This post builds on the research article “The Maoist Shaman and the Madman: Ritual Bricolage, Failed Ritual, and Failed Ritual Theory,” which was published in the November 1999 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
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.
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."
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?
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.