Anthropologists have typically viewed animism as a cosmology in which every being has a soul or ‘vital essence’. While animism has undergone many theoretical metamorphoses since anthropology’s early days, radically outstripping Edward B. Tylor’s ( 1920) original uses of the term, it would likely surprise many anthropologists to learn that animism is being reinvented across the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Animism in China is referred to as ‘nature worship’ (Ch. ziran chongbai 自然崇拜) or the notion that ‘every being has a soul’ (Ch. wanwu youling 万物有灵), and it is currently being propounded as a cosmological-cum-ecological ethos capable of mobilizing widespread environmentalist sensibilities. The official Chinese take on animism underpins new ecological policies that offload environmental management onto ethnic minorities, who are dubbed the ‘animistic custodians’ of local landscapes. This eco-friendly animistic view is the counterpart to a neo-Confucian environmentalist movement that is intended to galvanize China’s ethnic majority, the Han, to undertake “a radical transformation of hearts and minds” (Chang 2011: 262) through everyday acts of self-cultivation, ensuring the planet’s vitality for future generations. Like other foreign-sourced concepts, including Marxian-Morganian views on social evolution, animism in China has become a tool for social engineering, capable of transforming formerly taboo phenomena, such as shamanic rites, into a new means of production. However, today’s production is oriented toward reforesting lands that the state ordered to be leveled a generation ago. Animistic peoples in China are responding equally resourcefully, caricaturing themselves as the age-old forestry managers who inspired the new ecological jargon in the first place.
Drawing on my fieldwork among the Nuosu of Southwest China, my aim in this article is to show how the ‘art of capture’ underpins the native reinvention of animistic ontologies that shadow our fieldwork efforts at uncovering ethnography, even as interlocutors return our gaze through their interpretations of animism as a founding concept in our discipline. I argue that animistic ideas take on lives of their own. Fieldwork or academic writing may transform them into lynchpins to several co-existing ontologies with differing definitions of animism, or into what Scott (2007) aptly terms a ‘poly-ontology’.
One important finding in my Nuosu ethnography is that different views on animism can take root in the knowledge and practices of animistic peoples who have acquired a supple command of anthropological concepts. In this article, I examine Nuosu anthropology, ethno-history, and different Nuosu ethno-theologies. I suggest that their reinvention of animistic ideas parallels the animistic transformations of material objects and sacrificial animals used to lure spirits, ghosts, and human souls into their ritual purview (Swancutt 2015: 136–138). On another level, my case studies suggest that the concept of animism commands an extraordinary influence on anthropological thought, possessing the agency—much like that of spirits among our fieldwork friends—to impinge on our own thinking.
I have carried out fieldwork since 2007 among Nuosu, who are a Tibeto-Burman group officially classed with numerous neighboring ethnic groups under the Chinese ethnonym Yi. The Nuosu I know inhabit a temperate, forested mountain region colloquially referred to as the Lesser Cool Mountains (Xiao Liangshan) of Ninglang County in Yunnan Province, which borders the Greater Cool Mountains (Da Liangshan) of Sichuan Province, from which their forebears migrated 120–150 years ago. Yunnan is famous in Southwest China for having the densest population of minority groups in the country and for being a ‘hotbed’ of minority politics, where groups have lobbied for greater autonomy for generations and, more recently, for state benefits as well. Across wider China, the Nuosu are notorious for their recent history of slaveholding and ranked lineages, which are upheld by an essentialist theory of “blood superiority” (Pan Jiao 1997: 109). Today’s Nuosu say that when their ancestors first entered Ninglang, they either drove out the resident populations they encountered or incorporated them as slave labor, which remains a source of ethnic pride. They further point out that, traditionally, any Nuosu of noble, commoner, or slave extraction could own slaves; thus, prestige and wealth were routinely displayed through slave retinues. Ann Maxwell Hill (2001: 1037–1038) has shown that Nuosu slavery boomed for roughly 50 years (1906–1956) when China outlawed the production of opium in Han-held areas, effectively opening the market to minorities like the Nuosu, who traded opium (grown by slaves) to Han merchants for silver and rifles. Moreover, in the early years of the PRC, Chinese ethnologists sensationalized the Nuosu as living exemplars of a slave society, eagerly fitting them into the Marxian-Morganian model of social evolution then in vogue in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and academic circles (ibid.: 1033–1035). Nuosu slaveholding practices were therefore targeted during the ‘democratic reforms’ (Ch. minzhu gaige 民主改革) undertaken across China’s southwest in 1956–1957 to incorporate ethnic others within the body politic of the PRC. However, the Nuosu defended their ideals of blood superiority with guerrilla warfare, battling the People’s Liberation Army across their highlands until—as they commonly attest—the Han seized their shotguns. Thus, while swidden agriculture and pastoralism are nowadays the most visible pursuits in the Nuosu countryside, the themes of warfare, slavery, luring, and capture remain palpable in their animistic imagery.
