The algebra of souls: ontological multiplicity and the transformation of animism in Southwest China

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Author: Mireille Mazard
Date: Spring 2016
From: Social Analysis(Vol. 60, Issue 1)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Report
Length: 9,228 words
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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Abstract: In Nusu animism, the number and nature of a person's 'soul attributes' change during his or her lifetime and after death. Drawing on Michael Scott's study of Arosi poly-ontology, this article situates animistic personhood in a plural socio-cosmic order. Living and dead, human and non-human, Nusu and non-Nusu occupy separate, communicating domains. Meaningful exchanges across boundaries require the metamorphosis of persons and ideas. Nusu animism, continuously engaged in an 'algebra of souls', understands the self in terms of its multiplicity, its latent and emerging aspects. Through the ethnography of two death rituals--one 'real' and one staged for visiting researchers--this article shows that animism is being hyper-reflexively reinvented by Nusu animists themselves.

Keywords: animism, Christianity, death, metamorphosis, Nujiang, personhood, poly-ontology, Southwest China


In a large, almost empty conference room inside the rundown Liuku Hotel, Lani, an elderly Nusu man, slowly climbs steps up to the theatrical stage at the front of the room. (1) He is wearing a handmade woven jacket with narrow blue-and-white stripes, a self-consciously 'ethnic' garment (Ch. minzu fuzhuang). A machete hangs at his waist. Lani seizes the machete, still in its holster, and strikes it nine times on the stage floor. He is miming the way a Nusu shaman would open the ground of the burial plot to open the path for the deceased into the 'shadow realm', or mhade. (2)

In the ritual unfolding of a Nusu funeral, the yan-hla (soul or doppelganger) emerges from latency into full personhood, supplanting the corporeal existence of the deceased. Through transformations enacted in death and fire, the deceased and his or her belongings become ontologically other. This process of metamorphosis entails a geographical movement as well, as they set off for the land of the dead (mhade). Lani, onstage, is demonstrating the beginning of this journey for a group of researchers who traveled from Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan in Southwest China, to the province's remote northwestern frontier to study endangered traditions of ethnic minority music and dance. In his home village of Khrada, however, Lani ceased his ritual activities decades ago when he converted to Christianity.

The cleavage between the living and the dead, mapped out in separate geographies and enacted in the ritualized transformation of the person, reflects the poly-ontological character of Nusu animism, which I explore in this article. For Lani and other Nusu participants in the research encounter, it is echoed in a further ontological divide, between themselves and the researchers documenting their cultural artifacts. More than a matter of linguistic or social differences, for Nusu, different ethnicities, like different states of being, are essentially and irreducibly different, but interactions can occur across ontological divides. The key to this is metamorphosis.

Metamorphosis and Animism

This article takes metamorphosis as a starting point to explore poly-ontological animism among the Nusu in Southwest China. The transformation of persons and ideas enables productive exchanges across boundaries in a fundamentally plural socio-cosmic order. In looking at animism, my focus is on how Nusu understand the invisible dimensions...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A451148921