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Fate, Agency, and the Economy of Desire in Chinese Ritual and Society

P. Steven Sangren

Keywords: China; desire; family; fate; karma; psychoanalysis; ritual

For many Western observers, Chinese religion and cosmology appear rife with contradictions, among them the recurrent motif in litera- ture and myth of preordination or fate, on the one hand, and a relentless attempt, through ritual means, to discern, control, or change fate, on the other. This article argues that the obsession with fate and luck is best comprehended with reference to desire understood as a human universal. Underlying one's hope to control the future lies a psychologically more fundamental wish to claim ownership of one's being. I argue that fate and luck are operators in a symbolic economy that implicitly posits what Freud terms the 'omnipotence of thoughts'. Moreover, if the underlying principle of Chinese notions of fate and luck can be termed an 'economy of desire', it is a principle that also coordinates and encompasses Chinese patriliny, family dynamics, and wider collective institutions.

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