Ritualized poetic language flourished in this community, as in many parts of Southwest China, particularly as a mode of communicating with the dead. Lament was a prominent feature of the revived funeral rituals. This lecture compares texts of laments from two periods: the early 1990s, after ritual revitalization had gotten thoroughly underway, and 2011, after people in the community had come into more intimate contact with the modernity-obsessed cultures of urban and semi-urban China. Laments fashion grief in a public setting by conceptualizing the dead and their relations with the living in vivid poetic language. Laments from the early 1990s described these relations as a circuit of suffering, in which children used funerals to return a debt of suffering they owed their parents. By 2011, innovative lamenters had reoriented their understanding of suffering to be personal, internal, and intimate. The dead became more “modern,” allowing the living, defined largely by their relations with the dead, to participate in “modernized” forms of authentic, sincere emotional expression.
Erik Mueggler is a cultural anthropologist who works in China with minority peoples of the Yi and Naxi nationalities. Mueggler’s work is on local histories of socialism and reform, histories of natural history, practices of death and dying, and endangered language documentation. His books include The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence and Place in Southwest China (University of California Press 2001) and The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (University of California Press 2011). Mueggler is Professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures are a series of public lectures on a work in progress, designed as a special course for advanced students to work closely with a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology on a topic in which the instructor has an intensive current interest. As the description written by Professor Roy “Skip” Rappaport in 1976 states, “…it offers the opportunity for other students and faculty to hear a colleague in an extended discussion of their own work.”