Friday, June 30, 2017

A Bourdieusian Take on the Imperial Patronage of Cloisonné in Qing China

Julie Bellemare relates the imperial patronage of cloisonné objects for religious and secular purposes in eighteenth-century China to an increased taste for colorful and dazzling surfaces. She uses the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu and Alfred Gell to unpack the significance of this technical enchantment, and to clarify and complicate questions of taste, class, and ethnic identity in the Chinese production and consumption of cloisonné. Bellemare argues that the non-Chinese origins of the medium made it adaptable to the evolving needs of display and an ideal canvas for imperial decoration.

MLA citation format:
  Julie Bellemare
 "A Bourdieusian Take on the Imperial Patronage of Cloisonné in Qing China"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 30 June 2017. Web. [date of access]

Shrine with an Image of a Bodhisattva, 1736-1795. Shrine: Cloisonné enamel on copper alloy; Image: Copper with semiprecious stones, 25 1/4 x 14 3/8 x 10 5/8 in. (64.1 x 36.5 x 27 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Samuel P. Avery, Jr., 09.520a-b. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum).


The following thought experiment is an attempt to explain the Qing taste for colorful cloisonné objects through the patronage practices of Qing rulers, more specifically the Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1735-1796) emperors, whose embrace of this medium warrants closer examination. It is worth noting that the Qing was a foreign dynasty with its roots in the north of China, and that its rulers considered themselves ethnically different from Han Chinese, identifying instead as Jurchen or Manchu. They conquered most of China by unifying Manchu and Mongol tribes and allying with Northern Chinese, organized into banners of different ranks. I want to explore how these rulers could have utilized cloisonné to differentiate themselves from traditional Han Chinese elites. I will argue that because it was technically difficult to produce, cloisonné was used to demonstrate superiority, while its patterned surfaces indexed the diversity at the heart of the Qing Empire. I will mainly use Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) to clarify and complicate some of these questions of taste, class, and ethnic identity in the production and consumption of cloisonné in eighteenth-century China. 

As much as Bourdieu’s detailed examination of class hierarchies and consumptive practices is relevant to these questions, the exercise of applying it to eighteenth-century Chinese society comes with several pitfalls. Importantly, Bourdieu’s project tackled the power dynamics within his own contemporary society, which do not necessarily map onto the social class distinctions of eighteenth-century China. His notion of “habitus” is particularly difficult to address. Bourdieu’s approach takes into account both social and cultural structures as well as individual practices. The former he terms “fields,” networks of relations animated and constrained by systems of power, while the latter he calls “habitus,” unconscious cultural conventions of behavior that reflect individual sensibility and agency. He states that taste is social necessity made second nature, “turned into muscular patterns and bodily automatisms”.[i] These embodied practices can hardly be extrapolated from texts alone. Ming and Qing writings about taste admittedly fall more securely within the category of “fields,” since people’s practices are difficult to reconstruct accurately within a historical framework. It is not clear whether the prescriptive writings of the literatus and arbiter of taste Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645), for instance, reflected actual practices, or if they enshrined idealized forms of consumption. It is therefore more realistic to address the normative structures of class tastes than to infer people’s actual behaviors and actions from limited or biased historical records. To this end, perhaps Michael Baxandall’s “period eye” is also a useful model for reconstructing ways of seeing and experiencing the material world in Qing China. Baxandall defines the period eye as the mental equipment a person uses to order his or her visual experience; this equipment is culturally relative and determined by the society that influences this experience.[ii] It consists of variables such as the “categories with which he classifies his visual stimuli, the knowledge he will use to supplement what his immediate vision gives him, and the attitude he will adopt to the kind of artificial object seen”.[iii] In short, it hinges on the viewer’s “cognitive style” (mental habits parallel to Bourdieu’s embodied ones) and his or her interpretive frameworks, which align (or not) with those of the artist or maker to produce either appreciation or misunderstanding. Looking at cloisonné, it appears that some members of the literati elite did not appreciate its vibrant colors and dense patterns, interpreting them as a form of gaudiness unsuitable for the austere interiors of their studios. Qing emperors, however, could have seen the complexity of these objects as technological innovations that surpassed all that had been produced in the past. This point will be developed in more detail later. 

The Production of Cloisonné 

The public furnishings [altar set] currently at the Temple of Benevolence are not good. Basing yourself on the cloisonné of the Hall of Long Life, make one set, and ensure its size matches that of the supporting table. Respect this imperial order.[iv] 

This order for a new set of cloisonné ritual vessels is a typical example of a commission to the Imperial Workshops given under the Yongzheng emperor in the early years of his reign. As opposed to his immediate predecessor and successor, the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors, Yongzheng was not particularly fond of cloisonné, yet there is evidence of his continued patronage of this medium for ritual and religious purposes. In the Qing period, cloisonné objects were used for secular purposes as wine containers or desk decorations, but they were also commissioned in sets for religious altars and sacrificial halls. Although they were mainly used in Buddhist contexts, they were also appropriate for Daoist temples.[v] Known for its colorful and variegated surfaces, cloisonné is a complex technique that requires the collaboration of several specialized craftsmen. The body of a cloisonné piece is first cast in bronze, and metal wire is then welded onto its surface, creating small enclosures (cloisons in French), that are then filled with colored enamels. The piece is fired in a muffle kiln, polished, and gilded. This process requires advanced technical knowledge, division of labor, and access to resources, all of which can only be realized in a highly organized production line. 

The technique originated in the Mediterranean basin as early as 1500 BCE, but flourished in the Byzantine Empire between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. It attained a high degree of sophistication in the Islamic world before slowly reaching China during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The earliest source testifying to the presence of cloisonné enamels in China is the Gegu yaolun (The Essential Criteria of Antiquities), written by Cao Zhao in 1388. Of cloisonné, he writes: “The body is made of copper; for the decoration in five colors, molten substances are used, similar to inlay work from the Frankish Lands [Folang]. I have seen incense burners, flower vases, boxes, small bowls, and the like, appropriate for a lady’s chamber but not for the study of a scholar of cool, reticent taste” (Fig. 1).[vi] This bias against the aesthetics of cloisonné continued through the rest of the Ming period (1368-1644). Gao Lian (1573-1620) referred to it as “Muslim ware,” (dashi yao) and ranked it the worst of all kiln wares, while Wen Zhenheng saw it as too ostentatious and vulgar to put next to a painting.[vii] It is interesting that these authors saw cloisonné as feminine, foreign, or just too colorful. Generally speaking, Chinese literati tended to prefer a more subdued aesthetic, epitomized by monochrome ink painting. Color was not rendered literally, but implicit in the gradations of black ink, as Tang-dynasty scholar Zhang Yanyuan noted: “One may be said to have fulfilled one’s aim when the five colors are all present in the management of ink [alone]”.[viii] 

Figure 1. Bowl with the Eight Buddhist Treasures, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 16th century, China, cloisonné enamel, H. 5 5/8 in. (14.3 cm); Diam. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward G. Kennedy, 1929, 29.110.88.

While in the Ming dynasty, cloisonné was patronized on a small scale by the imperial court and collected by private individuals,[ix] the Qing period (1644-1911) saw an expansion of the imperial workshops and a tremendous increase in the production of cloisonné wares, which were created in workshops located in Guangdong province, and near Beijing at the Summer Palace (Yuanming yuan), where six more locations for the Enameling Workshop were added in 1741 in order to meet the demands of the imperial court.[x] Cloisonné was held in particularly high esteem by Qing emperors, who ordered large quantities of objects to furnish newly built courts, palaces, and temples. This growth is surprising, considering the aforementioned assessments of cloisonné by literati and tastemakers belonging to the Chinese educated elite. 

