Synopses & Reviews
The story of religion in China since the economic reforms of the 1980s is often told through its destruction under Mao and relative flourishing thereafter. A Time of Lost Gods offers a different history of the present. Drifting across a temple, a psychiatric unit, and the homes of spirit mediums in a rural county in the Central Plain, the stories here dwell on the sense of hollowing in the absence of Mao. Among those who engage in spirit mediumship in this rural county, Chairman Mao's reign marked not only earthly rule, but an otherworldly time, an exceptional interval of divine sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos. The accounts here convey what it is to experience the present as a postscript to such an interval.
According to the mediums, the Chairman's death inaugurated the return of gods and ghosts, none of whom can be fully trusted, as they now mirror the duplicity of the human realm after market reforms. Those who live in this haunted era must work to discern between the true and false, the virtuous and malicious, amid a proliferation of madness-inducing spirits. At the same time, there is also a sense that the new world--the promised world of the socialist vision--has yet to arrive, across waves of policies that pledged to improve the rural lot. Caught between a fading era and an ever-receding horizon, the contemporary cosmology registers the national imaginary of a land-locked agricultural province "left behind" in a post-Reform regime of value, while refiguring the rural as a potential ethical-spiritual center, awaiting apocalyptic renewal. After a long century of exasperated responses to the threat of colonial seizure, the stories here tell of patients, spirit mediums, and psychiatrists caught in a shared dilemma, in a time when gods have lost their way.
Traversing visible and invisible realms, A Time of Lost Gods attends to profound rereadings of politics, religion, and madness in the cosmic accounts of spirit mediumship. Drawing on research across a temple, a psychiatric unit, and the home altars of spirit mediums in a rural county of China's Central Plain, it asks: What ghostly forms emerge after the death of Mao and the so-called end of history?
The story of religion in China since the market reforms of the late 1970s is often told through its destruction under Mao and relative flourishing thereafter. Here, those who engage in mediumship offer a different history of the present. They approach Mao's reign not simply as an earthly secular rule, but an exceptional interval of divine sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos. Caught between a fading era and an ever-receding horizon, those "left behind" by labor outmigration refigure the evacuated hometown as an ethical-spiritual center to come, amidst a proliferation of madness-inducing spirits. Following pronouncements of China's rise, and in the wake of what Chinese intellectuals termed semicolonialism, the stories here tell of spirit mediums, patients, and psychiatrists caught in a shared dilemma, in a time when gods have lost their way.