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The Life and Religious Culture of the Freshwater Boat People of North China, 1700-Present

  • Author(s): Lin, Ching-chih
  • Advisor(s): Johnson, David G
  • et al.

My dissertation examines how environmental change affected cultural transformation. It investigates the manner in which the mobile, isolated boat people adapted to a boat-dwelling lifestyle and created innovative religious practices and beliefs in order to maintain their relationships with spirits and ancestors, as well as dispersed lineage members, given that they had no fixed base on land to build temples, ancestral shrines or tombs. The subjects of the study are the boat-dwelling people who frequently moved back and forth within the Grand Canal basin between southwest Shandong and north Jiangsu in late imperial and modern China. These boat dwellers were displaced from their land-based estates and became environmental refugees during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The isolation of the boat people protected their unique religious activities from the anti-religious campaigns of the twentieth century. Their ritual tradition Duangu Ceremony was granted the status of National Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China in 2011. I argue that despite the distinctive lifestyle and religious culture of the floating community, some significant elements of religious belief and practice of boat people remained unchanged, transcending differences in occupation, social status, and environment for centuries. With the assistance of ritualists within the floating community, these boat people endeavored to continue their genealogies and maintain ancestor worship, practices that were equally important to farmers. These shared components can help us rethink core elements of Chinese popular culture, previously based on farmers' experiences, and discern which features are the most significant in Chinese popular religion and how and why they play such vital roles. More importantly, core cultural elements have been resilient and resistant to environmental change.

To compensate for the scarcity of historical sources, I conducted fieldwork in a fishing community in the Weishan Lakes of Shandong, to document their lifestyle and the complete process of religious ceremonies during 2008-2010. This project not only contributes to our knowledge of Chinese popular religion, previously limited to the farming population, but it also opens up our understanding of voiceless boat people and environmental refugees as subalterns of the past. The lessons learned can be taken forward into possible crises of rising sea levels associated with global warming, which may create more environmental refugees. Learning about ways boat-dwelling changed lifestyle and culture in the past may help us prepare better for the future.

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