The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures

“Making the Dead Modern”
by Erik Mueggler
Winter 2015

This series of four public lectures describes a book project in progress, titled Songs for Dead Parents. The lectures examine the history of death ritual in a small minority community in mountainous Southwest China, where people are heir to an extraordinary range of resources for working on the dead: techniques to create material bodies for dead beings, exchanges to give substance to relations among the living and with the dead, and abundant poetic language to communicate with the dead. Work on the dead takes the form of making them material and immaterial. Corpses replace bodies; effigies replace corpses; tombstones replace texts; texts replace tombstones. Social personhood, involving relations among living and dead, is mutual entanglement through shared substance; dead persons are subjected to a long labor of disentanglement with the final goal of severing them from the shared world of matter and memory. It is through work on the dead that people envision the cosmological underpinnings of the social world and assess the social relations at the foundations of community. In this context, the long history of official interventions meant to reform death ritual has been deeply consequential, transforming both social relations and the positions of living and dead in relation to the state, as the central historical actor. 

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.

“Ethnographic and Theoretical Contexts”
Friday, January 23rd, 2015 at 3:00 p.m.
Rackham Assembly Hall, 4th Floor Rackham

This lecture introduces the community we will be exploring. Officially part of the 8 million-strong “Yi nationality” and speaking a Ngwi language in the Tibeto-Burman family of languages, people here have long occupied an ambiguous position in relation both to the Chinese-speaking majority and to the late Qing, Republican, Socialist and Post-Socialist states. Their unconventional ways of working on the dead in particular have been the target of vigorous reform campaigns in all these periods. We also introduce two theoretical propositions that will guide our exploration. The first is that to think in the conventional way of the living as real and the dead as imaginary leads to confusion and error in this context (and in many others). Like the dead, the living are alternately material and immaterial, manifest to the senses only at times and across diverse forms from bodies to texts. Living and dead are “ontologically one, formally diverse.” The second proposition is that, in this context, relations between living children and their dead parents or grandparents is the foundation for all other forms of social relation. Dead parents are strangers in most ways and must be addressed with methods designed for negotiating with unseen strangers, methods also extended to deal with living strangers. Yet relations of care and nurture between living parents and their children depend upon the success of this contractual relation with dead parents.

“Playing with Corpses”
Monday, February 16th, 2015 at 3:00 p.m.
Rackham Assembly Hall, 4th Floor Rackham

Before the Socialist era, most dead people in this community received four major funeral rituals and many minor ones. Between 1958 and the late 1970s, nearly all inherited techniques for working on the dead were abandoned, both here and throughout rural China. In the 1980s, two major funeral rites were revived, and their importance increased throughout the postsocialist period. This lecture examines the mechanics of the first of these, a night vigil after which the corpse is buried. The work of this ritual was to form a fully human body for the dead, composed of a formal image of the social relations in which the person was suspended while alive. This body comes together in order to be divided. The body and the world of the dead are split into two worlds, immaterial separated from material, one to be inhabited by the dead, the other left to the living. This work is accomplished by operations on corpses — first the corpse of the dead, then the corpses of sacrificial animals, partitioned and distributed among the participants in the person’s social world.

“Making the Dead Modern”
Friday, March 13th, 2015 at 3:00 p.m.
Rackham Assembly Hall, 4th Floor Rackham

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 semiurban 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.  

“Songs for Dead Parents”
Friday, April 17th, 2015 at 3:00 p.m.
Rackham Assembly Hall, 4th Floor Rackham

Two funeral rituals were abandoned in the 1950s and never revived. These events centered on a four to eight-hour long speech to the dead, rendered in poetic language, and conducted by a ritual specialist. The speech was divided into 48 “songs” and was reputed to tell of the origins of the world and all its beings and reveal the secrets of death and life. This lecture examines this speech, treating it as a massive construction project intended to build a world for the dead. After bringing sky, earth, and markets into being, these songs for dead parents alternate between two fates for the dead soul, connected to the 19th-century transition from cremation to burial, under pressure from the Qing state and Han immigrants. On the one hand, the soul hangs forever in the sky, swaddled together with its spouse, head to the west and feet to the stars. On the other hand, it lives forever beneath the tomb, subject to the Chinese-speaking bureaucracy of Mómi Àbɯ̀/Yan Luowang 閻羅王/Yama, king of the underworld. Ultimately, the songs are about recomposing the corpse of the dead once again so that its contractual relations with the living might be rehearsed once again and finally severed. 

The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures are a series of 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.”

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