Accepted Paper:

Envisioning the Enemy: Mastering the Boundaries of Life and Death in Southwest China  


Katherine Swancutt (King’s College London)

Paper short abstract:

Offering new ethnography on death rites and exorcisms among the Nuosu, a Tibeto-Burman group of Southwest China, I show how their views of the enemy are upheld, or occasionally overturned, through ritual aesthetics that are above all meant to be boundary-making.

Paper long abstract:

Visions of the enemy are perhaps always inherently aesthetic. I discuss how Nuosu envision their enemies in ways that enable them to uphold the proper boundaries of life and death. Revealingly, while the Nuosu term for the 'enemy' (jji ꐚ) may evoke a 'slave', 'bee', or 'wasp', its glyph is meant to resemble a bee's nest or honeycomb. Like drones in a hive, Nuosu enemies and slaves were ideally conceptualised as being bound to their master's purposes. Slaves once lived close to their masters, took meals with them, fought under them during lineage warfare, and sometimes deserted them for their rivals. Being reduced to slavery among Nuosu thus meant submitting to a radically different mode of life, followed by an often dangerously ambiguous position in death. Nowadays, former slaves are still routinely envisioned as enemy ethnic others. Focusing on the aesthetic dimensions of Nuosu rituals, I discuss the 'spirit capsules' (ma ddu ꂷꅍ) occasionally produced for slaves in post-mortuary rites, the Daoist-inspired chants and wooden 'ghost board' effigies used to exorcise Han Chinese ghosts from the home, and the joint rituals held by Nuosu and Han Daoist priests, which are underpinned by different aesthetics and rival conceptualisations of the cosmos. While Han priests focus on peaceably sending ghosts to their places of origin, Nuosu produce bee's nest effigies that they shoot with rifles, without revealing to the Han the notions behind this motif. Each of my cases shows how Nuosu ritually mobilise visions of the enemy to maintain socio-political boundaries.

Panel P007
Aesthetics and the making of religious collectivities