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Making Bored in Heaven: A Film about

Ritual Sensation

This essay discusses the making of the documentary film Bored in Heaven: A Film about Ritual Sensation (2010). We
first discuss our theoretical framework, then following the content and organization of the film, we provide historical
and ethnographic context on the return of the gods to Southeast China over the past few decades. Throughout the
essay, we discuss how the film was made in order to enter into and respond to realms of ritual sensation within an
overall, overwhelming ritual event, collectively performed by villagers in this part of China. Different sections reflect
on camera angles, length of shots, montage, narration, rhythm and breathing, overstimulation and spectacle,
alternative temporality, shamanic possession, and cinematic form. The conclusion discusses key themes of the flow
of affect within communal self-expression and the future of local ritual. [Daoist rites, processions, ritual sensation,
spirit possession]

Introduction practice of archiving was taking on a new dimension.

Their research had already veered into new technolo-

ored in Heaven: A Film about Ritual Sensation gies, for example, using GIS (Geographic Information
(2010)1 follows New Year celebrations in Putian, Systems) and remote sensing technologies to build up a
Fujian, Southeast China. An experiential project three-dimensional (3-D) mapping project of procession
based on over 20 years of research by Kenneth Dean routes and irrigation systems that led to new under-
and Zheng Zhenman, this film illustrates the growing standings of the local development of Daoism and spirit
intensity of local traditions, as rural villages and their possession in Southeast China and the spread of these
temples transition into a new century. Villages in this ritual traditions across Southeast Asia. Through film, it
part of China are undergoing radical transformations. was possible to draw all of these different aspects of the
As land that was once public and agricultural is rebuilt archival process together to document strong, socially
and changes hands, the intricate temple system has conscious local ritual traditions that predate contempo-
responded. During the Cultural Revolution, temples rary global capitalist economic structures, and which
were torn down—now they are being built up into ritual are quite capable of negotiating the forces of modernity
alliances. The film brings the viewer into the midst of in the contemporary era. A temple system dating back
vibrant performances of local power, massive commu- hundreds of years that provides scholarships, builds
nity processions, elaborate Daoist rituals, and trance roads, and cares for the elderly and young children thus
dances by spirit mediums, all performing parts of the became the focus of our film.
overall ritual in honor of the gods. Footage was filmed over three weeks during the
The film took three years to make and went through Lantern Festival following Chinese New Year in 2007.
many incarnations and different voices.2 Kenneth Dean We had to be constantly on the move to try to cover
and Zheng Zhenman’s research in Putian, China, has led different scales of activity in different locales across the
to the documentation of ritual activities in hundreds of region. During the shooting of the film, the film crew
villages, the gathering and analysis of thousands of stayed at Prof. Zheng Zhenman’s home, in a village in
village temple records dating back centuries, plus much the Putian area (featured several times in the film). We
academic writing (Dean and Zheng 2010). However, had met many of the Daoist ritual specialists who
transitioning to a new recording device meant that the appear in the film and some of the mediums before, so

Visual Anthropology Review, Vol. 30, Issue 1, pp. 50–61, ISSN 1058-7187, online ISSN 1548-7458. © 2014 by the American Anthropological Association. DOI: 10.1111/var.12030.
Bored in Heaven DEAN AND DEAN 51

they were familiar with our research. Temple committee people coming together to express a greater idea—a
members were welcoming, and allowed us to film and kaleidoscopic approach was necessary. In her 1946
interview mediums, because they were used to our visits essay “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film,”
and knew of our long-term research in the area. Prof. Maya Deren writes,
Zheng is completely aware of the dates and places over
Chinese New Year’s Lantern Festival in which different In an anagram all the elements exist in a simulta-
villages were holding their celebrations, making it pos- neous relationship. Consequently, within it, nothing
sible for us to film a wide range of processions, Daoist is first and nothing is last; nothing is future and
rites, and spirit possession sessions. nothing is past; nothing is old and nothing is new.
We were only one of scores of people using differ- . . . Each element of an anagram is so related to the
ent recording devices to film or photograph these whole that no one of them may be changed without
events. Such devices are now as ubiquitous as cell affecting its series and so affecting the whole. And
phones. As we note in the film, most of these images are conversely the whole is so related to every part that
circulated locally, among friends and family, via social whether one reads horizontally, vertically, diago-
media and on DVDs stored by the temples as records of nally or even in reverse, the logic of the whole is
their events (they often hire professional cameramen to not disrupted, but remains intact.3
record festivals). Our desire to broaden the distribution
of these images grows from our sense of the importance Another source of inspiration was the brilliant film
of these practices as an alternative to typical images of Sans Soleil, in which Chris Marker (1983) attempts to
Chinese modernization, rapid urbanization, environ- deal with “different concepts of time,” meditating on the
mental and labor conflict, etc. relationship between memory and its recording tech-
The film unfolds the different layers or spheres of nologies. “I remember the month of January in Tokyo,
the ritual event, from the vast processions around the or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month
villages, to the possessed spirit mediums and opera of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves
singers onstage, to the Daoist ritual masters inside the for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how
temple at the center of the entire ritual. These are people remember things, [people] who don’t film, don’t
concentric circles of activity that fold into one another, photograph, don’t tape” (Chris Marker 1983, Sans
and then exfoliate outward, all within a continuous Soleil). The ritual-events of the Putian plains bring out
rhythmic soundscape. To achieve this, we drew inspira- different modes of time and embodiment. Many are
tion from several experimental filmmakers. shown in this film: annual seasonal cycles of the pro-
In Raúl Ruiz’s (1995) essay “For a Shamanic cession; Daoist rites of reversal of time and return to the
Cinema,” he writes about painter Shih-T’ao’s “Six Pro- undifferentiated Dao; and spirit possession of mediums
cesses”: ways to deal with the visual world. He describes by the gods that break the normal flow of time and
six ways to approach a painting. “The sixth is known as bring an outside into the body of the medium at a level
vertigo. We enter the painting. The multiplicity of deeper than any interiority. Look into the faces and
events becomes an organic whole to which we belong in images of the mediums in trance shown in the film.
body and gaze.” For Ruiz, “Shamanic cinema implies a These are “time-images” of alternative temporalities
constant practice of both attention and detachment, an (Deleuze 1989). Chris Marker described Sans Soleil as an
ability to enter into the act of filming and return an essay about time and memory. Our film is arranged as
instant afterward to passive contemplation.” Accord- an essay that expresses an event that while constrained
ingly, within each chapter of our film, we set up a by time stands outside of linear history—an event
rhythm of intensification followed by moments of rest, repeated over centuries. As Gilles Deleuze put it, “this is
allowing the audience to regroup and contemplate the the apparent paradox of rituals, they repeat an
images before being swept up in the next event. unrepeatable” (1994:2, translation modified).
It is easy to engage viewers by telling individual (Figures 1–4).
stories about individual people; however, for the pur- We used entirely ambient sound or music recording
poses of a film about communal expression—multiple in situ throughout the film—these develop what we call

