After the Quake: Rituals in North Western Sichuan

by on Tuesday, 25 June 2013 Comments

Rituals organize and symbolize a way of living together. Through the enactment of rituals, a community expresses its fear, its solidarity and its longings. In traditional societies, performing rituals enables people to organize time and space into a meaningful universe, to renew their commitment to the group to which they belong, and to cement an alliance among them, with nature and with the supernatural.
The variety of ritual forms is astounding. It reflects the richness of cultural forms, artworks and humane inventiveness. Among the ethnic minorities who, all together, account for almost ten percent of China's population, those living in the southwest may offer the widest repertoire of ritual performances. Caring for the souls of the dead, exorcising ghosts so as to cure illnesses, rejoicing at marriages, New Year or at harvest time. The four rituals mentioned here all take place in Sichuan province, among people of Yi, Qiang and Ersu ethnic origins.

- I - A Ritual for All Seasons

Meigu county 美姑县 is located in Liangshan prefecture (凉山州), in the southwest corner of Sichuan, home to the Liangshan Yi people (凉山彝族) – who, in their language, call themselves "Nuosu" (诺苏人). Meigu is often considered to be the heart of Nuosu culture and traditional religion. It counts the highest proportion of "bimos" (毕摩) amongst its population, these ritual practitioners who, from father to son, rely on the authority of their sacred scriptures to celebrate funerals, expel ghosts, and ensure the safety and harmony of the families that populate these mountain villages.

Today, Bimo Qubie Lahe (曲比啦呵) performs a seasonal ritual for a family who lives on a hill twelve km away from Meigu township. He is the son of a well-know bimo who died in February of the same year. In this area of Liangshan, the ritual celebrated today is performed thrice a year - around November, March and July. It serves to cast away all kinds of ills and pollutions – the ones coming from atmospheric changes and contagious illnesses, but also from bad words exchanged among neighbours and relatives, or from the hungry ghosts who wander around the village and the household. By doing so, it preserves or restores solidarity within the family and with neighbours, a few of whom usually attend the ceremony.

In Nuosu culture, the performing of rituals and the killing of animals were traditionally associated. In the past, eating meat was a feast that occured when a ritual was performed or when a guest of importance came into the house. The seasonal ritual that takes place today involves the killing of a sheep, two pigs and a rooster. Chanting the scriptures is central to the performance. Scriptures recall the bimo's lineage, they ask ancestors and famous bimos to come to the help of the performer; they narrate the origin of the ghosts to be chased, or they appease the spirit of the animals to be sacrificed... When they are used for curing a sick person, they also cajole the soul into coming back to the body that she has left. Bimo Qubie (毕摩曲比) chants them with the help of an assistant, one of his relatives. The bell he agitates scares away the ghosts. The meat of the animal appeases the spirit called to the rescue, while ghosts are tricked to accept a piece of fat and giblets. The communal meal that takes place in the middle of the ritual also cements the unity of the family and its guests.

Rituals are solemn occasions, but they are also very casual. It is an opportunity for meeting and eating together, relaxing and having some fun. They aim at restoring a sense of safety and togetherness in a challenging environment. The meal, the jokes exchanged, the breaks taken during the long recitation, the acting together when the ghosts are noisily chased away... all this is part of the celebration. The ritual performed today will help the whole family to enter with restored confidence into a new time of the year. Participants in the ritual will feel reconnected to the forces of heavens and earth as well as to the ancestors – asserting their place and their role within the cosmic and cultural universe that is theirs.

