Dr. Raymond, P. Ambrosi – Interconnections amongst Folk Religions, Civil Society and Community Development

Meihua Boxers as constructors of social trust and the earth-bound public sphere

Name: Raymond P. Ambrosi

Country: Canada

Affiliation: Peking University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Field: Anthropology

Academic and Professional Background:

Raymond Ambrosi’s  Anthropology PhD, (Peking University)  examines the interconnections amongst folk religions, civil society and community development.  Fieldwork for the dissertation included two years living in Minghe village in rural Hebei. This work built on his Geography Master’s thesis on sustainable rural development that examined the role of folk martial arts in cultural tourism, and later work in Japan that focused on religious festivals, folk martial arts and community cohesion. Ray holds undergraduate degrees in anthropology and geography and worked for several years in government and research institutions in Canada. He is currently a researcher, consultant and writer based in Beijing. Hobbies include, quite expectedly, martial arts, yoga and various exercise modalities, photography, videography, and hiking and outdoor activities. His research interests include: grassroots cooperative associations, social trust, civil society, sectarian religions and their role in development of civil society, martial arts and connection with religion and identity. Regional interests include: rural north China, Canada prairie regions, rural communities in Japan. 

Research Areas: meihuaquan, martial arts, earth-bound social sphere, agrarian social sphere, civil society, social trust, folk religion, sectarian religion, Hebei province Yongnian County.

Suggested Readings: 

2010 Original News Story

2011 News Release that is Prelude to the 2012 Documentary

2012 Documentary

 Current Research projects

 Meihua Boxers as constructors of social trust and the earth-bound public sphere

For many centuries, grassroots martial arts and sectarian religious organizations have played an important role in the social and cultural lives of villagers on the North China Plain. Yet these organizations, commonly branded as “heterodox sects”, have long been shrouded in misunderstanding with their positive and stabilizing social function largely overlooked by modern scholarship. This ethnographic study examines one such sectarian group, the Plum Flower (meihuaquan) boxers in Minghe village, Hebei, to show how the group’s engagement in martial arts and religious ritual is playing an important role in building networks of social trust and expanding the earth-bound public sphere. Meihuaquan adherents, describing their sect “The Way of the Poor”, believe that following sect teachings will accumulate spiritual merit and that cooperation among rural people will lead to a “harmonious society”. The sect is comprised of two parts, a Wǔchǎng Martial Field – the exciting activities of which attract and engage many followers and which serves as the public face of the sect – and a Wénchǎng Ritual Field that embodies many annual and life-stage rituals that serve to enhance adherent’s faith, and engage them in cooperative sociality.

The religious and martial arts activities and rituals are compelling to villagers and function to embed adherents in the horizontal social networks that they clearly realize are desperately needed after decades of government policy that made grassroots social organization illegal and denied people access to traditional institutions and the venues by which they could participate in public life and achieve a sense of belonging and dignity. The revival of meihuaquan martial arts, and related religious rituals promote cohesion within families, within villages and interconnect geographically- distant villages and meihuaquan communities. Sectarian organizations like meihuaquan gain new members because the sense of community significantly enriches the lives of members by proffering expanded opportunities for leisure and fun.

The internal cohesion and enlarged social networks engendered by martial arts and ritual activity enables meihuaquan believers and supporters, who comprise large segments of the village, to undertake, for the first time in decades, cooperative efforts in order to improve public life in the village. Such efforts included teaching martial arts for free, building a village library and not-for-profit school, snow and garbage removal, and paving roads. The group has begun take on a broader function as a nascent civil society that provides badly-needed grassroots social welfare functions in rural society.

Understanding the basic structure and function of such grassroots organizations in rural society may help these rural cultural institutions develop their capacity to undertake community-based, not-for-profit efforts that will lead to improvements in the social and cultural lives of rural people.