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Spectral Subversions: Rival Tactics of Time and Agency in Southwest China

  • Erik Mueggler (a1)
    • Published online: 01 July 1999

In much of rural China, memories of past violence are crucial to people's sense of their own relation to distant centers of state power. In particular, memories of death from hunger during the Great Leap famine (1958–61)1 In the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward, twenty to thirty million people died of hunger-related causes. The famine is usually attributed to overprocurement, bad harvests, disastrous agricultural policies, chaotic transportation, and natural calamities (Kane 1988). In Yunnan the famine was not as severe as in many regions, but the poor, remote counties in the north still suffered badly. In 1960, according to official figures, the crude death rate rose to forty-two per thousand in the northern counties of Yongren, Dayao and Yaoan, while the rate for the province as a whole was twenty-six per thousand (Yunnan Sheng tongji ju renkou ban 1990). Within these counties, high-mountain, cash crop areas such as Zhizuo, where every household relied on sales of hempen cloth to buy food (see Mueggler 1998b), suffered worst. and suicide during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) continue to haunt people's imagination of state and nation in ways that those of us who did not live through these devastations are only beginning to discover (cf. Watson 1994). Many of the diverse, non-Han, Tibeto-Burman speaking communities scattered through the mountains of Southwest China share traditions of poetic speech, explicitly intended to deal with bodily afflictions attributed to spectral memories of the violently dead. In a Lolop'o (officially Yi) minority community, where I did fieldwork from 1991–1993,Thirteen months of field research were conducted in Zhizuo between October 1991 and June 1993. Sponsoring units were the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming and the Yi Culture Research Institute in Chuxiong. poetic speech is used to drive the ghosts of those who died of hunger, suicide, or other violence out of the bodies of their descendants and into the surrounding landscape. The ghosts are driven along a specific route through surrounding mountain villages. Their path eventually takes them down the nearby Jinsha river to the Changjiang (Yangtze). They make these rivers their steeds, riding them across the empire's breadth to the richly-imagined cities of Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Beijing. En route, they are to feast on piles of meat and barrels of drink, buy beautiful clothing in the markets, and hobnob with officials.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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