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Rites of belonging. Memory, modernity, and identity in a Malaysian Chinese community.

Rites of belonging. Memory, modernity, and identity in a Malaysian Chinese community. By JEAN DEBERNARDI. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 318. Maps, Illustrations, Appendix, Notes, Bibliography, Glossary, Index. doi: 10.1017/S0022463405240183

The subject of rituals as channels through which marginal groups express and manoeuvre the contradictions of social relations in the restoration of social order has been a central concern in anthropological studies. In this book, anthropologist Jean DeBernardi seeks to show how religious rituals are powerful sites through which Chinese identity is constructed, maintained and displayed in both the colonial and postcolonial eras in Malaysia. Conceptualizing Chinese religious culture as a localized and historically situated ritual practice that is shaped by an irreducible present yet deeply etched by millennia-long religious cosmology and social memory of conflict in China and Southeast Asia, the book first explores the institutions of shared worship of universal saviour gods and sworn brotherhoods during the colonial era and then moves on to the popular cults of the Tiangong (Lord of Heaven), the Hungry Ghosts, the Tua Peh Kong and Nine Emperor Gods during the post-Independence era.

Arguments about the links between religious practices, Chinese identity and the colonial social order are made in Part I of the book, covering Chapters 1-4. Here the author argues that community temples such as the Kong Hock Keong (better known amongst Penangites today as the Kuan Im Teng--the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion) and Kek Lok Si, which offered a place of shared worship; and the institution of sworn brotherhoods (or the Heaven and Earth Society or Chinese Triad), which drew on idioms of sacrality to seal membership and accord protection to early immigrants, created a sense of unity and collective identity amongst the early Penang Chinese community which quickly became used by community leaders as a means for self-governance as they competed with British rulers for control over the urban settlement. DeBarnardi's contribution here is her depiction of the marked difference between British and Chinese notions of authority, religion and the sacred, as well as the resilience of Chinese religious culture in transforming itself in the face of British efforts to circumscribe the power of local religious activities. For instance, she shows how sworn brotherhoods--a localized offshoot of the Heaven and Earth Society which originated as a popular rebellion against alien Manchu rule in China--could not be eliminated even though outlawed by the British, as these societies reformed themselves into the various temple organizations and 'registered' clan societies found in Penang today.

The entwinement between Chinese religion and postcolonial nationalist politics is explored in Part II, Chapters 5-8. Focussing on the revival of popular cults such as the Lord of Heaven, Hungry Ghost Festivities, Tua Peh Kong, and the Nine Emperor Gods in Penang since the 1970s, the author explores how religious rituals around these cults expressed an on-going dialogue of interpretations of the past and the present. Here DeBernardi shows how imaginaries around these popular religious cults, and the performance and display of divine powers and ritual symbolisms, not only reproduced past collective memory of struggle and power but also served to instil a sense of shared identification and pride over cultural tradition among the Chinese community as they found themselves under increasing pressure to assimilate into a Malay(sian) nation that prioritized Malay language and cultural identifications.

The volume's contribution lies in its use of both history and anthropology to meticulously examine the rich and complex world of Chinese history, mythology and identity, thus elucidating the heterogeneous beliefs, myths and values transmitted and made anew by religious symbols and rituals amongst the Penang Chinese population from the 1800s to the present. While the book succeeds in showing how religious culture is both a product and a producer of the social relations of history, power and identity, at the same time perhaps more could be done to better elucidate the types of human agencies and social groups and conditions behind the resurgence of religious cultures in both the colonial and postcolonial eras. This point is perhaps even more pertinent in the postcolonial era where complex internal social stratification as well as trans-ethnic identity politics have occurred, with impacts on patterns of religious beliefs and ethnic identifications within the Chinese community in Malaysia. While the author does acknowledge differing religious perceptions within the Chinese community, such as those who still regard religious rituals as meaningful versus politicians who support them in order to garner public support and those who frown upon them as wasteful and superstitious acts, it is however never quite clear who these groups are and/or what are the particular motivations for their differing beliefs. This point notwithstanding, this is a rich study of Penang Chinese religious culture. The glossary of Chinese (Mandarin and Hokkien) terms is useful and this volume will be a complementary addition to the subject of Penang Chinese religion.


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Author:Lan, Goh Beng
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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