Taste, Enchantment, and the Imperial Use of Cloisonné 

I had started this essay by invoking Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus”—one that he applied in a specific analysis of the tastes of the “bourgeois,” “middle-brow,” and “popular” classes of 1960s and 1970s France, with correlations to relative levels of education, income, upbringing, and occupation. This class division applies remarkably well to late Ming society, which consisted of a powerful educated elite increasingly threatened by a rising merchant class. Both French bourgeois and Ming Chinese literati derived their position from their high level of education and economic power. Bourdieu defines modern, European bourgeois taste as favoring a combination of ease and asceticism, austerity and restraint, all of these seen as manifestations of excellence.[xi] This attitude is clearly present in Wen Zhenheng’s admonitions, as articulated for instance about furniture design: “[For natural tables], use pieces of thick, wide timber…hollow them out and carve them lightly with designs such as cloud scrolls and ruyi heads. They must not be carved with such vulgar patterns as dragons, phoenixes, flowers, and grasses”.[xii] This literati taste for elegance, antiquity and refinement arose simultaneously or in partial reaction to an upwardly mobile merchant class that benefitted tremendously from the increased maritime trade and economic activity during the latter half of the sixteenth century. In response to this class of nouveaux riches who could afford to purchase expensive luxuries, the educated elite began to differentiate themselves by advocating restraint in ornamentation. The lavishly carved tables derided by Wen Zhenheng were, of course, those preferred by rich merchants who favored conspicuous consumption. Just as Bourdieu’s “middle-brow” class, these tastes were often seen by members of the educated elite as an illegitimate acquisition of cultural forms.[xiii] Middle-brow and popular forms of cultural consumption, according to Bourdieu, involve the viewer and offer more direct and immediate sensory satisfaction.[xiv] In Ming China, this taste translated into a preference for lavish materials, saturated colors, richly carved and lustrous surfaces, whereas in 1960s France, it favored agreeable images such as a sunset over the sea. 

If Bourdieu’s class distinctions map relatively well onto those of Ming China, they fail to explicate the tastes of a new social class that takes power and ultimately forms the Qing dynasty. This stratum of the population is less educated than the literati elite, but nonetheless assumes political and economic power. Bourdieu acknowledges that other states of power relations can exist, resulting in a different configuration of consumptive patterns.[xv] He directs the reader to the work of Norbert Elias on eighteenth and nineteenth-century Germany, which deals with the opposition between the attitudes of the court and those of the intelligentsia. This provides an intriguing parallel for the study of the relations between the Manchu rulers and the literati during the Qing period. Elias observes the sharp social divisions and lack of mobility between the two classes, arguing that this division fostered a rift in values between the courtly “civilization,” characterized by courtesy, ceremony, and formal conversation, and the educated “culture,” defined as “inwardness, depth of feeling, immersion in books, development of individual personality”.[xvi] He quotes Goethe as an exemplar of the intelligentsia: “The people around me had no idea of scholarship. They were German courtiers, and this class had not the slightest Kultur”.[xvii] Manchus and other northerners were at a similar type of disadvantage, not having the same level of access to—or benefitting from a strong cultural emphasis on—education, as opposed to Han Chinese from the south. In the early years of the Qing dynasty, quotas were implemented to increase representation of Manchus in the palace examinations, the meritocratic system that attributed government positions according to one’s knowledge of the classics, history, and government policy. The system, operating intermittently since the Tang dynasty, favored those who could afford the right education and tutoring, and during the Ming, tended to favor Han elites from the cultural powerhouse of the Jiangnan region in south China. In order to give his bannermen a chance to compete, the first Qing emperor put forth a 40:60 Manchu to Han ratio for the palace examination, which was later replaced by completely separate sets of examinations for Han Chinese and all northern bannermen.[xviii] Even with these advantages in place, after 1655, no Manchu ever finished among the prestigious top three places in the palace examinations until 1883. Manchus possessed political and economic power, but not the same level of cultural and academic capital as the literati elite groups traditionally hailing from the south. They were regarded as culturally inferior to the Han Chinese although overt criticism of this status quo was rare and dangerous. Searching for other forms of legitimacy, Manchu rulers explored appropriating symbolic forms of literati culture such as calligraphy and classical learning to finding new sources on which to model their artistic taste. 

Even if alternative models might be more closely related to the social structure of Qing China, some of Bourdieu’s key insights are still useful for understanding imperial taste. For Bourdieu, taste is defined relationally. Consumers choose certain cultural goods over others in order to either identify with or defy the dominant aesthetic. He argues that “Goods are converted into distinctive signs, which may be signs of distinction but also of vulgarity, as soon as they are perceived relationally… a class is defined as much by its ‘being-perceived’ as by its ‘being’, by its consumption—which need not be conspicuous in order to be symbolic—as much as by its position in the relations of production”.[ixx] The Manchu rulers, as a new social class superimposing themselves on top of the existing Chinese social structure, had to find a way to simultaneously inscribe themselves within the larger continuity of Chinese aesthetics in order to gain legitimacy as rulers of China, but also distinguish themselves from these same elites in order to assert their dominance and superiority. They achieved this in part by choosing to consume cultural goods endowed with more flamboyant visual qualities, and reorganized workshop production to suit the demands of their tastes. In doing so, they reframed the perception of cloisonné and other colorful forms of material culture from a vulgar to an acceptable, or even desirable, form of display. It is also important to take into consideration the fact that the Manchu rulers were the representatives of a diverse group of northerners that also included Mongols and northern Chinese. Through diplomatic exchange and conquest, Qing emperors also incorporated Tibetan kingdoms as well as western Turkic and Muslim territories. This diversity was visually translated into several decorative endeavors, such as the construction of palaces at Rehe, and at the Summer Palace in Beijing (where enameling workshops were conveniently located). These architectural projects recreated on a smaller scale the lands conquered by the Qing emperors within large imperial parks, as microcosms of the empire.[xx] The act of naming palaces according to famous sites from China or Tibet, for instance, laid claim to the far reaches of the empire and promoted an incorporation of diversity into a single realm. What ensued in the decorative schemes of these new palaces was not a single coherent style, but an amalgam that suited the purposes of a diverse dynasty.[xxi] 

The impetus to create integrated interiors came with the Yongzheng emperor, and was brought to an extravagant level by the Qianlong emperor, who was more attracted to exotic themes from the outside world. Eclectic, ambitious, and “baroque”, the Qianlong style of cloisonné was a stark departure from most pieces produced during the Ming period. Cloisonné was an important part of the decorative schemes of the newly built palaces. As a hybrid technique that was understood simultaneously as Western, Muslim, and Chinese, it encapsulated the unifying aspirations of the Qing dynasty. This is also seen in the patterns and forms of Qing cloisonné objects, which drew inspiration from a wide array of cultural and geographical sources. Some shapes directly reference ancient Chinese metalwork, while others borrow patterns and iconographies from Himalayan Buddhism and even Italian architecture. This is represented quite strikingly in a large shrine with an image of a bodhisattva (in Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners or deities who delay their own enlightenment in order to help others achieve it), now in the Brooklyn Museum (Fig. 2). While the dragons coiling around the posts and the stylized floral decoration are Chinese, the central figure is modeled in a revival of the Pala style, often seen as a classic mode of Indian Buddhist sculpture, and the shrine’s four posts and canopy are clearly based on the baldachin of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, a sculpted bronze canopy covering the high altar and marking the location of the tomb of St Peter, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini a century earlier (Fig. 3). This piece evinces the potential of the medium of cloisonné to take on any shape or form. Because of its non-Chinese origins, it is not constricted by centuries of normative practices, and remains adaptable to the evolving needs of display. Cloisonné is from nowhere and everywhere at the same time, which makes it an ideal canvas for imperial decoration. 

Figure 2 (above) Shrine with an Image of a Bodhisattva, Qianlong period (1736-1795). Shrine: Cloisonné enamel on copper alloy; Image: Copper with semiprecious stones, 25 1/4 x 14 3/8 x 10 5/8 in. (64.1 x 36.5 x 27 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Samuel P. Avery, Jr., 09.520a-b. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum). 

Figure 3 (below) Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baldachin of St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1623-34.

