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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

East Asian Studies
Professor of the Anthropology of China
Email address: 
+44 (0) 1223 335146
Fellow of: 
St John's College
Director of Studies at: 
St John's College

I was born in Beijing and grew up in Beijing (1968-80) and Hong Kong (1980-89) (hence the Anglicised Cantonese romanisation of my Chinese name). I did my undergraduate studies in anthropology at Williams College in Massachusetts, the top-ranking liberal arts college in the United States (BA 1993). Then graduate training in anthropology at Stanford University (Palo Alto, California) followed (PhD 2001). After having lived in the US for more than a dozen years, I came to the UK in 2005 and taught at Oxford (Chinese Studies) and SOAS (anthropology) respectively before coming to Cambridge in 2008.

I am or have been:

  • External examiner of PhD theses (in anthropology unless otherwise indicated) for the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS); University of Lancaster (religious studies); Australian National University (ANU); the University of Griffith; University of Oxford; University of Paris (Nanterre); École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE; Chinese Religion); Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB); University of Leiden; University of Oslo.
  • Grant applications reviewer on occasions for the French National Agency for Research (Agence Nationale de la Recherche), the National Research Fund (Luxembourg), the Hong Kong Research Grants Council, Israel Science Foundation, etc.
  • Book manuscript reviewer for Cambridge University Press, University of California Press, Harvard University Press, University of Hawaii Press, University of Washington Press, Oxford University Press, Peter Lang, Routledge, Duke University Press, etc.
  • Article manuscript reviewer for Ethnos; Minsu quyi (Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theatre, and Folklore); Modern China; Journal of Asian Studies; Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies; Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute; The China Journal; Daoism: Religion, History and Society; The Asia-Pacific Journal of Anthropology, etc.
Teaching responsibilities: 

Professor Chau teaches courses on Chinese culture and social anthropology

Supervision information: 

Professor Chau is happy to supervise research students in the areas of Chinese religious and ritual life; social and cultural change in contemporary China; Chinese environmentalism; the local state; urban renewal; China and the overseas Chinese and other topics relating to social anthropology of contemporary China.

Research interests: 

Chinese religions, especially their social aspects; ritual theory; hosting as an idiom of social practice in Chinese religion and politics; forms of powerful writing; subjectification; social and cultural transformations in contemporary China; the Indonesian Chinese returnees (yin’ni guiqiao 印尼归侨) in China and Hong Kong.

As an anthropologist of Chinese religion, my scholarship is aimed at three different audiences: those scholars and students in socio-cultural anthropology, Chinese Studies and religious studies. The confluence of these three scholarly areas (i.e. socio-cultural anthropology, Chinese Studies and religious studies) is particularly productive, allowing me to synergise topical foci and theoretical approaches from diverse sources and disciplinary traditions. One of my scholarly and out-reach ambitions is to stop people from asking the question: How many religions are there in China? I would like them to ask instead: How do people 'do religion' in China?

In the mid- and late 1990s I conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Shaanbei (northern Shaanxi Province, in the Yulin and Yan’an prefectures) on the cultural, social and political aspects of the revival of popular religion in rural China during the reform period. The results of that research have been published in a monograph (Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China; 2006, Stanford University Press) and a series of journal articles and book chapters. In the past few years I have done some sporadic short-term fieldwork research in Taiwan on temple festivals. A number of research questions interest me, from the more traditional question on the social organisation of temple festivals (e.g. the idiom of rotational hosting of festivals amongst a cluster of communities) to questions on the relationship between ritual and technology, the ways in which these festivals exemplify a particular kind of sociality, the inter-meshing and articulation of multiple socio-cultural forms, etc.

Whatever else religion might be, I have found it useful to conceive religion as a social technology. It produces particular kinds of subjectivity (and sometimes not) and mobilise communal energy. One’s relationship to God (or deities, spirits, etc.) is but one idiom amongst many through which people ‘do religion’. I have also found it fruitful to compare and contrast ways of doing religion in different religious cultures. For example, I am examining the intriguing question of why it is the case that while in Chinese religious culture people host spirits (deities, ancestors and ghosts) in Christianity people are hosted by God.

