Ritual and the State
At the beginning of the millennium, religious life among the Premi of Bustling Township is focused largely on maintaining the relationship of the members of the dzèn, or “house,” with the ancestors and thereby strengthening its unity. This is achieved for the most part through daily prayers and offerings of food on the iron tripod and the offering stone. But the prosperity of the dzèn and the well-being of its members also depend on ritual activity directed at beings other than me-drö, or souls, in their afterlife manifestation of ancestral souls.
THE INVISIBLE DIMENSION OF THE NATURAL WORLD
In Premi cosmological understanding, the natural world is inhabited not only by humans, animals, and ancestral souls but also by countless beings that may be described as spirits, ghosts, and deities. These beings are present almost anywhere, and their categorization is as natural as that of the different animals or ethnic groups. They are found in what I call the “invisible dimension of the natural world,” a term that avoids words such as “supernatural,” which implies an out-of-the-ordinary quality.
Many spirits in Premi cosmology are not considered to be of a fundamentally different character than, for example, poisonous snakes or blood-sucking eels. When asked what makes shep’a and hla, wandering evil spirits and deities, fundamentally different from humans and animals, many Premi answer that they cannot be seen or touched by most people. That makes them more difficult to relate to. Turner has used the modifiers “mystical” and “nonempirical” to describe similar categories of beings or powers found in other cultures (1967: 19). However, from an emic point of view, their existence is established empirically almost daily. Living among the villagers and taking in their conception of, for example, the disease-causing evil spirits, I was struck by the analogy with everyday modern perceptions of bacteria and viruses: we cannot see or feel them, but we accept their existence and understand that they can make us sick; if we are careful, we can often avoid their harmful effects, and if the affliction is too serious to be a handled on our own, we go to an expert. In this sense, day-to-day religious practice in Bustling Township contains a significant element of pragmatism and centers largely on the immediate concerns of protecting one’s livelihood and that of one’s dzèn.
The following sections introduce some of the most important categories of these beings, inhabitants of the invisible dimension of the natural world, and describe how they affect people’s lives and how villagers relate to them through ritual practice. The anji of Walnut Grove, Hill Village, and North Village provided the information. The principal source was undoubtedly Nima Anji of Walnut Grove (the most knowledgeable of all anji in Bustling Township), and consequently cosmological and ritual details apply mostly to Walnut Grove practices and conceptions. Anji did not always agree on the precise nature, power, and formal classification of these deities and evil spirits, and villagers also often held different opinions. In Uphill and North Village, some individuals—mostly educated people such as schoolteachers, members of the government, or Party cadres—denied the existence of evil spirits and some of the local deities, although they still expressed belief in deities considered to be part of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon and participated in house rituals dedicated to the ancestral spirits. Nevertheless, none of the people I interviewed in Walnut Grove and the other southern villages denied the existence of evil spirits. All were very concerned about acting in an appropriate way in order to obtain the protection of benevolent deities and avoid becoming targets of interference from ancestral souls or the evil tricks of malevolent spirits.
The whole community shared cosmological beliefs and traditional values, but the exact details and precise categorizations were left to the specialists, the anji and the yèma, or Buddhist lay priest. Villagers needed specialized knowledge to identify the causes of ill fortune, consecutive bad harvests, persistent ailments, and dying livestock, and they needed this knowledge so that they could perform the correct rituals, which would help them avoid or remedy recurrent adversities. While cosmological beliefs and ritual practice were grounded in remembered tradition and enduring cultural structures, they were also shaped by the recent experiences of the Mao period and concerns regarding current government policies. Practice theorists have pointed to the mediating role of ritual in the dynamic two-way relationship between cultural structures and the current situation. Catherine Bell, in her summary of practice theories on ritual such as those of Comaroff and Ortner, states that “it is through ritual practice that culture molds consciousness in terms of underlying structures and patterns . . . current realities simultaneously instigate transformations of those very structures and patterns as well” (1997: 79).
HLA: THE BENEVOLENT DEITIES
The connection of the word hla (“hl” is an aspirated “l”) to the Tibetan word for “deity,” lha (as in yüllha, the god of the locality), seems evident. But as is the case for several other words and concepts in this nonwritten Tibeto-Burman language, it is not possible at this time to determine whether hla is a recent loanword that replaced a Premi term after Buddhism was introduced in the region or whether hla might also be related to the Tibetan word la (bla). Jäschke gives the following meanings for la: soul, life, strength; blessing; and an object with which a person’s life is ominously connected, such as bla-shing, a tree of fate planted at a child’s birth (1998). Samuel identifies la as a major concept of Tibetan folk religion, connected to the cult of local deities, and links it to the term lha as well (1993). He stresses the non-Buddhist meaning of la, through its connection with worldly good fortune rather than rebirth and salvation. At the same time, he notes that it is closely connected with the individual: “The la is a spirit-essence or life-principle, residing in the body, and, particularly in the earlier period, it was seen as connected also with one or more external objects. Such external objects or resting-places of the la might be hills, lakes, or groves of trees” (ibid.: 187). Indeed, these are the three major loci associated with the Premi hla, and it may be that the Premi word for “deity” is related to this Tibetan pre-Buddhist principle. The analogy is less certain with regard to the idea of la as a life essence or soul that can leave the body. This concept has its own specific term, drö, in Bustling Township, translated here as “soul.”
According to all the anji consulted, the hla category was made up mainly of mountain deities, or rèdzeng rèda, and water deities, or lwéjabu. Unlike in Tibetan areas, where local mountain deities are male and water deities are female,1 in Bustling Township, the two categories include both male and female deities. There are, however, some elements of local worship that ascribe male attributes to mountain deities and female attributes to water deities. Along with these two major categories, which both villagers and anji in Bustling Township clearly and unanimously acknowledge, several other classes of divine beings are recognized and named, although mainly by the different anji rather than by the villagers. The most important in this category are Hladan Sonma and Yidan Sonma. As the names might suggest, it is possible that these deities—or at least their appellations—entered the Premi pantheon as a result of Tibetan or Buddhist influence, and those familiar with Tibetan religion will find many striking analogies to Tibetan beliefs and practices in this chapter. Although some of these resemblances may be the result of the many elements of a pre-Buddhist religion very similar to that of the Premi that are contained in Tibetan religious practices and beliefs, most similarities arguably are relatively recent borrowings from Buddhism. Finally, the term hla also designates humans who are regarded as embodiments or reincarnations of divine beings, here called “living deities.”
Water deities, or lwéjabu, are worshipped near springs, rivers, and lakes. They are classified into five different categories, each associated with one of the five “directions” (ch’ü): lwéjabu Tsonnanrènyi ch’ü, in the center; lwéjabu Syè ch’ü, in the east; lwéjabu Fu ch’ü, in the south; lwéjabu Ngon ch’ü, in the west; lwéjabu Ch’on ch’ü, in the north.
These deities are very powerful because they control water, which manifests itself through their ability to both cause and heal diseases and their power over the weather. They reside near places with water, especially lakes or places where water wells up from the soil or from between the rocks. Such places are called tirè and are held to be sacred. Trees and other plants cannot be disturbed in the neighborhood of the tirè. The help of the water deities is solicited in cases of “watery” diseases, for example, ailments of the eyes or “women’s diseases” such as menstrual disorders, infertility, or the absence of male children (mostly—but not exclusively—ascribed to a deficiency in the woman).
The practice of praying to the water deities for male offspring is a recent development brought about by stricter birth control policies, an interesting example of how recent concerns may shape the remembering and (re)construction of religious practices and beliefs. Limiting the number of children to three, in communities where male heirs are very important in continuing the raka, or bone, line of the jhü and worshipping the ancestors in the dzèn, has shifted one of the main functions of the water deities from curers of diseases to providers of male offspring. In the early years of the People’s Republic of China, ethnographic descriptions among Premi in other areas mention water deities. In these descriptions, people worship and propitiate water deities, not as potential providers of male children, but as an element in a well-developed system of curing different kinds of disease, only some of which were related to so-called women’s diseases. Better health care and the eradication of many deadly diseases such as pulmonary tuberculosis and bubonic plague have reshaped needs for divine assistance.
In order to summon the water deities, the anji or yèma uses a nida, a specially constructed implement made of a branch with effigies of the deities hanging from it. During such rituals, outsiders are not allowed to talk within hearing distance of the spring, in order to avoid disturbing the process of summoning the deities. People pray and make offerings at the village springs, which are easily recognized because of the little groves that surround them and the many nida placed around them. In the neighborhood of North Village, there is a place where a whole river bursts out of a mountain cave. Although it is rather difficult to reach, this place is an important spot for worshipping the water deities, and, interestingly, most of the people who make offerings there are those who want daughters.
More important even than the role the water deities play in the health of the people is their influence on agriculture, through their control over water. They are able to help the villagers by making it rain during a drought, yet they are also seen as the cause of flooding and waterlogging, which are considered reprisals for the villagers’ offensive behavior, such as cutting down certain trees or hunting an animal favored by the deities. Consequently, ritual activities must be performed on a very regular basis. This concept of causality, in which adversities are attributed to divine retribution for all kinds of rather “normal” human actions, such as hunting or cutting trees, and have to be addressed by ritual action, has been observed in other border areas of Tibet. In Tsari, in the southeastern border region of central Tibet, these beliefs have been syncretized into the maṇḍala world system of Tibetan Buddhism, in which it formed the basis for general state concerns about maintaining large-scale restrictions on the exploitation of natural resources (Huber 1998). In Walnut Grove, when the water deities have been displeased, small rituals do not suffice, and they must be appeased through large-scale activities involving constant prayer and countless offerings:
In 1998, there was a period of terrible rain. It just did not stop raining for weeks, and the fields were flooded with water. Because this endangered the spring planting, we asked Tenzin Droma [a living deity] and the soma [medium] to pray to the water deities in order to appease them. The whole village accompanied the living deity and the soma to the mountains to a place with clean water, where we burned incense for a very long time. Soon afterward, the rain stopped.
Another time in 1999, Main Crossing had the opposite problem, and the young anji led a ceremony praying to the water deities to make it rain. This ceremony lasted three days and three nights, and it took place at a spot in the mountains with much water, making it an appropriate place from which to ask the deities for rain. People agreed that the practice of worshipping the water deities in order to obtain good weather for agriculture had become more prevalent because of renewed reliance on subsistence farming resulting from the 1999 ban on logging and decreasing government compensation for bad harvests.
Mountain deities, or rèdzeng rèda, are most often worshipped on mountaintops but are also often included in prayers in the house. As with the water deities, they are both male and female, and they also both protect and punish. Much like the local deities of Tibetan folk religion, mountain deities often are named local deities related to specific mountains, but unlike the Tibetan yüllha, the god of a locality, they are in a more diffuse category, and the term rèdzeng rèda also designates the throng of uncountable, nameless minor divinities living in trees in the mountain forests. Some mountains do get divine status and a cult somewhat comparable to that of the Tibetan neri (gnas-ri), or “mountain abodes,” which means that the mountain is worshipped not only for being the place where the deity or deities reside but also for being a deity in itself (Huber 1998: 22). One illustrious mountain god in the north of Bustling Township is Gwènbu, who lends his name to a famous sacred cave near North Village. Gwènbu is the mountain deity who is said to have created the mountain and its cave. People from the surrounding villages visit the cave and make offerings to Gwènbu in order to solicit his help. In the past, the cave was also a refuge for Buddhist recluses.
Since mountain deities usually reside in mountain forests, they are closely connected with the proper use of forest resources. Wanton destruction of trees or indiscriminate hunting incurs their displeasure. Premi villages are often recognizable from a distance because the forests are so close to the villages. People try to limit forest destruction in their immediate surroundings so that they will stay on good terms with their closest divine neighbors and are less worried about those farther away. Mountain deities can, like water deities, influence the weather and cause diseases. According to villagers, the ability to identify the kind of deities or spirits that are responsible for problems is precisely what distinguishes a good religious expert. After three consecutive years during which hail and snowstorms destroyed a considerable part of the crops, Walnut Grove held a large ceremony for the mountain deities, led by Nima Anji and involving all the anji of the village.
