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Aurélie Névot, Comme le sel, je suis le cours de l'eau: le chamanisme à écriture des Yi du Yunnan (Chine) (Like salt, I follow the current: The literate Shamanism of the Yi of Yunnan)

Stéphane Gros

Aurélie Névot, Comme le sel, je suis le cours de l'eau: le chamanisme à écriture des Yi du Yunnan (Chine) (Like salt, I follow the current: The literate Shamanism of the Yi of Yunnan), Nanterre, Société d'ethnologie (Recherches sur la Haute Asie, 16), 2008, 317 pp.

This ethnological study deals with the "shamanic religion" of the Nipa in the Stone Forest of Yunnan Province, one of the groups included in the vast and composite "national minority" known as the Yi, which comprises about eight million members throughout the whole of south-western China. Aurélie Névot's analysis is twofold, covering on the one hand the main features of the Nipa religion and the fundamental role ritual writing plays in it, and on the other hand the instrumentalisation by government agencies of this religion and writing. In her clear descriptive presentation she distinguishes the Nipa midje, or territorial cult, as practised at village level and on which the self-reproduction of local society depends, from the official federal mizhi cult, set up by the authorities, on which —under state control— the cohesive political construction of an overall Yi entity depends. The author analyses how the transition from one (midje) to the other (mizhi) leads to toppling the base of Nipa society and to distorting a redirection of its political-religious institutions. Her book provides us with a remarkable study of Nipa religious practices and their place in the contemporary Chinese world.

In her introduction, Aurélie Névot outlines the issues at stake in her anthropological research, which covers a case study on "the cult of unification" and its mechanisms in China, as well as reflections on the category of "literate shamanism" and the political uses of religious matters. In a clear and concise language, the introduction provides even the layperson with the intellectual means required to comprehend the five sections of the main body of the work.

In the first part, she retraces the origins of the Nipa through myths, memories, and historical sources, followed by a study of the village microcosm, the organisation of society into "moieties" and associated territorial and matrimonial structures. The shamans -- the bimo or "masters of psalmody" -- are at the heart of this social edifice, and the author presents us with a first-rate analysis of the role of writing and utterance in their ritual practices, as well as their transmission of knowledge through "shaman lines of descent," in order to emphasise their key function in the organisation of Nipa political and religious life.

The second part takes us to the very heart of the anthropologist’s fieldwork, in order to truly discover the village of Lava, and the workings of its ancient organisation based on the responsibilities of territorial chieftains and shamans. Political changes and government reorganisations over recent decades have deeply affected this organisation. The author analyses what she identifies as an intention on the part of the Chinese state to unify the Yi, especially through devising a standardised Yi writing -- which amounts to a sort of "secularisation" of the ritual writing -- and to establish an official cult (mizhi) with the apparent ultimate aim of bending the local political-religious system towards a more "federated" structure for the Yi as a whole, in order to govern them more effectively.

The last three sections take the reader further into the ethnography of a village ritual, the "communitarian sacrifice for the territory" (midje), the local counterpart of the official unifying cult and its underlying source. The description of this seven-day ritual includes an account of the ni conceptions of the universe and the ritual techniques -- particularly the sacrificial ones -- that ensure its smooth running. She closely considers relationships with ancestors and the sacred conjugations that give birth to vital energy; then she analyses the spatial referent in the ritual, which articulates the link between autochthonous origins and the social inscription in a shared territory. Finally, this richly detailed ethnography enables the author to show how, through the continuation of this communal ceremony and the collective "retellings" at village level, the Nipa keep alive their cultural reference to territorial chieftainship, which has indeed disappeared, but the organising principles of which are still clearly visible.

In a much appreciated overall summary, the author concludes by switching back to the Chinese state's means of controlling and unifying the "literate shamanism" of the Nipa. She stresses that the integration of the bimo and their scripts, which allows an official cult to be set up under government control, corresponds to a sort of "centralisation" and "institutionalisation" of their religion. Nonetheless, the bimo are still the agents of this integration, and by remaining active at local level, they contribute a certain traditionalist input that, in the author's view, goes beyond issues of identity and draws our attention to the ability of shamanism as a religious form to adapt to shifting circumstances.