Nearly every Nuosu rite entails an exorcism that expels ghosts from the home by shotgun, dynamite, fireworks, burning, scalding, priestly or shamanic chanting, or some other ritualistic means. Nuosu ‘priests’ (Nuo. bimo ꀘꂾ), whom I refer to as ‘text-reading shamans’, recite formulaic litanies that they occasionally trace back to a 4,000-year history of exorcising ghosts, calling back lost souls, and removing illnesses. There is a parallel Nuosu tradition of shamans (Nuo. sunyit ꌠꑊ) who do not read texts but carry out the same ritual tasks accompanied by spontaneous recitations. Both kinds of practitioners often direct ritualistic warfare against a specific class of ghosts commonly called shubi, which is also referred to by some Nuosu ethnologists as shuo bbot (ꎰꀠ). Shubi are comprised of former slaves captured from other ethnic groups, especially the Han. As I have described elsewhere (Swancutt 2012b: 67–68), shubi appear at night as phosphorescence (Nuo. bbit dut ꁖꄔ) on mountaintops, flashing like live flames as they race to disband and reaggregate. They often form into bands of ghosts (Nuo. nyit cy ꑊꋌ) that include the higher-ranked Nuosu dead who never gained entrance to the ancestral afterlife located in Shypmu Ngehxat (Nuo. ꏃꃅꉬꉎ)—conceptualized as a kind of afterlife world kingdom not far from Zyzypuvy (Nuo. ꋪꋪꁌꃴ, or present-day Zhaotong)—since they were expelled from the lineage or failed to produce male descendants for it. While reparatory rites can be held to incorporate these higher-ranked nyit cy, they are rare and difficult to conduct.
Each of these various ghosts are ‘non-ancestors’, doomed to wander mountaintops seeking food and, in the case of shubi, searching for roads to reunite them with the families they lost when captured as slaves. Some shubi benignly haunt their former masters’ homes, where they continue to carry out agricultural tasks for them. If treated well, they may remain as good help, although Nuosu are wary that shubi might one day insidiously inflict illnesses on them. Most of the haunting, though, is ascribed to the hunger, lack of clothing, and insufficient shelter that ghosts suffer when barred entrance from the afterlife, where they could have eaten the ‘spirits’ of dead livestock and crops. Out of starvation and spite, wandering ghosts thus enter the homes of living Nuosu, where they inflict illnesses and capture people’s souls. To combat them, Nuosu hold exorcisms in which they offer portions of sacrificial animals to the ghosts and produce attractive effigies of their ‘homes’ or ‘jails’—presented as alternative ‘shelters’—before expelling them from the household.
Exorcisms are central to the Nuosu art of capture that permeates their animistic thought and practice. So too is yet another cornerstone of their art of capture, that is, the Nuosu notion that the human soul takes the form of a tiny ‘soul-spider’ (Nuo. yyr ꒌ), which resides on the outer surface of the human body and is usually visible only during soul-calling ceremonies (Swancutt 2012a, 2012b, 2012c). Ghosts are chiefly responsible for causing soul loss by capturing the person’s soul-spider, often hiding it under a stone. When this happens, Nuosu ritually retrieve the lost soul by placing a white thread—which is meant to resemble a real spider’s thread—across the threshold and calling to it from within the home. They lure the soul-spider back with promises of warmth and food. Eventually the soul-spider comes visibly into focus and climbs the white thread, whereupon the person handling the thread rolls it up and deposits it with the soul-spider in a winnowing basket or lacquer box, shutting the lid over it in an act of capture. When the next good astrological day arrives, the lid is removed to allow the soul-spider to return to its owner. Tellingly, the art of capture evidenced in the ritual retrieval of the soul-spider presupposes an asymmetric power relation that is more transparent to the captor than the would-be captive, which as I show below, is a recurrent theme in Nuosu efforts to manage relations between people and their souls, the living and the dead, anthropologists and informants, or even native scholars and foreign anthropologists.
On another level, the art of capture cuts across the essentialist views on Nuosu lineage rankings, since a Nuosu person may obtain a prestigious ‘seat’ (Ch. weizhi 位置) in society by taking up a specialist occupation, such as priest, clan leader, mediator, craftsperson, or warrior, or by virtue of having accumulated wealth without setbacks. Through any of these occupations, Nuosu may attract ‘followers’, who (like the slave retinues of recent history) increase their fame, popularity, and accomplishments (Swancutt 2012b). Besides establishing a reputation as a vocational expert, Nuosu may ‘capture’ followers by claiming to hold ‘hidden knowledge’—such as rare priestly litanies or lineage secrets—which they may sometimes use as the platform for a ‘hidden joke’, as I describe here. Nuosu deploy their art of capture in a variety of settings, ranging from soul retrieval and village exorcisms to interactions with Chinese social workers who propound an eco-friendly ‘animistic’ discourse and behavior. In so doing, Nuosu reflexively harness the animism of anthropology, the animistic ideas in their rituals and cosmology, and the ‘ideology of animism’ that pervades China’s new environmentalist discourse.
Building this article on a trio of case studies, I now bring you into dialogue with the Nuosu ethnologist Mitsu, followed by rural Nuosu living in the village where I carried out fieldwork in late 2011 and the Nuosu anthropologist Tuosat, who was born and raised in that same village.1 Although ethnology and anthropology are closely related disciplines, I differentiate Mitsu’s and Tuosat’s occupations according to their academic training and the different types of research they conduct. Mitsu and Tuosat have collaborated on publications about Nuosu religion, and Tuosat is aware that he returns the anthropological gaze when talking about his own culture. Tuosat is, furthermore, the relative of two villagers who appear in this article: Katba, who raised Tuosat like a father, and Datlamuo, Tuosat’s nephew. My case studies reveal how ‘hyper-reflexivity’ emerges between academics and villagers who traverse each other’s respective ontological domains. With its unique viewpoint on Nuosu animistic life, my ethnography demonstrates how Nuosu use hidden jokes and the art of capture to influence other Nuosu, their Chinese colleagues, and even Euro-American anthropologists.
