Chinese temple networks in South-East Asia

Chinese temple networks in South-East Asia

Temples, rituals and the transformation of transnational networks

an ethnographic study of the revival of the interconnections between Southeast Asian Overseas Chinese temples, native-place and common surname associations and their founding temples and ancestral halls in coastal Southeast China.

For six centuries, a vast overseas Southeast Chinese trading empire spread from the coast of China all around the coastal ports of Southeast Asia,  replacing the earlier established Arab trading networks that had extended all the way from the Gulf of Arabia to the port of Quanzhou in Fujian, China. The new Fujian Minnan (Hokkien speaking) coastal trading empire was built up through the extension overseas of several social and cultural institutions which structured local society in the Minnan region. These included temples dedicated to regional deities and lineages, native place association and brotherhoods, and a distinctive form of Chinese capitalism. This network expanded in size and complexity in the 19th century, when migrants speaking Cantonese, Teochow, Hainanese, and other dialects established their own communities and institutions in Southeast Asia.  

Over the past 30 years, this entire network, which evolved differently in the distinct countries of Southeast Asia, has turned its energies back towards China – sending substantial remittances to family members back home, and investing tens of millions of dollars in factories, schools, hospitals, and other facilities in their home towns and villages in Southeast China.  They have also invested millions of dollars for the reconstruction of their founding temples, ancestral halls and Buddhist monasteries, many of which were destroyed or damaged during the Cultural Revolution.  Beyond paying for repairs, they have also subsidized rituals and religious processions. What is more, many Chinese overseas business leaders have returned to participate in village rituals, sharing their ritual knowledge and often introducing ritual changes that took place within Southeast Asia.

Across China, and especially in Southeast China, over a million temples have been rebuilt. This restoration of these localized but simultaneously transnational cultural networks is a major phenomenon in world history, but it has scarcely been studied. Inside the Chinese temples in the ports of Southeast Asia were the huiguan (the native place merchant associations), which handled the business of the community. This project seeks to map the spread of these temple networks across Southeast Asia, and to examine the ways in which these networks have been revitalized in the past 30 years.  These flows of capital, local ritual knowledge, trade linkages, and cultural ties present unique features that can enrich the theoretical understanding of transnational networks.

In this project four research teams will conduct ethnographic research over five years in sites across Southeast Asia (South China, Vietnam, Burma, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore). The research team will meet in annual workshops, leading to a final interdisciplinary conferences, in which new research findings and new theoretical insights will be developed into monographs and edited volumes. GIS maps of the network, with linked image databases and textual information, will be developed into an open, public, interactive and searchable website to allow stakeholders and the interested public to access information on the network. The project will reveal an unexpectedly complex and heterogeneous dimension of China’s interaction with Southeast Asia, beyond simplistic and nationalistic models of the spread of Chinese “soft power”.  

This project will result in  several volumes of focused ethnographies on specific links in the Chinese temple network in Southeast Asia, centering on the role of ritual in bringing the community together and fostering a wide range of interactions including business dealings within closed groups, generation of trust through collective participation in and funding of rites and processions, collective expression of “Chinese” identity, and the range of interactions with surrounding communities and political agencies.  These studies will provide new understandings of the inner workings of the most central institutions in Overseas Chinese life, the Chinese temples, and explore the rise of Chinese self-identification within evolving Chinese communities across Southeast Asia.  The sites for focused ethnographies will include Chinese temples in Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines.  Issues that will be studied include the returned Chinese in Vietnam, and new assertions of Chinese identity through the building of large temples, huge statues of deities, large-scale processions in Indonesia and Thailand and Vietnam.  Other themes will include the development of unique cults to local deities in Southeast Asia such as the Nine Emperor cult in Thailand (Phuket Vegetarian festival) and the cults to Lin Guniang in Pattani and Zheng He in Indonesia. In addition, following the method of multi-sited ethnography, researchers will explore the transnational networks that developed out of specific temples and lineages in “qiaoxiang (Chinese overseas) villages” in Fujian and Guangdong by visiting their branch temples and lineage halls situated in several ports across Southeast Asia.  The project will thus explore the broad range of activities and functions of the Chinese temple network in Southeast Asia. This project will give policy makers, businessmen and scholars new insight into current developments in the South China sea, while deepening historical and ethnographic understandings of the region.