During the New Year’s period, every dzèn must make one trip into the mountains with the anji and offer three chickens to the mountain deities. This is done in order to ask for protection against the evil spirits and to show respect so that the deities will not turn against any member of the house or its animals. The ceremony is called yizèngu, which is also the name of the scripture read by the anji. Smaller ceremonies may be held, if necessary, on the fifth, fifteenth, or twenty-fifth of every lunar month.
NAMED DIVINE BEINGS
Lama Yidan is a deity of the sky. It is worshipped especially to protect people from the zyè, or wind demons.
Hladan Sonma is one of the mightiest deities, summoned during funerary rites to protect the me-drö against the evil spirits. Many deities, including the mountain deities, might manifest themselves during the recitation of scriptures at the cremation ceremony, but all the minor deities disappear as soon as an anji or yèma manages to summon Hladan Sonma. There was some disagreement among anji in Walnut Grove as to whether this major deity had a particular connection to certain clans. According to Nima Anji, himself from the Mesé clan, Hladan Sonma was originally the protecting deity of the Mesé clan of Walnut Grove, but since the Ak’ua and Bot’a clans had moved into the village, it had become possible to invoke this deity upon the death of one of their clan members as well.
Yidan Sonma has particular connections with one anji line and functions as a personal divine helper and protector for the line. An anji can receive his sonma from his teacher, often his father, but this does not have to be the case. In fighting evil spirits, an anji can invoke his personal sonma, for example, by offering a chicken. If the anji does not worship his sonma in a fitting manner, he may become sick, or the sonma may leave the anji altogether, causing him to lose his powers. The Yidan Sonma is probably related to the Buddhist meditational or tantric deities, or yidam, both in name and in the concept of a deity that is strongly connected to personal practice (see, e.g., Samuel 1993). It is no coincidence that Yidan Sonma was very prominent in the pantheon, as explained by Nima Anji, probably the only anji in Bustling Township whose Tibetan-language skills enabled him to grasp some of the semantics of the texts in his possession. Indeed, several of the other anji denied the existence of a personally invoked deity. Nevertheless, through the offering of a chicken and connection to the anji lineage, this original Buddhist concept has been firmly “naturalized” into local practice and cosmology.
SHEP’A AND BRÖ DEMONS: THE MALEVOLENT BEINGS
While deities can make life hard for humans when they are not properly respected and worshipped, they are mainly benign in nature. If deities become displeased because of human actions, it is possible to propitiate them through rituals conducted by an anji. The actions of shep’a, cunning and irate spirits, present a more constant nuisance.
Shep’a or sheba (Uphill and Downhill pronunciations) is a collective appellation for many different kinds of evil spirits. Some shep’a are wandering souls of people who did not have descendants to perform the funerary rites or take care of them by worshipping the ancestral spirits or of people who died a violent death. These evil spirits are a constant menace and are the cause of most diseases. The task of the anji or yèma is to identify which kind of shep’a is responsible for the disease or the death so that he may apply appropriate remedies. Diseases are categorized into types, and the types often correspond to the kind of shep’a that causes the disease. One type of shep’a causes colds, another kidney problems, and so on. One especially vicious kind of shep’a can snatch a person’s medrö away. This may happen in special circumstances when the me-drö is not that closely connected to the body, as when dreaming or when one is startled. If the anji does not quickly manage to convince the me-drö to leave the world of the shep’a and return to the body of the afflicted person, the person in question will die or lead a terribly reduced life.
The help of a deity is often necessary in combating and subduing the evil spirits. The anji and the yèma use different techniques: the anji will try to chase the shep’a away in a violent way, while the yèma will try to gently entice the shep’a to leave, for example, by setting out some food as bait. Many houses have spells written in Tibetan above the entrance door to keep these spirits out; the spells are often combined with magical charms blessed by a religious expert. Shep’a are also believed to be able to find their way to the village by following travelers. Therefore, at all the major paths entering a Premi village in Bustling Township, there is a wooden gate with a threatening or confusing message addressed to the shep’a painted on top of it, in the hope that this will keep them out of the village.
Stories about the shep’a and their actions permeate the local oral tradition. Dingba Shenro is one of the great mythical heroes with divine status, not only among the Premi but also among some of the neighboring peoples such as the Na.2 He is said to be the founder of anji religion and is famed for his heroic battles with the shep’a (as indicated by one of his other titles, Yange Dingba Shenro, in which Yange means “suppressor of shep’a”). Nima Anji, who said that the content was confirmed by writings in ancient Bön texts, told the following story:
Before, there were a lot of shep’a on Earth. They had almost devoured all humans. This was noticed by Heaven. Subsequently, a large convention of all the deities was held to find a way to subdue the shep’a. None of the deities was willing to go down to Earth. So there was no alternative but to resort to election. Finally Dingba Shenro was chosen to go down to Earth and subdue the shep’a. Unfortunately, the news that a deity would come to fight the shep’a had reached the ears of the king of the shep’a, Zènbuma. Zènbuma changed himself into a beautiful girl and asked Dingba Shenro to marry him.3 The girl was so beautiful that Dingba Shenro succumbed and agreed to the marriage and settled down. One day, Dingba Shenro suddenly remembered why he had come to Earth. Through magical implements, he managed to subdue the shep’a, helped the suffering people, and received gold, silver, and other valuables in payment. But when he returned home, his shep’a wife was very ill, and he did not understand why. She made him go out again and perform magic, insisting that he should not accept gold, silver, and valuables in return for helping the people. The second time Dingba Shenro went out, he did not accept gold, silver, and valuables but just performed magic. The people nevertheless wanted to pay him and hid some valuables in his bag. When he came back, his wife was even more ill. Then, Dingba Shenro found out about the valuables in his bag and finally became suspicious. He performed magic while his wife slept, and the shep’a king returned to his original shape and was immediately killed by Dingba Shenro. After completing his task, on the way back to Heaven, he met a mu [a wild fowl living in the forest in Bustling Township, whitish in color with a black crest and red feet]. He said to the mu: “I have completed my task in a satisfactory way, and now I return home.” The muanswered: “You came to subdue the shep’a, but you were fooled by them into marrying their king. Your magical powers are too shallow.” Dingba Shenro felt very embarrassed and gave his black hat and red shoes to the mu. That is why in paintings, Dingba Shenro has no shoes and hat, and why the muhas a black crest and red feet.4
Nima Anji assessed the story as demonstrating that it is possible to subdue the evil spirits, but one has to outwit them and use magical powers. Nevertheless, a recurring underlying theme of many such stories is that anji, either as mythical first ancestors or cultural heroes, somehow do not completely live up to their elevated status. This might be related to local conceptualizations of the coexistence of anji religious practice with that of Tibetan Buddhism.
Shep’a are the most common evil spirits, but they are far from the only malevolent beings. One of the most serious afflictions that can beset a person or a whole house is possession by brö demons. A house may become possessed by brö demons through marriage relations. A woman from one of the northern villages of Bustling Township brought brö demons to Walnut Grove when she married a Walnut Grove villager. Her family had been infected through marriage with a woman from a village close to Yongning.5 At the time, brö demons had been in Walnut Grove for three generations, and four houses were affected. Brö demons do not immediately infect those who visit an affected house, but they can make the callers sick.6 According to the villagers, everyone who ate at one of these houses swelled up in the stomach and vomited. People possessed by brö demons will frequently feel bad or sick and die young. The villagers saw the large spot of pigmentation on the eyelid of an allegedly possessed person as a symptom and proof of affliction. People affected by brö demons can also practice magic and cause others to be sick or, most threateningly, be possessed by brö demons. It took a lot of persuasion before my local assistants were willing to let me visit the four affected houses, and even then, I had to conduct the interviews outside. The young Nuosu policeman who first took me to Walnut Grove was more than a little shaken when, upon calling on one of the possessed families to have a serious talk with an unruly young man in their midst, the house residents threatened him with brö demons. Although he had not grown up in the area, the otherwise brave policeman had spent enough time in Bustling Township to share the villagers’ fear.
The most certain way to become possessed, however, is through establishing the stable sexual relations of marriage, and beliefs in brö demons might be related to uncertainty and fears about establishing affinal relations with families from more remote and unfamiliar villages.7 Casual sexual contact is not necessarily sufficient to cause possession by brö demons. Once a new house is possessed, communication lines are opened, and brö demons are able to travel freely among the infected houses. The ditsyèp’o ritual cures diseases caused by brö demons but cannot end the spiritual possession. In fact, there is currently no cure for banishing these ghosts. As a result, the infected families in Walnut Grove were completely ostracized, could not find marriage partners in the village, received no visits, and could not participate in common village ceremonies and celebrations. Their social network was limited to the houses in some of the northern villages that also were affected by brö demons. These villages were a day’s walk from Walnut Grove, so contacts were limited. Each time the affected Walnut Grove families needed the services of an anji, they had to fetch one from these northern villages because none of the local anji dared to help them. One of the few people in the village who was not too afraid to show some compassion was the living deity Tenzin Droma, who did not discriminate against these families when extending her yearly blessings to all families in the village.
The family situation of two brothers illustrates what it means to be considered a possessed house in Walnut Grove. Duji is forty-six. He is not married. He does not know who his father is. His two unmarried sisters, forty-two and thirty-nine, also live in the house. Tsésomo, the older of the two, has two children by two different fathers: a boy of twenty-one and a girl of thirteen. The father of the boy lives in the village but is married to someone else [it is unclear whether he married Tsésomo and divorced her or whether the boy is the result of premarital or extramarital relations]. The father of the girl is from Yongning, whence he hastily returned when he became aware that the house he had married into was possessed by brö demons. Duji’s brother is fifty-three and lives in the neighboring house with his family. His wife is from the northern villages. He has five children: two daughters are married to men from the northern villages, one daughter is not married, one son has married uxorilocally to a woman from the northern villages, and one son is living at the parental home with his wife, who is also from the northern villages.
I did not observe negative attitudes toward the people of these four houses. The other villagers talked with them in a friendly manner, but preferably from a safe distance. Nevertheless, the lack of a local affinal network and the difficulty in establishing a “normal” family made these families among the poorest in the village, and they were extremely vulnerable to natural adversities such as bad harvests or illness among house residents or their domestic animals. The chaotic period of the Cultural Revolution, when many of the local traditions and beliefs came under attack, offered these families a brief reprieve.
In neutralizing the actions of the evil spirits, which can make them sick, or in seeking to avoid the anger of deities or ancestral souls, the villagers regularly pray and make offerings. Fortunately, they can solicit the assistance of different kinds of religious experts and other people who have special relationships with the inhabitants of the invisible dimension.
Anji and Yèma: Premi Ritual Experts
On my first visit to Walnut Grove, I stayed at the house of Galon, the Party chairman of the administrative village to which Walnut Grove belonged. After dinner we continued talking around the hearth and were joined by Galon’s thirty-four-year-old cousin. Galon made us drink several cups of arje, complaining he could not drink the strong spirits because of a recurring stomachache. Reacting to this complaint, his cousin matter-of-factly stood up and went to fetch a wooden plank standing in the corner of the room. He placed the plank in such a way that one end pointed to our host and the other to the hearth. On the end closest to Galon, he laid out a bit of charcoal from the hearth in the form of a circle. He fished two small pieces of wood out of his pocket and placed them on top of the circle with a few grains of maize. Then he sprinkled some drops of arje on this little mound. Breaking the silence, Galon’s cousin began reciting in Premi, repeating in a very monotonous way the same invocation addressed to the water deities for help in getting rid of shep’a. After a few minutes, he winked at Galon’s teenage son, who apparently knew what he was supposed to do: he took the plank, carefully made two circling movements with it above the head of his father, and then went out to empty it. He then returned the plank to Galon’s cousin, and the whole ritual was repeated several times.