Ethno-history and Classic Animism: The Soul as Shadow
My trip to Ninglang in September 2011 began with a series of banquets, one of which was held by members of an ethnological institute based in the county seat. Among the people attending was Mitsu, an expert on Nuosu religion who was in his fifties and whom I had briefly met during my first visit to the area in 2007. The banquet progressed quickly, and I soon realized that the academics were testing my understanding of Nuosu culture with questions about arcane notions and practices that are largely unknown to present-day villagers. Accepting that there would be differences between our research paths, I directed my thoughts toward traveling to my fieldwork village. To my surprise, though, once we had left the company of his colleagues, Mitsu asked me with eager and genuine interest what I was really working on. I started off by saying that, some years earlier, my original focus was the Nuosu soul (Ch. linghun 灵魂), which takes the form of a soul-spider. Visibly excited, he told me that he, too, had worked extensively on the soul. On the spot, he invited me to his home for a discussion and visit with his wife and children, which I accepted. This was no serendipitous meeting. Given the importance of the soul in animistic religions, it makes sense that Mitsu and I would both have taken an interest in it. What Mitsu did not anticipate, however, was that my thoughts on the soul-spider—which reflect common knowledge in the Nuosu countryside—only partially overlapped with his understanding as an ethno-historian based in the county seat. Over the following two months, I kept in close contact with Mitsu whenever I made short visits to the county. During each of our visits, he viewed me as a ‘foreign anthropologist’ and acted as a ‘mentoring informant’ toward me.
At first, Mitsu was keen to tell me that Nuosu villagers, including Fijy, the institute’s then-consultant priest who was my village host in 2007, had “messy,” “confused,” or “chaotic” (Ch. luan 乱) ideas about complex notions like the soul. Mitsu stressed that villagers often distort or acquire only partial understandings of classical notions about Nuosu life. Contrasting his understanding to that of the villagers, Mitsu said that he had read many ancient Nuosu texts, which only the most elite bimo priests understand deeply. By studying these texts in combination, Mitsu felt that he had acquired a thorough understanding of the esoteric and hidden elements in Nuosu religion, which trumped the villagers’ knowledge. He did not mind that I focused on the soul-spider, but advised me to clarify that the Nuosu soul takes this form only when it is lost or being ritualistically retrieved. However, in the course of our conversation, Mitsu’s wife mentioned that the Premi ethnic group have a similar idea, namely, that real spiders are the transmuted forms of lost human souls. I added that a Naxi man had told me a few days earlier in Kunming that they, too, consider lost souls to take the form of spiders, while in the 1980s the Chinese anthropologist He Shutao (2000) made a similar finding among another shamanic group, now largely Christianized, called the Nusu (see also Mazard 2011, this issue). Mitsu’s wife and I agreed that human souls and spiders are considered synonymous, or even equivalent, by many ethnic groups in Southwest China. Still, Mitsu maintained that it did not matter if rural Nuosu nowadays envision the soul in the form of a soul-spider. What he stressed was that the Nuosu soul originally was conceived of as a ‘shadow’.
When I asked him why, Mitsu replied that the symmetry of Nuosu ancient and modern characters for the soul-spider depict a shadow or, more precisely, the casting of a reflection. We debated the shapes of these characters, which, four years earlier, Fijy and his fellow villagers had told me resembled a spider (Swancutt 2012a). I wondered whether Mitsu’s studies were informed by classic anthropology texts on the soul and shadow, as they had filtered into Chinese ethnology. Inwardly, I also reflected that my views on the soul-spider were as much influenced by my fieldwork experiences as they were by my training, including my reading of anthropological and ethnological texts. But Mitsu raced ahead with his explanations, and I soon found that he had gathered his ideas from the study of ancient and medieval links between Nuosu animistic religion and Daoism. Historically, Daoism has equated souls and shadows, populated the landscape with nature spirits, and propounded the view that people can obtain saint-like immortality after death. Revealingly, the Daoist’s discipline of daily self-refining physical exercises makes the person capable of either radiating light that conceals his or her shadow (Ch. ying 影), which is equated with the soul (Ch. hun 魂), or of hiding the person within that same shadow-soul, so that he or she disappears from sight (Robinet 1993: 165–166). Still, since most present-day Nuosu are unfamiliar with Daoist texts, they emphasize the spidery appearance of souls, the rites held to capture them, and their personal efforts to attract fame and followers.
Shortly afterward, I traveled to the village that is home to the Nuosu anthropologist Tuosat. After my discussions with Mitsu, I felt that I should confirm whether the soul-spider is indeed the accepted understanding about the soul, as I had learned during my earlier fieldwork. I relaxed when Tuosat’s fellow villagers agreed that the soul-spider was indeed the common view. Many of them added that it is ideally white in color, like a freshly hatched spider, since this suggests it has not been absent from its owner for long. Significantly, the local shaman, who can see ghosts and had not heard of Mitsu’s research, scoffed at the idea that human souls and shadows have anything in common. He felt that only ghosts—and not human souls—can be perceived in an outline form that resembles a shadow. But a fortnight later, Katba, a relative and ‘interlocutor’ of Mitsu, told me that souls and shadows are traditionally linked together in Nuosu understanding. He did not know why this was the case, but believed that the link between them is a ‘folkloric saying’ (Ch. chuanshuo 传说). Over a glass of strong Chinese grain liquor (Ch. baijiu 白酒), Katba, a retired schoolteacher, jovially revealed that he had raised the anthropologist Tuosat like a father and had taught him everything he knew. He added that he had helped Tuosat and Mitsu write a book on the soul during a week they spent together in Kunming.