Cora Dean is a writer living in Montreal. Her recently published collection of poetry is entitled Shred (Les Èditions L’Hameçon,
2013). Kenneth Dean is a professor in the East Asian Studies Department of McGill University. His publications include Ritual
Alliances of the Putian Plains (with Zheng Zhengman, 2 volumes; Brill: Leiden, 2010).
52 VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY REVIEW Volume 30 Number 1 Spring 2014

FIGURE 1. Child medium possessed by the God of Theater. FIGURE 4. Medium in flames.

the “ritual soundscape” in the film. We note the impor- cations to the gods by male troupes that dominate.
tant role of all-female drum and cymbal troupes in Color, especially red colors, saturates the film. Every-
shaping the rhythm of the soundscape during proces- where the final word goes to the firecrackers and fire-
sions, but within the temples, it is the aggressive works exploding on the ground and in the air. In an
drumming, pounding of gongs, and chanting of invo- effort to provide some calm and counterbalance, we use
a continuous narrative in a fairly soothing voice to try
to contain the overstimulation of the imagery—to keep
the viewer and listener from too much sensory overload.
This is a delicate balance, and each viewer will form his
or her own opinion of the results.
There is no doubt that the film brings us into a
world of highly charged male energy, as seen in the
drumming, the chanting, the bonfires, and the feats of
imperviousness to pain of the spirit mediums. This
aspect of Yang energy is associated with the first moon
of the first month of the New Year and is balanced in the
lunar calendar by the Yin energy of the Feast of
the Universal Deliverance of the Hungry Ghosts held at
the full moon of the seventh month across the Putian
plain. By its nature, and because it is still often subject
FIGURE 2. Statue of the God of Theater. to government suppression, these rites are far less spec-
tacular in Putian (but see the documentation on these
rituals in Taiwan and Penang, Malaysia, and elsewhere
in Southeast Asia).
But beyond wanting our audience to be absorbed by
the film, we also wanted the information presented to be
digestible. We moved to a script based on three
overarching themes—festivals, ritual, and modernity—
and divided into six subsections or chapters—Chinese
New Year, the Theater God’s story, processions, Daoist
rites, spirit mediums, and the ritual—each elaborated

Key Themes
The film explores themes related to festivals, ritual, and
FIGURE 3. Old medium possessed by the God of Theater. modernity. The very first scenes present these three key
Bored in Heaven DEAN AND DEAN 53

thematic statements in script over images of exploding and the tremendous success of many Putian business-
fireworks during Chinese New Year celebrations. men across China and abroad. But for the moment,
much of the accumulated capital excess is being chan-
Festivals are held across Putian to celebrate 1,200 neled into communal celebrations. In this way, the
gods at New Year’s. Everyone in village communi- wealthy can demonstrate their status and perhaps
ties has a role to play. atone for their exceptional success.