Categorizing the different ritual experts is not a straightforward task. Some villages had one or more practicing anji, such as the cousin of the Party chairman in Walnut Grove; in other villages such as Uphill and Seven Houses, there was a yèma. The word yèma is undoubtedly a Premi rendering of the Tibetan word “lama.” While “lama” in Tibetan originally meant “spiritual teacher,” its meaning has been extended to refer to senior monks or tulku, monks who are reincarnations or emanations of important deities or previous lamas, so-called incarnate lamas (Samuel 1993: 280). In Premi, the word yèma also designates any monk or novice living in a Buddhist monastery. To complicate matters, in North Village, the Buddhist lay priest was also called anji.8 The village of Walnut Grove could boast the presence of a soma, or medium, through whom the deities communicated with the villagers. Furthermore, people all over the township solicited the help of the two living deities. These individuals were considered in some way to be in the same category as the tulku residing at the Buddhist monasteries but were not recognized as such by any of these monasteries.
Some families with affinal relations to Naxi or Rek’ua, such as the Bot’a clan in Walnut Grove, might also call on the dtô-mbà religious specialists of Battleground or Gaku. People of those villages might also request the services of the anji or living deities in addition to inviting the dtô-mbà. The religious specialists are all men, but soma and living deities may be women because, according to Nima Anji’s explanation, deities, not humans, select these people for their positions.
The tasks of anji and yèma are very similar. They read scriptures and perform ritual acts such as making offerings at cremation ceremonies, weddings, and name-giving ceremonies; when called on by villagers in cases of disease ascribed to evil spirits; or in response to disasters ascribed to the actions of water or mountain deities. They also perform the larger ceremonies of the Premi calendar: the most important of these is the New Year purification ceremony, or wu-hsi, when every house, especially its hearth, in the entire village has to have its annual cleansing of evil spirits. Other ceremonies are related to agriculture, including those performed at the time of sowing and of harvesting. Furthermore, both anji and yèma carry out divination in connection with the different aspects of house construction (described in chapter 3) or to ascertain important dates related to agriculture (e.g., when to sow), travel, weddings, and the like. They are also responsible for consecrating the iron tripod, and the kadran, the iron trident on top of the house.
Although the religious and ritual tasks anji and yèma perform seem very much alike, the way in which they carry out these rituals and ceremonies are not always the same. This difference in ritual practice between anji and yèma, especially in relation to treating afflictions brought on by shep’a, is related to their background. An anji acquires his knowledge in the village from his teacher, another anji, often his father. He has developed the expertise to conduct many different rituals and can recite a large corpus of oral texts from memory as well as recite Tibetan Buddhist texts. Yèma, in contrast, are people who have spent time in a Tibetan Gelugpa monastery, where they learned to recite Tibetan Buddhist scriptures; depending on the length of time spent there, they may have acquired some minimal understanding of the content of these texts and perhaps a few general concepts of Buddhist learning, such as the precept that one should avoid killing. Consequently, the practice of the yèma is limited to the recitation of Buddhist scriptures accompanied by the performance of ritual offerings, the burning of incense, and the use of prayer sticks, drums, and bells. This practice is an inherent part of local Buddhist practice in many Tibetan areas. Certain “classical” Buddhist texts are incorporated into a larger manual, complete with practical instructions on how to conduct relevant rituals. One of the important reasons for performing these rituals is to exorcise all kinds of evil believed to be brought about by malevolent forces. The Heart Sutra (Sherab Nyipo) is one such classical text. According to Lopez, the use of this text is extremely widespread throughout Tibet because of its brevity and “because of its potency (as the quintessence of the Buddha’s wisdom)” (1997: 511).9
The best way to characterize the yèma is as a sort of Buddhist lay priest, a person who acquired a certain level of knowledge by spending some time as a monk at the monastery—which he uses to perform rituals for the villagers—but who no longer lives at the monastery.10 In Bustling Township, especially in the northern villages, a distinction is made between two different kinds of Buddhist lay priests. Jabyè are monks who have left the monastery but continue to lead an existence considered to be that of true monks: spending a lot of time praying and reciting, abstaining from eating red meat, avoiding productive labor, and, most important, abstaining from marrying and establishing a family. Jabyè is possibly the Premi rendering of “trapa,”11 the Tibetan word designating the ordinary celibate monk. In some Gelugpa areas of Muli and in the area around Yongning, there are very few resident monks at the monasteries; instead, most monks live at home and visit the monastery only for religious celebrations. The other category of Buddhist lay priests are sanroa. They also have a certain knowledge of Buddhist learning acquired at the monastery and are able to recite some scriptures. But unlike jabyè, they have broken their vows by marrying and taking up the lives of ordinary villagers after leaving the monastery. This distinction is made in the northern villages in particular, and there is a clear perception of status difference between jabyè and sanroa. Most yèma in Bustling Township belonged to the latter category.
The most visible difference between anji and Buddhist lay priests is in the choice of ritual garments. At most ritual performances, such as the one to cure the stomachache of the Walnut Grove Party chairman, both anji and yèma wear their normal clothes, but at important ceremonies, such as for cremations, the two kinds of ritualists are easily distinguished by their garments. If the yèma has a Buddhist monk’s habit from his time at the monastery, he is likely to wear it on such occasions. Anji present quite a contrast to this outfit, with their colorful red or pink gowns and crownlike hats with five adorned sides.
Table 4.1 shows that villages with an anji never concurrently have an active yèma. Furthermore, there are clearly more anji in the southern villages, and more people participate in monasticism in the northern villages. The rather large village of Ten Houses, where one-third of the residents are Na, has no anji, yèma, or other ritual specialists, because in the past everyone who studied to become a ritualist died prematurely, so no one in this village wanted to take the risk.
The anji recites from two differently transmitted sources: written and oral texts. Orally transmitted texts are all in the Premi language. One such text is the hsip’u text recited at the “opening of the road” ceremony, a kind of travel guide for the souls of the deceased, to help them find their ancestral lands, and a central aspect of the ancestral cult of the Premi. The written anji texts are recited from Tibetan Buddhist and Bön scriptures, which, over the centuries, found their way to the Premi villages. Here they have been integrated into local practice and transmitted from one anji generation to the next, some of them meticulously copied. These Tibetan texts are used not for their specific content but to fulfill the various purposes of summoning deities, exorcising shep’a, or bringing magical powers to the one who recites them. A few are used for divination. Nima Anji and his students frequently use a text consisting of invocations of the Bön deity Welchen Meri and the Bön sages Drenpa Namkha and Tsewang Rigzin.12
Most anji or yèma I interviewed do not understand the actual content of these texts but can pronounce the Tibetan letters. The anji generally have no knowledge of Tibetan language, and the yèma have not spent sufficient time in the monastery to have acquired a thorough knowledge of written Tibetan. In view of the traditional teaching methods of the monasteries, where the focus is on recitation, monks must study many years before they acquire any real understanding of the content of the texts and of Buddhist doctrine in general. As the seventy-five-year-old yèma from Spring Rain explained: “I can recite Tibetan OK, but even after four years at Muli Gompa, I could understand only very little [of the content of the texts]. Nowadays at school, these kids, they learn to both read and write! The Party clearly does a better job than the monastery did!”
The titles of the texts used in rituals in Bustling Township are related not to the titles of the Tibetan originals but to their specific function in local practice. So, in addition to learning how to recite the texts, anji possess the knowledge of how to use them, even without understanding their exact content. The text becomes a form of magic spell with a specific power to invoke a deity or drive out an evil spirit. There are a few texts written in Premi language using Tibetan letters. Although it was often rumored that such texts contained ritual and historiographical writings, all the texts I saw were genealogies in which Premi names had been recorded in Tibetan script. Learning the oral tradition and becoming fluent in reciting scriptures is a long process, and various anji have widely varying levels of knowledge. It may easily take up to five years of almost daily classes to reach an acceptable level of knowledge of the texts. At this stage, an anji is able to recite five or six scriptures, perform some of the less complicated ceremonies, and assist full-fledged anji in larger ceremonies such as cremations. These ceremonies last several days and often require the services of at least five anji and yèma. Learning to perform all of the necessary rituals may require as much as ten years of study. The position of anji is normally transmitted from father to son, and this is also how the texts are handed down. If the anji has several sons, those who demonstrate the most talent for the difficult task of memorizing the long rituals take on the position. The anji line of Nima Anji in Walnut Grove stretched over nineteen generations. But one does not have to belong to an anji lineage to become an anji. Most of the older anji taught several students in addition to their own sons or grandsons. Many of these students go on to become the first anji in their patriline. In all probability, accepting students from outside the family was a form of cultural flexibility meant to remedy an acute lack of anji caused by the recent substantial population growth in Bustling Township combined with the loss of a whole generation of anji during the Cultural Revolution, when fathers dared not teach their sons.
1. The ts’ère summon the water deities, or lwéjabu.
2. The hsip’u guide me-drö in finding their place among the ancestors.
3. The drahala call on the help of all the me-drö of the ancestors.
4. The jinjü solicit the assistance of a specific kind of deity.
5. The yizèngu is read especially to honor the mountain deities, or rèdzeng rèda, while burning incense.
6. The ditsyèp’ö is read to placate the spirits who cause brö demons and dzè, another type of disease-causing demon.
7. The ninjyop’é is recited at a ritual for people who are born under an unlucky constellation in the twelve-animal-cycle Premi calendar, which resembles the Tibetan and Chinese calendars. These people have difficult lives and are prone to disease and all kinds of disasters. The ritual must be performed every eleventh year. It makes the me-drö of the affected person temporarily leave the body and join the ancestors. This process will make life better during the next cycle.
Except for illness suffered by this last category of people, disease is understood to be caused mainly by shep’a or other evil spirits, displeased deities or neglected ancestral souls, and brö demons. Anji or yèma, however, are not the only people who have dealings with the invisible dimension of the natural world.
Soma, or Mediums
The soma of Walnut Grove was an important figure in relating to the inhabitants of this invisible dimension and thereby played a key role in curing disease and avoiding or remedying disasters. He was the only soma in Bustling Township, and people from all over the township, and occasionally even from farther away, came to visit him. The term soma is probably related to sungma, the word for Tibetan mediums. Such mediums were found in several of the monasteries in the region, and Joseph Rock noted their presence in the Gelugpa monastery of Yongning (where monks were mostly Na and Premi) in 1928 (Rock 1959).13 He also described two female sungma from the ruling Bar clan of Muli, one of whom became possessed by the spirit of a murdered ancestor who was seeking revenge (ibid.: 816–17). One common feature of the soma and the sungma, as Rock pointed out, is that they serve as mediums for one particular spirit, deity, or category of deities. After being possessed or used as the medium for one deity, they are not used by other deities and most likely will be connected with this deity for the rest of their lives.
For Galizega, the sixty-six-year-old soma in Walnut Grove, the realization that he had become a medium was a gradual process, which began several years before, when his health was not good, and he started to have dreams. These were pleasant dreams. He dreamed about flowers and about deities who gave him nice clothes to wear. This kind of dream came again and again, and for a while he had them every night. In one of the dreams, he saw a deity coming down from a rainbow. He decided to consult Nima Anji and ask him to carry out a divination. After Galizega told Nima Anji about his dreams, the anji concluded that he had become a medium. Galizega’s health improved, and he was able to tell fortunes. When he drank a bit of spirits or when he went to sleep and closed his eyes, he saw the deity. One day, Nima Anji took him into the mountains; they made an offering of some tsamba, a bread made from highland barley, and recited scriptures. That was when the anji became convinced that the water deities had made Galizega into a soma.