In addition to this semiotic malleability, Qing cloisonné exhibits technical mastery. As mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, the production process requires advanced technical expertise and access to specific materials of a high quality. The result is meant to dazzle the eye with intricate motifs, strong color contrasts, and golden highlights. In this sense, it operates on a psychological and perceptual level, achieving its effect, in the words of Alfred Gell, “via the enchantment cast by its technical means, the manner of its coming into being”.[xxii] No one looks at cloisonné and thinks, “I could make this.” The technical power to make this kind of object is beyond any viewer’s individual capacity, and becomes symbolic of the power of the emperor, enhancing his authority.[xxiii] But beyond visual enchantment, what do the dazzling displays of cloisonné achieve in the minds of their viewers? Perhaps, in addition to indexing the ruler's general prestige and wealth, they might have specific social implications as well. 

A lot of cloisonné objects were displayed in palace halls, where they would be viewed not only by courtiers but also by visiting dignitaries from different parts of the empire as well as from Europe. As part of larger decorative schemes with visually stunning patterns and surfaces, perhaps they also functioned as reminders of the complexity and diversity of the realm, and the power of the emperor to unify it, both territorially and on the surface of his objects. Upon seeing these hybrid objects, perhaps dignitaries felt both a sense of familiarity with the shapes and designs they identified with, while still being dazzled and intimidated by the foreign ones. If this were the case, the Qing style of cloisonné functioned as a simultaneously inclusive and distancing mechanism, one that could invite close relations with dignitaries of any origin, while upholding the superiority of the emperor. 

Although the imperial taste of Qing-dynasty emperors bears similarities to Bourdieu’s middle-brow aesthetic by virtue of appealing to the viewer and providing sensory stimulation, it is far more than an aesthetic of agreeableness. The Qing mixture of technological, cultural, and political power departs from Bourdieu’s framework entirely, and functions to promote the Qing ruler as a universal emperor. By fully embracing and adapting this ‘foreign’ medium to their needs, the Manchu elites found a way to differentiate themselves from the Chinese literati class. The use of different motifs and shapes of cloisonné made it familiar to a wide range of viewers, while its level of intricacy showed the Qing dynasty’s unsurpassed technical superiority, impressing on viewers the desire of the emperor to foster harmonious relations across a highly diverse empire. 


[i] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 474.
[ii] Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 40. 
[iii] Idem.
[iv] Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [Archives of the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department], Vol. 1 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2005), 752. My translation. 
[v] Pengliang Lu, “Beyond the Women’s Quarters: Meaning and Function of Cloisonné in the Ming and Qing Dynasties,” in Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, (New York, New Haven, London: Bard Graduate Center and Yale University Press, 2011), 70. 
[vi] Cao Zhao, translated by Sir Percival David and Béatrice Quette, from Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (New York, New Haven: Bard Graduate Center, Yale University Press, 2011), 7. The use of the term “five colors” (wucai) requires some explanation. In a strict sense, it refers to a porcelain decoration technique in which colored enamels are applied over a plain background, but it also has cosmological ramifications, whereby each color is associated to a cardinal direction. The term may therefore refer not just to a set of colors, but to every possible color, just as in English the ‘four corners of the earth’ is used to mean ‘the whole world.’ “Five colors” (wucai) could therefore also be translated as ‘all colors,’ ‘multicolored,’ or ‘polychrome.’ 
[vii] Gao Lian, Zunsheng bajian, (Beijing: Shumu wenxian chubanshe, 1988), yuan 14; Wen Zhenheng, Zhangwu zhi, (Hong Kong: Dizhi wenhua chuban youxian gongsi, 2002), yuan 5. 
[viii] Zhang Yanyuan. “Li dai ming hua zhi (ca. 847),” in Early Chinese Texts on Painting, edited by Susan Bush, Hsio-yen Shih, and Hsüeh-yen Shih, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985), 62. 
[ix] Sun Chengze (1592-1676), a Beijing-based statesman and art collector, notes in a memoir that cloisonné pieces from the Jingtai reign (1449-57), seen as the zenith of quality, fetched the highest prices at the local antique market, indicating that antique cloisonné was valued in certain contexts outside the court. Pengliang Lu, “Beyond the Women’s Quarters,” 64. For Ming court patronage of cloisonné, see Zhang Rong, “Cloisonné for the Imperial Courts,” in Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, (New York, New Haven, London: Bard Graduate Center and Yale University Press, 2011), 151–70. 
[x] Zhang Rong, “Cloisonné for the Imperial Courts,” 159. 
[xi] Pierre Bourdieu, Ibid., 176. 
[xii] Wen Zhenheng, from Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things, (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 43. 
[xiii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, 91. 
[xiv] Pierre Bourdieu, Ibid., 34. 
[xv] Pierre Bourdieu, Ibid., 73. 
[xvi] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, (New York: Urizen Books, 1978), 16. 
[xvii] Norbert Elias, Ibid., 21. 
[xviii] Benjamin A. Elman, “The Social Roles of Literati in Early to Mid-Ch’ing,” in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 9, Part 1: The Ch’ing Empire to 1800, edited by Willard J. Peterson, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 381-82. 
[xix] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, 483. 
[xx] Cary Y. Liu, “Archive of Power: The Qing Dynasty Imperial Garden-Palace at Rehe,” Guoli Taiwan daxue meishushi yanjiu jikan [Taida Journal of Art History] 28 (2010): 43–66. 
[xxi] Jonathan Hay, Sensuous Surfaces, (Honolulu, HI; London: University of Hawaiʻi Press : Reaktion Books, 2010), 37. 
[xxii] Alfred Gell, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” in Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics, edited by Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton, (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1992), 47. 
[xxiii] Alfred Gell, Ibid., 52. 


Friday, June 16, 2017

Marginal Maps: Sketching Geopieties in 16th Century Bibles

Samuel Tongue merges book history, marginalia studies, reader usage, cartography, and cultural geography to theorize the inclusion of maps as an example of biblical marginalia in 16th-century printed Bibles. By examining a specific example of a user adding their own marginal map, Tongue focuses on religious, historical and economic forces that undergird their authority, arguing that, for a certain user, these maps produce an imagined ‘Palestine,’ framing the land as stage for a divine history, while also underwriting the ‘truth’ of the biblical texts in a type of cartographical Protestant geopiety.

MLA citation format:
  Samuel Tongue
 "Marginal Maps:
Sketching Geopieties in 16th Century Bibles"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 17 June 2017. Web. [date of access]

Glasgow University’s Special Collections contains a 1537 ‘Matthews’ (Tyndale-Coverdale) Bible with some fascinating marginalia. An unidentified bird’s muddy footprints march across the beginning of the prophet Nahum, prompting questions as to where this Bible was kept during its everyday life. In addition, and opposite the title page is a hand-drawn chronological table showing the time elapsed since various biblical events up to 1651, presumably the year in which the owner wrote it in. 

However, my interest lies in the rude sketch of a Holy Land map, bearing the same graphological signature and, as is evident from placing the two Bibles alongside one another, clearly copied from a 1560 Geneva Bible: Why might the owner have perceived his bible as somehow lacking in relation to the scholarly and parabiblical material included in the Geneva Bible? What material conditions made it possible for the cartographic scribbler to complete this fascinating example of biblical marginalia? And what are the implications of producing such territorial inscriptions? 

