Date of Award

2014

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Communications and Arts

Faculty

Education and Arts

First Advisor

Christopher Kueh

Second Advisor

Rob Giblett

Abstract

Based on an ethnographic study of the religious life of ordinary people in the town of Dongpu, this research explores the relationships between: religion and state power; Chinese ritual (li, 礼/禮) tradition and Christian culture; and religion and intangible cultural heritage in contemporary China.

This research found that both the practitioners of Chinese rituals and the Christian community deploy tactics to resist and negotiate with the hegemonic official culture through spatial and religious practices in their everyday life. Chinese ritual practices dedicated to deities and ancestors are defined as idol worship in the doctrine of Christianity and denigrated as feudal superstition in the official discourse of scientism, materialism and atheism. The contrast between Christianity as an orthodox religion and Chinese ritual practices as feudal superstition contributes to the religious hegemony of Christianity over the Chinese ritual tradition, thus rendering most Chinese rituals as lacking in status, although some Chinese rituals have gained legitimacy as intangible cultural heritage. The practice of intangible cultural heritage in contemporary China is subject to the global heritage movement spearheaded by UNESCO and China’s domestic political, cultural and economic agendas. Ordinary people deploy tactics to negotiate with the local/state power in response to the practice of top-down imposed intangible cultural heritage, thus gaining the legitimacy of practicing these rituals.

This research presents a poetics of ordinary people’s everyday life. The religious life of ordinary people is foregrounded and exerted as a self-evident entity and heterogeneous culture. This study demonstrates that everyday life can become a cultural experience of alternative modernity and an arena of cultural autonomy. Religious life is never simply equivalent to the homogenising ambitions of any power, such as capitalism, atheism or materialism. The practice of intangible cultural heritage is a process of selecting the ‘heritage in perception’ (i.e., heritage identified and safeguarded based upon UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage) from the ‘heritage in essence’ (i.e., heritage as the self-evident foundation of ordinary people’s everyday life). The safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage channelled from top-down may give rise to cultural hegemony due to the classification of intangible cultures into superior and inferior resources according to the official discourse of developing an ‘advanced culture’ and the principles of a market economy. The expert-centred mechanism of intangible cultural heritage identification rules out the cultural autonomy of genuine inheritors of intangible cultural heritage. Additionally, the identification of the intangible cultural heritage as a narrowly understood territorial property causes conflicts between nations and regions. This may stop the transmission of cultures among ordinary people and undermine UNESCO’s initial agenda of promoting the cultural diversity around the world.

Freedom in religion consists in the establishment of a civil society in which the autonomy of people’s cultural practices and religious life is achieved through democratic negotiation between the ruling government and the masses. It is until then that religious culture can be practised and transmitted as a self-evident ordinary culture and intangible cultural heritage by ordinary people in their everyday life.

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