Ritual excess mimics, transforms, and reworks the

The collective participation and generalized
excesses of global capitalism. Local communities in
performativity of the ritual events we filmed in Putian
Southeast China are brewing a new world.
make these truly communal productions. These commu-
nities are performing themselves through collective
The specific ways in which ritual events negotiate
rituals. The incredible cultural productivity of the region
the forces of modernity include mimicry (mimetic play)
is expressed through the invention of so many deities,
as seen in the burning of “spirit” money, the sacrifice of
each with its own story and powers. Dean (1998)
excess wealth in fireworks and feasting, the costly pro-
sketched out a theory of the historically transforming
duction of massive festivals, and the collective partici-
syncretic force field of ritual events and discussed how
pation of the community in them.4 Daoist rituals mimic
this has resulted in complex festivals containing mul-
court audiences. Spirit mediums act (in stylized ways) as
tiple liturgical frameworks. Extraordinarily, these
the gods who have possessed them, stretching the limits
frameworks do not generate contradictions, but coexist
of mimicry itself. These ritual events generate worlds of
in a space of doubles and transformations. This is rather
experience as powerful as those that are produced
like a dream, or the workings of a positive unconscious
within capitalism’s phantasmal worlds of advertising
free from taboos on contradiction. We were interested as
and its mediated virtual worlds.
well in the different ways in which individual partici-
pants in these events are pulled toward multiple nodes
of attraction (distinct points of view upon the entire
Chinese New Year
ritual)—and how to film this disjunctive experience.
Since there can be no overall perspective on the event as
We decided that the film should start with some
a whole, one has to be imagined—this is the perspective
contextualizing images of the canal systems to situate
of the gods who preside over the ritual as a whole (or to
the ethnographic practices. Thus, after the opening
whom the rites are addressed). Such a god’s-eye per-
statements/images, the first section of the film shows
spective provides a sense of order emerging from the
Putian from the air, and we see a proliferation of irri-
chaos of the charged ritual field.
gation canals across the coastal alluvial plain. We move
to a 3-D model of the plain to highlight this point,
In energetic rituals, the forces of the free market showing the links between the villages and the irriga-
and the power of the state are negotiated into a tion system that connects them all together. Several
celebration of local power. establishing shots show both the surrounding moun-
tains and the ancient breakwater dams along the rivers
In Ritual Matters, Dean and Lamarre (2003) that feed into the irrigation system. Some historical
discuss what makes these rituals unique—they are not information is provided in the voice-over narrative—
staged performances of “local culture” transformed by this is an irrigated plain, completely reclaimed from the
state control and the forces of a market into a tourist sea by over a thousand years of human labor. We show
commodity. Instead, the state is absorbed into the some of the canals and the temples situated alongside
ritual (as seen by the police presence in the film— them. The important role of the temples in local life has
present but hesitant and unsure of their role, as well a long history in this region of China. We explain that
as the ways in which party leaders are absorbed into the temples were the centers for the management of an
the temple management committees after they retire), intricate irrigation system that provided the basis for the
and capital is temporarily diverted into the celebra- local rice fields and vegetable gardens. The temples had
tions of local community, away from its usual to develop a system of cooperation and mutual support
deterritorializing flows and effects of undercutting to maintain the irrigation system, which was easily
social and communal values. One could argue that the disrupted by flooding, typhoons, silting in of canals, or
current efflorescence of ritual may only be happening poaching of water. The temples had to develop their
because of the rapid rise of local per capita income own system of control and punishments to keep
54 VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY REVIEW Volume 30 Number 1 Spring 2014

everyone in the area alive. This led to the creation from their links to the powers of the cosmos.” Further scenes
1500 onward of 150 ritual alliances between groups of show processions moving through piles of rubble and
villages gathered along stretches of the irrigation temples lined up all in a row next to high-rise apart-
system, all across the irrigated plain. These ritual alli- ments. The joke is told that when Mao Zedong was on
ances were based in higher-order temples that cel- earth, all the gods were frightened and ran to heaven.
ebrated great ritual processions and feasts in honor of Now that Mao has gone to heaven, the gods have come
the local gods. All this is briefly mentioned and illus- hurrying back to earth.
trated by showing a series of images of processions
through irrigated rice paddies and vegetable plots.
Next, the film presents images of polluted and
clogged irrigation canals, leading to questions about the The Story of the Theater God
role of the temples in contemporary Putian, China. If the
temples no longer manage irrigation, what is their role The story of the Theater God is told in a ritual perfor-
in a changing China? We show scenes of young people mance by puppeteers. The marionette god descends to
gathering outside a temple and others worshipping the earth because he is utterly bored by all the bureaucracy
gods inside. We state that “young people have a new in heaven. Once on earth, he parties late and drinks too
relation to Daoism and to the local gods.” We note that much: he is forbidden to return to heaven. This play,
all these kinds of local communal ritual events were embedded within the film, teaches us that we all have
forbidden during the Cultural Revolution. As late as the our parts to play and that we always have a choice: to
mid-1980s, Daoist priests were still getting arrested, delight in the performance or to merely go through the
spirit mediums were dragged off to prison, and huge paces.
confrontations took place between crowds of people Subtle animation of the God of Theater’s temple
who gathered to defend and rebuild their temples (Dean mural brings the story to life in unexpected ways. We
1993). Over the next ten years of constant struggle and used simple, desktop animation techniques to bring out
negotiation, “traditional” religion was re-created or the pure and iconic aspects of the childlike sketches—
reinvented in Putian: one can now find everything from while also working in some suggestive, slightly perverse
household cults to neighborhood cults to ritual alliances elements. Like these animations, the worlds of ritual
of higher-order processions that last for days, involve sensation are also dreamlike visions. In Ruiz’s words, “I
60 or 70 villages, and include extraordinary types of am interested in films which, wherever they occur, are
performances in ritual opera. In some areas, ritual opera in some sense unique. Handmade, homemade,
is within walking distance during 250 days out of the craftsmanlike.”5 Although we were shooting in HD, our
year. The collective ritual performances of the villages editor, Karen Vanderborght, was very interested in
of the Putian area during Chinese New Year show us experimenting with a handheld video esthetic. This
many of the ways in which local people, young and old, worked perfectly within the framework of this film and
enthusiastically celebrate their gods and local culture. contrasts with the glossy overproduced tendencies of
The incredible performativity of the local culture is tied many TV documentaries. When you are running in the
to the growing power of the temple village alliances, street with the god’s sedan chair carriers, her camerawork
which have formed a “second government” in this part makes you feel as if you were running as well.
of China (Dean and Zheng 2010). In this film, we used a rapid succession of short
This point is only arrived at gradually in the film takes, edited to highlight movements from different
through building up multiple series of shots of proces- directions toward or away from the camera in succes-
sions of many different scales, involving more and sive shots, in order to communicate the frenetic pace
more people. Different kinds of processions, official and push and pull of centers of attraction in the ritual
and religious, are contrasted. We show how the vil- field. Some longer establishing shots are used as well.
lages have become the battleground of the forces of But by contrast to the more contemplative long shots of
modernity, with many destroyed to make way for much contemporary ethnographic film, including the
urban expansion, high-speed railway lines, and indus- wonderfully sustained, paradoxical, and rich shots in
trial zones. Temples are often the last building left J.P. Sniadecki’s film Demolition (2010), our film moves
standing in the ruins of the bulldozed villages, as pro- the viewer at a rapid pace. Partly, this is an effect of the
tracted negotiations are held to discuss compensation continuous level of activity within these rituals, but it is
or to find a location to move the temple. As the nar- also a conscious decision on our part to highlight this
rator puts it, “Even the Communist Party does not dare effect. The film, at moments, picks up a pace so fast that
ignore these centers of village community power and it might be called a kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Instead of
Bored in Heaven DEAN AND DEAN 55

