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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.


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