Risk Society, the Predicaments of Folk Religion and Experience of Modernity: The Guardian Spirits in the Mandi Dailue Ethnic Society of Xishuangbanna

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In Mandi village, located in Xishuangbanna, China, as in other Dai communities, people believe that guardian spirits protect their houses, villages and regions (moeng). Aihampxiang, Mandi village's earliest male settler, is the most important village spirit (dubula ban). He is remembered for helping people and ancestors settle down. Being highly respected by the village people, he was given the honorary title of Suwannandiham. Mandi's regional guardian spirit (dubula moeng) is a goddess by the name of Nangpenghiu and people believe that she possesses the same power as other guardian spirits and gods; she was thus given the honorary title of Nanggangteladishuai.

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, all religious cults were forbidden, but at the beginning of the 1980s, Mandi villagers were again allowed to worship the guardian spirits and they built a shrine for their dubula ban and placed it in a hay-thatched hut. They have been practising their cults every year since then, and when village people became more affluent, it was decided that a better shrine should be built for their dubula ban. (1) As such, every family contributed money to purchase building materials like cement, ceramic tiles and bricks. By early 2002, when the author first visited Mandi, the construction of the new ceramic shrine was already completed.

Originally, the shrines for the village guardian spirit, Aihampxiang, and the moeng guardian spirit, Nangpenghiu, were housed in separate locations. The design of this second shrine incorporated a shrine for both dubula ban and dubula moeng. The new shrine looks like two adjoining Dai-style bamboo houses with separate roofs, one for each of the two guardian deities. However, when the author revisited Mandi in 2006, she learnt that the shrine with two separate roofs had been demolished in 2005, and then rebuilt later in the same year. (2) This third shrine, similar to the previous shrine, is inlaid with porcelain tiles but the design featuring two separate roofs is now gone--as is Nangpenghiu, who was moved back to the original abode in the sacred forest. What had occurred in Mandi? Why was the shrine torn down and rebuilt to house only the village spirit? Why did the goddess Nangpenghiu need to move back to the sacred forest?

It is not easy to find an answer to these questions. Investigating the reason why the Dailue people in Mandi pulled down the second shrine and then rebuilt it requires the analysis of the metaphorical and symbolic systems in a larger context of modernity and ethnic minorities in China. Global processes have led to unique development processes in China, and the encounter between Chinese ethnic minorities and modernity is characterised by many unique features. Giddens writes that: "Modernity refers to modes of social life or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence". (3) He further argues that we should see "capitalism and industrialism as two distinct 'organisational clusters' or dimensions involved in the institutions of modernity". (4) Modernity in East Asia is also linked to industrialisation and the transition from empire to nation-state. (5) Moreover, it has been a long, drawn-out process. In the coastal areas of east China, modernity might have begun 100 years ago, during the emergence of industrial production and labour force commercialisation. However, in southwestern ethnic minority societies, modernity had made its way in some places, through caravan routes and Yunnan trade links to the global market in the earlier 20th century; (6) but, for others, the crucial change came with the political process of the 1950s when the Chinese nation-state reconstructed the local identity based on ethnic minority classification. (7) Over the last 20 years, globalisation and neo-liberal market economics have increasingly affected the ethnic minorities. …


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