using a traditional, psychological plot to engage our individuals, but communities of people, and flows of
international audience, we attempted to communicate a excitement and affect.
communal experience, not the individual experiences of
particular participants in the festivals. We sought
to portray waves of transindividual movements of Processions
affect—intensity and excitement—across crowds of
participants and onlookers.6 You can watch a procession, noting all the different
Despite the wrenching effects of rapid urbaniza- elements in it, or you can get swept along by it, get
tion pushed by a powerful state apparatus, the people caught up in the excitement, and become part of it. The
in Bored in Heaven dance and celebrate and experi- film tries to do both—to present an overview of the
ence joy and pleasure in one another. This experience main elements of the festival as a whole (Daoist ritual
is easily understood, and it leaps across boundaries of masters inside the temples, possessed spirit mediums in
time, space, and media, generating a point of commu- the courtyards and lanes, opera troupes onstage, pro-
nality between the subject and the audience. As a par- cessions circling the villages, crowds forming when all
ticipant in New Year’s festivities, you are overwhelmed these groups converge and the gods return to the
by tastes, colors, and smells—we invite our audience temple)—and also to carry the viewers along and
to be immersed, rather than inviting them to judge immerse them in the activity, in the field of ritual
whether or not (or in which ways) these festivals are sensation. The narrator states: “I want to show a differ-
meaningful. Indeed, there is no effort within the fes- ent side of China—to show a procession of images
tival itself to articulate the significance of the festival that reveal the power, creativity and beauty of local
or to sermonize on the nature of the beliefs of the festivals.”
participants. This chapter of the film follows processions large
Yet for the sake of a wider audience, the need for and small, focusing on family groups, and showing an
detailed explanation was crucial—in some ways, this array of all-female drum and cymbal troupes, sedan-
film is an act of translation, the translation of a festival chair bearers who walk across bonfires, and many other
spirit that is located in extremely specific spaces, time- popular performance forms. One dimension of local
lessly. The constant stream of narration provides a communal religion that unfortunately gets little cover-
contextualization that would not have been possible age in our film is the full range of women’s roles. This
without decades of fieldwork and research. Cora’s first is because the festivals at Chinese New Year and the
draft of the script was even more experimental and First Moon Yuanxiao Festival are primarily temple-
would have included the God of Theater’s voice as based public rites, which forefront patrilineal household
narrator—an entertaining idea, but potentially not participation. We do, however, include many scenes of
serious enough. We eventually came to believe that it women working, representing their patrilineal families,
was important to incorporate Kenneth’s role as preparing offerings to the gods. Women take food,
researcher by incorporating the filmmaker completely incense, and spirit money to the temples, to be offered
into the film—in the end, we were pushed by the during the festival. They also prepare offerings and
imperative to disclose the relationship of the filmmaker place them on tables outside each home, to be blessed
to the material. We did this by showing Kenneth’s van by the gods on procession. Of course, women are often
stuck in the mud and him struggling to push it out, only seen throughout the year bringing offerings to the
succeeding when members of the procession in their temple and entering into intimate, contractual relations
costumes lent a hand. with the gods (see Hymes 2002 for a discussion of this
Our attitude toward filmmaking attempts a less modality of Chinese popular religion).
proprietary relationship between the subject and the Within the processions shown in the film, there are
camera. Our purpose is to invite you, as a viewer, into many drum and cymbal and other performing (march-
the ceremony, to invite the audience to stand alongside ing or dancing) troupes made up of women, but they do
the festival celebrators, not merely in front of them, not have central roles as Daoist ritual specialists, as
staring at them, but to engage with them. Fireworks temple committee community representatives, or as
explode, firecrackers bang, and gangs of children run possessed mediums. However, it is important to note
wild—as the viewer, you are just another face in the that there is a large group of local female spirit mediums
crowd, perhaps even a participant in the excitement who are active in contacting the dead in the Putian area,
generated by those loud explosions and bright colors. but this is generally a private, family matter conducted
We intentionally chose to stay away from a traditional in the medium’s home altar. Some women do become
documentary narrative—we do not follow single temple leaders or fundraisers for temple construction
56 VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY REVIEW Volume 30 Number 1 Spring 2014

