The Maoist Shaman and the Madman: Ritual Bricolage, Failed Ritual, and Failed Ritual Theory

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Ivan Walsh, "Rare Photos From the Chinese Cultural Revolution." March 27, 2010 via Flickr.

Do rituals always promote cohesion, or can they also express conflict, contestation, and even confusion? Are rituals always passed from one generation to another, or can they appear and disappear? Where do the rituals that we study emerge, and what constitutes a “successful” or a “failed” ritual? In “The Maoist Shaman and the Madman: Ritual Bricolage, Failed Ritual, and Failed Ritual Theory,“ Emily Chao analyzes a unique ritual that she observed in the Lijiang region of western China: a shaman’s attempt at combining invocations to the gods with Maoist-era slogans to treat a madman. While this offbeat case of ritual bricolage, drawing upon local traditions and national narratives, fails on all counts, Chao’s study succeeds in producing not only a memorable ethnographic case but also a novel perspective on the creation of ritual and its location within society and social processes.

In East Wind, a Naxi village in western Yunnan Province, a shaman is brought in to treat a madman. Decked out in a colorful and quirky combination of a Bai minority head-dress and a Red Guard shoulder bag, the shaman proceeds to hold an equally quirky ritual combining bowing to and burning incense for the gods, tossing around and sacrificing a chicken, and invoking a revolutionary trinity of Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping to save this member of the “wretched masses.” Unaccustomed to this juxtaposition of shamanic practices and state revolutionary discourse, audience members giggled throughout the ceremony and soon after labeled the ritual a failure and the shaman a “liar” (pianzi).

Despite this failure, however, the shaman’s ritual provides a quite useful case for analysis. Conventional ritual studies have generally examined already established rituals that are “routinely performed and dramatize shared meanings and visions of reality” (Chao, 505). Chao’s case, however, provides a look at a one-time ritual in its moment of creation, reception, and sudden failure. Her analysis highlights the curious grafting of local shamanic practices onto the imagined national-political landscape, the ambivalence about national identity that this ritual brings out in the audience, as well as the contradictory relationship that villagers have towards the economic changes of the past decade, at once feeling concern about the rise of economic inequalities while also staunchly opposing any return to Maoist-era ideals of class struggle or collectivization, such as those reflected in the shaman’s eccentric use of revolutionary slogans. In the end, the shaman’s failure to invent a coherent symbolic system with which the audience could identify led to the negative response as well as the failure of this ritual. Chao’s analysis thus demonstrates the intertwinement of ritual with larger social processes in both its emergence and its continuity (or lack thereof).

Through her examination of an often overlooked aspect of ritual- its emergence and its potential success or failure- Chao provides a novel perspective upon ritual as a social phenomenon. Her rich ethnographic details tell the story of an unforgettable and indeed truly “once-in-a-lifetime” ritual, while her analyses locate this odd yet telling moment in ritual history within its social context, demonstrating the contingencies and contentions involved in the process far too often glossed simply as “ritual.”

About the Author

Emily Chao is a Professor of Anthropology at Pitzer College. A graduate of University of Michigan and a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at University of California, Berkeley, her research examines ritual, gender, history, and national discourse in China.

Additional Works by the Author

“Cautionary Tales: Marriage Strategies, State Discourse, and Women’s Agency in a Naxi Village in Southwestern China” in Nicole Constable, ed. Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Trans-national Asia. Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

“Dangerous Work: Women in Traffic.” Modern China, Jan. 2003, Vol. 29, No. 1, 71-107.“Hegemony, agency, and re-presenting the past: the invention of Dongba culture among the Naxi of Southwest China” in Melissa Brown, ed. Negotiating ethnicities in China and Taiwan. Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, 1996.

Interview With the Author

Kevin Carrico: Your notion of failed ritual provides a refreshing new perspective on the ritual process. How did you come up with this idea? And how has your work progressed since the publication of this article?

