Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts,  and Masculinity on the Margins  of Chinese Society
288pp. October 2010
Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society
Author: Boretz, Avron;
Demon warrior puppets, sword-wielding Taoist priests, spirit mediums lacerating their bodies with spikes and blades—these are among the most dramatic images in Chinese religion. Usually linked to the propitiation of plague gods and the worship of popular military deities, such ritual practices have an obvious but previously unexamined kinship with the traditional Chinese martial arts.

The long and durable history of martial arts iconography and ritual in Chinese religion suggests something far deeper than mere historical coincidence. Avron Boretz argues that martial arts gestures and movements are so deeply embedded in the ritual repertoire in part because they iconify masculine qualities of violence, aggressivity, and physical prowess, the implicit core of Chinese patriliny and patriarchy. At the same time, for actors and audience alike, martial arts gestures evoke the mythos of the jianghu, a shadowy, often violent realm of vagabonds, outlaws, and masters of martial and magic arts. Through the direct bodily practice of martial arts movement and creative rendering of jianghu narratives, martial ritual practitioners are able to identify and represent themselves, however briefly and incompletely, as men of prowess, a reward otherwise denied those confined to the lower limits of this deeply patriarchal society.

Based on fieldwork in China and Taiwan spanning nearly two decades, Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters offers a thorough and original account of violent ritual and ritual violence in Chinese religion and society. Close-up, sensitive portrayals and the voices of ritual actors themselves—mostly working-class men, many of them members of sworn brotherhoods and gangs—convincingly link martial ritual practice to the lives and desires of men on the margins of Chinese society. This work is a significant contribution to the study of Chinese ritual and religion, the history and sociology of Chinese underworld, the history and anthropology of the martial arts, and the anthropology of masculinity.

16 illus., 2 maps

“A marvelous success. [Boretz] provides an important new voice in focusing on the central themes of violence in Chinese religious practice which is all too often ignored in favor of textual emphasis on harmony. He also provides exceptionally rich ethnographic detail taken from almost twenty years of participant observation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Boretz subtly connects religious beliefs and practices with literary traditions and their modern-day manifestations. He introduces locations, religious practices, and people with a vivid eloquence that makes the reader feel like he or she is there—one can virtually smell the temple incense at the turn of each page. . . . One of the best anthropological explorations of Chinese or Taiwanese religion that I have read.” —Journal of Chinese Religions (39, 2011)

“The book covers many significant themes in Chinese studies, and one finds numerous insightful observations in the main text as well as in the footnotes. This beautifully written ethnography will not only appeal to anthropologists and other specialists of Chinese religion but will also attract a wide readership interested in popular culture and everyday life in Chinese society.” —China Journal (67:1, 2012)

“In very readable prose Avron Boretz presents us here with an excellent analysis of a Chinese subculture in which violence, both real and ritual, plays an important role. His study is based on extensive fieldwork over many years in Taidong (eastern Taiwan) and less intensive in Dali (Yunnan) as well. As he points out, it was not obvious to the people he met that their martial deities, ritual exorcisms and spirit soldiers deserved scholarly attention. We might add that the same is true of the academic world in general as far as China is concerned. We are lucky that Boretz thought otherwise and has provided us with this detailed and fascinating ethnography.” —Pacific Affairs (85:2, June 2012)

“Boretz has written an important and highly readable ethnography of Chinese popular religion, martial arts culture, and masculinity. The book should be essential reading for scholars and graduate students interested in Chinese popular culture and folk religion.” —China Review International (17:2, 2010)

“A unique achievement. . . . The book contributes rich materials for anthropologists thinking about East Asia, gender, violence, religion and the entire spectrum of topics linked to social control or ‘governmentality.’ Indeed, the book has a clear interdisciplinary appeal as well, providing an abundantly nuanced ethnographic catalog of things classically criminological and deviant, all firmly contextualized in their native historical and sociological habitat.” —Asian Anthropology (10, 2011)

"This is a magnificent exposition of a social world that was heretofore inaccessible to outsiders. Boretz provides both vivid description and insightful analysis of religion among the marginally criminal element in backwater areas of Taiwan, as well as among villagers in rural Yunnan. His presentation is lively, his mastery of the material is thorough, and his agile blend of relevant findings from anthropological and sinological literature makes this a delightful read." —John McRae, Hachioji, Tokyo

"Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters is among the best ethnographies of China I have ever read. It is a model of anthropological writing that is at once engaging as literature and theoretically sophisticated. The author’s deep and thorough engagement with the people whose experiences he analyzes has resulted in a fascinating study that contributes greatly to our understanding of Chinese society. The decision to undertake extensive—and difficult—field work in two remote regions of Taiwan and Yunnan suggests that the nexus of ritual, violence, and masculine identity extends through much of the Chinese cultural sphere. Riveting and pathbreaking, the ethnography is thick with detail that will be extremely important for scholars working on such diverse topics as ritual, martial arts history, the construction of masculinity, and Chinese father-son relations." —Meir Shahar, Tel Aviv University, author of The Shaolin Monastery

Author: Boretz, Avron;
Avron Boretz is program director at the United Board, based in Hong Kong. Prior to joining United Board, he served for ten years as a member of the Asian studies faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.
Read the introduction (PDF).
Note on Translation and Use of Foreign Terms

1. Introduction
2. Violence, Honor, and Manhood
3. Taidong: The Mountains and Beyond
4. Fire and Fury
5. Tales from the Jianghu
6. Wine, Women, and Song
7. Conclusion: Faces of the Gods