projects. In the film, we show a group of women car- of the same extended lineage gather to worship genera-
rying the sedan chair of the goddess Mazu, and we tions of their ancestors. Thus, ritual activity pervades
mention that more and more groups of women are everyday life, and one could argue that ritual roles are
forming scripture recitation groups dedicated to the as fundamental, or more so, than kinship roles.
many goddesses of the regional pantheon. In a sequence in the chapter on Processions, we film
In this chapter of the film, we introduce informa- a balcony full of photographers, raising the issue of
tion about the temples and their gods. Most villages on spectacle and its relation to contemporary media. Ritual
the Putian plain have around three or four temples, and events are highly mediated, as the overwhelming pres-
each temple has four or five gods. Each god requires a ence of various recording devices shown in the film
ritual celebration on his or her feast day (usually about indicates. The spectacular nature of Chinese ritual (see
one a month), and all of them are celebrated together Johnson 2009) lends itself to film, video, and Internet
during the processions of the Lantern Festival during uses. Perhaps this is the return of the repressed, the
Chinese New Year. Anyone watching the film will sense revenge of popular religion, denigrated for over a
the devotion and reverence felt toward the gods and the hundred years within China as “feudal superstition” and
sincerity of the villagers and townspeople of China. The attacked as an obstacle to progress. Now its spectacular
gods and their rituals are a powerful source of faith and visuality provides a new form of fascination and thus
spirituality in contemporary China. The power and unity power in an age of rapidly circulating imagery.
of communal processions are most strikingly portrayed We end this section with superimposed images of
in scenes of vast lines of interconnected benches with multiple processions and raise the question of coher-
lanterns on top, carried around the village boundaries at ence. All human perspectives (camera angles) are
the Lantern Festival on the first full moon of the New limited. Only the gods can see the order rising out of
Year. chaos as rituals are performed simultaneously in scores
We show the members of a village temple manage- of villages across the Putian plain. This theme is
ment committee carrying the sacred incense burners of repeated throughout the film, with reference to the God
each ritual neighborhood to their home altars. The of Theater’s interaction with(in) the ritual-event.
temples collect funds from every household (a small per
capita fee) as well as much larger individual donations
from wealthy villagers (many of whom work in the Daoist Rites
cities). They use these funds to pay for the ritual spe-
cialists and for the opera performances. They also use In this chapter, we highlight performances of rites by
the temple funds to build roads, put in electricity, set up two different groups of Daoist ritual masters performing
public toilets, give out scholarships, dispense charity, similar rites at different scales in two temples, moving
and take care of the sick and elderly. The temples are the from one group to the other to show parallel move-
center of village cultural life. On normal days, old men ments. The multiple and diverse elements of Chinese
play mahjong while kids run and play around the popular religious rituals are held together by these
temple. But when rituals take place, older women arrive Daoist rituals, which provide an overall liturgical frame-
early, carrying their stools to claim a spot in front of the work that links processions of the gods, Daoist rituals,
opera stage. They explain the stories of the heroes of spirit medium possession, and Chinese opera into an
Chinese history portrayed onstage to their grandchil- overall ritual event. The Daoist ritual is at the center of
dren, who stare at the painted faces and brilliant cos- the overall ritual and is performed inside the village
tumes parading before them. temple. The Daoist ritual master invokes the powers of
The temples of Putian contain over 1,200 different the high gods of the Dao, works the cosmological forces
gods. We show one altar with over 50 god statues. Most of Yin and Yang, reverses time through a visualized
of these gods were only known and worshipped in a journey back into the undifferentiated, and then gener-
single village. Others are known all across China. Every ates a new world within the ritual space. Outside, on a
village has its God of the Earth, who protects the sacred stage facing the temple, opera is performed as an offer-
territory of the village. Births and deaths are reported to ing to the local gods and as entertainment to the vil-
him, and annual sacrifices are held in his honor in lagers. The gods of the temple are carried in a
spring and autumn, to pray for abundant crops, chil- procession around the streets of the village to each
dren, and wealth, and to give thanks for the harvest. In household and then around the boundaries of the
their homes, villagers worship their ancestors and some village fields. On larger processions, multiple village
local gods with offerings of rice and incense. Many processions merge into a vast procession around a
villages also have ancestral halls, where all the members common ritual territory.
Bored in Heaven DEAN AND DEAN 57

