A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost after Mao. Emily Ng, Oakland: University of California Press, 2020, 224 pp.
In the Time of Lost Gods opens with a refusal. Zheng Yulan, a spirit medium in Hexian, a town in China’s Henan Province, rebuffs Ng’s efforts to engage with her as an ethnographic subject. Drawing parallels between the cosmic and the prosaic, Zheng notes the American qualities of Ng, the ethnographer, and ends the conversation by gesturing to the words of Chairman Mao: “Righteous deities remain righteous. Chairman Mao said that one can’t allow thieves to rob and steal. If they enter your home, is it not the same? China is an impoverished nation … and you? You are in America. You will marry into America. This, then, all becomes hard to say” (p. x). This struggle speaks to something broader, on the cosmic-historical scale, “of a China and a US brought face to face once again, this time through the figures of anthropologist after diaspora and the spirit medium after Mao,” writes Ng (p. xii).
In opening with a snub, Ng foregrounds an ethnography that dwells on multiple themes of refusal. Henan Province, in China’s interior, is a land that Ng finds increasingly forgotten. There has been a huge brain-drain as the young have exited in droves to pursue lives in the more economically developed coastal areas. Rural reforms have stalled, inequality has risen, and those left behind dwell in inertia. To situate her project here, notes Ng, “is to dwell on what it means to allegorically embody a humiliated and humiliating centre, a petrified and petrifying core” (p. 30). In this center, she finds a place that is out of time. It is a place that stands at a temporal tangent to the long march of progress that has happened elsewhere. Hexian is a town of ghosts, a place where the past floats spectrally in the present, where mediums offer a cosmological reading at odds with the materialist now.
According to the spirit mediums that Ng engages in her ethnography, the death of Mao ushered in more than the end of the socialist planned economy. Instead, the “time when Mao reigned”––a common refrain amongst the mediums––was “an exceptional interval of divine sovereignty, after which the cosmos collapsed into chaos” (p. 4). Mao’s death precipitated a return of spirits and monsters. The hollowing of Henan, the failed promise of economic reforms, and the distrust bred by a rapacious free market, are rendered not as the inevitable consequences of post-socialist development, but rather as the consequences wrought by capricious spirits.
This cosmological reading of events, of spirits unleashed as the market takes hold, bears an ironic resemblance to the “animal spirits” of the market theorized by John Maynard Keynes (1936). Cai Huiqing, a woman whose domestic life is in tatters, finds that the root of her problems is that her husband, a cross-country truck driver, has accidentally crashed into a ghost. Her son is failing in Beijing; he is divorced, and the mother of his children won’t let him visit them. Her daughter in Shanghai is approaching 30 and remains unmarried. Cai dreams of her own birth mother, but rather than interpreting this dream in Freudian terms we are offered a spectral reading: The medium tells her that this was a visitation by a ghost pretending to be her mother, who is trying to save her own son who has been a haunting presence around Cai’s home for some 70 years. For the spirit mediums in Lost Gods, thus, Cai’s family’s troubles are more than disjunctures in the rise of the market. They are caused by the disturbed ghosts unleashed by the cosmic imbalance brought by Mao’s death.
Market reforms have given birth not only to manifest material changes in the lives of Ng’s interlocutors, but it has also precipitated the resurgence of religion, spirituality, and the development of psychological services generally in society. Self-help books and courses are increasingly popular in China. Therapy is starting to become widespread. The work of anthropologists of the country increasingly focuses on this shift in subjectivity. Ng seeks to problematize this reading to argue that the seemingly inevitable march of progress, from Maoist revolution to market-conditioned inner revolution, elides what is happening on the margins.
In Hexian, she travels not just to the homes of mediums or the temple square where they congregate, but also to a psychiatric facility. There, she shows that even in the seeming fortress of the psy-disciplines, ghosts penetrate. Cosmological readings of disorder interact with those offered by the psychiatrists, and even the medical professionals themselves are conversant in the claims of the mediums.
Ng states that one of her interests in traveling to Hexian is to explore the possibility of “learning from other grammars of madness” (p. 20). Keeping in mind Foucault’s contention that the pervasive spread of the psy-disciplines naturally forecloses the possibility of understanding madness as a lived experience, she sees potential in Hexian to engage a different understanding of madness. By the end of her investigation, while she is not sure whether what she has experienced has really constituted such a hearing (p. 149), she has discovered multiple regimes of truth, temporalities, and cosmologies that coexist and interplay for her interlocutors.
Ng has also managed to transcend the logic of teleological progress. By traveling to China’s hollowed center, she has shown that what remains is more than just the forgotten stragglers slow to adjust to the market. Instead, here is a land that is still wedded to the failed dreams of the Mao era, that still conjures his memory and sees his end in the dramatic rise of malevolent spirits. The ghostly specters of Lost Gods are more than glimpses at a lost era. They are the echoes of broken promises.
At one point in the book, Ng lingers on the figure of Wu Dongliang, an entrepreneur and artist she encounters in a southern metropolis. Another ethnographic refusal: There are no mediums in China, he tells her, emphatically. Better travel to Germany, he suggests, where such things are kept in archives (p. 25). But in Hexian, Ng shows that mediums do exist in China. They are “mediums of the historical present––of multiple temporalities that collide in the present––recrafting ever shifting terms, remaining on guard” (p. 151).
Lost Gods is a beautiful meditation on temporalities. It shows that eras never truly end. For anthropologists interested in China, it offers an alternative reading of the reform era and a reminder of what it means to live in the long shadow cast by Mao. For all anthropologists, it asks us to reconsider our understanding of history as lived experience, to question again our understanding of ghosts. To live in flux, to inhabit change, is also to live among the remnants of all the unresolved dreams of the past. The socialist ideal lives on in pockets, hushly invoked by mediums watching the flicker of incense smoke. These continued imaginaries form constituent parts of the contemporary. We are our ghosts.
Keynes, J. M. 1936. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan.