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Timely signs, dominance, and vernal celebrations in late imperial Southern China

An exercise in anthropology in the past tense
Signes du temps, domination et célébrations printanières dans la Chine du Sud de la fin de l’époque impériale. Un exercice d’anthropologie au passé
Göran Aijmer
p. 237-250


The aim of this essay is to contribute to the anthropological exploration of “traditional culture” in the Chinese south. Focussing on a description of one early-spring celebration in a township in Jiangxi Province, it suggests that these ceremonies are connected only superficially with local society and therefore lack a local message. A brief comparison suggests that there was nationwide conformity in the staging of these ceremonies, a degree of conventionality pointing to a single common origin —the discourse of the imperial state. Supreme dominance was articulated in ways that made the idea of the omnipotent emperor blessing his country manifest locally. Historically foreign to local southern societies, the festival was concerned with political incorporation, while still maintaining a degree of social alienation in that its main rituals were performed by the local state administrators alone. Demotic responses in local southern cultural contexts were limited and different.

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Jiujiang ethnography
Discussions and comparisons
Final words

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In this essay, I wish to draw attention to a limited area of minor importance in southern China in an attempt to explore how, in one particular location, people observed a specific phase in the passage of the year. The prefecture of Jiujiang 九江府 or “Nine Rivers” is situated in the Lake Poyang area in the province of Jiangxi, on the southern side of the middle stretch of the wide Yangzi valley. The capital town was once known as the main port for exporting porcelain goods manufactured further inland. I have chosen this place at random and, as far I know, it has not been researched before by scholars with anthropological leanings. The intention behind this present endeavour is to learn something new about local society in southern China by way of a careful reading of the lapidarian historical ethnography left to us in the “gazetteer” compiled for this location. My examination of this report has been informed by an approach that allows for a symbological interpretation.

The ...

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Bibliographical reference

Göran Aijmer, Timely signs, dominance, and vernal celebrations in late imperial Southern ChinaCivilisations, 69 | 2020, 237-250.

Electronic reference

Göran Aijmer, Timely signs, dominance, and vernal celebrations in late imperial Southern ChinaCivilisations [Online], 69 | 2020, Online since 01 January 2024, connection on 18 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Göran Aijmer

Göran Aijmer is professor emeritus and former chair of social anthropology at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and currently associated with the Gothenburg Research Institute of the University. His research focuses on symbolic expression and articulation in fields like politics, economy and religion. His regional projects have concerned Southern China, Southeast Asia, and Melanesia. One of his books, New Year celebrations in central China in late Imperial times (2003), is a symbolic anthropological study that made a new contribution to the study of the Chinese annual religious cycle. In more recent years, he has published a series of articles concerned with ancestor worship in Southern Asia. [goran.aijmer[at]]

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