The Daoist rites include music, dance, and inner plains live with, not to film individual reactions to these
visualizations. We follow the former through moments events. By approaching Daoist festivals with respect,
of laughter and interaction between the ritual masters. seeking to express the delight and pleasure of New
We illustrate their visualizations with drawings from Year’s celebrations, we sought to develop a film that
local Daoist manuscripts tracing the flight of the Daoist invites the viewer to share in that excitement. The very
ritual master, riding a crane, through the stars, to the nature of film, the fact that it is instantaneous so you
court of the Jade Emperor. We show how the Daoists cannot stop and reread and think about your emotional
ritual masters place documents onto paper horses to reaction, but instead are constantly forced into the next
send to the heavens in flames. As a life-size paper horse moment, the next image, means that any film that is
and rider burns up, the narrator states: attempting to educate rather than propagandize must
strain against the confines and standards of its own
There was a Pony Express in imperial China, which medium. As storytellers, we often use characters to
transmitted important messages to and from the express different issues, and the easiest way to stir
court. The Daoists mimic this system in a vast emotion is to have your audience connect with a char-
paperwork empire with its courts in the stars and in acter and pick up on that character’s emotions. The
the underworld. All documents are prepared in trip- challenge for us was to ask how the audience would
licate. One copy is sent to the heavens, one is kept react if we encouraged them to have their own emo-
on earth, and one is sent to the underworld. The tional reactions to the rituals and festivities as a whole.
burning of documents and talismans releases the We wanted to see if it was possible to tell the story
powers gathered within them, transforming them taking the ritual-event itself as a character.
into orders to the spirit soldiers. The messages are
transmitted in the smoke, which rises to the
heavens. Historical and Ethnographic Context

Each region of China has its local culture, with its own
Spirit Mediums dialect (more like a distinct language, in that outsiders
cannot understand it when spoken, although the written
As the Daoist rites conclude, we begin a chapter on language is shared). There are many such dialect regions
spirit mediums and possession. This chapter includes in Fujian province alone, not to mention the rest of
some of the most powerful images in the film. The gods China. Only three million people speak the Putian
can possess a medium anywhere, but most mediums are dialect. They live along a long, narrow river valley that
possessed in the temple. Then they go outside the temple broadens into a coastal plain, in the two counties of
and perform feats of self-mortification (fire-walking, Putian and Xianyou. Speakers of the Fuzhou dialects to
cutting themselves with swords and maces) to show the the north, beyond a low-lying mountain range, and
power of the god over pain, life, and death. Some those who speak Minnan (Hokkien) dialect to their
mediums speak in the voice of the gods. Others form immediate east and south cannot understand their
troupes that do collective exorcistic dances. Astonish- spoken language. It is not only the dialect that is dis-
ingly, the multiple representations of the gods do not tinct. The Putian region has its own architectural styles,
provoke issues of contradiction. Instead, different rep- local cuisine, clothing and customs, opera forms, ritual
resentations of the same god can and do appear simul- practices, and even local pantheons filled with unusual
taneously, as if in a dream, or in a film.7 combinations of local gods. All of these aspects of local
A prolonged conversation between Zheng Li, a culture are illustrated throughout the film.
research assistant, and a group of young mediums and But there are many cultural forces that hold Chinese
village elders is a highlight, and an unusual moment, in culture together and provide some unity to Chinese
the film. A significant reason for this is that we were, popular religion as well. Confucian morality is still a
from the beginning, interested in how close we could powerful common value across China, and it is empha-
come to the traditional documentary format while at the sized in the hierarchical and stylized forms of ritual
same time twisting off in a new direction.8 Even the conduct seen in these rites (look for the community
interviews carried out in Bored in Heaven are not representatives in the film and watch their ritualized
designed to illicit personal responses to the rituals, but bowing, directed by the Daoist master). Another pow-
instead to gather information while revealing the limits erful unifying force is the written language and the
of what we were permitted to know. As filmmakers, we shared heritage of Chinese literature and thought. In the
wanted to illuminate the rituals the people of the Putian rituals seen in this film, Daoist ritual provides the main
58 VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY REVIEW Volume 30 Number 1 Spring 2014