On my next visit to the county center, I asked Mitsu whether Katba had helped him write a book on the soul. For several minutes, I received a genuinely puzzled expression, followed by startled statements that Katba had done none of the co-authoring. Mitsu even queried Datlamuo, the 25-year-old nephew of Tuosat who was present at the time, whether Katba had been drinking when he claimed authorship to his work. But then Mitsu’s face suddenly lit up in recognition of a hidden joke, and he burst out laughing at the idea that Katba might have, in a roundabout way, tried to compete with his expertise. He confirmed respectfully that Katba did inform his study, but also proudly declared Katba had done none of the writing for the volume, which appeared under the name of Mitsu’s former research team leader in Kunming (Asu Daling 2008). It transpired instead that Mitsu’s Daoist-inspired links between the soul and shadow informed Katba’s understanding. Katba took these views to the village where they gained no further popularity, since he had not challenged anyone with them—apart from telling me in a single joking conversation that he was the true fount of information for Mitsu and Tuosat’s work. Moreover, Mitsu added that while Tuosat had joined the academic discussions in Kunming, the publication was devoted to discussing Nuosu religion in ethno-historical rather than anthropological terms.
It would be too simple to write off Mitsu’s views as purely ethno-historical or as a skewed source of information about present-day Nuosu notions. Like the villagers, Mitsu cut to the chase when discussing animism. He confirmed that there is no Nuosu-language equivalent for the term ‘animism’, which he preferred to gloss in Chinese as ziran chongbai, or ‘nature worship’, as distinct from the officially sanctioned ‘religions’ (zongjiao 宗教) of China—one of which is Daoism. Nuosu, he corroborated, have no term for the animistic cosmologies familiar to anthropology or for the eco-friendly ideology of animism propounded by the Chinese state. This is because Nuosu typically consider their religious knowledge to be part of the general know-how they acquire when growing up in the countryside. Yet Mitsu anticipated, through his Daoist-inspired outlook, that Nuosu cosmology contains a vast ontological diversity and is populated by more spirits than the villagers seemed to recognize.2 Enthusiastically, Mitsu related that Nuosu villagers believe there are nature spirits in every portion of the landscape. He added that once locals had told me the names of the spirits for every turn in the road, fork in the river, bend in the hillside, mountain passage, and so on, I could produce an ‘animistic map’ of their village. However, all the villagers I met, including Katba, held that just their large mountain had a nature spirit, which was simply named after the mountain. Only closer to the end of my stay, when Tuosat passed through the village and spoke to me ‘anthropologically’, did I receive vague confirmation that nature spirits inhabit every portion of the landscape. Yet even Tuosat, who seems to have acquired this understanding from Mitsu, could not name or fully imagine what those spirits would be.
Revealingly, when I met with Mitsu in the county seat just before concluding my research trip, I observed him returning the anthropological gaze. He had taken increasing interest in my findings over the course of my fieldwork in Ninglang, drawing impressive links between his historical work and the present-day rites I had observed. Meanwhile, I had tried taking on board his ethno-historical outlook, actively working to bridge our views through a kind of hyper-reflexivity and to gather hidden knowledge from him. During a moment when we were lost in thought, I asked Mitsu about the soul-spider again to see whether he might also consider the art of capture a lynchpin to Nuosu sociality. Each of the five village exorcisms I had observed during the previous two months concluded with rites to recapture lost soul-spiders. I invoked resonances between these rites, Nuosu slavery, warfare, and even the practice of capturing pheasants to be domesticated for their eggs. Expanding on this theme, I noted that the Nuosu hunter sometimes travels to the forest wearing a round cape woven from hemp and a conical hat like those worn by the Han for agricultural labor, while carrying a domesticated pheasant in a large oval basket commonly used in agricultural work. Hiding under his cape and hat, the hunter squats down behind the basket, which resembles the scrub where wild pheasants live, and waits for his domesticated pheasant to cry out. Attracted to these calls, a wild pheasant approaches the basket, at which point the hunter carefully lifts up one edge of the basket, allowing it to enter, and then lowers the basket to the ground to capture it. This pheasant-capturing technique, I commented, parallels the ritual technique for recapturing lost soul-spiders.
Mitsu quietly agreed that Nuosu people and even ghosts do have a penchant for ‘luring’ or ‘attracting’ (Ch. yinyou 引诱) others. He offered a parallel example that he heard adults invoke when growing up in his home village. His elders said that gremlin-like ghosts (Nuo. syp lup ꌧꇑ) would put bright red berries inside these large agricultural baskets, using the attractive color to lure children. Once a child got close enough, the ghost would lift up the edge of the basket and capture the child’s soul inside it, using the same ambush tactics of the pheasant hunter. According to Mitsu, this strategy is a variation on the wider Nuosu theme of ghostly capture, whereby ghosts lure away or forcibly capture the souls of people walking through forests and trap them beneath stones on the ground. When these souls are recovered in rituals, they take the form of soul-spiders, often yellowed from dirt and the delayed return to their owners. While I was feverishly writing this down, Datlamuo, who had arrived and joined our conversation, added that Nuosu ritually capture ghosts in wooden barrels traditionally used for storing water—and reminded me that we had witnessed this very tactic a few weeks earlier during a village exorcism.