Image 1: Copy-Specific detail of hand-drawn Holy Land Map in The Byble: which is all the holy Scripture: in whych are contayned the Olde and Newe Testament / truly and purely translated into Englysh by Thomas Matthew. M,D,XXXVII, Set forth with the Kinges most gracyous lyce[n]ce. University of Glasgow Special Collections. Photo by Robert Maclean.
Figure 2: Holy Land map from 1560 copy of Geneva Bible.
Maps in Bibles arise within a complex nexus of historical and theological contexts prompted, in no small part, by the development of print media. Travelling across the disciplines of book history (and print Bibles in particular), marginalia studies, reader usage, cartography, and cultural geography, my focus is on the inclusion of maps in 16th-century printed Bibles: why are they included and how does this intersect with what Edward Said has called an “imaginative geography,” J. B. Harley a “subliminal geometry,” and, in a particularly useful formulation, what Burke O. Long terms ‘geopiety’, “that curious mix of romantic imagination, historical rectitude, and attachment to a physical place” [i]—in this case, a distant, idealised, and constructed ‘Holy Land’? As I shall explore, these maps exist on a spectrum of imagined Holy Lands, beginning in the biblical texts themselves, moving into pilgrimage accounts and on to large, free-standing mappae mundi and broadside imperial maps, right up to contemporary Holy Land parks and guided tours of supposedly ‘biblical’ sites. In this way, geopieties are formed and informed by different types of media interaction. What I want to suggest, is that, for a certain Bible user, these 16th-century maps produce an imagined ‘Palestine’ constructed around biblical characters’ lines of movement, framing the land as stage for a divine history, whilst also underwriting the ‘truth’ of the biblical texts in a type of cartographical Protestant geopiety. 

‘Andro Duncan’ 
In terms of the provenance of this ‘Matthews’ Bible, Duncan claims ownership of the book in 1672, proudly writing on the flyleaf that “Andro Duncan is my name and for to writ think not sheam”. We are immediately confronted with the medium of the printed book and how it allows a user a certain level of interplay with the text. As Heather Jackson notes, “all the front area of a book, from the inside of the front cover to the beginning of the text proper, presents an opportunity to provide introductory material, and the first impulse of any owner appears to be the impulse to stake a claim” [ii]. This sense of ‘staking a claim’ is important and I shall explore this further below. After examining the map and the penmanship around it, it is highly probable that Duncan is the cartographic copier. I shall not attempt to construct Duncan in great detail, as a reader, actual or implied; for my purposes, Duncan serves as a cipher for the questions I want to outline and explore - I hope not to ‘sheam’ him in the process. 

The Bibles, side-by-side 
In order to get a sense of the context of Duncan’s scribbles, a brief note on the Bibles that he is using is pertinent. Duncan’s Matthews Bible, printed in Antwerp in 1537, earned its name from its ascription to “Thomas Matthew commonly taken to refer to the names of a disciple of Christ and an evangelist in order to form a pseudonym for John Rogers, a one-time associate of [William] Tyndale,” [iii] who edited what is essentially Tyndale’s work but also included Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Apocrypha. Tyndale had been executed at Henry VIII’s command only a year before the publication of this version although, with a dark irony, the Matthews Bible would form one of the main sources for the King’s Great Bible of 1539, the first authorized edition of the Bible in English. 

However, according to John King and Aaron Pratt, the Matthews version failed to “gain traction even though it furnished what became the primary basis for later versions [...]. The Matthew translation and its revisions […] were published in only nine among close to two hundred Bible and New Testament editions produced prior to the King James Bible” [iv]. With this in mind, it is noteworthy that this is the Bible that Andrew Duncan is using nearly one hundred and fifty years later in 1672 and possible reasons for this will be explored further below. 

The second Bible is the 1560 English Geneva Bible. With its thorough revisions of the Great Bible [v], in particular those books that Tyndale had not translated [vi], and its “most profitable annotations upon all the hard places” (from the title-page), this version became the household Bible of English-speaking Protestants in the 16th-century. In more outspokenly Calvinist Scotland, with its links to Geneva through John Knox and other exiles, “the Geneva Bible was from the beginning the version appointed to be read in churches” [vii] and it was actually the first Bible printed in Scotland in 1579. 

The mise-en-page of the Geneva Bible was novel: “it was printed in roman; it divided the text into verses, so as to facilitate the use of a concordance; words supplied in order to render the translation idiomatic were printed in italic; books and chapters were supplied with ‘arguments’; and summary running titles were provided” [viii]. However, for all its novelty, it also, infamously, includes extensive discursive marginal notes, “similar to manuscript and early printed commentaries” [ix] belying some of the Reformers’ protestations to let the text speak for itself. With this popular printed format in mind, it is easy to see how this version is seen as the first ‘study’ Bible to be put into the hands of vernacular readers. 

Much has been made of the textual apparatus yet little work has been done on the maps that are included in the Geneva Bible. If one lays the two Bibles alongside one another, it is clear that Andrew Duncan has compared them and decided to copy the Holy Land map into his own. This felt need is made manifest in this unique piece of marginalia, not scribbled around or into the text at the opening to the New Testament where it is bound in the Geneva Bible, but placed right at the very beginning, even before the beginning, of his Matthews Bible. But where does this map come from and what functions might it be serving for Duncan? 

Biblical Maps and the Printing of Protestant Geopiety 
Catherine Delano-Smith and Elizabeth Morley Ingram have covered this topic in fantastic detail, examining over 1000 Bibles and New Testaments, including at least one copy of every recorded 16th century English edition of the Bible. Interestingly, only 176 editions contain maps and “they occur primarily in full Bibles rather than in New Testaments” [x]. The maps are also included in Dutch, English, and German Bibles and French editions published in Switzerland or in Swiss-influenced parts of France; as Delano-Smith and Ingram make clear, “the history of maps in Bibles is part of the history of the Reformation” [xi]. 

The Holy Land map we are concerned with appeared as one of four new woodcut maps printed in Nicolas Barbier and Thomas Courteau’s French Genevan Bible (1559): “Two of the maps relate to the Old Testament (Exodus, the Division of Canaan among the twelve tribes), and two to the New (Palestine in the time of Christ, the Eastern Mediterranean for the journeys of Paul). All four maps appear to have been made specifically for this Bible and are announced on its title-page” [xii]. Barbier draws attention to the “four chorographical maps of great use and consolation” (‘quatre cartes chorographiques de grande utilité et consolation’) and explains that their purpose is “to present clearly to the reader's eye what is otherwise difficult to grasp from the text alone” (‘pour representer au vif devant les yeux ce qui seroit plus difficile a imaginer & considerer par la seule lecture’) [xiii]. These four maps “were published again, from different woodblocks, in the following year in Rouland Hall's English translation of the Genevan bible, also published in Geneva” [xiv]. This ‘set of four’, along with the addition of John Calvin’s Eden map, 

provide an exceptional example of consistency in map design. They were used as a more or less complete set by at least twenty-four different publishers for forty-eight different editions of the complete bible in nine languages in many countries for half a century. They were copied and recopied. Yet each remained to all intents and purposes identical. [xv]

As Delano-Smith and Ingram highlight, 

the maps also, no doubt, had a commercial function. Like other illustrations in the Bibles, they were a selling point as their advertisement on title pages indicates; and like other illustrations, they were costly. Publishers and printers could economise by borrowing existing map blocks or by copying prints. Such commercial restraints must explain, at least in part, the quite astonishing faithfulness of so many Genevan map copies from 1559 onwards, and their overall durability. [xvi]

The Genevan Bible is an enhanced Bible and thus eminently more marketable, targeting those users who appreciate the utility and ‘consolation’ of maps and other apparatus. But this remains a theological market – the maps also demonstrate the Protestant view of the primacy of scripture over doctrine and emphasize “both the historical reality and the eschatological promise of scripture by demonstrating its geographical setting” [xvii]. The Holy Land map serves as an illustration, supplementing the text, and adding a visual, imaginative dimension to be read with the biblical accounts. 

The commercial constraints on production and the durability of these illustrations in printed Bibles ensures that they reach a wide public [xviii] and goes some way to accounting for Duncan’s awareness of and desire to copy the Genevan map. The medium of a printed map raises some interesting questions relating to its usage however, particularly around the intersections of early modern cartographical thinking and knowledge production. 

There is much debate in book history circles over whether the development of printed material led seamlessly to the “diffusion of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance” [xix]. Some scholars make the point that the dissemination of a more ‘scientific’ cartography can be married to a sense of uniformity in print, “a vital development for reference works like maps […] [which] would have little credibility if the reader knew that every copy was unique” [xx]. Yet it is important not to overstate the case for print’s accuracy and fixity per se. As Adrian Johns has asserted, “early modern printing was not joined by any obvious or necessary bond to enhanced fidelity, reliability, and truth. That bond had to be forged” [xxi]. 