underlying cosmological and liturgical framework. This rituals. Married men rotate into positions of leadership
is another major unifying cultural force across many in the temple management committee. Women prepare
forms of local communal religion in China.9 offerings to represent their (patrilineal) households, or
As mentioned in the film, the role of Chinese living participate in all-female drum and cymbal processional
overseas in Southeast Asia is an important aspect of troupes, or join scripture recitation groups dedicated to
religious life in Putian, as elsewhere across southern local powerful goddesses. Crowds of onlookers gather
coastal China. These emigrants and their descendants round, many armed with cell phones, cameras, or video
returned after the Cultural Revolution with cash and cameras. Another important point to note is that many
vital ritual knowledge, and they have played a signifi- villagers work in cities and only return to the village for
cant role in the revival of local communal religion in these ritual occasions. Young people have grown up
China. These transnational networks affect many vil- over the past 25 years in an ever-expanding ritual
lages in Putian. In such villages, space is stretched along world, so that even though many leave their villages for
networks of chain migration, and institutional innova- the cities, the ritual realm calls them back at Chinese
tions, ritual knowledge, and ritual change flow back and New Year or at other important festival occasions in the
forth within these networks, enriching the cultural rep- year.
ertoire of the Putian peoples (Dean 2011). As mentioned above, the temples in this part of
Capitalist forces have transformed village life, China have formed a “second government,” dedicating
forcing many villagers into the factories and to funding and planning to local infrastructure projects,
migrate into the cities to take part in the incredibly charity, scholarships, and cultural activities that the
rapid transformation of the Chinese economy. This has local government is not able to provide (for a variety of
had many profound impacts on Chinese social life, the reasons). Most processions are at a manageable scale
family, gender relations, and popular religion. What is and do not pose a threat to the government. In fact, in
unexpected, perhaps, is the degree to which the this area (as seen in the film), the public security forces
popular religious ritual events shown in this film show work with the temples to control crowds and traffic.
how the villagers are using their ritual heritage to These rituals are similar to medieval Christian and
negotiate the forces of modernity. Rather than simply earlier Roman and Greek religious festivals and proces-
abandoning their traditions, they perform their rituals sions. On such occasions, social roles can be inverted,
with even more spectacle and extravagance and and a poor villager can become a possessed medium and
delight. Instead of turning these rituals into a “theme speak in the commanding voice of a god. The ritual can
park” cultural showcase, everyone still takes an active be chaotic, with many different forms of sensory stimu-
part in the performances. One might have anticipated lation pulling participants one way and the other at the
that the Chinese Communist Party and the local gov- same time. Still, there is an underlying order to the
ernment would ban these performances or insist that events (Daoist masters at the center, mediums and opera
they change into nationalistic parades in honor of the outside the temple, processions moving around the
New China. Instead, official symbols are adapted and village boundaries, and individual households seeking
absorbed into the ritual performances (e.g., we show the blessings of the god). Several times in the film, we
images of Premier Hu Jintao carried in a procession), gesture toward this emergence of order out of chaos
and many local government officials and members of through the all-seeing perspective of the gods (of the
the Chinese Communist Party join the temple commit- God of Theater).
tees after they retire. They bring with them their con- Chinese popular religion continually produces more
nections and their managerial skills. The temples are and more gods, even in recent times. In contrast to
where the action is, and by participating in the temple monotheistic religions, with strict theologies defining
committee meetings, they can still maintain their the nature of the (singular) deity and the nature of the
status in the community. correct rituals with which to worship that deity, Chinese
All age groups participate, playing different roles at rituals are much more free form and open to transfor-
different stages of their lives. Everyone in the village is mation and new revelation (from the possessed spirit
expected to play a part in the ritual. Some bring offer- mediums). There is no Bible or Koran—the Buddhist and
ings from their households to set before the gods during Daoist Canons are filled with thousands of books
the ritual, or burn spirit money and set off firecrackers “spoken by the Buddha” or by “the most High Lord
when the god’s procession goes by their house. Others Lao(zi).” Notice that there is little emphasis on preach-
carry the gods, or get possessed by the gods, or under- ing or explaining the meaning of the rituals since there
take long apprenticeships to become Daoist priests, who is no set theological doctrine to explicate. Nevertheless,
communicate with the gods through their intricate underlying moral attitudes are emphasized through
Bored in Heaven DEAN AND DEAN 59

