The Tibetan borderland communities examined in this study have revitalized traditional religious practice in a context of recent changes in the political, economic, and social reality. The specific shape of this process of revitalization can be understood only in a local cultural context and by clearly distinguishing between the different social actors involved. The particular form of social organization of Premi communities, the political and religious history of Muli, and modern discourses on religion and ethnic identity were all instrumental in molding the different expressions of this revival. But form can belie content and meaning. Ritual practice in the villages did not diverge fundamentally in form from the practices of Buddhist monks or the practices taught in the hangui school in Chicken Foot Village. In several aspects, village rituals, such as the reciting of Buddhist texts, had been directly taken from Buddhist practice, and the teachings at the hangui school were based on village ritual practice. Basic differences became apparent when examining the way ritual practice was understood and conceptualized by different categories of people in Premi society. To the educated elites, ritual and religion were key factors in constructing a modern ethnic identity within the context of the Chinese state and its official discourses. To the villagers, ritual practice was inextricably bound up in their religious beliefs and cosmological understanding, and as such, it was a more tightly integrated component of the cultural fabric of their community.
Although Bustling Township’s position in the mountains of the Southwest is rather extreme in terms of geographical isolation, its present-day experiences of economic and social remarginalization are nevertheless shared by many communities in the poor rural areas of China. After the failure of the extremist policies of the Mao period, with their radical collectivization and intense ideological indoctrination, Deng Xiaoping gradually changed direction after he came to power at the end of the 1970s. For ethnic minorities, this meant that they could practice their religion openly again and that more space became available in which to express cultural divergence from mainstream Han society. The modernization process Deng initiated was focused not on political liberalization but on economic reform.
After more than two decades of increasing economic liberalization, living standards have risen all over China. At the same time, the modernization process has made people in many of the more remote rural areas aware of the unequal pace of economic development. Through increased mobility and the spread of media, people have learned about the growing differences in living standards between East and West China, between countryside and urban areas, and between ethnic minorities and the Han majority. The partial deregulation of agricultural prices in recent years has resulted in a drop in rural incomes in several areas and accentuated this divide. Few communities in rural China manage to obtain a satisfying living from farming alone, and many families count on members who work in urban areas to supplement their incomes. Members of ethnic minorities, who in general have a low level of formal education, often are not very proficient in speaking Chinese, and have poorly developed networks in the urban areas, are at a clear disadvantage when competing for jobs with their Han neighbors.
In this context, the central government’s 1999 decision to ban logging in the natural forests of the Southwest represented a major economic setback for the poor Premi and Na villagers of Bustling Township. Almost overnight, the sole source of jobs outside the village was effectively eliminated. This development took place at a time when the social safety net of the Communist state had been going through a prolonged period of disintegration. The villagers saw that the state was shedding its responsibility to safeguard people’s subsistence while simultaneously denying these people the means to better their living conditions by themselves. Having already squandered its ideological hegemony through the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the state and the Party were no longer able to fulfill their role as protectors of the people’s livelihood. In Bustling Township, as elsewhere in rural China, the combination of increasing economic uncertainty and more liberal policies on religion and other cultural practices stimulated a revival of religious practice.
Yet this study goes beyond demonstrating what other researchers have already shown, namely, that traditional ritual practices are in the process of being restored. It also looks beyond the socioeconomic context of this restoration and instead aims to understand the particular shape the revival has taken and why this has been different for different social actors. Conceptualizing religion is a challenging task, even in the relatively delimited context of the practices and cosmological beliefs of a numerically small ethnic group in Southwest China, and rather than enter into a broad epistemological debate on what constitutes religion or belief, this volume approaches local practices and cosmology through an empirically based analysis of two existing local concepts. One is the concept of anji or hangui, a term used by Premi villagers to designate a set of rituals practiced within the village as well as the ritual experts themselves. The other concept is associated specifically with the practices and beliefs found in the Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Throughout the research, it became apparent that the two concepts were often difficult to distinguish or separate and, moreover, that the entire assumption of the duality of religion among the Premi—and conceivably for several other ethnic groups in this area of Southwest China—needed to be modified. Although the starting point of a bipolar relationship between Buddhism and anji practice proved to be in agreement with official state discourse as reflected in the views of local elites and Buddhist monks, it was inadequate for understanding religious practice and belief within the context of the Bustling Township villages. Nevertheless, precisely because it exposed the discrepancy in conceptualizations of religion between these different social groups, this starting point, however fallacious, was an important methodological device.