The main feature of this work is its ethnographic excellence. It deals with a barely known group and its practices, and makes an important contribution to both Yi studies and to the anthropology of China and its minorities in general. It provides a convincing demonstration of the way government agencies redirect the village territorial cult midje, transforming it into a cult in the service of federation within the Yi "nationality." Through the closely detailed accounts of this ritual sacrifice in its relationship to social organisation, and of the role of the bimo and the territorial chieftain in its enactment, the reader is provided with an image of Nipa society that reveals the reconstructed and distorted nature of the image the Chinese government is trying to impose through the official mizhi cult. Above all, through her analysis of the role played by writing as a medium for communicating with the spirits, but also as a political tool used by the Chinese state to deprive the Nipa shamans of their power, the author manages to show how the Communist authorities have dug deep into the politico-religious institutions of the Nipa. In pursuit of government aims, they have reorganised the ritual bases of local authority and its territorial inscription. The wealth of ethnographic material relating to, among other things, ritual sacrifices and the social organisation and its symmetrical features (the author describes it as a "moieties society") opens up many perspectives for making comparisons (only briefly touched upon in the work itself) with other societies in south-west China, as well as in South-east Asia and the Himalayan region.

Rather than yet again repeating the simplistic binary opposition between a supposed core of Chinese culture and the cultures of so-called minority peoples, Aurélie Névot rightly considers this region to be a theatre for interaction between the people present on the scene there, and a place for cross-fertilisation and construction of a Chinese culture that is not conceived as exclusively Han property but as an open field for cultural practices shaped by interactivity. This kind of unity built up over time depends partly, as she demonstrates, on a method of government that integrates and recycles local traditions. One of its instruments is that all-powerful tool: writing. Certainly one of the great merits of this work is her skilful analysis of the writing used by the bimo in their religious practices (showing its relationship to blood, breath, utterance, and territory, while also illustrating its link to power) and the relationship between this writing and the civilising power of the written word in China.

According to the author, this form of unity between the peoples of China is based on their shared "common cultic and cultural substratum," and this leads her to argue -- along the lines of a view proposed by Maurice Freedman -- that there might exist "a Chinese religion" (p. 19). The existence of such a “substratum” -- a preconceived idea that would need to be demonstrated further -- is debatable. The author seems to vacillate between a static conception of culture, according to which any change is an alteration in the "traditional" situation, and a more dynamic conception that sees change as the driving force behind cultural production. The notion of "a Chinese religion" does a disservice to this latter set of intentions. In a similar manner, despite the many parallels that she draws with Taoist conceptions and religious practices in ancient and contemporary China, she seemingly wishes to show the existence of a specifically Nipa "literate shamanism," this being a concept, moreover, which could be further pursued.

This is where a fuller consideration of history and temporality is needed to corroborate the author's thesis that current transformations are taking place within a continuation of imperial practices, and to support her main argument that the relations between local society and the state, both in the past and present, constitute what the Nipa are and what they do, just as they shape what they say about themselves. (For example, it is surprising to come across her use of myths as forms of atemporal discourse, with no reference to the context of their utterance). In addition, the conceptual shifts between terms such as "ethnic group," "clan," and "lineage" blur the possibility of a clear grasp of the social structure and the process of "identity formation" described in the work. Lastly, the very stimulating analysis of the dialectic between locality and global totality deserves to be taken further through an approach focusing more on issues of ethnicity and on contemporary concerns with the dynamics of identity, since these affect the Nipas' situation within the Yi, who are considered to be a holistic national entity. This might throw further light on their relations with the state.

  • 1  See the review by Béatrice David in China Perspectives no. 2007/3 (editor’s note).

Nonetheless, these criticisms serve to highlight the real merits of a work that, through the wealth of material and its fascinating perspectives, clearly opens the way for further discussion and confrontation with neighbouring areas of study. It would be interesting to see the author engage in a dialogue with recent contributors to studies on the Yi. Here I particularly have in mind Erik Mueggler and his work The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001), which advances similar theses.1 Aurélie Névot's book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the ethnography of the peoples of China and in the cultural interactions and reconstitutions in the southern border areas.

Translated by Jonathan Hall


1  See the review by Béatrice David in China Perspectives no. 2007/3 (editor’s note).

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