Yet, in the case of the Geneva maps, geographical accuracy is not the primary aim and it is here that we can see one of the key outworkings of the maps printed in Protestant Bibles. These maps, “as art and not just like art, became a mechanism for appropriating the (sacred) world by categorizing it in the manner approved by the religious authorities” [xxii]. The bonds that compel Andrew Duncan to sketch his map are formed from the religious, historical, and economic forces that undergird the authority of the map: even as late as 1672, this is the map that he wants as, through its repetition in printed Bibles, it is now an authorized cartography of Palestine, an aid to his own locating of the peregrinations of Jesus and his disciples across the text. 

Andrew Duncan’s Marginal Map 
Through an accident of its material production, Andrew Duncan’s old Matthews Bible opens up a substantial marginal space, providing the opportunity for what Kate Narveson terms the “imaginative control of one’s self-understanding” [xxiii]. Evelyn Tribble suggests that marginal notes on the early-modern printed page demonstrate “a territory of contestation upon which issues of political, religious, social, and literary authority are fought” [xxiv]. Yet Duncan’s scribbled map sits at a complex nexus of material uses of the Bible and he seems uninterested in contesting biblical authority. Rather, he utilises this space to underwrite received authority with his own sketched copy. Heather Jackson argues that “the Bible is a prototype of all especially treasured and pored-over volumes […]. It attracted supplementary materials, almost as an act of worship, certainly in a spirit of reverence” [xxv]. Perhaps due to the high cost of a purchasing a King James Version [xxvi], Duncan has procured a Geneva Bible from which to copy his Holy Land map and constructs this hybrid Matthews Bible. This supplementary map is a detailed aide-memoire that is a performance of his own geopiety; through his lines of ink and penmanship, he travels imaginatively and with graphological flourish across this biblical page. 

However, his marginal sketch is also central to understanding the “cartographic image in a social world” [xxvii]. The Geneva Bible, in its innovative layout and marginal apparatus, invites imitation; as Jackson notes, printed editions of “the Bible and of classical and vernacular literature provided models of scholarly annotation that readers could extend to works of their own choosing […] the book itself providing the system of organization” [xxviii]. The Geneva Holy Land map invites Duncan to reproduce it in the white space of his Matthews Bible, where he does not question its validity as a map per se, but confirms its cartographic authority as “part of the intellectual apparatus of power” [xxix]. Alongside the ownership marks, Duncan is careful to copy in the note indicating that his sketch is a ‘description of the holie land and of the places mentioned in the foure euangelistes’. This cartographic means of ‘staking a claim’ sets the scene for a geopiety that fuses an unvisited land with an ‘imaginative geography’, maintained by a combination of textual authority and widely disseminated biblical maps. This map does not stand isolated and alone; it is part of a mesh of other contemporary cartographical works, existing alongside other Renaissance and early-modern exegetical visualisations of the Holy Land: histories, atlases, and “mural map cycles designed for both sacred and secular settings” [xxx]. These maps do not function as mirrors but are producers of a specific cartographic world-view that anchors theological exegesis in an idea of the real, historical world. But this has other consequences. The woodcut map from the English Geneva Bible also depicts three 16th century galleons carving up the Mediterranean; Duncan includes one of his own, quite literally a ‘ship of the line’. In this way, this unique and reverential marginal map participates in the cartographical thinking that claims and colonises lands on paper, anticipating other lines of power, ultimately justified by a God’s-eye view [xxxi]. As John Pickles notes, “maps provide the very conditions of possibility for the worlds we inhabit and the subjects we become” [xxxii]. For the geopious subject, the biblical map is nothing less than the sketching out of the divine entering the measurable, mappable ‘real’.  

Acknowledgment: The author would like to thank Robert Maclean, Assistant Librarian at Glasgow University Library's Special Collections, for drawing his attention to the Matthew's Bible.


Bruce, F. F. The English Bible: A History of Translations. London: Methuen, 1963. 
Delano-Smith, Catherine. ‘Maps as Art and Science: Maps in Sixteenth Century Bibles’. Imago Mundi 42 (1990): 65–83. 
Delano-Smith, Catherine, and Elizabeth Morley Ingram. Maps in Bibles 1500-1600: An Illustrated Catalogue. Geneva: Librairie Droz S.A., 1991. 
Harley, J. B. ‘Maps, Knowledge, and Power’. In The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments, edited by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, 277–312. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Ingram, Elizabeth M. ‘Maps as Readers’ Aids: Maps and Plans in Geneva Bibles’. Imago Mundi 45 (1993): 29–44. 
Jackson, H. J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 
Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 
King, John N., and Aaron T. Pratt. ‘The Materiality of English Printed Bibles from the Tyndale New Testament to the King James Bible’. In The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences, edited by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones, 60–99. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 
Long, Burke O. Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models, and Fantasy Travels. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003. 
Lyons, Martyn. A History of Reading and Writing: In the Western World. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 
McMullin, B. J. ‘The Bible Trade’. In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: 1557-1695, edited by John Barnard, D. F. McKenzie, and Maureen Bell, 4:455–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 
Narveson, Kate. Bible Readers and Lay Writers in Early Modern England: Gender and Self-Definition in an Emergent Writing Culture. Farnham and Burlington: Routledge, 2012. Pickles, John. A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. 
Said, Edward W. ‘Invention, Memory, and Place’. In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking, William Mangold, Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert, 361–65. New York and London: Routledge, 2014. 
Tribble, Evelyn B. Margins and Marginality: The Printed Page in Early Modern England. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1993. 
Watts, Pauline Moffitt. ‘The European Religious Worldview and Its Influence on Mapping’. In The History of Cartography, edited by David Woodward, 3 (Part 1): 382–400. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 2007. 

[i] Burke O. Long, Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models, and Fantasy Travels. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), 1. 
[ii] H. J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 19. 
[iii] John N. King and Aaron T. Pratt, ‘The Materiality of English Printed Bibles from the Tyndale New Testament to the King James Bible’, in The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences, ed. Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 67. 
[iv] Ibid. 
[v] The Great Bible of 1539, prepared by Myles Coverdale, was the first Bible authorised by Henry VIII to be read in Church of England churches. Much of the material comes from William Tyndale, with Coverdale providing material missing from Tyndale’s original. 
[vi] F. F. Bruce, The English Bible: A History of Translations (London: Methuen, 1963), 89. [vii] Ibid., 92. 
[viii] B. J. McMullin, ‘The Bible Trade’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: 1557-1695, ed. John Barnard, D. F. McKenzie, and Maureen Bell, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 456. Notwithstanding Conrad Badius’s publication of an English New Testament in 1557 (translated by the English exile William Whittingham) which is the first English Bible to include both chapter and verse divisions. 
[ix] King and Pratt, ‘The Materiality of English Printed Bibles from the Tyndale New Testament to the King James Bible’, 77. 
[x] Catherine Delano-Smith and Elizabeth Morley Ingram, Maps in Bibles 1500-1600: An Illustrated Catalogue (Geneva: Librairie Droz S.A., 1991). xvi. 
[xi] Ibid. 
[xii] Elizabeth M. Ingram, ‘Maps as Readers’ Aids: Maps and Plans in Geneva Bibles’, Imago Mundi 45 (1993): 29. 
[xiii] Ibid., 30. 
[xiv] Catherine Delano-Smith, ‘Maps as Art and Science: Maps in Sixteenth Century Bibles’, Imago Mundi 42 (1990): 67. 
[xv] Ibid., 73. 
[xvi] Delano-Smith and Morley Ingram, Maps in Bibles 1500-1600: An Illustrated Catalogue, xxix. 
[xvii] Ibid. 
[xviii] Ingram, ‘Maps as Readers’ Aids: Maps and Plans in Geneva Bibles’, 39. 
[xix] Martyn Lyons, A History of Reading and Writing: In the Western World (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 26. 
[xx] Ibid., 33–34. 
[xxi] Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 5. 
[xxii] Delano-Smith, ‘Maps as Art and Science: Maps in Sixteenth Century Bibles’, 77. 
[xxiii] Kate Narveson, Bible Readers and Lay Writers in Early Modern England: Gender and Self-Definition in an Emergent Writing Culture (Farnham and Burlington: Routledge, 2012), 6. 
[xxiv] Evelyn B. Tribble, Margins and Marginality: The Printed Page in Early Modern England (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 2. 
[xxv] Jackson, Marginalia, 182. 
[xxvi] See McMullin, ‘The Bible Trade’. 
[xxvii] J. B. Harley, ‘Maps, Knowledge, and Power’, in The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments, ed. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 303. 
[xxviii] Jackson, Marginalia, 184. 
[xxix] Harley, ‘Maps, Knowledge, and Power’, 282. 
[xxx] Pauline Moffitt Watts, ‘The European Religious Worldview and Its Influence on Mapping’, in The History of Cartography, ed. David Woodward, vol. 3 (Part 1) (Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 2007), 395. 
[xxxi] Harley, ‘Maps, Knowledge, and Power’, 282. 
[xxxii] John Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 5.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hula Hoop Spiritualities: Social Media, Embodied Experience, and Communities of Practice

Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand and Martha Smith Roberts investigate how the hula hoop has become both an empowering tool for embodied practical spirituality rooted in metaphysical religiosity and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. They argue that the growth of the hooping subculture lies in its ability to nurture the diverse spiritual experiences of individual hoopers and to build an inclusive hooping community (composed of both spiritually and recreationally motivated hoopers).

MLA citation format:
  Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand & Martha Smith Roberts
 "Hula Hoop Spiritualities: 
Social Media, Embodied Experience, and Communities of Practice"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 2 May 2017. Web. [date of access]

This post is an excerpt from Practical Spiritualities in a Media Age, eds. Curtis Coats and Monica M. Emerich (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015). 

Introduction: Hooping as Practical Spirituality
The hula hoop has been resurrected in American culture over the past two decades. No longer just a children’s toy, hooping is an adult trend, and hooping classes exist around the country and world. Often advertised as a “fun” way to exercise, hoop fitness is only one small part of the larger hoop movement. Like many hoopers, we (the authors) started going to “hoop classes” with friends for the fun and exercise it promised. We began noticing that our instructor was ending classes with “manifestation” exercises and referring to hoops as “powerful manifestation tools.” As we continued to attend classes and other hoop gatherings, we discovered that this type of manifestation language was quite common. We also found it was quite common for hoopers to have had an unexpected experience of transformation (mental, emotional, and/or physical) while hooping, and they were happy to share their stories with us. 

In these stories, hoopers often utilized religious or spiritual language to describe their experiences and their motivation to continue hooping. The prevalence of spiritual language and transformation stories made us curious about what was happening in the hoop community, and we set out to try and understand the broader significance of “hula hoop spiritualities” for the study of religion. In the process, we found a thriving hoop community that attributes meaning to their hoop practice in diverse and compelling ways: some who draw upon traditional religious language and symbols, others who draw upon metaphysical teachings, and still others who create their own unique spiritual narrative. 

Over the course of two months (December 30, 2010 – March 1, 2011), we conducted an anonymous online survey of over 500 hoopers. When asked to describe their hooping practice, 69.1% of hoopers described it as “meditative,” 43% described hooping as spiritual, and 8.1% described their practice as “religious.” Their descriptions of hooping experiences in all of these categories are highly personal and individual. And, as might be expected, their descriptions of community are pluralistic, diverse, and inclusive enough to embrace all of these individual interpretations. However, the dynamics of personal and communal spiritualities in hooping are quite sophisticated. Using plastic hoops and social media, these primarily Generation X hoopers have developed and shared complex spiritual narratives and practices that reveal the intersections of the material and virtual worlds. 

Our research draws on large-scale survey data, in-depth interviews with hoopers, and participant observation at workshops, retreats, and in the online community. We also utilize hoopers’ self-generated media as data—videos, photos, and texts from their websites and social media—to develop a nuanced understanding of this spiritual community. 

This essay investigates how the hula hoop has become both an empowering tool for embodied practical spirituality rooted in metaphysical religiosity and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. We argue that the growth of the hooping subculture lies in its ability to nurture the diverse spiritual experiences of individual hoopers and to build an inclusive hooping community (composed of both spiritually and recreationally motivated hoopers). Through social media, hoopers connect virtually; share spiritual testimonies through dance, spoken, and written word; and teach various hooping techniques intended to help others develop their spiritual practice and flow. Social media is second only to the hoop as the means to accomplishing these goals. To better understand the nature of hoop dance as a spiritual practice, three intersecting themes must be engaged: the characteristics of metaphysical religion in the American context, the generational specificity of hoop spiritualities, and the use of media in cultivating personal practice of hoop dance and creating community. In this blog, we address the first two of these themes; our chapter in Practical Spiritualities also investigates the third. 

Metaphysical Context 


Figure 1: Hoopers dancing at the HoopPath Sangha Retreat in Carrboro, North Carolina, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
The emergence of hoop spiritualities is not anomalous in U.S. religious history. Rather, hoop spiritualities fit well within the long tradition of metaphysical religion in the United States. As Catherine Albanese demonstrates in her work on American religion, an exploration of what she calls “metaphysical religiosity” helps us to better understand “what is American about American religion” [i]. Metaphysical religiosity transcends religious institutional boundaries, appearing both within and outside of established religious traditions [ii]. This long tradition of metaphysical religion has been recognized in contemporary American incarnations as well. Scholars continue to be captivated by the “spirituality” present in a variety of contexts, including the combinative nature of lived religious practices, as well as those who define themselves outside of traditional religious frameworks, calling them “spiritual, but not religious,” “unchurched,” or “nones” [iii]. In the midst of diversity, Albanese’s four characteristics of metaphysical religion—mind, correspondence, energy, and salvation—remain apt descriptors of hoop spiritualities. These attributes continue to pervade American notions of what constitutes a “spiritual experience.” 

First, Albanese describes “a preoccupation with mind and its powers” [iv]. The emphasis on the mind includes a privileging of reason as well as an exploration of the things the mind can do through intuition, clairvoyance, telepathy, trance, and meditation, to name a few examples [v]. The impact of hooping on the state of the hooper’s mind was a constant theme in survey results. As one hooper explained: 
“I first started hooping for exercise purposes, but then I quickly learned that it was more fun than anything, and if I can have fun while working out – awesome! Then I started to see the meditative qualities of it. I began to notice my mind state before, during, and after. I could tell that it was a positive thing in my life. Then I began to grow as a hooper, and in a lot of ways, as a person. I started feeling like I was becoming the person I had wanted to be my whole life. I started changing my life more to resemble my ideal ‘me.’ This is when the journey became spiritual” [emphasis added]. 

Another hooper described her/his practice this way, “Hooping is my church…. Hooping is where I commune with God. It’s my quiet space where I can quiet my mind and just be… I stopped going to church about 6-7 years ago and use my hoop time as my spiritual haven… my place to find/meet God and be gracious for what He provides, and I usually become overwhelmed with my gratitude of movement.” The quieting of one’s mind is seen as a necessary catalyst to reach a state of peace, meditation, spirituality, and transcendence. The hoop is a tool in achieving this desired state. 

Second, metaphysical religions typically contain a theory of correspondence between worlds [vi]. Albanese explains, “The human world and mind replicate – either ideally, formerly, or actually – a larger, often more whole and integrated universe, so that the material world is organically linked to a spiritual one” [vii]. According to Albanese, “In these traditions, the human mind – often acting out its imaginative grasp of the world through the body and thus through ritual – has operated as a transformative agent, taking advantage of the secret symmetries and connections for its own purposes. Religion thus is above all a work of the practical imagination” [viii]. For those hoopers surveyed for whom hooping was a meditative or spiritual practice, the clearing of their minds allowed them to feel a profound connection to their bodies and to a more authentic self or higher power. One hooper described her/his experience this way, “Hooping helps me center within myself, to remember who I am, to feel my body and listen to my body like I never have before. It has taught me to love my body and what it can do… Hooping is the first thing in my life that has tapped into my insides, into my soul and find a light and a joy that I never knew was there and had never found with any other activity.” 

