Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

A Bold but Perilous Project: Cataloguing Socio-Cultural Diversity in Southeast Asia's Northern Mountains

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

A Bold but Perilous Project: Cataloguing Socio-Cultural Diversity in Southeast Asia's Northern Mountains

Article excerpt

It is a brave person who would seek to construct a dictionary, of fewer than four hundred pages, that documents the vast numbers and huge complexity of the societies and cultures of the mountainous regions of northern mainland Southeast Asia (stretching also into southwest China). But this is precisely what the French-Canadian social anthropologist Jean Michaud attempts in the work under review. As the author remarks (p. 2), "to summarize competently the [region's] staggering cultural diversity ... is a daunting task." Indeed--and, in this reviewer's mind, one that is impossible for a single person to accomplish.

It is one matter for a scholar to produce a competent introductory essay surveying the entire region, a goal Michaud achieves with finesse in the first twenty-five pages of the dictionary's main text. It is quite another to generate four hundred dictionary entries that seek to cover, in a comprehensive and accurate manner, so great a number of topics, on all of which no author can possibly hope to command the necessary empirical and linguistic skills.

We must certainly admire Michaud for his efforts--and for the undoubtedly useful (if not always entirely accurate) volume that they have generated. But this writer would have preferred a multi-authored work, a more comprehensive and updated successor to the relevant entries in the Human Relations Area Files volumes: (a) Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia, (b) Encyclopedia of World Cultures, volume 5: East and Southeast Asia, and (c) volume 6: Russia and Eurasia/China. (1)

Michaud's introductory essay, on the other hand, is a masterly synopsis of socio-cultural life in the uplands (despite the disappointing lack of supportive references), which will surely provide a valuable resource for teachers ever searching for course readings to replace the dated and/or far from comprehensive surveys that appear in the more general textbooks on the region (e.g., Burling [1965], Kunstadter [1967], and Keyes [1977]). (2) But at eighty-five dollars a throw, whether Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif will ever reach the "general public," as Michaud hopes (p. 1), must be open to some doubt.

At the risk of souring the positive evaluation just expressed of this essay, it has to be noted that Michaud's generally excellent introduction is not without blemish. Surely it is a typographical error (p. 9) that substitutes Dai for Bai as the people of the area around Lake Erhai in Yunnan (self-corrected in the entry "Bai" on p. 40). More serious are such over-generalized statements as "the large highland population in southwest China is inversely proportional to the ethnological detail available to distinguish peoples there from one another" (p. 5). Anyone familiar with the vast Chinese-language literature on southwestern Yunnan will know that this is patently untrue. (3) Again, at least so far as Tibeto-Burman speakers in the far south of southwestern Yunnan are concerned, it is certainly not the case that they are "aboriginal to that region" (p. 7). Probably only the Austroasiatic Waic-speaking peoples could justify such a claim. (4) It is also over-simplistic to categorize the highlanders' indigenous belief systems as unconditionally "animistic" (p. 9), when notions of deities--including creator-gods--abound and which, pace Michaud, are not necessarily attributable to outside imposition (p. 12). (5) We shall address this issue again, later in the review.

It is hardly good anthropology, moreover, to suggest (p. 12) any necessary conflation of the terms "spirit-doctor" (one who propitiates or exorcises spirits on behalf of a sick or troubled client) either with "priest" (one who mediates between a congregation and some supernatural entity in which it believes), or with "shaman" (one who is able to cause his spiritual essence, or "soul," to leave its physical anchor so as to communicate with spirit helpers, do battle with demons, and often retrieve and restore a sick client's wandering or captured "soul" so alleviating the latter's physical or mental sickness). …

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