- II – A Soul to Console and to Lead Away

On the west of Meigu county, lies the city of Xichang 西昌, the administrative center of Liangshan Yi prefecture. When you depart from Xichang and take the road towards the north, in the direction of the Tibetan Ganze prefecture (甘孜州), you pass through Mianning county (冕宁县), a relatively prosperous Nuosu settlement. In this morning of July 2011 the village of Machang is celebrating the second day of the funerals of Ji'er Ajjimo (吉尔阿汁莫) , a woman who was around sixty of age. Funerals attract relatives from around the whole Nuosu territory. Several days are dedicated to gathering and chanting, with sheep, pigs and ox being slaughtered. Rituals and sacrifices open the road towards the land of the ancestors: Among the three roads – black, yellow, white – that can be followed, the deceased will be guided to make sure she follows safely the white road, till she merges with the collective body of the ancestors. She will then watches over her offspring. On the last day of the funerals, a bimo will conduct a solemn ritual, before the corpse is burned on a pyre.

On this day, relatives are still arriving, some of them from far away places. Women gather into small groups, according to the places and families they belong to, and walk in procession towards the house where the deceased is resting. Once they enter the house they express compassion and sorrow through chanting and gestures that mix tradition with spontaneity, improvisation with recitation.
Funerals mobilize the entirety of a community. Everyone makes financial contribution, and participates in the chores and the rituals. Their celebration allows all participants to enter into the long history of the Nuosu people, as the ancestors' road repeats backwards the migration that led the descendents of the first ancestors into the present location - from one place to another, from one generation to another generation. While the laments and the chanting help the family to deal with grief and sorrow, the whole ceremony also prepares the aggregation of the deceased to the community to which she is now called to belong: the mysterious body shaped by all the ancestors who, one by one, went back to the origin of all things.

- III – Embroidering the Earth

Who are the Qiang (羌族)? Today the name refers to a small ethnic minority group in western China, 300 000 people, established on the foothills that separate the great plains around Chengdu from the highlands of Eastern Tibet. In the past, the term "Qiang" was for the Han Chinese a formidable one: it referred to all pastoral peoples who inhabited territories west of the Central plains. The pictogram coined for designating these peoples - the one still used today for the Qiang minority - consisted of the combined images of a man and a sheep...

It is difficult to say whether the people known today as the Qiang are really the direct heirs of these semi-nomadic peoples who threatened the fledgling Chinese civilization, before the expansion of the Han Empire dispersed and assimilated them. The Qiang have lived for long in contact with the Han, and they also communicate with the other minorities who dwell in the Tibetan corridor. Only half of them still speak the Qiang language, or rather one of its variants, as this land of isolated of valleys knows an impressive variety of dialects.

Today, most of the Qiang people live in the area of Wenchuan 汶川 and Beichuan 北川 in northern Sichuan, near the epicenter of the great earthquake that shocked the whole region on May 12, 2008. Some of the great stone towers guarding the old villages collapsed. The human, economic and cultural damages were such that one could fear for the very survival of the Qiang.
The earthquake destroyed the Wang family's house. Twice already they have rebuilt part of it, even though, during the first months, aftershocks have dwarfed their efforts. The husband is a carpenter. He has a son and a daughter from a previous marriage. He keeps painful memory of the eight years of illness of his first wife and of the repeated demands for money he had to make to his friends and acquaintances, so as to purchase medicine ... The raising of pigs, small-scale tea production and the picking of medicinal plants bring them additional income, but this is not sufficient to meet expenditure incurred in reconstruction. And only one son, the third of their children can go to school ...

Shen Yanyan is from Pingwu County, where her mother was a midwife. She returned after the earthquake, deciding to contribute something to the survival of the Qiang culture. She teaches women weaving and embroidery, traditionally made with wool of goats, and she helps them to organize, so as to gradually draw a profit from their work. On their works, Han and Qiang traditional themes are intertwined. All of them dream to showcase their works through some exhibitions in nearby towns, and to draw a steady income from their skills.
The performance of rituals is like an embroidery, as a sacred cloth weaved by the dance, as a work that is offered to the gods, so that they may grant you the grace of survival and renewal. On this day of August 2009, in the county of Pingwu 平武县, the construction of the new house calls for a ritual. This ritual called Qingtan (庆坛祭祀仪式) mixes elements of Qiang and Han origins. A priest-shaman 巫师 turns towards the altar of the household. Every household has an altar in the corner of the main room of the house, facing the door. The altar and the area around it are loaded with taboos.
The god of the household and the ancestors, the kitchen god, the god of the threshold are all invoked, so that they may give their blessings. The demons are driven away one after another, especially in the kitchen, a most dangerous place: in the kitchen, one deals with fire, with flesh and with plants – with matters of life and death so to say.