Their observations were significant. Mitsu—influenced by my talk about the villagers’ views (which perhaps had begun to appear to him as a form of hidden knowledge)—eventually concluded that luring and capture might be key tropes in Nuosu sociality. Furthermore, Datlamuo revealed that Nuosu view the art of capture as a strategy entailing several co-existing levels of awareness. The three of us discussed how, if a ghost captures a person’s soul, Nuosu retaliate with rites that capture the ghost and force it to release the soul before they expel the ghost from the home and recapture the soul themselves. I recalled how Datlamuo had told me many times, during the village exorcisms we attended, that Nuosu priests or shamans make effigies of ghosts function strictly as representations (Nuo. sat ꌐ) of them, so as to lure ghosts into the ritual purview where they can be ambushed. However, this savvy tactic of reducing effigies to representations is a form of hidden knowledge that Nuosu persons use to prevent ghosts from ‘animating’ the effigies and launching a counter-ambush through them. We now turn to the ritualized warfare of exorcism, which lies at the heart of Nuosu villagers’ views on animism.
Animism in the Village
When carrying out fieldwork in Tuosat’s village, I quickly learned that the villagers did not have a Nuosu-language equivalent for the word ‘animism’, nor did they conceive of their religious life as a bounded whole. They focused instead on their rites, most of which entail exorcisms to expel ghosts, illnesses, and misfortunes from the home. Thus, when I experimented anthropologically by asking what their forms of animism could be, many villagers offered local views on the spirits, ghosts, and rituals. As one of them explained: “We venerate our mountain spirit, ancestors, guardian spirits [Nuo. jjyp lup ꐛꇑ], and other spirits in the landscape. But we also have ghosts that come and cause illness. When this happens, we invite the priest or shaman, who holds a ritual to kick them out of our house and retrieve our souls.” Villagers often added that they live within an ongoing cycle of exorcisms because they cannot kill ghosts, which simply wander to another home after they have been exorcised. Each Nuosu household, then, tends to hold an exorcism every three to five years and accepts the inevitable burden of it. Nuosu view ghosts as persistent, wily, and crafty at evading exorcism. Since ghosts hide in remote parts of the home and obstruct the priest’s or shaman’s efforts at expelling them, villagers use the art of capture to lure ghosts into the ritual space of the exorcism.
Both priests and shamans use the art of capture expertly to exorcise ghosts. Having prepared food offerings through animal sacrifice, as well as effigies of the ghosts and the ‘homes’ or ‘jails’ to which they will be ritually lured, the priest or shaman summons the ghosts into the space of the exorcism. Their summoning takes the form of chanted ‘speech bullets’ (Nuo. ddop ma ꅇꂷ), a form of ritual weaponry that draws the ghosts out of hiding and weakens them (Swancutt 2015: 136–138, 149–150, 152–155). Nuosu persons therefore use effigies for the hidden purpose of capturing ghosts, while ghosts use invisibility for the purpose of eluding capture. Shamans, who can see ghosts, watch the offerings and effigies attentively. Every Nuosu ritual specialist is assisted by at least one male layperson, and shamans tell these assistants when the ghosts have entered the ritual purview and can be captured and expelled from the home. Priests, who cannot see ghosts, use a juvenile cockerel as their proxy: suspended by the legs, upside down, over the effigies and offerings, it will shake, flap its wings, and cluck at the approach of a ghost. This is the cue that the ghosts can be captured and expelled from the home. As soon as ghosts settle into the space of the exorcism, Nuosu ambush them. Datlamuo explained that people and ghosts battle for mastery of the household and its resources during exorcisms, which are ritualized warfare. We attended several exorcisms together, including two in late October 2011 that were central to my case study: a local family exorcised ghosts that had to be exorcised again from a neighbor’s home just a few days later.
I had been living in Tuosat’s village for about a month when I learned the story behind these exorcisms, which started with the tragic death of a healthy five-year-old boy. The oldest of three sons, the boy was playing at home one afternoon when, feeling lonely, he placed two mobile phone calls to his father, who was working on a construction job about a 20-minute drive from the village. His father suspected that these calls might be bad omens, since they were out of character for his son. In both calls, the boy pleaded: “Dad, I’m all alone and really want to see you. But you’re too far away, and I just won’t be able to reach you.” Shortly after putting down the phone for the second time, the boy’s father saw many magpies overhead, circling and chattering loudly on the wing, which Nuosu take to be an omen that either bad or good news will arrive soon. Getting increasingly nervous that something had gone awry, the boy’s father suddenly heard his phone ring again. This time family members told him to come home immediately because his son was on the brink of death. Minutes before, the boy had suddenly raced toward a ladder made from heavy logs, which are often balanced at an angle inside of Nuosu homes to access grain lofts. Climbing up in play, the boy’s weight was just enough to unbalance the ladder. When he came toppling down, one of the logs struck his forehead at full force. The father drove home at top speed but arrived too late—his son had died.
As he was too young to have produced male descendants and thus been eligible for a proper funeral and send-off to the ancestral afterlife, the child was quickly cremated in the hope that he would become a guardian spirit for the home, rather than a wandering ghost. Preparations were also made for an exorcism. In the lead-up to the rites, villagers circulated the story of the tragedy, commenting that the boy had never complained about being lonely before and highlighting the prophetic phone calls, which indicated that the child would die soon at the hands of ghosts. Villagers speculated that ghosts had made the boy speak with an ominous maturity beyond his years and had ensured that he would meet a swift death before his father’s return. But the haunting was also traced to the fact that this was the second son to have died in the household within a short stretch of time. Two years earlier, the couple’s second-born child had died of a sudden fever. Yet the parents, who were in their early thirties, had not held an exorcism at the time because of the enormous expense (about 10,000 yuan or £1,000) entailed in procuring the animals necessary for slaughter. However, given the violence of this new tragedy and the loss of two sons, the family finally felt compelled to carry out the exorcism. The parents hoped that the rites would protect their third and only remaining son from a similar fate. The couple’s situation was especially dire because if they lost their last son and failed to produce more surviving sons for the lineage, they, too, would likely be barred from entering the ancestral afterlife—at least until a special reparatory rite could be successfully held to reverse the situation.