From that time, Galizega received many visitors inquiring about what was wrong with them, what to do in order to conceive a son, on which day to build a house, and so on. In the beginning, he felt as though the deities told him what to tell the people who sought his advice, but after some time, he knew by himself what he should say. He was no longer self-conscious about the deities communicating through him. This power made it possible for him to diagnose all diseases related to the water deities, and he was often able to provide a cure as well. If necessary, he sent sick visitors to an anji who could carry out the required rituals. Many of the visitors’ requests were not specifically related to disease but rather were aimed at acquiring knowledge about the deities’ intentions so that they might obtain better control over the uncertainties of life.
On one occasion, a visitor from another village wanted to know whether his family would be safe in the future. The soma first asked for more information, including which animal of the calendar the person had been born under and the precise location of his family’s house. Then the soma sat still for two or three minutes while his legs shook slightly. He asked some more questions about the place where the house was situated. “Is there water close by?” The visitor replied that there was a small pond next to the house. After a short pause, the soma answered very slowly, his voice markedly different from when he had been asking questions. If the family managed to keep the water in the pond free from pollution, he said, all would be well, and there was no reason to worry.
Once a year, at the time of the New Year, the anji and soma go into the mountains to a place near a lake, where they make offerings and read scriptures to the water deities. Upon their return, the soma is able to tell the villagers what they should and should not do in order to avoid offending the deities, noting, for example, which trees they must not cut down.
Finally, two personages with important roles in ritual and religious life in Bustling Township are the living deities, also called hla. In Chinese, they are called huofo (lit., “living Buddhas”), and the same Chinese term is used as the translation of the Tibetan word tulku. One living deity is a government cadre in a neighboring township; the other is a young woman in Walnut Grove. Both are greatly revered by the local villagers and are called upon to receive yearly blessings and sungdü, the knotted red threads worn around the wrist or neck for luck and protection. Although their divine status places them among the company of deities and spirits, they also fulfill an important role as religious experts and perform many of the ritual functions of anji and yèma. Living deities are also shown stones from potential sites for houses, recite Buddhist scriptures and burn incense at larger ceremonies to worship the water deities or some of the other deities, and—if they happen to be in the neighborhood at the right time—consecrate a new iron tripod.
The concept of the tulku is a traditional Tibetan institution whereby individuals are recognized as rebirths of previous lamas or as an emanation of deities such as Avalokiteśvara or Mañjuśrī, or both (see, e.g., Samuel 1993: 281–82). This system was also used as a means to regulate the succession for monastic thrones, especially among the Gelugpa, since monks or abbots were supposed to be celibate, and as such it also enabled certain aristocratic families to maintain their hold on power by ensuring that rebirth took place in the right families. New tulku were recognized through certain tests and by prophecies, and in view of its importance for local power structures, the process was usually not taken lightly (Aris 1992: 118). The Muli monastic domain counts one official tulku, Guzyo Pema Rinchin. The term guzyo is a Premi honorific; it was used to designate the tusi but today is reserved for the officially recognized reincarnation.
The living deities in Bustling Township and in the neighboring township were not part of this Gelugpa monastic succession system and were not recognized by either the monastery or the Provincial Religious Affairs Bureau (Sheng Zongjiao Shiwuju).
The female living deity of Walnut Grove, Tenzin Droma, went by the name Tadrema before she was recognized as a living deity. She came from a village family who was very poor because her father died when she, her younger sister, and her brother were very young. Her youth was difficult, and her brother had to work as hard as a grown-up from a very young age to support his two sisters and his mother. Their house became a model of tenacity and hard work in the village.
Then strange things started to happen to Tadrema. Every fifteenth day of the lunar month, she saw the silhouette of the Buddha in the sun, and at night, she saw the Buddha in the moon. After three years had passed in this way, she started seeing the Buddha in the palm of her hand. She consulted Nima Anji and felt an inexplicable urge to study Tibetan scriptures. Nima Anji then saw that she had white stripes all over her body and a strangely colored stripe on her chest in the form of a seal. Each fifteenth day of the month, this line would take all possible shapes and colors. After practicing some divination, the anji found out that Tadrema was a living deity, and she took the name Tenzin Droma.
This revelation came at the age of sixteen, and after that, she became even more eager to study Tibetan. She stopped eating beef, chicken, fish, garlic, and other spices. Her reputation as a living deity grew quickly, and more and more people came to seek her blessing. She went on pilgrimages to Muli Gompa and Lhasa and circumambulated Gonga Mountain. Some of these activities were financed by loans and contributions from the people who sought her blessing. In 1994, the villagers donated labor and building materials and constructed a small house for her in the neighborhood of her family’s house. The aim was to provide her with a place to study, worship the Buddha, and receive visitors. Out of gratitude for this support and with the aim of returning part of the contributions to the community, her brother purchased a video machine and a generator and showed videos for free in his house every evening. Tenzin Droma became more and more engrossed in Buddhism and spent long periods of time in textual study and meditation. On one of my visits, I was not able to call on her because she was completing a sixty-day period of silence. Such feats greatly awed the villagers but, at the same time, created increasing distance between her and them. One villager complained that while the living deity from the neighboring township still had time to listen to the people, Tenzin Droma was “too much occupied with the Buddha.” For the villagers, her role as a resource in dealing with beings of the invisible dimension became less and less important.
There was also another aspect to Tenzin Droma that added to the high regard in which she was held, and that was her self-imposed celibacy. The villagers considered her to be a good-looking and capable young woman, and it would not have been difficult for her to be married out. As the only woman playing a religious role in Bustling Township, her position was unique, and she enjoyed a high social status. People in Bustling Township were very conscious of her gender and always mentioned that she was a female living deity, “something that had never happened before,” and in Walnut Grove, the villagers seemed to be very proud of this. It really was remarkable in view of the fact that there was no tradition in Bustling Township—or in other places in Muli, as far as I could verify—of women studying Buddhism. Unlike many other Tibetan Buddhist areas, Muli and adjacent areas in Yunnan also have no Buddhist nuns or nunneries. Given that being a deity is a position that one can only be recognized in, rather than one that a person chooses, it would be an exaggeration to state that Tenzin Droma was a role model for the girls and women in the village. Nevertheless, in male-centered Bustling Township, she appeared to contribute to increased self-confidence about gender identity among women, especially those who had not had much schooling and outside experience. Although I did not focus specifically on the gender aspects of religious practice, in going through my notes, I was struck by the fact that women spoke significantly more often to me about Tenzin Droma. Women of all ages also constituted the clear majority of the steady stream of visitors she received in Walnut Grove. And since people often visit religious personages, such as an anji, yèma, or living deity, because they are experiencing various personal problems, it would seem that she also played an important role as a resource for women, in a function that in a modernized urban context would be defined as a psychosocial service.
According to Nima Anji of Walnut Grove, Bustling Township had never before had the good fortune of having a living deity, and the soma was a new phenomenon. Without Nima Anji, these personages would most likely not have existed in Walnut Grove. Their roles were widely accepted and respected, underscoring the fact that Nima Anji did not just invent them in a vacuum. Rather, they emerged out of a shared cosmological understanding in Bustling Township and the acceptance among the villagers that Nima Anji was an expert endowed with the knowledge necessary to recognize people with a divine nature or special powers. But Nima Anji was just one of seven practicing anji ritualists in Walnut Grove at the start of the new millennium, and the village counted even more apprentices who would soon strengthen their ranks even more.
This was a remarkable development in view of the recent past. Starting from the period of the Democratic Reforms in 1956, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, the Communists did their utmost to eradicate anji practice. Members of the local “revolutionary organizations” (geming zuzhi) burned a large part of the anji texts. The texts of Nima Anji’s father were all burned, but another anji in Walnut Grove hid many of his texts; even when he was beaten by the local Red Guard brigade, he did not reveal their hiding place. Several anji handed in some of their texts to be destroyed and hid the rest to await better times. In many houses, people were too afraid to pray or make offerings, and most anji ritualists stopped practicing—at least openly.
Almost a generation removed from the Cultural Revolution, it was hard to assess the effect this virtual disappearance of traditional practices from the public sphere and the Party’s relentless ideological indoctrination had on beliefs and cosmological understanding in Bustling Township. People’s memories were shaped by their individual experiences both during and after this tumultuous period. Families with bad class labels or who had other reasons for wanting to present a “progressive” outlook were much more cautious about being associated with traditional practices. It was, for example, no coincidence that all the texts of the anji of the prominent Besé house—Nima Anji’s house—were burned. Several people said that Mao had been really good for the minorities, but the Red Guards had made a mess of it. As an outsider, I had a difficult time trying to make people remember what they had believed and practiced at that time, but it was even more difficult to draw general conclusions in view of the many conflicting views expressed. Some of the elderly people were very clear that most of the practices related to evil spirits, ancestral spirits, and the deities had ended. When, in 1999, I asked sixty-nine-year-old Shenggi from Uphill whether his family had invited the local yèma to conduct ceremonies in the house to exorcise shep’a, he shook his head vigorously and exclaimed: “Aphuuuuu [No way]! During the Cultural Revolution, this was out of the question! At that time, we did not believe! Nobody dared! There was no reciting, no zanbala, no food offerings on the offering stone, nothing!”
Sixty-one-year-old Rinchin of Downhill also recalled that they did make food offerings to the ancestors during that time, but when they became ill, they did not dare ask the yèma to recite and instead went to the local state health station that had been established next to the township government building. Others, mainly in more remote Walnut Grove, insisted that they not only continued to practice—albeit discreetly—throughout the whole Cultural Revolution but even found a few anji willing to conduct rituals. As K’enbuzo, who built his house in 1970, tells in chapter 3, when people were sick they secretly visited the anji to find out whether they had to go and see a doctor at the health station or have a ritual conducted. Rituals had to be simple, though, and for the most part people did not dare to slaughter animals. Moreover, when people died, their families were unable to slaughter cows or yaks as had been the custom, because these animals were collectively owned. And none of the anji dared teach his knowledge for fear of being accused of spreading counterrevolutionary ideas.
On more than one occasion, villagers also said that they firmly believed at the time that Mao and the Communist Party would protect them from bad harvests and diseases. At the end of the 1950s, a government building was raised in Uphill along with a state shop and health station. Once in a while, occasional work teams arrived, admonishing the villagers to adapt their traditional way of life, be it cultivation techniques, hygiene, or marriage customs. Later, Red Guards from bigger towns such as Xichang visited, mobilizing local youths to attack the traditional anji ritual system and the beliefs associated with it. Even local dress and hairstyle had to be abandoned as a sign of total devotion to Mao and his teachings. It is tempting to think that Mao, and in particular the more ritualistic aspects of the Mao cult, somehow replaced traditional Premi religious practices and beliefs. Nevertheless, people in Bustling Township assessed their beliefs during the period from the late 1950s to the late 1970s in too many different ways to allow definitive conclusions on the depth of the impact Mao and Maoism had on local beliefs or even whether they actually had an effect. The relative speed and intensity of the post-Maoist revival of traditional practices at least suggests that the underlying beliefs and cosmological understandings these practices served never really disappeared. Intense ideological indoctrination surely influenced these understandings, at least temporarily, and in many cases caused considerable confusion. It might be safer to propose that Mao, as a mythical figure, managed to forcefully claim a space in local cosmology rather than to conclude that his ideology destroyed and replaced it. As such, the imprint of Mao and Maoism is similar in nature to that of the Buddha and Tibetan Buddhism: certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhism—such as ritual implements and iconographic elements—found their way into the local religion and did not in any way replace it. Today, the most visible trace of Maoism is the picture of the Chairman found in many houses throughout Bustling Township, next to the zanbala, a representation of the Tibetan Buddhist god of wealth.