For the local elites, the drive to revitalize religion was less a direct reaction to changing socioeconomic realities than a wish to establish a communal identity within the larger modernizing Chinese society. This project was framed within the official discourse on minzu and religion. In Muli, the Premi government cadres and teachers identified Tibetan Gelug Buddhism as a cornerstone of their minzu identity. In this way, they subscribed fully to the official line that viewed the former political role of Buddhism in Muli as an expression of the Tibetan ethnicity of its inhabitants. The project initiated by local elites among the Premi of neighboring Yunnan, to revive hangui/anji practices in the rural villages, could be related to their official minzu status. Because the Yunnan Premi were classified not as Tibetans but as a separate minzu, the Premi elite denied the role of Tibetan Buddhism in Premi society and viewed the anji practices of Bustling Township as one of the few surviving examples of true Premi culture.
In contrast, the official discourse on ethnic identity and religion was much less pervasive among the villagers of Bustling Township. This was due to several factors, such as limited participation in state education, the scarcity of people working outside the village, and the geographical isolation of Bustling Township. Villagers did not conceive of Buddhism as standing in opposition to practices mediated by the village ritualists, the anji. The teachings and practices of the Buddhist monks, when at all distinguished from anji practices, were characterized as ch’wi-p’ö, or “doing good things.” Practicing ch’wi-p’ö was viewed as detached from the everyday concerns of the villagers. It was reserved for special categories of people, such as those who wanted to devote their lives to doing good (i.e., monks) or who had a semidivine quality (i.e., living deities). Those practicing ch’wi-p’ö were nevertheless viewed as competent in addressing the ritual needs of the villagers.
In the villages of Bustling Township, ritual practices were first of all the manifestation of a shared cosmological understanding. While the recent revival of these teachings and practices must be understood in the context of changes in the socioeconomic reality of modern China, religious practices and beliefs in Bustling Township cannot be reduced to the mechanical strategy of compensating for a drop in income or the collapse of the social security system. Religious practices and beliefs among the Premi in the villages of Bustling Township are also an organic part of an entire symbolic universe of meaning that has been reproduced over generations, what Catherine Bell terms the “enduring cultural structures” (1997). They make sense in the total context of social organization and are therefore, for example, closely linked to dzèn, or houses. Even the disruptive events of the Cultural Revolution could not fundamentally change local cosmological understanding. Religious practices disappeared from the surface for some time, and people had no choice but to put their trust in Mao to protect them from evil spirits and provide abundant harvests. When farmers could no longer hold the annual ceremony asking the water deities for rain, rituals dedicated to the cult of Mao appeared. Yet there is little evidence that Maoism ever replaced people’s fundamental conceptualization of the natural world, and when the Communist state ceased to fulfill its task of taking care of the people’s livelihood and withdrew on the ideological level at the end of the 1970s, anji practice resurfaced. Traditional ritual activity slowly took off again with the help of the few surviving ritual experts and some old monks who had left the monastery and were living in the villages. Rituals were pieced together again through bits and pieces of texts that had been hidden, through the memories of the villagers and ritual experts, and especially through the remarkable zeal and creativity of one anji ritualist, Nima Anji of Walnut Grove. Families who had enjoyed a short reprieve from their terrible fate of being possessed by brö demons were thrown back into social isolation, and the deities punished one family with insanity for having defied and insulted them.
