AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 303

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Session 303: How Stuff Works: Ritual, Technology, and the Question of Efficacy in East Asia

Organizer: Grace Y. Shen, Fordham University, USA

Discussants: Andreas Janousch, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Spain; Grace Y. Shen, Fordham University, USA

The idea of “ritual as technology” emerged from several critical moves in anthropology, but recently historians of technology have also studied the ritual aspects of everything from automobiles to super-colliders. Little, however, has been done to push these metaphors and see what, if anything, they really have to offer historians of East Asia. It is increasingly clear that technology neither works nor signifies in the same way everywhere, and that, when it does, it is often because the environment has been molded to suit its needs. Ritual, on the other hand, seems as integral to processes of knowing, doing and making as symbolic meaning. In a sense, ritual and technology are both manifestations of local desires, and they entail complex ordering mechanisms to authorize, verify, and communicate their successful operation. Taking this as our starting point, we ask what the study of ritual and the study of technology can offer one another. In particular, we want to examine how we (and our actors) know when something works, what this suggests about reality and truth claims, and how aesthetic, material, and symbolic elements shape these constructions of efficacy. We begin with three empirical cases spanning China, Japan, and Korea that explore the implications of bringing ritual and technology together as analytical categories. Two discussants, one emphasizing ritual and the other technology, will engage these papers and pose larger methodological and conceptual questions for discussion by the entire panel and the audience, who will also have access to pre-circulated papers.

The Transformation of Nourishing Life in Early Modern Japan
Juhn Y. Ahn, University of Michigan, USA

In Japan, before the Tokugawa period the key to nourishing life was sought either in medicine or ritual technologies for replenishing depleted ki or vital energy such as regulated breathing and sitting in quietude. But fears of stagnation (todokoori), accumulations (shaku), and worms began to displace these earlier fears of depletion during the early half of the Tokugawa. An unprecedented attempt was thus made by Tokugawa intellectuals (Zen masters, samurai, doctors, and Confucian scholars alike) to question the efficacy of these earlier technologies of nourishing life. As a solution, many of them similarly emphasized the importance of self-regulation in nourishing life and reframed the question of efficacy as a question of identity. They also extended the boundaries of nourishing life to include such unlikely technologies as sword-fighting, koan meditation, and manual labor. The aim of this paper is to make sense of how and why this happened. To do so, this paper will focus on the writings of Takuan Soho, Yagyu Munenori, Hakuin Ekaku, Kaibara Ekken, and Yamamoto Tsunetomo and situate their writings in the context of a set of important social policies issued by the bakufu and the new socio-economic landscape of early Tokugawa Japan. What this paper will thus ultimately try to present is an argument for approaching the changes that occur to the understanding of the efficacy of ritual/technology as something other than just a shift in perspective, belief, or rationality. They are, this paper argues, shifts that occur at the level of being, experience, and history.

Choson Cannibalism: The State and Ritualized Consumption of Human Parts
Se-Woong Koo, Stanford University, Bangladesh

In Choson (1392-1910) there were two categories of cannibalism. One was harvest and consumption of body parts from others against their will. Another was willing sacrifice of one’s own body for the sake of close family members. Although the fundamental action and intention of the two types were the same – to take human parts and use them for healing – the attitudes elicited by them from officialdom were markedly different. Those who abducted victims and butchered them were condemned by the ruling elites and sought for punishment. The authorities objected to cannibalism not because of human parts’ perceived lack of medical efficacy, but because of the violence against society whose moral values were threatened by the unapproved procurement and consumption of human parts. The power of humans as medicine was undeniable, but that power was to be correctly channeled to buttress the existing socio-political structure whose foundation was morality. Without such mediation, the grossness of flesh and organs could not be rendered palatable. In this paper I examine the function of ritual in the practice of sanctioned cannibalism. Embedded within the period’s widely circulating pictorials on virtue was a court-prescribed manual on self-mutilation, detailing everything from the preceding portent, the type of affliction to cure, the manner of mutilation, to the method of ingestion. Ritualizing consumption of human parts transformed the meaning of a behavior ordinarily thought reprehensible, and tamed its violence in service of the agenda of the state that oversaw it.

Style and Efficacy in Qing Rainmaking
Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke, The College of Idaho, USA

This paper focuses on a rainmaking method that was created by a county magistrate named Ji Dakui (1746-1825) and disseminated widely among local officials in the late Qing dynasty. Judging from the number of times it was revised and published in the late nineteenth century, it was one of the most popular official rainmaking texts of its time. This paper will explore how efficacy was constituted in and through Ji Dakui’s rainmaking method. Specifically, this paper will treat efficacy as an effect that was produced by certain features of the method’s style – its unifying narrative, its historically reflexive quality, its physical arrangement, its codes of participation, its technical complexity, and so forth. The paper will suggest that Ji’s method was essentially self-authenticating, in the sense that it established its own criteria and conditions for efficacy that could then only be fulfilled through its proper performance. As a result, the paper argues that Ji’s method boasted an efficacy that was unique among rainmaking techniques and suggests that ritual efficacy– and perhaps all efficacy – depends on a similarly complex interaction among aesthetics, narratives, performances, and the past.