Third, Albanese observes that movement and energy characterize both mind and correspondence: “metaphysicians find a stream of energy flowing from above to below—so powerful that they discover themselves to be, in some sense, made of the same ‘stuff’” [ix]. The correspondences between mind/body and human/divine are energetically formed; they are not static or fixed relationships. For Albanese, this prompts a search to better understand the energy that makes these cosmic connections along with “notions of proper and correct motion” [x] The movement and action that are central to hoop dance as an embodied practice become the energetic pathways for metaphysical correspondence. This experience is recognized and cultivated in many hoopers’ personal practices, and often referred to as “flow.” 

Flow is described as an alignment of body and mind in the hoop, though it means different things to every hooper. The experience of flow is thus another instance of diversity and plurality that is accepted as a part of hooping itself, as each hooper must find his or her own flow. Hoopers’ descriptions of flow rely on the feelings generated by the energy and motion of a fluid state of hoop dance and often contain references to being “one with the hoop,” “a state of bliss,” or “a loss of time.” Albanese’s observation that utilizing “proper and correct motion” is important to metaphysical practitioners also applies to hoopers. Hooping involves the acquisition of a basic set of movement skills. Mastering and utilizing these skills is a necessary tool for hoopers to achieve a flow state. Hoopers clearly connect feeling and practiced movement in their descriptions of spiritual experience: “Getting centered in my own body, gaining muscle memory when I learn new tricks, feels very spiritual to me.” Others directly connect the acquisition of hooping skill with finding flow: “My skill level has increased and I am finding more of a flow to my practice.” “Being able to do skills without as much thinking has helped to build it more into a meditative practice.” In hoop dance, the energy and motion of the hoop allows for alignment and correspondence that cultivates what many hoopers call a spiritual experience or flow state. 

According to Albanese, the energetic quality of metaphysical practice is where “the practical imagination joins forces with will. We enter the realm of what properly may be described as magic, but—and this is important—magic read in a healing mode” [xi]. The experience of energetic motion and correspondence with mind has an important practical application, a salvific quality. This brings us to the fourth and final quality of Albanese’s metaphysical religion, which emerges out of “a yearning for salvation understood as solace, comfort, therapy, and healing” [xii]. The spirituality of hoop dance also relies on the efficacy of the practice, and while the transformative effects of hooping vary for each hooper there is a sense of progress that pervades the discourse of hoop dance more broadly. In addition, the hoop is a conduit for psychological and physical healing: overcoming depression, losing weight, and recovering from injury are some of the benefits that hoopers attribute to their hooping practice. 

Narratives of transformation and healing abound in the hoopers surveyed. “I started hooping when I was very ill, mentally and physically,” one hooper explained, “I was able to detox from all of my medications for depression, anxiety and epilepsy by hooping daily for a year. Hoop dance literally allowed me to maintain my sanity and ease the physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms I was experiencing.” Another hooper expressed a similar sentiment, “Hooping has refined, enriched, and blessed my life. It saved me from the darkest place I have ever been… It helped my mind, body, and heart reconnect after they were severed from abuse in my late teens. The more I hooped, the less I had stress-induced seizures, the fewer nightmares I had… It balances my mind and body more completely than any therapy session or medication ever has.” There are many more testimonies like the above. In addition to relief from physical pain and mental anguish, hoopers testified to increased self esteem, improvements in their sex lives, and recovery from addiction. These narratives of hooping salvation cover a multiplicity of ailments, physical and emotional, but all share a sense of progress toward a better state of being. 


Figure 2: Hoopers at the HoopPath Sangha Retreat in Carrboro, North Carolina, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
Albanese characterizes metaphysical groups as pluralistic and diverse, privileging individual conscience over group cohesion. As a result, metaphysical communities are often “ad hoc and flexible, and authoritarian voices and concerns have not gotten very far” [xiii]. In order to study metaphysical communities, she tells us, we must examine their diversity. This approach “begins to ask questions about new and distinctive forms of community – less organized from the top down, more fluid and egalitarian” [xiv]. Wade Clark Roof comes to a similar conclusion in his analysis of seeker spirituality. The religious seeker’s concentration on the development of an authentic self does not mean that they have an aversion to commitment to community formation and engagement. Spiritual seekers search for a spirituality which is “all-encompassing, reaching to the very depths of people’s lives and giving birth to new forms of community” [xv]. This relationship between the personal, individual search for an authentic spiritual self and a commitment to community may seem contradictory. There is a sense that the two – individualism and a sense of belonging – are antagonistic to one another. Roof argues that this conclusion is too simplistic: “Americans not only pick and choose what to believe, by and large they also set the terms governing involvement in religious communities. Especially in a time of heightened spiritual activity, we would expect a more rampant subjectivity, but also the possibility of new, emerging forms of community giving expression to personal enhancement” [xvi]. Robert Wuthnow makes a similar observation of post-Boomer spirituality, which he defines as “pieced together… from materials at hand” [xvii]. For the researcher this means investigating manifestations of religiosity in unconventional places. 

The hooping community shares many of the characteristics of metaphysical, seeker, post-Boomer spiritual communities. Having a physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation while hula hooping is certainly an example of finding religiosity in an unconventional place, and many hoopers (who often describe their transformation in the hoop as unexpected) would agree. Their practical, embodied spirituality arises independent of any religious authority or institution, consequently it is expected within the larger hoop community that there will be a variety of interpretations of that hooping experience. The hooper is free to peruse a variety of hoop approaches (focused on meditation, spirituality, exercise, performance, etc.) and utilize what works for them in their hoop practice. The growing number of hooping retreats and workshops that feature a diverse range of hooping instructors with very different approaches further illustrates the variety of tools at hand. 

There are also many examples of hoopers drawing upon their own reservoir of religious symbols and language to describe their experience. While a full 33.6% of hoopers in our survey identified as a “member or practitioner” of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or Paganism, 55.9% of hoopers claimed no religious tradition, and 21.6% chose “other” and defined their own tradition outside of institutional affiliations. Usually these “others” described themselves as “spiritual” or an eclectic blend of traditions. One hooper told us, “I choose not to label, but feel great spiritual connection expressed through work, music, and hooping.” Another hooper explained, “I tread my own personal spiritual path, which includes elements of many of the aforementioned religions, though I do not consider myself to be a practicing member of any organized religion.” All of these descriptions of religion tend to be inclusive of other views, no matter what the individual’s own tradition might be. While hoopers might find spirituality outside of an institution best for themselves, their pluralist frameworks are also present, and they see religion as an individual choice for themselves and others. Many hoopers expressed this sentiment of respect for individual faith. “I respect every religion for what it’s worth,” one hooper explained, “but I’m not extremely religious.” Another hooper surveyed explained, “I respect every religion and the people following a religion different from mine.” 

Traditional means of delineating the boundaries of a community based on believers (insiders) and non-believers (outsiders) are not adequate in exploring hoop spiritualities. For instance, in our survey there were many “non-believer” quotes like this one: “I think hula hooping is a fun activity! I don’t feel like hooping will heal depression as some have claimed! I don’t find it spiritual or meditating either! I feel ppl take that part to the extremes!” (sic). This hooper and others like him/her are still accepted members of the community even though hooping is not spiritual or religious for them. Likewise these hoopers are not saying that those who do find hooping spiritual should leave the community. The boundaries of the community are built around the shared practice of hooping. One survey participant explained, “[Hooping] is a conduit to a larger community of people that share the same sorts of experiences in their hoop.” Articulated another way by another hooper, “If I see someone walking down the street carrying a hoop, I know they understand something that I get as well.” “Everyone who hoops knows that someone else who also hoops just ‘gets it.’” Again and again, hoopers note that it is the practice (not one particular interpretation or belief) that unites the community [xviii]. 