Ritual practice and social organization are interrelated in the villages of Bustling Township, with religion and ritual centered on a belief in the me-drö, or ancestral souls, and a plethora of deities, both categories of beings that interfere directly in people’s daily lives. The hearth and the iron tripod in every house constitute the core place for worshipping. Here the inhabitants of the house make offerings and pray every day to the ancestors who lived and died in the house. This aspect of the house as a place of worship, and of its inhabitants as a ritual unit, shows that village religious beliefs and practices are strongly connected to social organization and, more particularly, to the system of constructing and maintaining relatedness. Although patrilineal clans are a very prominent feature of Premi society in Bustling Township, customs such as fraternal polyandry and sororal polygyny, as well as the existence of named houses, point to a system of social organization reminiscent of what Claude Lévi-Strauss has called sociétés à maison. The house as a built construction serves as a temple where its inhabitants maintain relationships with their ancestors’ souls and solidify affinal relationships between those born in there and those who enter through marriage by the performance of common rituals. In addition, the house is a place thick with symbolic meaning. The gujhi-jhatan, or central pillar, to which the platform with the hearth is attached, connects the dzèn with heaven and earth, while the objects placed in the hollow of the offering stone, symbolize the house’s potential to provide its inhabitants with prosperous lives, an important asset in increasingly uncertain times. As it is for the Tibetans of Gyelthang, a house in Bustling Township is “a cosmologically meaningful structure designed to maintain an efficient relationship with the powers of the outside world” (Corlin 1980: 91).
From the villagers’ perspective, both official Chinese discourses on superstition, religion, and ethnic identity and the views of the monks from the monastery on the orthodoxy of Gelugpa beliefs and practices are, for all practical purposes, irrelevant. This is not to say that these larger contexts are not important in shaping local religious practice. For centuries, anji ritualists have integrated elements from Tibetan Buddhism and, to some extent, Bön into their practices. It is precisely because of the flexibility and inventiveness of anji ritualists that a ritual system has survived in the shadow of large, well-organized, and rationalized ideological systems such as Gelugpa Buddhism (or, for that matter, Maoism). But the practice of reciting the texts of these traditions, or importing some names and concepts of Tibetan deities, has not been matched by fundamental changes in the more basic aspects of religious practice or belief. Premi souls still travel to ancestral lands and are not reincarnated, and deities and evil spirits are still propitiated with blood offerings.
In his critique of a functionalist theory of religion, Clifford Geertz held that sociological and cultural processes had to be treated on equal terms. Ritual constitutes both a pattern of meaning (culture) and a form of social interaction (Geertz 1973: 142). Anji practice in Bustling Township is not only the expression of a shared symbolic universe, including a shared cosmological understanding, but also a means of establishing and maintaining community. Émile Durkheim held that “religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities; rites are ways of acting that are born only in the midst of assembled groups and whose purpose it is to evoke, maintain, or recreate certain mental states of those groups” (Durkheim and Fields 1995: 9). Participation in common rituals creates a sense of belonging during times when there are few options for establishing alternative forms of communal identity for poor subsistence farmers in the mountains of the Southwest. First, at the level of the dzèn, rituals express, strengthen, and establish community. At the extended level of the village, common residence in clearly bounded villages and the sharing of cosmological beliefs establish “community” as a naturally given thing. This is nevertheless a truth with modifications as shown by the families in Walnut Grove who were viewed as possessed with brö demons and consequently were excluded from communal rituals. Living in the village is a condition but not a guarantee for belonging to the local community. Membership in the community cannot be chosen, and it can be rejected only by physically leaving the village.
People who have actually done so, or those who live in less bounded villages that are more closely integrated into the larger, individualized Chinese society, must construct a sense of belonging to a community. Individuals have to make an active choice among categories of available identities. These choices are nevertheless more limited in China than in societies with more democratic political systems. In post-Mao China, the state continues to be successful in convincing educated elites to construct their identities in line with its official discourse. Being aware of its potential as a marker of ethnic identity, members of the Premi elites have focused their projects on religion. In Muli, educated Premi accept their state classification as Tibetans, which is based on the integration of the pre-Communist elite into the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpas. They take pride in being included in a community that is viewed within official Chinese discourse on ethnic minorities as one with an advanced culture, with its own script and famous icons such as the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Supported by the official ethnic classification of all Muli Premi as Tibetans, Muli elites do not have to worry about the obvious discrepancies between their views and Premi culture as it is expressed and lived in mountain villages such as Bustling Township.
The community construction project initiated by the group of enthusiastic Premi cadres and intellectuals in Yunnan is more demanding. Being members of the official Pumi minzu, they have identified the hangui religion as their central ethnic marker. It is up to them to convince the rest of the Premi in Yunnan to take up again a belief and a practice that had all but disappeared from the province. To them, to use Bauman’s words, “‘community’ stands for the kind of world which is not, regrettably, available to us—but which we would dearly wish to inhabit and which we hope to repossess” (2001: 3).