Ironically, most zanbala and offering stones were destroyed in the heyday of Maoism. One of the most zealous destroyers of zanbala in Walnut Grove was a young man from one of the families said to be possessed with brö demons. For these families, the new ideology presented a welcome opportunity to improve their social and, consequently, economic situations. They became convinced that they could benefit from the destruction of local beliefs and “old” practices, and this young man joined the most radical Red Guard group in Muli. One cannot simply eradicate the spirits and deities by destroying their representations, however, and, as Yaoji Galon, a forty-three-year-old anji from Walnut Grove, put it in 2001, “If one goes against the deities and offends them, one will have to face the consequences!” That was the most common explanation for why, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the young man became mentally disturbed. Traditional perceptions of the functioning of the natural world regained the upper hand, and “possessed” families were again ostracized in their local community and clearly poorer than the rest of the village.
Indeed, the Communists’ attempt to eradicate “feudal superstition” proved unsuccessful, and after having survived centuries of Buddhist hegemony, anji beliefs and practices proved too deep-rooted and adaptable to be demolished by this ideological storm. Furthermore, during the de-collectivization period of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the single house assumed responsibility for livelihood and prosperity while the supporting collective of the Maoist state gradually disappeared: marked mechanisms replaced work points, bad harvests condemned the entire village to poverty, and a sick family member ruined a house. With the local health station crumbling and services and medicines no longer free, anji remedies became attractive again, and their use no longer involved any risk. Moreover, anji ceremonies provided potential remedies for other adversities threatening the subsistence farmers of Bustling Township, such as hail storms and floods.
The process of recovering traditional practices was nevertheless slow in the first years of the Reform Period. Although Yaoji Galon and his brother were the descendants of a famous anji line, their father had not dared to teach them anything during the entire Cultural Revolution. It was only after two of their uncles dug out their hidden texts and ritual instruments and started to perform small-scale rituals in the early 1980s that the brothers managed to convince their reluctant father to start teaching them. But it was especially Nima Anji from the Besé house, the descendant of a long anji line, who became instrumental in making Walnut Grove the major center of anji practice in the post-Mao period. A central element of anji practice is combating disease, so the local people saw Nima’s education as a basic health worker as an extra asset: it was a combination that provided the broadest possible competence in treating their ailments. Rather than being viewed as two competing knowledge systems, anji practices and modern medicine became conceptualized as part of the same system. This view was also shared in other villages of Bustling Township. In Uphill, which is outside Nima’s main field of operation, I asked all households this question: The last time somebody in the family was sick, did you invite the health worker in the village, the yèma (also from the village), or the anji from Hill Village (a neighboring village)? There were no clear winners here, and, as mentioned earlier, people often invited all three experts, again, without a clear preference as to whom they would ask first. The financial situation of a house or its relatedness to an expert was the only clear variable that could be positively linked to choice.
The Besé house to which Nima Anji belonged was not only the house of a long anji line but also one that had played an important role in the village before the Communist takeover. Available information suggests that the position of the Besé as village leaders under the tusi system was vested in their moral prestige. The reestablishment of anji practice could certainly be conceived as a means for Nima Anji to reclaim or reassert a leading moral role for himself and his house. Several studies of religious revival in China have pointed specifically to the central role in religious revival of local leaders who wield authority because of their moral strength (Chau 2005; Jun Jing 1996). Rebuilding temples or reestablishing traditional practices gives people with traditional knowledge an opportunity to “reclaim the roles as moral leaders denied to them in the previous era.” According to Chau these are often older men “interested in reviving or maintaining traditional values in what they perceive as a society in moral decline” (2005: 250). It was very obvious that Nima Anji’s new position of moral authority was related to his endeavor of reviving anji practice, but it was difficult to tell the extent to which his efforts had been motivated by the quest for such a position. He did not seem to have personal ambitions other than to work continuously at spreading the anji tradition. Other factors contributing to his success were surely related to his personal qualities: he combined a humble and friendly personality with a clear intellect that he used to study everything he could about traditional practices. As one of the few anji, he was also capable of understanding a substantial part of the Tibetan-language texts used in anji rituals. Gradually, his reputation not only reached Premi villages at a considerable distance from Walnut Grove but traveled as far as the neighboring province of Yunnan, where in 2000 he became a teacher of ritual practice in a veritable anji school (see chapter 5).
When the revival became successful beyond the local villages of Bustling Township, anji religion also became an element in larger discourses on Premi religion and ethnic identity. Its relation to another important religion in the region, Tibetan Buddhism, became a prominent issue that greatly engaged local elites, whether they were monks at the local Gelugpa monastery or Premi teachers and government cadres. Like the anji ritual system, Buddhism had also fallen victim to the radical policies of the Democratic Reforms and the Cultural Revolution. However, in contrast to anji practice in Bustling Township, it would be an exaggeration to speak of a revival of Buddhism in Muli in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
MULI GOMPA: RELIGION AND POWER RELATIONS IN POST–CULTURAL REVOLUTION TIMES
Perched on a forested mountain slope high above the narrow gorge of the Muli River lies the monastery of Muli; its full name is Ganden Shedrub Namgyel Ling, but it is usually called Muli Gompa. Farther down the slope, about forty minutes’ walk distant, lies the small town of Wachang, the administrative center of the first of the three districts, or qu, into which Muli County is divided. The long circular white wall that sets the area apart from the surrounding forest and fields is a reminder of the monastery’s former grandeur. Inside the wall, at the southern end, is the tshokhang, or main assembly hall, which today consists of a three-story Tibetan-style building covered in glazed yellow tiles; there is a small courtyard in front of it, and it is flanked by a row of prayer wheels. The rest of the compound consists of a few smaller buildings scattered across a chaotic landscape of vegetable gardens, overgrown spaces, and the ruins of numerous constructions large and small. On the northern end is a small scripture hall, one of the few buildings that was not destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Some of the walls of the former main hall are still standing, together with a tower several stories high, giving some idea of the size of the giant bronze Maitreya Buddha statue it once housed. The statue was built in 1711 and was 27.5 meters high. The only piece left is a loaf-size fragment of one of the Buddha’s fingers, now on display in a glass box in the rebuilt main hall.
Construction of the monastery began in 1656, and its outline was modeled on Drepung Monastery in Lhasa (see Muli chöchung 1993). All the major halls were constructed in the thirty years that followed, but new buildings were added continuously, until the monastery reached its maximum size in the mid-nineteenth century. At that time, the monastery counted more than one thousand monks living in more than three hundred khang, or abodes for monks (Muli Zangzu zizhixian zhi 1995). From the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of monks began to decline, and in 1919, two outbreaks of plague decimated the monk population. Around the time of the Communist takeover, the number was probably around six hundred.14 Muli Gompa continued to be active in the 1950s, but during the Democratic Reforms campaign of 1956, the Communists abolished the rule that every third and fourth brother had to enter the monastery. In July 1959, during the Four Antis movement (anti-uprising, anti-lawbreaking, anti-privileges, and anti-oppression), all the monasteries in Muli were closed down, and most monks were sent back to their villages of origin, with only a few staying on as caretakers. In subsequent years, a small proportion of the monks continued to visit the monastery regularly to participate in religious celebrations, but like all monks, they were forced to reside at home and participate in agricultural labor. At the start of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966, all monasteries in the county were razed, and most religious items such as texts, statues, and thangka, or religious paintings, were destroyed. Muli Gompa did not escape the destruction, and even large parts of its surrounding wall were torn down. The small scripture hall was the only hall that survived. Reconstruction began here in 1982, when the county government allowed its restoration and contributed ¥40,000. The following year, Muli Gompa began to admit monks again. Between 1989 and 1991, the tshokhang was rebuilt, funded by a major commitment of ¥446,000 from the Sichuan provincial government (Muli Zangzu zizhixian zhi 1995). However, the present temple is considerably smaller than the original. No major halls were rebuilt after 1991, and between 1999 and 2004, only a few new dwellings were built for the monks and some repairs were made to the wall.
In 1999, forty-one monks were residing at Muli Gompa.15 Almost all of them came from the First District, and half were from the township of Shuiluo, one of its seven townships. The three districts of Muli correspond to the three subdivisions of the pre-Communist monastic domain, which were administered by a large monastery. Muli Gompa administered the area of what is now the First District. This area includes five smaller monasteries subordinate to Muli Gompa. Three of those have only a few resident monks, one in Shuiluo counts fifty nonresident monks, and Renjiang Monastery, in the township of Wujiao, has more than fifty resident monks. In addition to these five, two monasteries outside Muli are also subordinate to Muli Gompa: Zhamei Monastery in Yongning, Yunnan, and Qiansuo Monastery, in neighboring Yanyuan County. In 1999, the official tally of monks in the three major and ten lesser monasteries of Muli County was 253.16
Roughly one-fourth of the monks in Muli Gompa belonged to the pre–Cultural Revolution generation, and in 1999, they were all over sixty years of age. The remaining monks were considerably younger, with some novices as young as twelve. Chinese legislation on education and religious practice prohibits organized religious teaching for children under the age of eighteen. But as with some other ethnic minority regions with a tradition of recruiting monks at a very young age—such as the Theravada novices among the Dai in Sipsong Panna—local authorities display a certain degree of laissez-faire (see, e.g., Hansen 1999). In order to comply with the law on education, children were supposed to have finished elementary school before being allowed into the monastery. The local authorities also demanded that monasteries provide children with a general education along with their religious training.17 The younger monks in Muli Gompa therefore received regular visits from a Han teacher living in Wachang. He went to the monastery two or three times a week and conducted courses in subjects such as Chinese, English, and mathematics. Nevertheless, most of the time at the monastery is spent on reciting sutras, and consequently literacy is limited mainly to the ability to pronounce Tibetan texts with not much understanding of the content. A fifteen-year-old monk who had been in Muli Gompa since he was twelve admitted in an interview that he still had not reached a level of Tibetan or Chinese that made it possible for him to read or write in either language.
Since it is an aspect of the five recognized religions in China,18 the practice of Buddhism is guaranteed in principle by Article 36 of the PRC constitution, which stipulates that citizens have the right to participate in “normal religious practice” (zhengchang de zongjiao huodong). This vague formulation has been repeatedly amended and made more specific through various documents issued by the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council. CCP Document 19 of 1982 states, for example, that CCP members are forbidden to profess any religion and that the CCP must promote atheism (see, e.g., Potter 2003: 320). The strict limitations that apply to religious practice became increasingly visible during the 1980s and 1990s through a series of State Council documents.19 Nonetheless, these and other official publications simultaneously convey the message that the Chinese government and the Party do not intend to suppress religious practice altogether as long as they are able to control such practice.20 Other legislation also mentions religious practice. Article 147 of the revised Civil Code mandates punishment for state officials who unlawfully deprive citizens of their freedom of religious belief and infringe upon the customs and habits of national minorities.
