School of Social and Political Science

Iconocracy: The Sovereignty of a Statue and the Dominion of a Crown

Seminar Series
18 March 2022
14:00 - 15:30




This paper will draw on fieldwork on a ritual tradition in rural Guangdong to bring studies of Chinese deity cults into engagement with political philosophy and with anthropological theories of human-object assemblages. We will attempt to theorize a political regime of self-government ("iconocracy") in which sovereignty is vested in wooden statues and images (gods who are "kings" and “generals”) that are themselves enshrined, activated, paraded and manipulated by representative assemblies and technical experts, and that frame community decisions, negotiations and resource allocation. In an act of symmetrical anthropology, we will compare the procession of a local statue (the local Goddess Caozhu) with that of a crowned body (Queen Elizabeth II), producing mutual insights on the sacralization and operation of sovereign objects. After sketching the basic structure in the locality of the Huanghua field case, we will consider the articulations between such "polities" at the horizontal level (translocal networks of interpenetrating sovereignties) and at the vertical level (between local, regional and imperial sovereignties). Finally, we will interrogate to what extent iconocracy exists in other statuary cultures, and discuss the implications for theorizing the political power of assemblages of images, objects and people in contemporary society. 


David A Palmer (PhD, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris) is Professor jointly appointed by the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Department of Sociology of the University of Hong Kong. His award-winning books include Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Religion in China (Columbia University Press), The Religious Question in Modern China (University of Chicago Press, co-authored with V. Goossaert), and Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality (University of Chicago Press, co- authored with E. Siegler). His articles have been published in journals such as Current Anthropology, American Anthropologist, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Journal of Asian Studies, and Modern Asian Studies. He leads the Asian Religious Connections research cluster at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.


Martin M. H. Tse is HKU Presidential PhD Scholar at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Hong Kong. He has collaborated with David A. Palmer as Research Assistant, Assistant Lecturer and MPhil student since 2014 and is currently co-authoring a book with him on a Daoist/Buddhist ritual tradition in northern Guangdong, China. His PhD research is an ethnographic and textual study of the Daoist ordination rituals among the Lanten Yao ethnic minority in Laos. He is co-author, with David A. Palmer and Chip Colwell, of the article “Guanyin’s Limbo: Icons as Demi-Persons and Dividuating Objects” in American Anthropologist 121/4 (2019).


Seminar Organisers:
Jiazhi Fengjiang

Resto Cruz

Key speakers

  • David Palmer and Martin M. H. Tse (University of Hong Kong)