Margery Wolf, now a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Iowa, accompanied her then-husband Arthur Wolf doing anthropological fieldwork in Peihotien, a village in northwestern Taiwan in the late-1950s. In 1990 she published an article entitled “The Woman Who Didn’t Become a Shaman” in the American Ethnologist about a woman who was eventually judged to have gone crazy or to have been possessed by a ghost pretending to be a god. That article is reprinted in book form by the ever-tenedntious (at least about Taiwan) Stanford University Press as A Thrice-Told Tale, along with a short story based on the same events that Wolf wrote thirty years earlier and fieldnotes about the events. These are the three tellings.
In all of them, Wolf is more willing than the villagers to believe that Mrs. Tan is as authentic a “shaman” (as she mistranslates dang-gi; it should be spirit medium since the dang-gi does not control the spirits but is controlled by them) as any other one — since she appears to believe that none are.
In her short story a flood results from not believing Mrs. Tan was possessed by a god. In the journal article Wolf makes Mrs. Tan the victim of sexism, suggesting that a man who behaved in the same way would have been accepted as a dang-gi. There are a number of reasons to reject this conjecture. For one thing, Mrs. Tan spoke in the first person as herself rather than the god while she was supposedly possessed. One lapse into speaking as himself while supposedly possessed ended the credibility of my coauthor [of Taiwanese Culture, Taiwanese Society and Looking Through Taiwan] village’s dang-gi after decades of being accepted, while Mrs. Tan’s “trances” seemed counterfeit from the beginning.
Moreover, no one knew of the god that Mrs. Tan claimed was possessing her. Possession by a new, previously unknown god requires especially close scrutiny and all but guarantees a presumption that a ghost rather than a god is involved. Wolf writes that “we never did get a name for this god who needed a special paint job (with half his face black and half white) but still looked and acted very much like Shang Ti Kung [?] to some of the people in the village who knew about such things.” Unanswered questions about who the possessing god is make it difficult for a manor a woman to be accepted as an authentic dang-gi in Taiwan. Within the general belief system there, ghosts and demons can also possess someone, and it is necessary to make sure that it is a god (or goddess).
Although Wolf provides one instance of the god seeming to know something that Mrs. Tan probably did not know, she does not provide any instances of cures or other evidence of efficacy of the god/dang-gi.
Wolf is much less interested in natives views than in gathering evidence for female victimization. She claim that “Chinese women” (the category in which she places Mrs. Tan) lose their personal names at marriage. Perhaps this is true in Hong Kong, but it is not true for Taiwan. If Wolf looked at graves she could see this.
In addition to the three tellings, Wolf comments on the genres (i.e., short story, fieldnotes, journal article) and the trendy trinity of topics from her subtitle. I have already suggested that her analysis of the case of Mrs. Tan is biased by a predisposition to fit everything into a model of female victimization. Embracing postmodernism would dissolve the reality of female victimization (along with other analytic categories), so Wolf rejects it.
She also seems to reject ethnographic responsibility. It could be argued that Wolf’s only responsibility is to women and to fitting facts into the explanatory mould of male oppression. However, I think that Wolf should have some responsibility to Taiwanese. The first responsibility is not to deny the people their name: Taiwanese. It is ironic that someone who gets worked up about the obliteration of identity by the substitution of another name (a woman’s husband) renames and thereby obliterates Taiwanese identity so that she can present herself as studying “Chinese society”, “China”, and even “a Chinese village”. Like her ex-husband, Margery Wolf cannot be satisfied with having studied anything so insignificant as Taiwanese culture. Although Taiwan has a larger population and geopolitical significance than many places studied by anthropologists, the Wolfs use data from Taiwan (even Japanese data) to speak about the timeless essence “Chinese culture.” Calling Taiwan “China” legitimated the rule by the Chinese minority of the Taiwanese majority (under martial law at the time the Wolfs were there).
Another example of Margery Wolf’s ethnographic irresponsibility also involves her in obliterating identities. It sometimes serves her purposes to consider her Taiwanese field assistant the author of the fieldnotes, so that there is more than one perspective in the book. Not only is this Taiwanese woman not a coauthor, but as a character in Wolf’s various tellings, she is given a Beijinghua pseudonym (“Wu Chieh”). Unlike Western experts, even the renamed woman does not rate any entries in the index. It is hard to believe that Wolf could believe that local authorities did not know who the foreigners employed to ask questions for them. By not making “Wu Chieh” the author even of the fieldnotes in a book published 30 years later, Wolf is not protecting “Wu Chieh.” She is only monopolizing credit for the fieldwork to herself. I think that “Wu Chieh” could make a rational decision about whether she wants her name on her work, and that Wolf’s rationale is hypocritical. Genuine ethnographic responsibility would have involved giving the natives (at the very least “Wu Chieh”) an opportunity to review the claims Wolf makes. (It probably also would have saved her the false claims about women’s personal names.) There is no evidence in this book that Wolf made any attempt to find out what happened to the women she is continuing to use to make her American academic reputation (notably Mrs. Tan and Wu Chieh), or what the view in Peihotien now is of what happened 30 years earlier.
Note 1: I drew considerably on Keelung Hong’s familiarity with Taiwanese beliefs about possession, and would list him as a coauthor of this posting if there was a way of doing so.
Note 2: Margery Wolf once wrote a far-more sensitive book about Taiwanese villagers, House of Lim and a book about Taiwanese women stressing their agency, i.e., that they were not (when she was there assuming she was in China) just victims, Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan.