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In Session: Silence, Solitude, and Social Change in Contemporary Asia
4: Silence, Censorship, and the Three Deaths of Fengzhen
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
Boston University, United States
Successful silencing, as a form of censorship, means that the censors have no way of knowing what we are thinking. They enforce solitude by keeping us from socializing our thoughts and feelings, but they lose access to those thoughts through that very process. This paper explores three silencings of a Chinese woman named Fengzhen. The first took her life, the second destroyed her materialized divinity, and the third ended her ritual remembrances. Each was the product of a different set of social changes. Her suicide at age 18 grew out of disputes on the factory floor during the height of China’s market expansion. She was given new voice later when a spirit medium determined that she had become a goddess. By the time her statue was installed, however, the rural villages and temples of her world were about to be bulldozed. The goddess Fengzhen was buried in a mass grave and could not be re-embodied because there was no place to house her. Nevertheless, rituals continued in a Daoist temple on her birthday until 2019, when the modernist Daoists forbade them in an attempt to clean up “backward” customs – a third “death.” She possessed her living aunt that day, but Fengzhen had no words – she just wept all day long. With each silencing Fengzhen’s thoughts became more opaque, until we are left with only her tears. Like censors, anthropologists cannot hear her thoughts; like pale reflections of spirit mediums, however, they still attempt to explain.