Kenneth Dean's Bored in Heaven is a wonderful film, the culmination of a remarkable 20-year study of popular religion on Fujian's Putian plain. As Dean and his script-writing daughter Cora make clear in a brief essay that accompanied the conference presentation, their main goal as filmmakers was to explore realms of ritual sensation in a way that invites the audience to be immersed in and overwhelmed by the tastes, colors, smells, and sounds of the festivities that dominate life in Putian during the six-week period of New Year's celebrations. As they describe it: “Our purpose is to invite you into the ceremony, to invite the audience to stand alongside the festival celebrators, not merely in front of them, staring, but to engage. Fireworks explode, firecrackers bang, and gangs of children run wild—as the viewer you are just another face in the crowd, perhaps even a participant in the excitement generated by those loud explosions and bright colors.”1 This effort to draw the viewer into the hurly-burly of the celebrations can be connected to what Kenneth Dean sees as “the point of the film” as a demonstration of “the cult of performativity,” whereby everybody in the community—like the bored God of Theater who would rather be playing himself in operas on earth than residing quietly in Heaven—has a part to play.

It is the communal rather than the individual experience of ritual that is the subject of Dean's film. His rich knowledge of and insights into Chinese popular religion are based on a two-decade survey of 750 Putian villages, published as a two-volume, 1,000-page study in 2010.2 As he notes in the conference essay, all 750 villages perform rituals at the same time throughout the six-week New Year's period (5). In the film, Dean and his collaborators focus on a smaller 400 square kilometer region of the plain that comprises a single ritual alliance made up of six villages. Ritual alliances are geographically bounded, with borders that are periodically reinforced by processions of gods and their worshippers, but they are also incredibly complex: a single temple (Shaoyi) houses 30 gods, a mere fraction of the 1,200 gods said to enjoy worship in Putian. The richness and complexity of communal ritual expression in that single ritual alliance provided, Dean says, his principal cinematic difficulty. And making sense of that rich complexity may be the chief hurdle confronting the viewer of Bored in Heaven as well. So how does Dean bring order to the kaleidoscopic representation of communal ritual excitement, and how well does it work from the viewer's perspective?

Dean renders experiential commotion into cinematic order by dividing his film into six sections. “Chinese New Years” introduces the religious life of the Putian plain, where traditional irrigation-based temples and ritual alliances have been successively reshaped by Maoist suppression and capitalist hypermonetization. “The Theater God's Story” introduces one of the most magnetic of the plain's many gods, one who prefers the exuberance of life on earth—where, for him at least, all the world really is a stage—to the bureaucratic stodginess of Heaven. “Processions” moves from a celebration of one god to a more general consideration of how to worship all the gods. By exploring ritual as “a speeding up of the everyday flow of money and gifts,” this section underscores the exchange relationship between gods and worshippers, and provides a cinematic lexicon of the principal constituents of popular religious rites: feasts, spirit money, incense, altars, sedan chairs, processions, and—always—opera. It puts these elements into motion by explaining how and why the Putian rituals work: how a god's full power is unleashed when moved from its altar to a sedan chair, how the visual and sonic ebullience of rituals—the colors, foods, fire crackers, cymbals—attract the gods and scare away evil spirits. And finally, it describes the social matrix of ritual performance, as individual families and lineages compete to show their gods to the best advantage, even as the entire community and its gods process protectively around the boundaries of the alliance. Although everyone in the community participates in the rituals, their principal directors and performers are the highly disciplined Taoist masters and the legions of young spirit mediums. As portrayed in “Taoist Rites,” the Tao masters call upon their sophisticated mastery of liturgical texts, ritual dances, and the burning of precisely phrased documents and talismans to convey requests and orders to and release the powers within the gods. Equally important are the “Spirit Mediums,” trained in and selected from among fraternities of young men to become vehicles for the uncontrolled eruptions of cosmic power. All participants in the communal New Year's celebrations—spirit mediums, Tao masters, altar associations, spirit soldiers, Confucian rite masters, and the entire community in their individual and lineage roles—come together in the final section on “The Ritual.” There, the gods are moved from their altars to sedan chairs and are carried through all six villages of the alliance, greeted by crowds burning spirit money and accompanied by fire-walkers, entranced self-flagellators, ritual masters, and the cacophony of music and opera.

