This lecture introduces the community we will be exploring. Officially part of the 8 million-strong “Yi nationality” and speaking a Ngwi language in the Tibeto-Burman family of languages, people here have long occupied an ambiguous position in relation both to the Chinese-speaking majority and to the late Qing, Republican, Socialist and Post-Socialist states. Their unconventional ways of working on the dead in particular have been the target of vigorous reform campaigns in all these periods. We also introduce two theoretical propositions that will guide our exploration. The first is that to think in the conventional way of the living as real and the dead as imaginary leads to confusion and error in this context (and in many others). Like the dead, the living are alternately material and immaterial, manifest to the senses only at times and across diverse forms from bodies to texts. Living and dead are “ontologically one, formally diverse.” The second proposition is that, in this context, relations between living children and their dead parents or grandparents is the foundation for all other forms of social relation. Dead parents are strangers in most ways and must be addressed with methods designed for negotiating with unseen strangers, methods also extended to deal with living strangers. Yet relations of care and nurture between living parents and their children depend upon the success of this contractual relation with dead parents.
Erik Mueggler is a cultural anthropologist who works in China with minority peoples of the Yi and Naxi nationalities. Mueggler’s work is on local histories of socialism and reform, histories of natural history, practices of death and dying, and endangered language documentation. His books include The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence and Place in Southwest China (University of California Press 2001) and The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (University of California Press 2011). Mueggler is Professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures are a series of lectures on a work in progress, designed as a special course for advanced students to work closely with a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology on a topic in which the instructor has an intensive current interest. As the description written by Professor Roy “Skip” Rappaport in 1976 states, “…it offers the opportunity for other students and faculty to hear a colleague in an extended discussion of their own work.”