A priest arrived on 26 October to hold a six-partite exorcism, which entailed the near-continuous chanting of esoteric texts for 48 hours to capture and expel four ghosts from the home. Datlamuo and I attended these rites, which identified two ghosts as Nuosu men who had failed to bear any sons, one of whom had been a priest and was tricky to exorcise. The third ghost was a Nuosu man who had shamed the lineage, and the fourth was a gremlin-like ghost that took the form of a horse ridden by the third ghost. Each of these ghosts was barred entrance to the ancestral afterlife and jealously wanted to inflict their fates on the young couple. I will highlight just a few techniques that the priest and others attending the rite considered especially potent in their art of capture.
To weaken the ghosts, the priest first held the common, yet elaborate, rite called sit ke bur (ꌉꈌꀱ) in Nuosu, which literally means a ‘sacrifice to send back harmful speech’, and is held to return spoken words that cause harm to those who sent them. During the pinnacle of this rite, the priest slaughtered a cock and lifted its windpipe out of the body, blowing air into it while holding the bird’s neck extended skyward. He thereby produced three slow, haunting cock-crows from the dead cockerel’s vocal chords to be heard by Ngetit Guxnzy, the chief sky god of Shypmu Ngehxat, in an appeal for the god to weaken the ghosts by returning their harmful words and bad influences to them. Next, to further disable the ghosts, two militantly inspired rites were held, lasting nearly until dawn. One rite entailed creating an effigy of the jailhouse and luring the ghosts to it for capture. Having chanted numerous speech bullets that commanded the ghosts to the jailhouse, the priest prepared to eject them from the home. He heated an iron plowshare in the open hearth pit until it glowed red and asked a male assistant to spit mouthfuls of water against it. This steam would sear the ghosts with scalding water and produce thick clouds of steam, helping the priest to rout the confused and injured ghosts, using another round of speech bullets, toward the open doorway at the household’s threshold. Other assistants carried bowls filled with hot coals from the hearth in order to burn the ghosts and marshal them closer toward the threshold. Blinded by the smoke, steam, and pain, the ghosts could not tell when or from where the next attack would come. Relentlessly, the priest cued two other assistants, who had already tied two sticks of dynamite to a thin bamboo rod, to set them alight and suspend the rod across the threshold. With a dramatic explosion, the dynamite propelled the ghosts across the threshold and into the outdoor courtyard. Not yet done, the priest instructed the household members to burn down the effigy of the ghosts’ jailhouse and sweep its cinders outdoors.3 On the following day, three more rites were held: to flush out any ghosts still hiding in the home, to incapacitate them, and to ensure that they would release the householders’ souls. These rites also lured the ghosts into the ritual purview with offerings and effigies, only to capture and then battle them out of the home. The rites culminated on 27 October by retrieving the souls of the couple and their surviving son.
Just a few days later, however, some neighbors were troubled by a bad omen: a small bird flew into their home. Talk again circulated in the village about the boy’s death and the magpies his father saw portending that tragedy. Convinced that the small bird’s arrival signaled that the exorcised ghosts had entered their home, these neighbors held their own exorcism on 1 November, which I attended and which lasted for 10 hours. No hard feelings were directed at anyone in the village about the need to hold the fresh exorcism, as it was understood that ghosts could not be prevented from visiting other homes after being expelled. Instead, these neighbors held a successful triptych of exorcisms, starting with sit ke bur and its requisite cockcrowing to enfeeble the ghosts by returning their harmful words and bad influences to them. The priest offered the ghosts sacrificial meat and attractive effigies that resembled them, chanted speech bullets to rout them into the ritual space, and had a young boy in the home perform a militant ‘drumming’—by using a bamboo rod to strike an empty lacquer box placed afloat in a bucket of water—to intimidate the ghosts into surrendering. This rite also ended by retrieving the souls of the household members.
As the villagers explained to me later, these two rites did a beautiful job of revealing how Nuosu experience animism, that is, as ritual warfare built on a reflexive battle of the wits. In both cases, the priests and their assistants lured the ghosts into the ritual purview with attractive offerings and effigies, before flushing the ghosts out of hiding and exorcising them from the home. Still, the villagers felt that ‘animism’—as a non-native and anthropological concept—would be best conveyed to me by Tuosat, since he had grown up with them in the village but later had become both a great lineage mediator and an anthropologist living in Kunming. They told me repeatedly that they were awaiting Tuosat’s arrival in the village so that they could watch the two of us researching animism together.
