From 'Technicians of the Sacred Expanded': 'The Age of Wild Ghosts' (Lolop'o [Yi], China)

Translated from Yi & Mandarin by Erik Mueggler


[I have recently added the following to the revised & expanded edition of Technicians of the Sacred, still in progress.  Its place is in a new section of the book called “Survivals & Revivals,” as an instance of old rituals of mourning & healing incorporating the threatening ghosts of those killed by political & social violence in a very real & contemporary local & national setting (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, etc.).  The work from which I’m drawing, The Age of Wild Ghosts by Erik Mueggler (University of California Press, 2001), is a still more complex & detailed report on what’s at stake here. (J.R.)]



Long ago the living could see the dead and the dead could see the living.  Living and dead both attended the market: on one side of the street the dead sold their things; on this side the living sold theirs; and the dead took the same form as the living.  At that time they used copper money, not paper.  The dead used paper to stamp out coins that looked just like the copper coins of the living, and with this money they bought things from the living.  But the living were not to be trifled with.  They put the coins in a pan of water: the real coins made of copper sank, and the paper coins made by the dead floated.  They returned the false money to the dead, and gradually the dead could no longer buy them from the living; they could buy only from other dead.  If your father died, you could go to the market he next day and see him.  But it was not permitted for living and dead to speak to each other.  The dead were punished if they spoke to the living – their officials taxed and fined them – and the living were afraid to speak to the dead.  So living and dead could only look at each other.  Then, as now, the dead sometimes harmed [literally “bit”] the living, but the living could beat the dead in return, so the dead had no power over them.  Disgusted with this situation, the dead petitioned for a bamboo sieve to be set up between them and the living.  The living could see the dead only vaguely, but the dead [being closer to the sieve’s holes] could see the living clearly.  The living did not like this, for the sieve was too thick to beat the dead through.  The living were stupid: some say they asked for a paper screen to be placed on their side of the street; they could beat the dead through the paper, but they could not see them at all.



ghosts of ridges attack

ghosts of gullies attack


    descend from the sky

    arise from the earth


pain floods her head

    her torso and her feet


of an entire family harmed

the harm centers on her bed


    of thirty of their men

    thirty of their women


of all in this house

    You beat her head with clubs

    shoot her breast with crossbows


she can’t sleep a wink

can’t sit a moment


    can’t stretch her legs

    can’t lift her hands


      her food won’t digest

      her drink won’t stay down

      her bones have no marrow


pain pierces her pupils

    invades even her pupils

pain pierces her bone marrow

      invades even her marrow 



some die bearing sons or daughters

some die with blood-dyed clothing

some die with blood-soaked groins

some die crushed by trees or stones

some die of hunger or thirst

some swell and explode

some hang and explode

some are stabbed or slashed

some trip and crush their heads

some die of loud shouts or big words

some are roasted by fire

some are swept away by floods


     tile-roofed houses burn

     thatched-roof huts burn


     at work on the road

        they step on mating snakes

     at work on the mountain

        crushed by falling trees


some have intestines ruptured by poison



go over there to Beijing

your ghost kings live there


   every day they hold meetings in Beijing


Lin Biao died in a plane crash

Jiang Qing hanged herself

   your  ghost king Lin Biao, go follow Lin Biao


     your king is over there


I shall lead you to Beijing


   go to where your ghost friends live

   go to where your ghost companions live

     if the road returns don't you return

     if the road strays don't you stray

(Lolop'o [Yi], China)


N.B.  “A prominent leader of the Cultural Revolution, Lin Biao died in a 1971 airplane crash while fleeing Beijing in the wake of a failed attempt to assassinate Chairman Mao. Jiang Qing, Mao's wife and one of the Cultural Revolution's notorious Gang of Four, was publicly tried in 1980 and sentenced to death, commuted later to life in prison. To people in this mountain community, Jiang Qing and Lin Biao were the king and queen of the violently dead. And, as the seat of their spectral government, Beijing was the ultimate geographical source of all bodily afflictions attributed to memories of past violence.” (Erik Mueggler, from “Spectral Subversions,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1999)




     Source: Erik Mueggler, The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China (University of California Press, 2001), passim.  The first song here was chanted by Luo Lizhu & the other two by Li Wenyi.


     What emerges here, within the framework of a traditional “minority” culture in China is the survival of rituals of exorcism & healing, now incorporating “wild ghosts” as the invasive spirits of those doomed both as perpetrators & as victims by the violent actions of the central Chinese state, from the Great Leap Forward (& subsequent famine) of the late 1950s, to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s & 70s, to the era of Communist-sponsored state capitalism in the present.  For this a charged & musical language – close to what we would think of as poetry – is again the primary instrument, whose singers & makers continue to function as native technicians of the sacred.  The tension here is between the local & traditional at home as against the imaginary & distant in places of power like Beijing & Shanghai, for which the “wild ghosts” of the recent dead – in the local village & in the distant state – appear as both grim reminders & reawakened voices.

     Writes Erik Mueggler elsewhere of what he calls “the geography of pain” & “the age of the wild ghosts”: “In much of rural China, memories of past violence are crucial to people's sense of their own relation to distant centers of state power. In particular, memories of death from hunger during the Great Leap famine (1958-61) and suicide during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) continue to haunt people's imagination of state and nation in ways that those of us who did not live through these devastations are only beginning to discover.  Many of the diverse, non-Han, Tibeto-Burman speaking communities scattered through the mountains of Southwest China share traditions of poetic speech, explicitly intended to deal with bodily afflictions attributed to spectral memories of the violently dead.

      “In a Lolop'o (officially Yi) minority community, where I did fieldwork from 1991-1993, poetic speech is used to drive the ghosts of those who died of hunger, suicide, or other violence out of the bodies of their descendants and into the surrounding landscape.  The ghosts are driven along a specific route through surrounding mountain villages. Their path eventually takes them down the nearby Jinsha river to the Changjiang (Yangtze). They make these rivers their steeds, riding them across the empire's breadth to the richly-imagined cities of Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Beijing. En route, they are to feast on piles of meat and barrels of drink, buy beautiful clothing in the markets, and hobnob with officials. The fragment of one chanted exorcism [above], which finds the ghosts in Beijing – their penultimate destination before they disperse into sea and sky – encapsulates [these] themes. .. 

     “(With the exception of proper names and terms for political meetings and airplane crashes, spoken in Mandarin ..., [these chants are] in a sub-dialect of the Central dialect of Yi.)”