five spirit-soldier camps (wuying). It is in terms of these cultural concepts that we see how the Han Chinese in Taiwan perceive deities and how the fundamental characteristics of Chinese religion have developed locally.