Hyper-reflexivity in Action: Nuosu and Foreign Anthropologists
Tuosat arrived in the village a few days later, on 4 November, for a brief visit with his relatives. It was through discussions with him that I learned how Nuosu harness the art of capture to manage the eco-friendly ideology of animism propounded in today’s China. Tuosat’s arrival was dramatic. On the last stretch of his drive between Ninglang County and the village, he managed to have a car accident that left a large dent in the back of his brand-new truck. A tractor driver in front of him had been driving at what Tuosat considered to be an intolerably slow pace for 4 kilometers, before he had the chance to overtake it. Having passed the tractor, Tuosat decided to teach its driver a lesson. He stopped his truck in the middle of the road and got outside, intending to lecture the tractor driver about his poor manners. But since the tractor driver was hard of hearing and slow-witted, he did not stop but barreled his vehicle into the rear of Tuosat’s truck. To save face, Tuosat simply delivered his lecture and drove off, satisfied that he had shamed the tractor driver for failing to offer him any financial compensation whatsoever. This account was repeated many times during the day by Tuosat’s relatives, all of them important men in the village. They considered that Tuosat’s concern for morality rather than cash clearly showed he had masterfully used his skills as a renowned mediator. So when I arrived at the home of his uncle, where Tuosat and I exchanged anthropological thoughts in a mixture of English, Chinese, and Nuosu at the request of the villagers, our discussion revolved around the animistic elements of this car crash, which showcased Tuosat’s ability to dexterously navigate hidden jokes and religious knowledge.
Holding court among his important relatives, Tuosat started off with a joke, jovially announcing that the pig just slaughtered according to the Nuosu custom of celebrating a guest’s arrival with fresh meat could be considered a needed “sacrifice” to his injured truck. In the Nuosu view, Tuosat continued, cars and other objects have souls like people, or rather, they “contain” souls. Laughing, he took this esoteric interpretation further, telling me that since his car had recently crashed, it needed “to see blood,” which made the pig slaughter “doubly necessary.” I surmised that Tuosat was only partly joking and asked if the car could have lost its soul due to the crash, requiring it to be retrieved. Tuosat replied, “No,” explaining that car souls are not lost as easily as the Nuosu person’s soul-spider. But, he said, fortunately every car is involved in only about one to five crashes over its lifetime. This big crash was good because it meant that probably his new car would suffer no further accidents. He seemed genuinely pleased with the crash. Seeing that he had captured my full attention, Tuosat smiled broadly and said: “So you see? This is animism. We Nuosu think everything has a soul.” Giving a big belly laugh, he told me that Nuosu love to be happy and smile and that joking is a main feature of their culture. Jokes are not necessarily intended to undermine what people say but instead may lead to personal interpretations—or even reinventions—of their common sayings and hidden knowledge.
By way of further explanation, Tuosat instructed me to follow him outdoors to the small field adjacent to his host’s home, which had been planted with small fir trees. “Do you know what these trees are for?” he asked rhetorically. “They are for reforesting that hillside over there, where all the trees were cut down by government order two to three decades ago. Now they’re paying people to reforest the hills, and we’re doing it—one yuan per tree. So these small trees will bring our hosts one million yuan in a year’s time. That’s £100,000. Not bad, yes? The government has introduced policies for environmental responsibility, and we can make money by helping them implement those policies.” He explained that nowadays Chinese reforestation representatives occasionally visit the village, exhorting local Nuosu to reclaim their ‘ancient’ animistic practices of protecting trees, neglected in the recent decades of official land clearances and the wood-trafficking racket. I realized that Tuosat was gradually revealing the larger implications of his hidden joke about animism, namely, that Nuosu were profiting from eco-friendly policies built on neo-Confucian inspired ideals of animistic forest management.
Just then, I recalled how, only a generation ago, the Nuosu responded to the demands of the Han market by boosting their poppy growing for opium sales. I reminded Tuosat of this and asked if the new reforestation efforts truly arose from government efforts to promote animism. He replied: “Yes, they want to reintroduce trees, so they use the ideology of animism. Of course, this ideology is different from the local animistic ideas found in our own rites and sacrifices. But when joining their reforestation projects, we talk in terms of animism as an ideology because this brings money to the village.” Tuosat mused that after being exposed to official views on animism, some villagers, especially the younger generations, have begun to assimilate them, interlacing Chinese ideas with Nuosu ones—or at least juxtaposing them in the joking terms that lead to personalized adaptations of Nuosu knowledge. Tuosat added that the government always wants to implement environmental policies in the cheapest possible way, sourcing trees at low cost and having villagers do all the work of caring for their lands. Yet, he said, Nuosu welcome opportunities to contribute to governmental efforts by planting fields of trees—with unexpected diligence—in order to bring prosperity to the village. Amused that they can profit from these sales, some Nuosu seek to capture further profits from (now illicit) wood-trafficking at night, which perpetuates the market for reforestation work. Ironies like these abound across China, and, as Hans Steinmüller (2011) notes, they are commonly invoked among ‘insiders’ to the community when speaking about sensitive matters. Drawing on Michael Herzfeld (2005), Steinmüller (2011: 227) suggests that, for those who can detect it, irony “point[s] towards a space of intimate local self-knowledge,” producing a “community of complicity.” Nuosu often assume that their local knowledge is not fully perceived across the cultural gulfs that divide them from outsiders—at least not until their hidden jokes have enabled them to succeed in the art of capture.
Tuosat took me on a brief walk to point out more hillsides that would benefit from the reforestation policies. He proudly stated that Nuosu are a very clever people, contrasting them to the Tibetans, who make a high-profile fuss about independence and attract many Chinese to their area. In contrast, he said, Nuosu keep a distance from the Chinese, patiently awaiting the introduction of benefit schemes that might enter—or be lured to—their areas. Suddenly, he said: “Look, you see? There are no Chinese flags flying in the village here. It’s just the Nuosu livelihood all around. We ensure that we have everything we need, keeping our lives happy and filled with jokes and laughter in the Nuosu way, and that’s good enough.” Pausing a few moments, he wistfully added: “The only other thing we need is to raise the standard of living without turning the countryside into the city. So I’m helping the villagers with projects like growing the trees.” I realized that Tuosat was indirectly sharing with me, in the Nuosu style of revealing hidden knowledge or a hidden joke, that their art of capture underpins more than everyday competition between Nuosu or the ritualized warfare of village exorcisms. More fundamentally, the art of capture enables Nuosu to engage, quite often on their own terms, with the peoples, politics, and economics of China and beyond. Just as this observation was formulating in my mind, Tuosat gave it further clarity and force by musing aloud: “Maybe this is the difference between us. You miss the people when you leave and think about them a lot, writing about animism and famous anthropologists. But I should do more, since this is my home village. I should help them recognize opportunities, such as understanding how animism brings money to the village.”
