During the Spring Festival break of 1987, I was trekking through northwestern Yunnan with a fellow Chinese-language student. We had been staying mostly in small mountain villages situated several days’ walk from anything resembling a road. As two foreigners visiting at the time of the Spring Festival, we found ourselves at the center of lively parties with traditional chain dancing and flute music, accompanied by copious meals of fatty pork meat and engaging in uncountable bottoms-ups of locally brewed spirits. To take a break from the strain of social obligations, we decided not to sleep in a village for one night and put up our tent in what we thought was a lonely place along the trail, far away from any village. But no sooner had darkness fallen than we suddenly realized that a person was quietly observing us. In the glow of our campfire, the old man was an impressive figure, dressed in colorful robes and wearing an elaborately adorned hat. In strong Yunnan Chinese dialect, which at that time was still hard for me to understand, he told us he was some sort of lama, a term that usually designates a Buddhist monk or lay priest, and that he belonged to the Pumi minzu. (For more on lamas, see chapters 3 and 4.) He wanted us to pack up all our things and join him as guests in his house. Too tired from the walking and socializing of the previous days, we refused politely but firmly, and he disappeared as suddenly as he had materialized.
Later, after having read all I could find published in Chinese on the Pumi minzu, or Premi people, as many of them call themselves, I figured out he was most likely not a Buddhist monk but a ritual expert, a hangui. Still later, during what had developed into my research project, I tried desperately to locate a village with such a practicing ritual expert, but it seemed that we had met one of the last living hangui. On a 1991 field trip to a village close to where we had put up our tent in 1987, I learned that the old man we had met had passed away only a few years after our nighttime encounter. The realization of this missed opportunity to visit and learn from a man whom I thought to be one of the last representatives of a unique ritual tradition made me even more determined to continue my study of ritual practice in Premi communities. In the mid-1990s, while doing fieldwork in a rather remote Premi village in Yunnan, I was told that people in the village, besides inviting Buddhist monks or people with a certain knowledge of Buddhism to perform all kind of rituals, also invited a so-called anji from neighboring Sichuan. They explained to me that anji was a local pronunciation of hangui. It took me another four years before I managed to get funding for my PhD project and obtain an official permit to conduct fieldwork in the county of Muli in Sichuan, a place, many Premi assured me, where the hangui/anji tradition was still very much alive.