Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

University of Michigan Anthropology professor Erik Mueggler used death rituals by the Yi ethnic minority in southwest China to show how this group subjects the dead to a form of politics on Monday evening, as part of the anthropology department’s Distinguished Speaker Series.

More than 30 faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students attended the lecture, “Songs for Dead Parents: the Politics of a Minority Literature,” which was sponsored by the Confucius Institute at Emory, the Hightower Fund, the Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures department and East Asian Studies.

Mueggler’s research focuses on ritual, religion, science and nature in China’s border regions as well as social and cultural theory, according to University of Michigan’s website.

Mueggler stated that the Yi in the 1950s in Zhi Zuo, China facilitated relations among the living. The dead were considered social beings and were thus subject to politics, he said.

Mueggler distinguished three main types of songs that describe the stages of death: first, the “cradling” of the soul until it is lifted; second, the “clothing” of the soul by monkey skins; third, the “return songs” in which the soul is returned to life.

The songs, according to Mueggler, illustrate the fundamentals of the politics of death, in which the dead must be controlled in order to give life to the living.

Throughout the lecture, Mueggler played clips from a recording of a rendition of part of a death ritual by an àpjp’ò — a “man who speaks” or a shaman. The death ritual example, in the form of a 72-verse speech, would have taken eight hours to perform and would have delivered a “massive construction project” at least once a year to build a world for the dead.

“The dead must be subjected to a regime of exchange and sacrifice,” Mueggler said. “It reflects the imperialism of life by which political and economic regimes keep the dead in control under the eyes of Ya Luo Wang [the king of the underworld].”

Although the tradition of reciting the poetic verse disappeared after the Great Leap Forward in China in the late 1950s, other funeral rituals still remain, Mueggler said.

The anthropology department invites at least two guest speakers from outside of Emory every academic year, according to Jenny Chio, an assistant professor of Anthropology and co-organizer of the Committee for the Distinguished Speaker Series. She explained that the department invited Mueggler as part of its seminar series, which invites one cultural anthropologist and one biological anthropologist.

“[Mueggler] is one of the most active and dynamic scholars of Chinese anthropology,” Chio said. “We invite guest speakers, because it is important for students to engage with the scholar, as opposed to just reading their works.”

Mueggler has published two books on the cultural history of China including The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence and Place in Southwest China (2001) and The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (2011).

Chio said he hoped that the lecture would not only invoke students’ interest in modern Chinese culture but would also represent an anthropological perspective fused with different areas of learning.

“The first goal is that the lecture will increase the conversations and discussions on studies of contemporary China,” Chio said. “Secondly, it will present an anthropological perspective on religious texts, fusing ideas from the religion and East Asian studies departments.”

College sophomore Abbie Zhang, who attended the lecture for an anthropology class she is taking, described the lecture as interesting and new but also confusing.

“I was a little confused as [Mueggler] introduced terms I do not understand,” Zhang said. “The culture was very new to me and helped me to know more about minorities.”

College junior Joyce Guo said she found the talk personally relatable because of her nationality.

“I’m Chinese, but I have never heard of these people and learned a lot of new information,” Zhang said. But like Zhang, she also expressed her confusion. “There were so many terms, some of which I did not understand.”​

— By Emily Lim

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