We picked up this discussion a week later when we met in the provincial capital of Kunming. Tuosat spoke as a rather inspired native anthropologist, fully aware that I planned to write a piece on animistic ideas that would feature his viewpoint. Starting with his own understanding of animism, Tuosat reiterated that Nuosu do not follow the ideology of animism propounded by the CCP. Yet, in everyday life, they believe that everything has a soul and should be feared and respected, since people are just one part of the world. Summing this up anthropologically, Tuosat concluded that animism is neither a philosophy nor an ideology for Nuosu, but social life itself. He even felt that his Nuosu animistic upbringing informed his anthropological writing and personality. Continuing, Tuosat said that, nowadays, the irony is that animism is practiced by the whole of China to protect the environment, even though many people have lost or never had animistic ideas of their own. Up until 20–30 years ago, he explained, Nuosu had notions about tree protection built into their animistic ideas, but the government sent Chinese workers to their area to lead the way in cutting down trees. Then in 1998, the policies shifted again, and no one was allowed to cut trees along the Jinsha River. Since then, the CCP has superimposed views about ‘protective animism’ onto the Nuosu. However, Nuosu do not find it easy to recover animistic ideas that were undercut by the government. Reminiscing about practices learned in his youth, Tuosat (about 40 years old at the time of our meeting) noted that Nuosu who fell trees from the mountain still cover the freshly denuded stumps with soil in order to avoid angering the mountain spirit by flagrantly revealing their logging. In the past, when building a new wooden home, they also carried out a practice of divining which side of a tree to cut first before worshipping and felling it. Tuosat critiqued the inconsistency of the CCP for officially denying spirits and gods through Marxist materialism while at the same time propounding environmental protection through the ideology of animism.
I asked Tuosat if he felt that, by shifting the definition of ‘animism as a practice’ to ‘animism as an ideology’, the CCP had given the term ‘animism’ a life of its own that impinges on Nuosu people much like spirits, ghosts, or souls do. After all, once animism was transformed into political rhetoric, it mobilized new (even if ironic) animistic practices, encouraging the locals in Tuosat’s home village to undertake fir tree cultivation in order to bring government funds their way. In both reforestation work and ritualized warfare, I noted, Nuosu approach animism as a reflexive battle of wits, using hidden knowledge or jokes to lure others into close enough range to accomplish the art of capture. Tuosat laughingly agreed that I could take this view and reminded me that Nuosu would patiently keep awaiting remunerative opportunities in reforestation, capturing what resources they could from the new animism.
Concluding Thoughts on the Life of Animistic Ideas
Returning to the themes introduced at the beginning of this article, I suggest that the Nuosu art of capture offers a fresh platform for parsing the substance of animistic thought and practice. Classic studies of animism have focused on the process of life, highlighting the notion that the soul outlives physical death. There is an additional layer of complexity when studying the life of animistic ideas among peoples like the Nuosu, who have been exposed to our disciplinary concepts through anthropological friends and Chinese state ideology. Nuosu animistic ideas unfold reflexively through hidden knowledge and jokes, such as Katba’s declaration that he was the true source of information for Mitsu’s book on the Daoist-inspired elements of Nuosu religion. Yet hidden knowledge also inspires native scholars like Mitsu to rethink their ethno-historical assumptions; it inspires villagers to battle with ghosts for their captured souls; it even inspires native anthropologists like Tuosat to sarcastically harness the state’s ideology of animism in hopes of increasing their village’s revenue. At another level, academics like Tuosat not only hold that animistic ideas impinge on their anthropological writing and personalities; they also put this observation rather reflexively into practice. What the Nuosu art of capture brings to anthropology, then, is a new heuristic tool for revealing how certain people might use hidden jokes or knowledge to unleash personalized reinventions of their cosmologies, ways of life, and engagements with the anthropological world.
Earlier versions of this article were presented at departmental research seminars in social anthropology at the London School of Economics, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and the University of Kent, as well as at the Magic Circle seminar under Piers Vitebsky at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. My fieldwork among the Nuosu, on which this article is based, was funded by an AHRC-ESRC Large Research Grant (AH/H0016147/1) and an earlier ESRC Large Research Grant (RES-000–23-1408) at the University of Oxford, as well as the Frederick Williamson Memorial Fund at the University of Cambridge. I extend thanks to my Nuosu friends and colleagues, the two anonymous reviewers, and my co-editor of this special issue, Mireille Mazard, who generously shared many valuable insights with me.
All persons in this article have been given pseudonyms.
See the articles by Espírito Santo, Grotti and Brightman, and Ulturgasheva in this issue for resonant discussions about how autobiographical narratives—like academic works produced by native ethno-historians—are built on and become part of a person’s powerful extended selfhood.
This inhospitable sweeping parallels the faux pas Nuosu sometimes make when sweeping their homes too soon after a relative has departed on a journey, which makes the traveler lose his or her soul.
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