In the summer of 2016 (Sept) I participated in a workshop co-organised by my colleague Dr Joe McDermott dedicated to training young scholars in reading primary sources to understand late-imperial local society. 

One of my current projects is editing a volume entitled Chinese Religious Culture in 100 Objects. This project is under the auspices of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (SSCR), with contributions from an international team of more than 100 specialists on religion amongst Chinese communities. I am also completing a few book projects: monographs on hosting in Chinese political and religious culture; ghosts and ancestors; treasuring written traces (惜字紙); co-authored monographs on spirit mediumism in Shaanbei and 'spheres' (界) in China.

I supervise students for both MPhil and PhD research. Current and past students have worked on a wide variety of topics: the financing of the local state through land sales; the PRC’s bilingual policies for minority nationalities; political factors in the pricing of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy in contemporary China; economic development and religion in a Shanxi Catholic village; overseas Chinese students' luxury consumption; urban re-development and city branding; the rise of vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan; court practices in contemporary urban China; Chinese-language schools and the re-sinicisation of the Sino-Thai; self-portraits in contemporary Chinese avant-garde art; neighbourhood dance groups and contested urban spaces; Haier in India; migrant workers' protests; the development of heritage culture in a local town in Shandong; the registration of householder Daoist priests; the late Qing government's policies towards the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia; mainland Chinese immigrants in a new town in the New Territories of Hong Kong; the culture of wine drinking and connoisseurship in contemporary urban China; Hui transnationalism in contemporary China; civil society and popular bloggers; the contemporary Chinese painter LIU Ye; Chinese foodways in the era of the internet; Tibetan Buddhism amongst the Han; the worship of the Yellow Emperor in contemporary China; etc.

Current PhD students

Jiankang Gao: Development of Chinese Clan Associations in Southeast Asia
Di Liu: Pristine Dignity in Troubled Times: The Connoisseurs and Connoisseurship of Ming Furniture in Peking from 1930 to 1950
Shoufeng Liu: Mechanisms of Economic Practices in Contemporary Chinese Popular Religion: A Case Study from Mount Jingzhong
Fuyuan Luo: Working title: Beyond Polarities: The (Re)making of Tibetan Buddhism in Contemporary Chengdu
Mengyuan Tian: The contemporary cult of the Yellow Emperor in Henan
Jie Wang: The Arabic Language and Transnationalism amongst the Chinese Muslims
Gennie Zhang: House of Goddesses: The Livings Need Light, The Goddesses Need Meat—Explorations of ‘Chinese Ritual Kinship’ and Picturing Rituals in Chinese Popular Religion Research

Past Projects

Articles, Book Chapters etc

A Most Awkward Sphere: The ‘Religion Sphere’ (zongjiaojie 宗教界) in Modern and Contemporary Chin Cornell Contemporary China Initiative (CCCI) Lecture Series - 23rd April (2018)
Culinary Subjectification: The Translated World of Menus and Orders HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 4, issue 2 pp. 141-160 (2018)
Of Temples and Trees: The Black Dragon King and the Arbortourists International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage vol. 6, issue 1 (article 8) (2018)
Human Organs in Oil Tank Trucks: An Extractology Anthropological Forum, vol. 27 pp. 402-421 (2017)
La channeling zone : religion populaire, État local et rites de légitimation en Chine rurale à l'ère de la réforme (The Channeling Zone : Popular Religion, the Local State, and Rites of Legitimation in Rural China during the Reform Era) Gradhiva: Revue d'anthropologie et d'histoire des arts, No. 16 pp. 156-177 (2012)
Mao’s Travelling Mangoes: Food as Relic in Revolutionary China Past & Present, Volume 206, Issue suppl_5 pp. 256–275 (2010)
An Awful Mark: Symbolic Violence and Urban Renewal in Reform-Era China Visual Studies, volume 23, issue 3 pp. 195-210 (2008)
The Sensorial Production of the Social Ethnos, volume 73, issue 4 pp. 485-504 (2008)
The Politics of Legitimation and the Revival of Popular Religion in Shaanbei, North-Central China Modern China, vol. 31, issue 2 pp. 236-278 (2005)