In 1994, the State Council issued Regulations on Managing Places for Religious Activities. This was an attempt at collecting and standardizing regulations, official documents, and laws pertaining to religious practice. A revised and more comprehensive version was issued in 2005, Regulations on Religious Affairs (Zongjiao Shiwu Tiaoli). While these regulations do not contain many significant new elements, they make it more difficult for local officials to act arbitrarily in regulating religion.21
Two types of bodies constitute the main instruments for the administration of religions. First, the State Administration of Religious Affairs (Guojia Zongjiao Shiwuju) is responsible for implementing and supervising policy relevant to religion. This bureau exists at all levels of the state administration, down to the county level, and its employees are cadres of the administrative system. At the local level, this bureau also administers ethnic affairs and is in that case known as the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau (Minzu Zongjiao Shiwuju). Tasks include everything from registering religious activities, sites, and clerics, to propagating new policies, supervising patriotic education campaigns at religious sites, and administering the number of monks at monasteries. Second, each of the five recognized religions is represented by an organ that is responsible for administering that religion’s so-called internal affairs. Such affairs might be related to religious education, organization of religious festivals, publication of religious texts, management of religious sites, service as a host organization for visitors from abroad, and the like. Its members are often clerics and lay believers. For Buddhism, for example, this function is performed by the Buddhist Association (Fojiao Xiehui). In addition to accepting this double system of administration and control, religious institutions have been forced by the Chinese government to establish their own administrative body: the Democratic Management Committee (Minzhu Guanli Weiyuanhui). In Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the committee is composed of monk-representatives who are elected by all the monks of the monastery. In many monasteries since the late 1990s, the committees have been extended to include nonreligious government-employed bureaucrats. The committee is responsible for administering the day-to-day affairs of the monastery, implementing government policies, and reporting and informing the government about issues and events at the monastery.22
As mentioned, one of the religious administration’s most important tasks is to set quotas for the number of monks at each monastery. It does this through a fixed procedure, characterized by Wang Yangzhong, the head of Muli County’s Religious Affairs Bureau, as “reporting upward, approving downward” (shang bao, xia bi). After consulting with the Democratic Management Committee at the monastery, the county government sends a recommendation to the prefectural government. The prefectural government then adds its own comments and forwards the application to the provincial government. Only after the provincial-level religious authorities approve the recommendation is the number of monks at a certain location determined. In 1999, the number of forty-one monks at Muli Gompa was well below the quota of fifty. A discrepancy in this direction is rare in Tibetan areas in China and might suggest that the quota was set unrealistically high.23 Furthermore, the county bureau is required to approve and recommend all reopenings and reconstructions of monasteries that were closed and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Recommendations to higher administrative levels are also important in that they may result in the monastery receiving a share of the subsidies for reconstruction of cultural and religious sites available at the provincial level.
An interesting case of how the Chinese government has meddled in Buddhist affairs is the modern institution of the tulku, or incarnate lama (known as a “living Buddha” in Chinese). The Chinese secular state has accepted the existence of an institution based, in the case of the Muli Guzyo Pema Rinchin, on the presumption that a person is the embodiment of Mañjuśrī and a reincarnation of one of Sakyamuni’s disciples. Rather than trying to abolish a system that leaves the power to appoint religious leaders outside its domain, the Chinese state chose to exercise its control in other ways.24 Admittedly, the Religious Affairs Bureau does not directly interfere in the process of finding a new reincarnation of the tulku. Government cadres do not go out and select a child, but the bureau has to endorse each step of the process that leads to the choice. The search for the tenth reincarnation of the Muli tulku is a case in point. In 1973, the ninth tulku passed away, but due to the political climate at the time and the resulting uncertainties about the status of living Buddhas, efforts to identify a new incarnation were not made until 1992. In that year, the Communist Party of Muli, several government institutions, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference—which in Muli includes several higher monks and some members of the old elite—invited the vice chairman of the Sichuan Buddhist Association, a tulku himself, to come to Muli and organize the search for the tenth Muli tulku (Muli Zangzu zizhixian zhi 1995: 111–12, 906). In order to leave no doubt about the role of the government and Party, an official document was issued publicizing the decision. Each step of the process followed the same procedure, such as selecting the members of the search party or compiling a short list of possible candidates. Official documents were issued at the prefectural level as well. The stamp of official government approval could be observed in many other aspects of the process, from small details such as announcing government sponsorship of expenses monks incurred during the search process to the government and Party cadres being highly visible at the inauguration ceremony. As many as five thousand religious, government, and Party personalities—including representatives from the prefectural level—were reported to have attended the ceremony at which Guzyo Pema Rinchin was issued an official “living Buddha certificate” (huofo zhengshu) and thereby officially endorsed as the tenth Muli tulku (ibid.: 112).
But government control extends significantly further: in view of their important role in Tibetan communities, tulku receive a fully sponsored, mandatory education of two years at the Chinese Higher Institute of Tibetan Buddhism (Zhongguo Zangyuxi Gaoji Foxueyuan) in the Huang Temple in Beijing. The government set up this institute in 1987 in response to a petition from, among others, the tenth Panchen Lama, who also became its first director. According to vice director Li Guoqin (pers. com., June 2004), its main purpose is to provide tulku and other high-ranking lamas from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with high-level Buddhist studies as well as an understanding of Chinese government policies on religion and basic laws.25 The hope is that these religious figures from Tibetan and Mongolian areas of China will come to identify more closely with the Chinese state through staying in the capital and learning the Chinese language. This hope may be realized, once these people from mountainous, often remote areas get over their initial culture shock. Guzyo Pema Rinchin said in an interview that it had been hard to adapt to life in a big city when he left Muli to study at the institute in Beijing in 1999.
As a result of this close administration of Buddhism in Muli, the leading monks and the government and Party cadres have to work together closely. They often hold meetings together, participate in the same events, and travel together. During my first visit to Muli Gompa in 1999, during a ch’am festival, I was struck by the cordial interactions between the monks of the Muli Gompa Democratic Management Committee and the people from the county Religious Affairs Bureau. The level of agreement on most of the issues discussed during an interview with both parties present was also striking. While I had expected leading monks to display total support of government policies on religion, I was surprised by their unrestrained enthusiasm for these policies. For their part, the government cadres expressed a clearly positive attitude toward Buddhism. Not only did they show obvious respect for the monks, but several of them also participated in religious activities such as lighting butter lamps, making offerings, and prostrating themselves in front of the statue of the Buddha. They were very keen to present the monastery and its festival as an example of well-managed religious policy. At the same time, they were somewhat unhappy that the quota for monks had not yet been filled and were obviously hoping that more men would want to become monks.26 They proudly pointed out that the monastery had the only officially recognized living Buddha in the county. When I mentioned that there was a “female living Buddha” (C: nü huofo) in Bustling Township, one of the leading monks (and member of the Democratic Management Committee) reacted very strongly: “There is only one living Buddha in Muli! We know these so-called living Buddhas in the villages. Just because this or that person is perceived to be a good person [shi ge hao ren], the villagers have no right to declare him [or her] a living Buddha!” In addition, the monks frowned on much of the practice of the yèma, or Buddhist lay priests, called anch’ui by the monks, which they deemed to be an aberration of Buddhism. Obviously, the Chinese state and the Gelug monastic system in Muli have a mutual interest in controlling religious practice. The alliance of institutionalized religion with the Party-state is not new or limited to this corner of China. As has been shown in relation to organized Buddhism elsewhere in China, there was a clear consensus between the leading monks and the bureaucrats of Muli government on issues such as the Buddhist-inspired Falungong religious movement or the several millenarian cults that reached Muli from other parts of the country. Organized Buddhism saw practices and beliefs inspired by but deviating from Buddhist teaching as both a threat to orthodoxy and a form of religious competition (Penny 2005: 39). They found a natural ally in the State Administration of Religious Affairs, which implemented policies grounded in the Communist Party’s fear that uncontrollable and seemingly murky cults were a genuine threat to its power.
How then did the monastery attend to the religious and spiritual needs of the villagers? In general, it was acknowledged, there was not much contact between the monastery and the villagers. Monks were allowed to leave the monastery for three days—exclusive of the time spent traveling—to conduct cremation ceremonies in the villages, but this happened only infrequently. In contrast to practices in other regions such as Yongning, where the monks of the Gelug monastery live at home and go to the monastery only for major religious celebrations, the monks of Muli Gompa live very separate lives from the villagers. The advantage, according to the leading monks and government cadres, was that monks could concentrate on learning and maintain a strict practice. It also meant, however, that they did not interfere with village-level practice and that, as a result, “heresy” could flourish. This does not mean that Buddhism in Muli had entirely dropped the concept of compassion for the suffering of living beings, or, to put it more mundanely, a sense of social obligation. After remarking that people in Muli were too poor and should not have to pay for medical expenses and schooling, Guzyo Pema Rinchin also explained what he sees as a potential role for Buddhism in an increasingly materialistic society: it can teach people to be content with what they have. In other words, once basic needs are met, they will not always want more. As he put it: “You leave this life with no more than what you had when you were born!”
In practice, villagers had no other way to get in touch with established Buddhism than to visit the monastery. And indeed, on each of my visits to the monastery, I met a few people from Bustling Township who had come to be blessed by the monks or, preferably, the guzyo, burn incense, circumambulate the main hall, and turn the prayer wheels. Sometimes a small group of villagers would come to the monastery to acquire a large amount of red thread or cloth, blessed by the guzyo, which they would take back to their fellow villagers for use in making sungdü, the luck-bringing charms bound around the neck or wrist. On one occasion, a private driver had the monks perform a ceremony to bless his newly acquired Beijing Jeep. Most people, however, visited the monastery only during one of the major festivals, such as the ch’am. Such celebrations, in which monks danced in colorful costumes, enacting in a very visual way the victory of Buddhism over demons and evil spirits, attracted crowds of people and was one of the very few occasions when the monastery could establish its spiritual authority in the larger community.
Direct ties between the villagers from Bustling Township and Muli Gompa were limited. As shown in table 4.1, in 1999 there were only seven people from Premi villages in Bustling Township at Muli Gompa. This figure had risen to eight in 2004 but cannot be interpreted as a trend. In addition to these seven young men and boys who had entered the monastery in recent times, there was one old Rek’ua monk from the village of Gaku who had been a monk before the monastery closed in 1960. Four of the seven monks were from the northern villages, two from the central part (Uphill and Downhill), and only one from one of the southern Premi villages (Walnut Grove). This was the son of a retired district cadre who had spent most of his life in the district-town of Wachang, near Muli Gompa. The people of Bustling Township who visit the monastery go only to see their relatives, to participate in religious festivals, or to perform other religious activities. They are also mainly from the northern villages, or from Uphill and Downhill; in these villages, most houses had at least one member who had visited Muli Gompa. The situation was different in the southern villages such as Walnut Grove and Five Nut Trees, where significantly fewer people had been to the monastery, yet when villagers were asked about the difference between what the anji does, what the yèma does, and what the monks in Muli Gompa do, the question seemed to be not entirely meaningful. Although it would be possible to suggest—as some villagers do—that the northern villages were Buddhists and the rest of Bustling Township were anji practitioners, in day-to-day life, matters are more complicated. What should one make of an anji in Walnut Grove who discovers a living deity who consequently immerses herself in Buddhist studies, and of an anji in North Village who sends his son to become a monk at Muli Gompa? How should the relationship between Buddhism and anji religious practice be interpreted?
BUDDHISM AND ANJI: TWO CONTENDING RELIGIONS?
When posing the question of how the two seemingly disparate traditions of Buddhism and anji religious practice relate to each other, it is necessary to bear in mind that these categories mean different things to different people. Not only is the boundary between the two vague and contested, but for some actors in Muli, the binary nature of religious beliefs or practice is nonexistent or irrelevant. It is the foreign researcher who formulates the question of the possible coexistence of two different religious traditions and presupposes a duality that is not necessarily experienced by all members of the community. At the same time, contradictions and dualities also exist within the large category of Tibetan Buddhism itself, as evidenced in the coexistence of different traditions, schools, and lineages involving many differences in teaching, interpretation, and practice. And even within one local tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, certain ritual practices may also be the subject of controversy and antagonism.27 Nevertheless, asking questions about the distinction between the two categories proved a very fruitful analytical strategy. The different answers provided different coexisting perspectives from which to view religious practice in Bustling Township or Muli. These perspectives were not static attitudes held by social actors; rather, they could change through time as a result of interaction between the different actors or, for example, as a result of social mobility, thereby providing an understanding of the dynamics of religious practice—or praxis—in Muli.