Sectioning the film does provide the foundation of a narrative order, but in the view of this waihang (outsider), more is needed for the viewer to make sense of this rich visual feast. If the main objective is to convey a sense of the exuberance of Chinese ritual, then the film can stand on its own, and brilliantly. But if viewers, especially viewers unfamiliar with the fundamentals of Chinese popular religion, are to get the most out of the wealth of information packed into Bored in Heaven, then they will need a textual guide. The well-wrought voice-over narration serves that role to some extent, but it all goes by too quickly; in fact, I was halfway through my first viewing before I realized that the film was divided into sections. And I did not really grasp what Dean and his collaborators had in mind until I read their conference essay. As I see it, then, there are two reasons the film needs a supplementary text: because it is too rich, and because at the same time the cinematic medium alone is intrinsically limited.

To start with, the embarrassment of riches, any one of the film's sections (and when I screen it in class I will probably show just a few sections at a time) illustrates fundamental features of Chinese popular religion that cry out for further elaboration. For example, while “Processions” can indeed be seen as a cinematic lexicon of Chinese ritual, the entries in that lexicon (spirit money, incense, Tao masters, and so on) would be more meaningful if they were explained and elaborated on in an accompanying text. In a classroom, the teacher can provide these explanations, but any teacher like this reviewer will also need to seek some textual background. Moreover, Dean hopes his film “will reach beyond classrooms to interest people who, I think, will see through this an utterly unexpected side of Chinese life” (5). But to bring that audience beyond surprise to comprehension, a clear “Guide” to the movie—a textual lexicon and essay, perhaps online—would be invaluable.

By the intrinsic limits of the cinematic medium, I mean two things. First, a film can only show what the filmmaker has footage of and so can only be a partial representation of the situation. For instance, we are told in the narrative voice-over that women increasingly form altar associations for the worship of local goddesses. But the film itself conveys the impression that religious life in Putian replicates the kind of patriarchy we associate with traditional Chinese society. Where women are shown in active roles, it is with paring knife or broom in hand, cooking or cleaning up while the men whirl and twirl and officiate around them. To fill in this cinematic gap, an explanatory text would be ideal.

Second, film is an imperfect medium for presenting an argument, better at making visual assertions than at carefully considering the evidence. For example, the film insists that villagers now perform their rites with more spectacle and extravagance than before, as “ritual excess mimics, transforms, and reworks the excesses of global capitalism.” But from the very beginning of the imperial era, the Chinese state has fretted about the social, financial, and even sexual excesses of popular religious festivals. So it may simply be that worshippers in Putian have recovered the excitement of earlier times, re-creating an exuberance that was temporarily interrupted by imperialism, civil war, and Maoist rule. If that is the case, then it would be necessary to reconsider the contribution of global capitalism, but it is difficult to engage in that kind of reconsideration of the evidence in the context of an 80-minute film. Similarly, the film asserts that temple alliances form “a second government” in Putian, a layer below the party-state that provides material in addition to spiritual services in return for communal support. But we are also told that these temple alliances, which mapped onto the irrigation system, played a central role in traditional governance of the region. So are we seeing a new phenomenon or a return to traditional practice, as the extreme—but temporary—hypercentralization of the Maoist state gradually fades away?

It would be awkward to use the film as a way of engaging these questions, but I have little doubt that answers could be found to both questions—the periodization of ritual extravagance and unofficial government—in the 1,000-page survey of Putian ritual life on which the film is based. With that, I will allow myself a bit of an assertion: as rich as this marvelous film is, transforming its visual content into “thick description” would require the combination of film and text. And because this film is so very good, and the two-volume Ritual Alliances of the Putian Plain so very long, it would be a great boon indeed if Dean were to provide a brief but meaty “Guide.” I would buy it and assign it and the movie in a heartbeat, and I do not even teach religion.

  1. 1

    Kenneth and Cora Dean, Conference essay (2012), 7.

  2. 2

    Kenneth Dean and Zhenman Zheng, Ritual Alliances of the Putian Plain, Two Volumes. Leiden: Brill, 2010 .