ritual means in the hierarchical relations and move- as the line snakes around a large courtyard; the shot of
ments shown by the Daoist ritual master and the com- a goddess being carried past a bonfire; the image of a
munity representative before the high gods of the Dao. medium waving his sword under a tangle of telephone
Through its diversity and complexity and its very exu- and electric wires; several images of spectacular cos-
berance, Chinese local communal religion poses a major tumes and behavior in the ritual sequences). In these
challenge to Western (Abrahamic, post-Reformation) cases, beauty is power, as shown through communal
ways of thinking about religion, divinity, and the role of creativity in the form of constantly evolving rituals of
ritual in society. excess and celebration.
Ritual activity in Putian, China, is probably more In terms of Bill Nichols’s (1991) dichotomy between
intense than anywhere else in China. This is partly for implicit argument (perspective) and explicit argument
historical reasons (see Dean and Zheng 2010, vol. 1) and (classic expository documentary), this film goes a dif-
partly because the Chinese government is allowing the ferent direction altogether. While we do provide con-
local religious scene to develop more freely because of siderable information about the footage through the
the connection to nearby Taiwan. The reinvention of the narrator’s voice, the power of the realm of ritual sen-
local ritual system, after the destruction and hiatus of sation complicates the possibility of any single perspec-
the Cultural Revolution, has taken place over 25 years. tive emerging on these ritual-events. We agree with
Now, all the levels of the ritual system can be seen, from those theorists of documentary film and photography
temples and rites of neighborhood shrines all the way to who point out the value of film’s excess—for through-
great ritual alliances combining processional troupes out this film, qualities of excess are omnipresent
from 50 or 60 villages. (MacDougall 1998; Thompson 1999; Vaughan 1992).
We used contingent events caught during filming some-
times as symbols (such as the child with albinism filmed
Conclusions climbing a pile of rubble, who slowly turns her face—
cut to a shot of people salvaging bricks from more
This film makes a claim about the continuing impor- rubble—this fleeting ghostly image suggests the return
tance and centrality of ritual activity in Chinese life. We of the uncanny, á la Buñuel) and sometimes as moments
offer images of practices of conviviality and community of resistance to, or engagement with, the filming (all the
effervescence. Within China, these kinds of documen- shots of people interacting with the camera—making
taries are starting to gain attention, especially as the faces back at the viewer).10
government moves to broaden its cultural policies and This film seeks to cast the viewer into a state of
to enshrine certain forms of “immaterial culture.” So far, sensory overload, while still showing the humanity of
however, Putian’s festivals have survived on their own the participants in these events, their joy, and their
because of their ability to negotiate both the powers of excitement. Different audiences react in distinct ways to
the state and the forces of capitalism. We show many the film. In U.S. audiences, viewers frequently ask the
aspects of these rituals to prove this claim, including “belief” question. Do these people really believe in these
showing the different scales of different aspects of the gods? What do these rituals mean? These are important
event—processions large and small, smaller or larger questions, reflecting the religious heritage and orienta-
groups of Daoist ritualists, and individual or collectively tion of many Americans, including secularized ones. In
trained groups of spirit mediums. In the final chapter of many ways, the film is designed to forestall this ques-
the film, we show these different elements coming tion and to turn it back on the questioner. If the viewer
together once more in a single ritual. We bring viewers has been touched, confused, excited, or dazed by the
close to the ritual action so they can see people inter- film, and the range of sensations it has introduced her
acting with one another (as well as with the filmmaker to, then she may be ready to think about a field of
and the camera) and playing their roles in the ritual communal ritual experience where beliefs are dispersed
(mostly with exuberance). in ritualized actions, rather than articulated as doc-
This film will stand as a record of the revival and trines. Here contradictory representations of the gods do
power of popular religion in contemporary China. It not lead to conflict, but coexist in a dreamlike profusion
offers a commentary on the history and importance of of expressive possibilities, rather similar to the condi-
these practices. As a film, it strives to bring the viewer tions of cinema itself. This is what we call the “positive
into contact with an overcharged sensory realm of unconscious” of local communal religion in China
ritual. There are several moments of considerable (Dean 2010, ch. 10).
esthetic beauty in the film (some landscape shots; the The final moments of the film raise the question of
shot of the line of linked lanterns stretching on and on the future—will these practices continue? We argue that
60 VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY REVIEW Volume 30 Number 1 Spring 2014

this kind of performance of local power and community Vanderborght, a talented Belgian independent filmmaker,
is a vital dimension of the future of China. Yet contem- to work as our cinematographer and later the main editor
porary independent Chinese documentary film has for the film.
rarely dealt with this kind of collective ritual activity. See Brian Massumi’s (2011) Semblance and Event: Activist
Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts for a description of the
When such materials are taken up in the work of more
role of affect in relation to (esthetic) experience.
mainstream filmmakers such as Jiang Yimou and Chen 7
For more information on spirit mediums and possession in
Kaige, they are often rendered as a form of dead tradi- relation to Daoist rites, see Davis (2001), Dean (1993),
tion or as a kind of exotic or feudalistic and destructive Dean and Zheng (2010), and DeBernardi (2006).
past (with some notable exceptions, such as the puppet 8
A significant distinction between Bored in Heaven and
performances in Huozhe [To Live]). Contemporary other documentaries is the fact that we use no face-to-
Chinese independent filmmakers and visual anthropolo- face interviews with outside “talking head” experts.
gists are beginning to explore this realm of activity, and Kenneth Dean and Zheng Zhenman are introduced briefly
we anticipate exciting new work in this area of ethno- but appear only sporadically on camera throughout the
graphic film.11 film.
In modern times, cultural unity is achieved by the use of
Mandarin Chinese, which is broadcast on television and
radio, and by students memorizing texts by Mao Zedong,
Notes Deng Xiaoping, and Karl Marx in school. See Schipper’s
(1993) The Taoist Body for further discussion of the Daoist
The title of the film relates to the story of the God of liturgical framework. On Chinese local communal reli-
Theater, who was bored by all the bureaucracy in Heaven gion, see Jordan (1972), Sangren (1987), Weller (1987),
and went down to earth to join in the fun (see the section Dean (1993, 2003), Chau (2005), Feuchtwang (2001),
on the Theater God’s story). Overmyer (2005), Lagerwey (2010), and Goossaert and
The idea for the film took firm hold during a conversa- Palmer (2011).
tion between Kenneth Dean’s and Zheng Zhenman’s 10
For further discussion of these issues in the context of
daughters, Zheng Jing and Cora Dean, when both women current underground Chinese documentary film, see
participated in the professors’ fieldwork (2006). Prof. Robinson (2010).
Zheng is a professor of history at Xiamen University and 11
Ethnographic film in China tends to focus on the ritual
Director of the Center for Research on Local Historical activities of “minority peoples.” As notable exceptions, the
Documents. Prof. Dean and Prof. Zheng have collabo- writings and films by Jenny Chio and Tami Blumenfield
rated on research projects for over 20 years. Inspiration deal with the complicated relations among ethnographic
for a film on their research came from the ethnographic film, cultural performance, and touristic spectacle in some
films of Jean Rouch and Maya Deren, as well as Raul communities in Southwest China.
Ruiz’s adaptation of Proust’s Time Regained (1999). If
Ruiz could translate Proust’s narrative of decades of
memory into a feature film, perhaps it was possible to
translate decades of fieldwork research into an experi- References
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