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  • From Text to Context, from symbols to culture

    Posted on September 28th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    Geertz starts with Balinese cockfight to illustrate local culture in Bali; Darnton takes the story of cat massacre as the epitome of French society in 18th century. I believe they may be the good examples of, in Cronon’s word, “storytelling” as they are vivid and lifelike and keep to be informative. I especially enjoy the section about Geertz and his wife ran away from police, and locals pretended to have tea all day with them. (The cat massacre one is interesting as well, but as a cat owner who need to leave my kitten at homeland, I can’t really enjoy this one….) They both show the anthropological approach that can be applied to historical researches. However, as Chartier states in his article “Texts, Symbols, and Frenchness”, there are many questions for this approach needed to be considered, such as issues of materials sources, multiple meanings of a symbol, mobility of words and symbols.

    Although there are some questions, I think it is good to have those cats and cocks as “a point of entry that gives us access to the comprehensive of a culture in its entirety.” (p.685) because “culture” is omnipresent and thus it is hard to get. Just as Chartier says ““cultural objects” are not of the same nature as the serialized data studies by economic history or demographic history…Culture cannot be considered as a ‘level’ of some social entity resembling a three-story house because all interpersonal relationships are of cultural nature, even those we qualify as ‘economic’ or ‘social’” (p.683) I agree with Chartier’s concerns about anthropological approach, but I do think the way that starting with a thing and narratives around this thing, is an option to catch broader culture context.

    So for me, the question is, how to make an interpretation of a symbol as accurate and informative as possible as I can to avoid most questions which Chartier raises. For now, I think the answer of this question can track back to the degree of knowledge about the context of that symbol. Knowing the context more comprehensive may be helpful to make such a cultural work.

    In addition, the reading this week reminds me that I used to do a small similar study of a symbol: a wedding ring. Last year when I first met my classmates in the US, I noticed that some married females wear two rings on their ring fingers, and I never saw this way to wear rings as people usually wear just one ring in East Asia. I studied the meaning of wedding rings and found those little rings carry a board narratives about marriage, family and westernization. Long story for short, thousand years ago in China, imperial concubines wore rings to indicate “do not touch me” during their periods. Traditionally, Chinese people exchange jewelry ornament including bracelet, earrings, necklace and pendant for wedding; rings were not the symbol of marriage. The jewelry ornament was provided by mother-in-law to both daughter/son-in-law, in order to show marriage was not only to connect the couple but also to connect two family. Wedding ornament was not a marriage contract, but a symbol of family property. Quantity of ornament shows the degree of richness of the two family and the degree of how these two family care about this marriage. Starting from early 20th century, rings becomes the main symbol of marriage as a westernized fashion for young people, but jewelry ornament still plays an important role in traditional wedding ceremony. Thus, during the process of westernization, people in East Asia combine engagement ring  and wedding rings, and thus only wear one ring in daily life.


    17 responses to “From Text to Context, from symbols to culture” RSS icon

    • Hung-Yin,

      First of all, I feel sad that you had to leave your cat in Taiwan! You are welcome to come over for tea and cat therapy any time.

      One thing about a symbol is that it is always going to mean more than one thing. Even in Darnton’s exploration of the cat as a symbol, he states they were not just associated with evil; they were associated with femininity and also protectors of the house, and all of these things contributed to the “joke” of the cat massacre. So yes, I agree with you that it is important to have as much context as possible when interpreting symbols. I do question whether we can ever truly know if an interpretation of any symbol is “factually accurate,” however.


    • Hi Hungyin,

      I too am sorry you had to leave your cat in Taiwan! Having lived on a farm for many years, animals play an important part of our everyday life. My husband has 25 pet cows and 15 pet goats – and they are pets! We also have a couple of dogs, but no cats right now. Although, I too found the cat massacre story very hard to read.

      I really also appreciate your explanation of wedding rings! I have often wondered, on the other side of the Pacific from you, why East Asians only wore one wedding ring. I thought the ring itself might have a western origination but I wondered why just one ring. My daughter-in-law who is a first generation Taiwanese American has an engagement ring, but she doesn’t often wear it. 🙂 Thanks for the cultural lesson!

    • Hungyin,
      Thanks for the education lesson on the use of wedding rings. I really appreciate this, because I have often been asked this very question on when and why rings were used in wedding ceremonies, especially when doing living history programs for the 18th and 19th centuries. This just goes to show the importance of the use of symbols to people. When we can learn more about a people’s culture, it can bring lots more information to light and in doing so, tell a much richer story of their past. Thank you again for your help in shedding light on the use of wedding rings.

    • When the apprentices of a Paris printing shop in the 1730’s held a series of mock trials and then hanged all the cats they could lay their hands on, why did they find it so hilariously funny that they choked with laughter when they reenacted it in pantomime some twenty times? Why in the 18th century version of “Little Red Riding Hood” did the wolf eat the child at the end?

    • I usually never liked reading articles on blogs
      but for this blog I want to say that this writing really forced me to try and do it!
      Thank you, very good article.

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