Emily Chao: The Maoist shaman article was inspired by a ritual which combined the imagery and rhetoric of prerevolutionary shamanic ritual with that of the Cultural Revolution. The article moves in the direction of thinking about ritual performance as densely historical and as providing opportunities to interrogate conflict and power. In retrospect, the article could be seen as indirectly influenced by Ortner and Bourdieu’s concern in practice theory with the role of agency in social reproduction. The Maoist shaman’s failed ritual was a negative example, and questions how we may understand the significance of failed agency that does not result in social reproduction. In terms of the study of ritual in China, the work of Emily Ahern, James Watson and Ken Pomeranz provided inspiration for thinking about ritual, power and politics. Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson’s work, albeit in very different contexts, called attention to failed identity projects and ultimately, failed agency.Since the Maoist Shaman, my research has examined the politics of gender and ethnic representation. I am interested in how ethnic categorization has implicated the essentialization of ritual and ritual practitioners (shamans and dongba priests), and how ethnic difference has been mobilized in a reinvention of local history assimilated to national narratives. My work has also focused on gender essentialization and the relationship of notions of bodily essence to social stratification, mobility and capitalism. Many of these issues are explored in my book: Lijiang Stories: shamans, taxi drivers, runaway brides and entrepreneurs in Reform Era China, to be published by the University of Washington Press.

Related Links

Introduction to “the Naxi” for Lijiang Tourists"

The Naxi people are warm and kind. After a hunt, they will share a piece of the kill with a casual passerby. When visited, they will prepare six or eight delicious dishes to treat their guests. Most of the young Naxi people insist that they have one spouse and usually they have a very complicated process to protect their monogamous marriage. But for those living beside Luguhu Lake in Lijiang, they still keep the 'walking' marriage which is the only remaining vestige of a matrilineal clan among all the ethnic groups of China."

Official Introduction to “the Naxi Ethnic Minority”

Introduction to “the Naxi” on State-Run “Tibet Info” Site

Lijiang Travel Guide

UNESCO site- Lijiang Old Town

Morning Sun- A Film About Cultural Revolution


The Great Leader Chairman Mao Receives the Red Guards

This video features images of Cultural Revolution-era clothing and the ritualized reception of millions of Red Guards by Mao from the Tiananmen rostrum

Lijiang, the Naxi, and the Dongba

Naxi Dance in Lijiang

Naxi Dongba Dance

The Loyalty Dance

A Cultural Revolution-era ritual expressing loyalty to Mao

Naxi Folk Song

We Are Chairman Mao’s Red Guards

Impressions from Lijiang

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What does Chao's focus upon this "failed ritual" tell us about the rituals we study, their origins, and their perpetuation? How might attention to these issues reorient ritual studies?

2. In the analysis of ritual, what is more important- content, context, or reception?

3. What does the ritual bricolage that Chao analyzes reveal about Naxi society and identity in the reform era? How does this analysis contribute to our understanding of the relationship between ritual, social processes, and self-identification?

4. Where can the legitimation of ritual be located: in the ritual itself, in its enactors, in its audience, or somewhere in between?

5. The ambivalence that Chao notes with regard to the Maoist era amongst the Naxi is recognizable on a much larger scale throughout Chinese society. Discontent with rising inequality is frequently combined with anxiety about the terrifying and often senseless class struggle of the Maoist era. What, then, is the legacy of Maoism for contemporary Chinese society? And where might one find narratives and ideas to counter the current status quo?

Related Readings

Ahern, Emily, 1981. Chinese Ritual and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barme, Geremie, 1996. Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Kristof, Nicholas, 1992. "China's Newest God: The Godless Mao." The New York Times, June 2:1, 8.

Levi-Strauss, Claude, 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McKhann, Charles, 1995. “The Naxi and the Nationalities Question” in Stevan Harrell, ed. Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Sangren, Steven, 2000. "Dialectics of Alienation: Individuals and Collectivities in Chinese Religion" in Chinese Sociologics: An Anthropological Account of the Role of Alienation in Social Reproduction. London: Athlone.

Siu, Helen, 1989. “Recycling Rituals.” In Unofficial China. Perry Link, Richard Madsen, and Paul Pickowicz, eds. Pp. 121-137. Boulder: Westview Press.

Turner, Victor,1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.

Watson, James, 1985. “Standardizing the Gods: The Promotion of T'ien Hou ("Empress of Heaven") along the South China Coast 960-1960.” In Popular Culture in Late Imperial China. David Johnson, Andrew Nathan, and Evelyn Rawski, eds. Pp. 292-324. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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