From the historian’s point of view, the presence of two different religious traditions in the villages may be reduced to a historical accident: this is the simplest answer—and also the least thought-provoking—and is related to the local effects of the larger political events of the early PRC period. With the closure of the monasteries in 1959, many Premi villages counted one or more people, in addition to the anji, who had acquired ritual expertise in Gelug Buddhist monasteries. These monks and novices often married and became integrated again into their home villages. The degree to which they had been imbued with Buddhist concepts varied greatly, depending on the number of years they had spent in the monasteries. After their return, they continued to be called yèma, the Premi designation for monks and novices. Some had been very young, such as the brother of Anna Yèma, who became the practicing yèma in Uphill. He had entered Muli Gompa at eight and returned to the village when he was ten. Unlike his brother, who had spent twelve years at the monastery, he was no longer able to read or write Tibetan. When religious practice was again officially tolerated at the beginning of the 1980s, many of the older, more knowledgeable monks had died, taking with them the main source of Buddhist influence in the villages. In some cases, Buddhism was literally burned along with the deceased yèma, as in the case of Duji P’intsu from Five Nut Trees:
His [the informant’s] father, Duji P’intsu, was also a yèma. He came back in 1959 when Muli Gompa was closed. He had to go to the monastery because he was the middle of the three brothers in his family. His monastic name was Jianyon. After he came back, he married [polyandrously] the wife of his brother. When he died in 1992, he had only a few books left [which had survived the Cultural Revolution]. . . . He was only a low yèma, looking after the horses, and therefore he was not criticized. After the Reform and Opening Up [Gaige Kaifang] policies of the 1980s, he wrote a few things about Buddhism, but since his family had no use for his books and writings, they were burned with him at his cremation. After his death, they invited an anji when people were sick and when performing the rituals at the New Year.
The case of Duji P’intsu is also instructive on another point. After 1983, when religious and ritual practice were again permitted, there was a real lack of ritual experts. Many old anji had died, and none had dared to teach the tradition to the younger generation. The few who were left started the tough task of educating a whole new generation of anji. But many years would be required before these young pupils would be able to conduct all the necessary ceremonies. In the meantime, villagers turned to the few surviving yèma living in their midst, hoping to use their knowledge of reciting scriptures to help in propitiating the deities, to combat the evil spirits, and to perform the necessary ceremonies for taking proper care of me-drö, or the souls of the deceased. Not all of these practices were acceptable to orthodox Gelug monks, but since the surviving yèma had spent only short periods of time in the monasteries, they may have become localized again in their thinking and readjusted easily to the cosmological beliefs of their fellow villagers. Moreover, these yèma were most likely to have broken their vows of celibacy and were therefore not allowed to reenter the monastery. They accepted the role the villagers wanted them to play and took pride in being able to use their knowledge of scriptures. In some villages, such as Spring Rain and Uphill and Downhill, the old yèma were the only ritual experts.
However, such a historical explanation is not entirely satisfactory. It says very little about the relationship between anji and yèma practices and local cosmology. How was it possible for these yèma to re-localize so easily?
Distinguishing different coexisting traditions in local religious practice is not limited to empirical observations in Muli. How different traditions meet and become syncretized or combined, or how one religious system replaces another constitute some of the central debates in the historical and anthropological study of religion.28 The encounter between a large organized religious system and traditional local beliefs and practices has been conceived as a recurring historical process observed in many other parts of the world, where the more rationalized religious system slowly replaces what Geertz has called “the ‘little’ religion of clan, tribe, village or folk” (1973: 172). In his study of Balinese religion—a complex amalgamation of Hinduism and pre-Hindu elements—Geertz draws on the work of Max Weber. In his The Sociology of Religion, Weber distinguished between two idealized polar types of religions in world history: the “traditional” and the “rationalized.” Traditional religious concepts relate all aspects of human activity to the “circle of symbolic magic.” They are an unorganized collection of rituals and animistic images that meets “the perennial concerns of religion, what Weber called the ‘problems of meaning’—evil, suffering, frustration, bafflement, and so on—piecemeal” (Weber 1964, in Geertz 1973: 172). Rationalized religious concepts deal to a much lesser extent with details of everyday life. They are more abstract, more logically coherent, and phrased more generally. They address the “universal and inherent qualities of human existence.” Throughout history, Weber discerns a process of rationalization in which the more amorphous traditional religions slowly develop into or give way to world religions characterized by “a greater conceptual generalization, tighter formal integration, and a more explicit sense of doctrine” (Geertz 1973: 172).
The people who are most likely to subscribe to this perspective on religious practice in Muli are the members of what could be termed the local elites among those classified as Tibetans, or Zangzu (and, to a lesser extent, among those classified as Mongolians and Naxi, the Mengguzu and the Naxizu). They are the leading monks and abbots, the local intellectuals such as the teachers at the township school, the government cadres, and even the Party bureaucrats in the county-town. Minority elites and their hegemonic role in defining issues related to ethnic minority culture have been discussed in studies on other places in China as well. In his study, Litzinger defines Yao elites as follows:
I use the term elite to refer to minority intellectuals, scholars, government officials, Communist Party cadres, and local tour guides, all of whom claimed to be in a position to know and speak for the Yao. These individuals came from a range of social and class backgrounds and occupied differential positions of authority and influence in minority studies. (2000: 21)
Using the term “elites” makes it possible, in the case of Muli, to understand that there are different views as to what constitutes religious practice among the people classified as Tibetans.
The term elite, therefore, allows us to avoid a totalizing or homogenizing view of minority consciousness, as though all Yao think and behave in the same way. It allows us to ask how different social actors have critically engaged, negotiated, and even authorized the various discourses of historical progress, modernity, tradition, and political emancipation that have been at the centre of Chinese socialist and postsocialist national imagining. (ibid.: 21)
According to the Zangzu elites, the practices of the traditional ritualists and the content of local beliefs are just poorly understood corruptions of Buddhism created by ignorant villagers. Describing these practices, government cadres used the Chinese term mixin, “superstition” (the literal translation, “confused beliefs,” is even more evocative). Buddhists and Communists have reached a remarkable entente cordiale in Muli. State and religion have a long history of being closely linked in Muli, and it was precisely through their close association with the Tibetan monastic system that the local elite legitimated its hold on worldly power. Several members of this elite were co-opted by the Communists, and even in recent years, some members of the government maintain close ties to this former elite. They take pride in Muli’s past glory as a “Lama Kingdom” and have a certain sympathy for organized Buddhism.
Furthermore, the relationship between the state and Buddhism changed dramatically after the demise of the monastic system in the late 1950s. The revived Buddhism of the post-Mao reform period was stripped of its political role. It could not force every third son to enter the monastery, and it reemerged in the 1980s at a very slow pace. In consequence, Buddhism in Muli did not present any real challenge to the power of the state and the Party, and with its transparent organizational structure and rationalized religious doctrines, clerical Buddhism proved easy to control. At the same time, the recovering monastic elite was clearly aware of the need for state support in reviving Buddhism in Muli. Although its members could not reclaim a political role for Buddhism, they could claim a cultural role by allying themselves with the state. The conception of Muli as a primarily Buddhist region was legitimated and supported through the Party’s creation of a Tibetan autonomous county, where Buddhism and Tibetan ethnicity were equated most naturally.
This official discourse has not found much resonance in the Premi villages, but it has been easily absorbed by local intellectuals through sources such as the school system, an important cornerstone of the elite’s ideological hegemony. Litzinger, inspired by the work of Gramsci, defines such an ideological hegemony in the Chinese context as referring “to the capacity of dominant classes with their affiliated elite to get the general population to internalize the values and ideas of the ruling class. The masses would then become the very agents for the reproduction of a social system. A ruling elite draws on the state, its laws and procedures, as well as the educational systems and the mass media to mould both participation and consent” (2000: 17).
Many of the educated Premi in Muli expressed a strong interest in Buddhism, and several stated that they were practicing Buddhists. Buddhism in Muli as such has become a modernized religion, with people becoming Buddhists not because they are born into it but because they are persuaded through acquired knowledge. Although awareness of being classified as Tibetans certainly strengthens interest in Buddhism, a person still has to make a conscious choice in order to become a believer.
Moreover, the elites look down on the seemingly unstructured religious practices in the villages and dismiss them as irrational. From the perspective of the state, the existence of unorganized religion in the villages becomes a nuisance not only because it is very hard to control but also because its very existence implicitly questions the official discourse. It is interesting to note that the Annals of Muli Tibetan Autonomous County—the polished official version of Muli’s history and current conditions—dedicates only four sentences to anji/hangui while providing a twenty-page exposé of Buddhism (Muli Zangzu zizhixian zhi 1995: 908). The local elites have no doubt that, after the setbacks of the Cultural Revolution and its slow return during the 1980s, the rationalized religion of Buddhism will gradually replace the hazy beliefs of the villagers and the heretical practices of anji. But until they disappear, these practices—with their frequent offerings of animals, their female living deities, and their ancestral spirits—continue to provide the monks of Muli Gompa with a vilified Other, with Buddhism presenting in comparison a more civilized alternative.
It remains to be seen whether Buddhism will displace anji practice in the long term. In the meantime, at the turn of the millennium, the number of anji ritual specialists in Bustling Township continues to increase, while the number of monks in Muli Gompa who come from Bustling Township remains stable. This might suggest that the deterministic vision of the elites does not represent the entire story. But does the duality of religious practice matter in the villages? How is it conceived? Nima Anji, the most knowledgeable anji of Bustling Township, tells the following story about the relationship between Buddhism and anji religion:
When Buddhism entered Tibet, it met with tough resistance from the traditional anji religion, and a battle erupted between the followers of the two religions. The anji religion won the struggle, and in despair the followers of Buddhism asked Herba Rimpoche, a deity, for help. He was able to unite both sides because he also had a high position in the anji religion. He asked the followers of the anji religion to make a concession and let Buddhism enter Tibet. Herba Rimpoche also demanded that the adherents of the anji religion stop making blood offerings. After this arbitration, the two religions coexisted peacefully for some time, but after some lifetimes, the followers of the anji religion started to kill and make offerings of animals again. They therefore lost many followers, and Buddhism gained strength. This is the reason Buddhism thrives and Buddhists are in a higher position today.
Versions of these archetypal stories of the battle for religious hegemony are told in Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman communities as far west as Nepal.29 They function as an explanation for the apparent coexistence of seemingly disparate religious traditions, and all the stories center on religions that meet and compete. The basic difference between the antagonists boils down to two basic oppositions: one advocates making blood offerings, and the other opposes it, or one possesses written texts, while the other is based on orally transmitted rituals.30 All anji in Bustling Township agree on the existence of two different systems of rituals, those with and those without blood offerings. But the distinction between the two systems does not necessarily coincide with anji understandings of the difference between Buddhism and anji practices. Those with a certain knowledge of Tibetan, like Nima Anji, use the word chö (from Tibetan chos, meaning the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha) for “Buddhism.” An often heard Premi expression for designating Buddhism or Buddhist practice is ch’wi-p’ö. It refers to the practices and concepts learned at the monastery or to texts identified with the monastery. Ch’wi-p’ö literally means “[doing] good things.” In daily language, this stands in contrast to dedrwè-p’ö, meaning “[doing] bad/evil things,” something that is said, for example, to naughty children in the expression “Don’t do bad things!” (Dedrwè-p’ö ma ha!). Ch’wi-p’ö might be related to the idea of cultivating good karma, but unlike this Buddhist concept, which is one of the major aims of all Buddhist practitioners, both monks and laypeople, the term ch’wi-p’ö is used mainly to identify practices by a special category of people: monks, Buddhist lay priests, or living deities. It is difficult to combine ch’wi-p’ö with a “normal” lifestyle, as Rinchin from North Village explains. Rinchin was twenty-six in 2004 and made a living by transporting people and goods in his Beijing Jeep, mostly in the district-town of Wachang. This gave him some limited opportunities to ch’wi-p’ö:
Before 1991, I believed only in science, but then my father became ill and no doctor could cure him. In the course of one month, he consulted several but without any result. Then he met a yèma who did not much else than read some scriptures and advise him to drink boiled water. After one week, he was better! This made me change my view on religion. So now, once in a while, I also try to do good things [ch’wi-p’ö]: I sometimes drive people around for no money at all, especially to and from Muli Gompa.
