Jean Debernardi, PhD, MA, BA


Faculty of Arts - Anthropology Dept


Area of Study / Keywords

China Southeast Asia Anthropology of Food Historical Anthropology Anthropology of Modernity


I received my training as a cultural anthropologist at Stanford, Oxford, and the University of Chicago and have been teaching at the University of Alberta since 1991. I have done ethnographic research on Chinese popular religion in Malaysia and Singapore, evangelical Christianity in Singapore, religious and cultural pilgrimage to the Daoist temple complex at Wudang Mountain, China, and on contemporary tea culture in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces. I also have conducted archival research in Singapore, Malaysia, and England on the history of the Open Brethren movement in Singapore and Penang, Malaysia, and a new book Christian Circulations: Global Christianity and the Local Church in Penang and Singapore, 1819-2000 was published in 2020. Previous publications include Rites of Belonging: Memory, Modernity and Identity in a Malaysian Chinese Community (Stanford University Press, 2004) and The Way that Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirit Mediums in Penang, Malaysia (Stanford University Press, 2006). Both have been reprinted by NUS Press in Singapore (2009, 2011). 


Starting in 2009, I shifted the focus of my research from Daoism to tea culture, and received funding for myself and my graduate students Fei Wu, Yan Jie, and Ma Junhong to conduct research on "Material Identity: The Anthropology of Contemporary Chinese Tea Culture" with support from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We continue to collaborate on publications based on this program of research.

From 2002-2007, I did research on the globalization of Daoism, which focused on religious and cultural pilgrimage from Singapore to the Daoist temple complex at Wudang Mountain. I am now working on a monograph (Wudang Mountain and the Modernization of Daoism) in which I explore the paradoxes of modern Daoism, a religion whose sacred sites are promoted as historical sites and tourist destinations, and reflect on the challenge of adapting ethnographic research methods to study of modernity and its impacts.


As of July 2021 I am retired from the University of Alberta. As a development of my research interest in tea culture, I had been teaching courses on the Anthropology of Food (Anthr 372) and on the Anthropology of Asian Food (Anth 278). I also taught seminar courses on Urban Anthropology and the Anthropology of Modernity. In my advanced seminar courses I promote the development of observational, research, and writing skills for both advanced undergraduate and graduate students. I anticipate publishing in these areas.


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Scholarly Activities

Research - Material Identity: The Anthropology of Contemporary Chinese Tea

Started: 2009

Since 2009, with support from the Faculty of Arts and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2009 & 2010), the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, 2010-13), and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of  Canada, I have been doing research focusing on contemporary Chinese tea culture. At the same time that tea farmers and manufacturers present their specialty teas as heritage and fine craft production, they also make use of technology to meet the demands of a mass market.  The research also explores the use of museums and innovative performances (from a 5D movie to outdoor spectacular performances) to promote and celebrate famous tea producing regions.

Research - The Modernization of Daoism In China and Singapore

2002 to 2014

In China the Daoist religion is recognized as heritage and framed within historical narratives for the benefit of tourists. But it also is a living religious tradition whose practitioners are increasingly linked to a global network of supporters. These include diasporic Chinese in Taiwan and Southeast Asia (but also an international network of scholars, artists, martial artists, and European and American converts.
In this program of research, I investigated the ways that the Chinese government has reformed and modernized official Daoism including developing its global presence.  Between 2002 and 2007, I conducted ethnographic research at the Daoist temple complex at Wudang Mountain and I also did research in Singapore and Malaysia, focusing on documenting the renewal and expansion of Wudang Mountain’s regional, national, and international linkages. I attended and presented papers at three International Daoist Forums in 2007, 2011, and 2014 and have analyzed those events in an unpublished 2015 conference paper that is now under revision.