The goat-skin drum is the main ritual instrument of the shaman. It must be carefully dried over a fire, so as to ensure that it expels ghosts with speed and efficiency. The Qiang say that they do not write and do not own sacred books because their first shaman had seen all his books eaten by a goat while he was asleep. So, the drum manufactured in the skin of the goat he killed afterwards concentrates the efficacy of the sacred books that the Qiang – contrarily to the Han - do not possess...

Outside the house, an older shaman creates a ritual field that extends the protection of the spirits of the mountain, water, heaven and earth to the surroundings of the household.
The methods of divination used to predict the fate of the house and its inhabitants are directly borrowed from the Han: Qiang religion blends elements of animist and Taoist origins, while its pantheon includes Han deities. And the short interlude played with masks through which neighbors convey their wishes to the master of the household reminds one of scenes from the Sichuan opera. But the dance of the two shamans and their assistant speaks of beliefs and rituals of a mountain people... The embroidery of the dance displays its patterns on the boundless canvass of the cosmos, allowing Man to dwell harmoniously in its midst.

Slowly overcoming the trauma of the earthquake, recording its memories and beliefs into songs, rituals and cloth patterns, mixing and weaving the various traditions that travel along its mountainous corridors, the Qiang people still surreptitiously embroiders its own history on the fringes of the Chinese Empire...

- IV – The Disappearing Shaman

Also dwelling in Liangshan prefecture and the surrounding areas, Ersu people (尔苏人) are certainly the most mysterious inhabitants of the region, claiming to descend from the first population to settle there. Though they are officially assimilated to the Tibetan ethnic group, the nine thousand speakers of the various Ersu dialects definitely constitute an autonomous cultural group, which inherited the characteristic Shaba pictographic system 萨巴文, used in rituals – a script where the color of a character modifies its meaning...

Shaba is also the name given to the religious practitioners, who exhibits features recalling both the shamans of the Tibetan Bon religion (笨教) and the Taoist priests.
Wang Zhiquan (王志全), aged 64, is one of the seven or so Shaba still being active. He lives in a village placed under the jurisdiction the city of Yan'an (四川省雅安市石棉县蟹螺藏乡江坝村五组).
Usually at night, he still performs healing rituals on people asking for his help, through a mixture of incantations and medication.

He likes to exhibit his scriptures and rituals objects, his ritual calendar used for divination with its sixty diagrams, the drum and all the other accessories... He recalls the songs and the myths of the Ersu people. But, obviously, he is the witness and guardian of a dying world. The youth are not wiling to engage into the learning required to become a Shaba, and even the efforts made by the local government for promoting Ersu culture cannot change this. Rituals have to be anchored into a living culture, and the Ersu culture might be too much challenged by its neighbors - Yi, Tibetan and Han - for having the potential to survive. Ersu culture may still exist as folklore, but it will be near impossible to preserve it as a living worldview.

The tale of the disappearing Ersu shaman does not speak of the end of rituals, but rather of the way rituals need to remain anchored into a social and cultural reality. Every community needs to ritually reenact its origins, to proclaim its continuity and to reaffirm its solidarity so as to provide its member with a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. The disappearance of rituals raises a pressing question: in small townships as in giant cities, what ritual resources can people mobilize nowadays, so that they may live, play and celebrate together? Are we able to express and enact what it means for us to live in a community anchored into a plurality of tradition, beliefs and purposes? The rituals celebrated by minority people till today are reminders of a question that will continue to silently haunt us.

This text was adapted from the upcoming documentary by Liang Zhuan: Playing and Mourning: Rituals in Southwestern Sichuan. Watch the trailer here: 

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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