The concept and practices of ch’wi-p’ö and those of the anji are seen as belonging to different categories, different in nature but not necessarily opposed. Eva Dargyay has characterized a very similar duality of mi chos (people’s religion) and lha chos (divine or royal religion) among the Zanskar Tibetans as two complementary sides of one religion, even though the two concepts in the past defined opposing religious systems: “One is the supramundane, which corresponds to lha chos, where the aspiration for attaining nirvana is the focus of all religious effort; the other is the mundane level, corresponding to the mi chos, where the continuation of the individual family and of one’s own group, here in terms of one’s rus pa, and their well-being and prosperity are the essential values” (1988: 133).
Binary opposition is found within the anji practice, between two systems of rituals: Bompo Anji and another set variously known as Nyima Anji, Lama Anji, or Yidan Anji. There is no consensus on the exact content of the two categories, except that the last category does not involve making blood offerings and many of the texts recited in its rituals are Buddhist texts. This category of rituals is also identified by some anji as the one used by the yèma. It therefore makes sense to say that Buddhism, in the sense of a ritual system, is also translated into Premi as Nyima Anji, Lama Anji, or Yidan Anji. Consequently, anji may mean “religion” (or rather, “ritual system”) and does not necessarily express a binary opposition to Buddhism.
Another perspective on the duality of religious practice is that of the Bustling Township subsistence farmers, conceptualized in connection with this discussion as “consumers” of ritual and religious services. They depend on the performance of such rituals in order to keep their dzèn, or “houses,” in order and check the workings of the powers that provide their livelihood. To a certain extent, they share the views and understanding of anji ritualists. Time and again, when asked the difference between yèma, Buddhist lay priests, and anji or living deity, the villagers answered that there was no difference. As one of the villagers, exasperated by my slow comprehension, expressed in Chinese: “They are all in the same work unit!” (Tamen shi yige danwei de!). Both the anji and the yèma are viewed as specialists whose role was to take care of the villagers’ immediate religious needs; if they want a ritual performed, they call on the specialist who is available. In Spring Rain, this would almost certainly be a yèma, since the closest anji lives several hours’ walk away. In Walnut Grove, villagers would be more likely to request help from an anji. In other villages, people might first consult or invite one kind of ritual specialist, and if that specialist did not solve the problem, they would ask the other kind for assistance. When I insisted that this indicated an awareness of some difference between the two types of specialists, they would say that the working methods these specialists used in relating to the beings of the invisible dimension were not the same. On the one hand, an anji, for example, would kill a chicken and use violent means to drive the shep’a away. A yèma, on the other hand, would patiently try to convince these evil spirits to leave the house and stop bothering its inhabitants; instead of frightening and threatening them, he might try to entice them out of the house by putting some food outside the door and hoping that they would leave.
When discussing these different working methods, people in Bustling Township did not agree on which methods were most effective. Some insisted that anji were better at getting rid of shep’a, while yèma were slightly more effective in worshipping the deities. Nevertheless, most people in Bustling Township mentioned that yèma, monks, and anji ritualists were arranged in a certain hierarchy. The yèma and certainly the monks at Muli Gompa and the living deities were more highly respected and considered generally to be on a higher moral plane: they refrained from eating fresh meat, they did not demand material compensation for their services, and they did not kill. The villagers generally believed that yèma conducted rituals to deal with the deities, the souls of the ancestors, and the evil spirits out of a genuine wish to help them, in contrast to anji, who were thought more likely to be “just doing their jobs.”
At the same time, those who were most respected in this way—both the older monks who lived at the monastery and the living deity—were viewed as being mainly preoccupied with reading scriptures. An underlying but rarely expressed critique was that these persons were preoccupied with their own salvation. Often a living deity would be meditating or reading (and therefore could not be disturbed), or he or she would be on pilgrimage. Add to this the moral obligation to offer a sum of money when visiting living deities, and it is clear that the threshold for obtaining their help was high. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Tenzin Droma, the female living deity of Walnut Grove, once did not speak for sixty days. It may be the case, however, that these difficulties in obtaining the living deity’s help with performing rituals created a scarcity value for their help and strengthened the sense of hierarchy. People often preferred to wait until a living deity passed through the village to have their iron tripods consecrated rather than to ask the anji in the village to do it.
This preference was even more obvious with regard to the naming ceremony. In Bustling Township, newborn children were supposed to be named between five and six days after birth. This is done through divination based on several pieces of information, including the time of birth, the animal sign in effect on the birth date, and the age of the mother. The child receives the name at a ceremony, which is a very important event for the family and the clan, since a fitting name will please the ancestors and bring luck to the newborn clan member. When a child does not thrive and is sick often, these problems may be ascribed to an inauspicious name. In Walnut Grove, both the different anji and Tenzin Droma could perform this ceremony and bestow a name. Names given by Tenzin Droma were typical Tibetan names, while those given by the anji were more likely to be recognizable as typical Premi names. In recent years in the village, boys tended to be named by Tenzin Droma and girls by an anji. Considering the higher value placed on boys in Premi society and the barriers that must be surmounted in order to consult with the living deity, this would support the conclusion that villagers distinguish between the practice of anji and that of other religious personages. This does not mean that the villagers conceive of this difference as representing the existence of two different religions standing in opposition to each other; rather, they view it as a difference of degree.
From the villagers’ point of view, then, there are notions of difference in ritual methods, but these are not significant in relation to their cosmological beliefs, which center on worshipping ancestors and deities. Differentiation is more significant when the concept of religion is expanded to include ideas of higher morality and personal salvation. Such a differentiation of the various aspects of religion as social practice has been addressed in several studies, in particular on Theravada Buddhism. This form of Buddhism has been shown to coexist with indigenous religions, for example, in Burma. In his study of Burmese religion, Melford Spiro writes that the nat cult, a syncretic development of indigenous pre-Buddhist Burmese religion, coexists in uneasy tension with the official state religion of Theravada Buddhism. These two religions exist in parallel and interpenetrate at many points, in such a way that the nat cult is both legitimated by and subordinated to Buddhism (Spiro 1967, quoted in Lewis 1996: 129–30). David Gellner distinguishes at least seven different aspects of religion as social practice. According to Gellner, religion provides the following:
1. legitimation and expression of the household or family group
2. legitimation and expression of the locality (or village, caste, etc.)
3. legitimation and expression of the nation or ethnic group
4. sanctification of the stages of the life cycle
5. socialization of the young and a moral code
6. psychological and practical help in case of misfortune, especially illness
7. a path to salvation from all ills, that is, a soteriology
Gellner’s point is that some religions, such as Christianity, claim to include all seven aspects, while others, such as Theravada Buddhism, provide only for some aspects (a soteriology and a moral code) and can therefore coexist with some other systems that satisfy the needs Buddhism does not meet (1997: 280–81).
In contrast to Theravada Buddhism, in Tibet, Mahayana Buddhism has developed into a dominant political and cultural system that lays claim to all aspects of religion as social practice. Geoffrey Samuel distinguishes three orientations within Buddhist practice in Tibet, each responsible for addressing different aspects of religious needs: the Pragmatic, the Karma, and the Bodhi. He relates the Pragmatic Orientation to folk religion in Tibet, interaction with local gods and spirits, and, to some extent, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, which some researchers refer to as Bön.31 The Karma Orientation, centering on rebirth, is the realm of clerical Buddhism, while the Bodhi Orientation is concerned with obtaining Enlightenment through tantric practice (1993: 31).
From the point of view of the leading monks of Muli Gompa, there is no room for non-Buddhist activities and beliefs in the villages of the officially recognized Tibetans of Muli.32 There is only one true religion that can address all the religious needs of the people, and that is Buddhism; the rest is heresy and superstition that should disappear. Buddhism provides for most of the seven aspects, and it covers all three of the orientations Samuel distinguished within Tibetan Buddhism. The monks view the cosmological beliefs of the villagers, which center on ancestor worship and the dzèn, as incompatible with the concepts of karma and reincarnation. This stands in marked contrast to the view of the villagers themselves. They do not see the practices of anji and those of yèma, monks, or living deities as contradictory. All are able to perform rituals to propitiate the ancestral spirits or the water deities, drive the disease-causing shep’a away, consecrate an iron tripod, give a name to a newborn, open up the road for the souls of the deceased, and so on. In the field of morality, the ancestor cult and the worship of water and mountain deities provide for a day-to-day moral code, by which people have to behave appropriately if they are to avoid the wrath of the ancestors and the deities. In the eyes of the villagers, a higher form of moral behavior—the karmic principle or “ideology of merit” (Samuel 1993)—is reserved for those who are chosen by the deities, including living deities and those monks and yèma who have gained a deeper understanding of such issues through their study of Buddhism or ch’wi-p’ö, or “doing good things.”
Conceptions of what constitutes religious practice among Premi in Muli vary substantially. These variations are related to the differences in cosmological beliefs and social contexts of, on the one side, the villages, where life centers on subsistence farming and the dzèn society, and, on the other, the monasteries and the more urbanized Premi living in the district- and county-towns. This is not a rigid state of affairs: young people in Bustling Township who continue their educations beyond the township school significantly change their views on religion after learning about the officially sanctioned conceptualization of Muli as a Tibetan Buddhist territory (at least in regard to the one-third of the population classified as Tibetans). Part of this official picture, which coincides with that of the monks at Muli Gompa, entails a conceptualization of village practice as opposed to Buddhism. But even when these people return to the countryside, for example, as schoolteachers, they seem to have only limited influence in altering village beliefs, in marked contrast to the educated Premi elites, who play a role in the religious revival taking place in villages in neighboring Yunnan. The analogy between the two areas is striking in what it suggests about how official state discourses influence Premi elites in their conceptualization of Premi religious practice. But, as discussed in the next chapter, these elite views have significantly different impacts in the two regions.
When the villagers of Walnut Grove today pray to and propitiate the water deities, they do so because these deities are part of their remembered and shared cosmological beliefs. Generated by their habitus, this practice is a culturally consistent strategy for addressing present-day concerns produced by the forces of modernization and the policies of the Chinese Communist Party. Habitus in this case is not a straitjacket that denies people the possibility of self-conscious, dynamic cultural literacy, as some critics have characterized Bourdieu’s concept (Webb, Schirato, and Danaher 2002: 59). As Certeau points out, people (i.e., the Kabyles of Algeria) “‘play with all the possibilities offered by traditions,’ and make use of one tradition rather than another, compensate for one by means of another” (see Certeau 1984: 54, cited in Webb, Schirato, and Danaher 2002: 59). What is going on, then, in Walnut Grove is a “dynamic cultural process by which human activities reproduce cultural structures in strategically reshaped ways” (Bell 1997: 638, on Sherry B. Ortner). While Nima Anji’s interest in traditional ritual practice was to a large extent the product of his being the heir of a long and important anji line, his active and creative engagement in reviving the tradition certainly confirmed the villagers’ acceptance of the validity of remembered cosmology. In addition, rather than merely trying to reconstitute and take up past practices, the villagers also accepted and supported more nontraditional institutions such as the female living deity and the soma. Although these religious personages fitted the religious logic of local beliefs, their existence in Bustling Township was unprecedented. It is furthermore interesting to note that villagers did not choose to actively engage in monastic Gelug Buddhism, an option that would certainly have been culturally acceptable.