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Steps of Perfection

Steps of Perfection

Exorcistic Performers and Chinese Religion in Twentieth-Century Taiwan

Donald S. Sutton

ISBN 9780674010970

Publication date: 11/30/2003

Despite Taiwan's rise as an economic force in the world, modernity has not led to a Weberian process of disenchantment or curbed religiosity. To the contrary, other factors—social, economic, political—have stimulated religion. How and why this has happened are central issues in this book.

One part of Taiwan's flourishing religious culture is the elaborate and colorful procession of local gods accompanied by troupes of musicians and dancers. Among them are performers with outlandishly painted faces portraying underworld generals who serve the gods and punish the living. Through their performances, these troupes claim to exorcise harmful forces from the community.

In conducting fieldwork among these troupes, Donald Sutton confronted their claims to a long history—when all evidence indicated that the troupes had been insignificant until the 1970s—and their assertions of devotion to tradition given the diversity of performances. Concentrating on the stylistic variations in performances, the author describes the troupes as organizations shaped by the "market forces" of supply and demand in the culture of religious festivals. By focusing on performances as the nexus of market and art, he shows how bodily performance is the site where religious statements are made and the power of the gods made visible.


  • This is an excellent study of Taiwanese religious culture. Combining a thorough knowledge of Chinese historical and religious writings with camcorder ethnography, Sutton explores the face painted 'ghostly generals'—the entourage of the Five Emperors/Plague Gods that 'step the void,' dancing cosmic patterns of Daoism in modern Taiwan...This important work proves that Taiwanese culture must be understood as distinct from Mainland China culture.

    —F. B. Bessac, Choice


  • Donald S. Sutton is Professor of History and Anthropology at Carnegie Mellon University.

Book Details

  • Harvard University Asia Center