In fact, the practice and the hoop itself are the only two stable markers of the hoop community, which in other ways sees itself as very diverse. The hooping community, which contains those who find hooping spiritual, religious, or meditative as well as those who see it purely as recreation or exercise, constructs the boundaries of the community around the object of the hoop and the acquisition of hooping skills. As one hooper noted, “There is nothing unique about the hooping community that differentiates itself (sic) from any other community… except that they come together for the hoop.” From this shared practice, hoopers recognize each other as part of a unique community. 

It is important to highlight that many of our hoopers fit into the Generation X category (born roughly from early 1960s-early 1980s), and while the number of millennial hoopers (born from early 1980s to early 2000s) will likely continue to grow in numbers, our data shows that a high percentage of hoopers (64% of our survey) and almost all of those who founded and remain important figures in the movement come from Generation X. Steeped in pluralism, the Generation X emphasis on individualism and subjectivity are not a barrier to community. In fact, for hoopers, they have become the marker of the community. “Open,” “diverse,” “non-judgmental,” “respect for individual choices,” “accepting”—these are all common ways in which hoopers characterize their community. 

The multiplicity of possible interpretations of hooping reveals the importance of tolerance, diversity, and inclusivity in creating community. The fluidity in content also hints at fluidity in form. The ways in which members communicate, form friendships, share tools, and support one another happens in multiple spaces, both virtual and non-virtual. The beginnings of the hoop community, which was more sprawling than dense, demanded alternatives to face-to-face encounters. New media has been an essential part of the formation and spread of the hooping movement. Community happens online, and virtual exchanges are an authentic way to for hoopers to connect. The hoop community thus offers a space where individual, embodied practices combine with virtual encounters to cultivate a truly practical spirituality. 

Generation X Spirituality

Figure 3: Hoopers “swaying” at the beginning of the day’s workshop. HoopPath Sangha Retreat, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
Generation Xers share much with their metaphysical foremothers and forefathers; one distinguishing factor, however, is that Gen Xers spent their entire lives in the presence of new media and technology and have drawn upon these sources for meaning-making throughout their lifetime. Tom Beaudoin notes that “although the Internet (as a popular communications medium) and the World Wide Web gained prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s, involvement with these media can be seen as continuations of two older technological developments: the computer and the video game. Generation X grew up on intimate terms with these machines, and [their] smooth entry into the nether reaches of cyberspace is directly linked to this technologized upbringing” [xix]. The media that bombarded Generation X during their formative years underwent a transformation that left them thoroughly familiar with technology, but also wary of its incarnations. Much as Generation X’s absorption of popular culture is both self-aware and critical, their use of technology is as well [xx]. A participatory culture of sharing and critique punctuates hoopers use of new media. 

Hoop spiritualities are a mediated form of meaning-making and community building. While the practice of hooping is often a solitary endeavor for hoopers, hoopers reach out though various forms of media to connect with others in order to sustain and reinvigorate their personal practice. In our survey, 87.4% of hoopers use YouTube, 43.5% use Online Forums, and 15.3% purchase online classes to support their hoop practice. When asked how they participate in the hooping community, 72.2% noted that they participate in online hooping social networking sites. Even more, 93.5% said that hooping alone (by themselves) was one way that they participate in the community. Many hoopers live in locations that have no other hoopers. Therefore, online connections are a way for them to share their personal experiences and develop hooping skills. When describing the community, many hoopers mention the internet as an important space. “The closest hooper that I know lives about an hour away,” one survey participant explained, “I do feel like I have a strong online hooping community, and for that I am grateful.” Another hooper expressed a similar sentiment, “Where I live the hooping community is very small and it has been difficult to organize people… When I interact with hoopers on,, and at music festivals and raves it is generally a very outgoing, fun and playful experience.” 

The use of media in hooping has dominated the community since its earliest incarnations. As early as 2003, hoopers were forming an online community at, an early chat and message board site where hoopers could converse and share video. The site became unstable in 2006, and hoopers migrated to other sites for community and support [xxi]. In addition to Facebook, and are now some of the most popular networking sites for hoopers. In a larger sense, online social spaces are a fundamental part of how the hooping community has always communicated. The early discussion forums set the stage for the hoop community. Individuals would share ideas, techniques, instructions on how to make hoops, and more. 

The YouTube revolution is an extension of this basic format. The addition of easily accessible visual and audio components have broadened the community, allowing those unfamiliar with hoop dance to experience it outside of the festivals, concerts, and raves that spread the early movement. Because hooping is an embodied practice, seeing the movement of hooping is crucial to understanding, mimicking, and creating a hoop dance of one’s own. In order to do that, one must first have a basic set of skills that allow a style to emerge. This is where technology is critical. “There is such a focus on teaching others” one appreciative hooper explained, “there are so many free videos on the internet to help me learn it is great.” The sharing on social media does not end with posting videos. Hoopers ask one another questions and respond promptly. When so many hoopers are separated by distance, they are often eager to share and help one another grow in their practice. As one survey participant put it, “We are a tribe, a social network.” Media directly supports the development of individual hooping skills, yet it is only through a context of a sharing community that this is possible. 

For hoopers there exists a kind of dialectic between the construction of a meaningful self and the construction of a supportive, pluralistic community. While the individual hooper may have come to hooping individually, experienced a spiritual transformation unexpectedly, and primarily hoop alone, the hooping experience is not a solitary one. Hoopers reach out to the community, primarily through social media, to both share and receive different tools, skills, and techniques to expand and deepen their personal practice. The community, then, grows in depth and numbers when more individuals participate and claim membership. Thus creating an increasingly diverse depository of symbolic tools for meaning making for individuals to draw upon. None of this is possible without media. 

This post has examined some of the ways in which hoop dance is both a tool for embodied spirituality and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. To return to one of our survey participant’s quotes from earlier in the chapter: “Hooping is my church.… Hooping is where I commune with God. It's my quiet space where I can quiet my mind and just be… I stopped going to church years ago and use my hoop time as my spiritual haven.” Her statement replaces church with hooping. But “hooping” is more than the time spent in the hoop, it is mediated by all of the practices of social sharing that create the new space of the hoop and the community where hoopers feel that they can be their authentic selves. 

References/Bibliography/Further Reading
Albanese, Catherine L. A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 

Beaudoin, Tom. Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. 

Camp, Jan. Hoopdance Revolution: Mindfulness in Motion. Berkeley, California: Arc Light Books, 2013. 

Flory, Richard W. and Donald E. Miller. Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2008. 

Fuller, Robert C. Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 

HoopPath. Official Website. 

Hoover, Stewart M. Religion in the Media Age. Religion, Media and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2006. 

Hoover, Stewart M., and Lynn Schofield Clark, eds. Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 

Mercadante, Linda A. Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 

Roof, Wade Clark. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. 

Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Wuthnow, Robert. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 

[i] Catherine L. Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 1. 

[ii] Ibid., 4. 

[iii] See Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (Oxford : New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Linda A. Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014). 

[iv] Albanese, Republic, 13. 

[v] Ibid., 6, 13. 

[vi] Ibid., 6. 

[vii] ibid., 6. 

[viii] Ibid., 14. 

[ix] Ibid., 6. 

[x] Ibid., 14. 

[xi] Ibid., 15. 

[xii] Ibid., 15. 

[xiii] Ibid., 8. 

[xiv] Ibid., 8. 

[xv] Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, 1st ed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 251. 

[xvi] Ibid., 256. 

[xvii] Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 14. 

[xviii] Flory and Miller’s work on Post-Boomer Christian traditions has found similar tendencies in GenX religion. See Richard W. Flory and Donald E. Miller, Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2008). 

[xix] Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, 1st ed (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 43. 

[xx] Ibid., 122. 

[xxi] Jan M. Camp, Hoopdance Revolution: Mindfulness in Motion (Berkeley, California: Arc Light Books, 2013), 136-7.