Incense seeing (guanxiang), despite being outlawed as “feudal superstition,” is a form of spiritual healing and fortune telling widely found in China. Faced with a competitive market-oriented economy and profound social changes, millions of Chinese seek help from incense seers for diverse everyday problems in attaining a good life, ranging from health to marriage, education, career, and business success. Based on 17 months of fieldwork among seers and their customers in Xia County, Shandong Province, this talk explores how incense seeing deals with “empty sickness” (a state of being unwell attributed to the power of spiritual beings and Chinese geomancy) and helps people grapple with hope-related mental distress and conflict through “affective therapeutics” — healing people’s negative emotional states through religious practices. I begin with an overview of my book project, which offers an ethnography of lived hope bound up with religious practices in an authoritarian regime. I will then focus on marriage pressure to examine the hopes held for others as an important form of everyday hope and its affective impact on people. This talk contends that the concept of “hoping else” (those who not only hold hopes for others but sometimes impose them on others) enables us to depict a more balanced account of hope that moves beyond the romance of hope in the current literature on hope, and opens up a series of new questions that future anthropological research might fruitfully explore.
Ray QU is a cultural and medical anthropologist born and raised in a small village in North China’s Shandong Province. His research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of medical anthropology, the study of religion, anthropology of hope, historical anthropology, and global health studies, focusing on the health and wellbeing of marginalized social groups in China. His scholarly work has appeared in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (forthcoming), American Anthropologist, and Modern China.