Comme le Sel, Je Suis le Cours De L'eau: Le Chamanisme À éCriture Des Yi Du Yunnan (China)/(Like Salt, I Follow the Current: The Literate Shamanism of the Yi of Yunnan)

By Gros, Stéphane | China Perspectives, April 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Comme le Sel, Je Suis le Cours De L'eau: Le Chamanisme À éCriture Des Yi Du Yunnan (China)/(Like Salt, I Follow the Current: The Literate Shamanism of the Yi of Yunnan)


Gros, Stéphane, China Perspectives


Aurélie Nevot, Comme le sel, je suis le cours de l'eau: le chamanisme à écriture des Yi du Yunnan (China), (Like Salt, I Follow the Current: The Literate Shamanism of the Yi of Yunnan) Nanterre, Société d'ethnologie (Recherches sur la Haute Asie, 16), 2008,317 pp.

This ethnological study deals with the "Shaman religion" of the Nipa from the Yunnan Stone Forest, one of the groups comprising the vast and composite "national minority" known as the Yi - which numbers around eight million people throughout the whole of south-west China. Aurélie Névot's analysis is twofold, covering on the one hand the main features of the Nipa religion, and the fundamental role played in it by ritual writing, and on the other hand the instrumentalisation of that religion and writing by the government agencies. In her clear descriptive exposition she distinguishes the Nipa midje, or earth cult, as it is practiced at the village level and on which the self-reproduction of local society depends, from the official federal midje cult, set up by the authorities, on which the cohesive political construction of an overall Yi entity depends, under the control of the State. The writer analyses how the transition from the one (midje) to the other (mizhi) leads to an overturning of the bases of Nipa society and to a distorting redirection of its political-religious institutions. Fier book gives us a remarkable study of the Nipa religious practices and their place in the contemporary Chinese world.

In her introduction Aurélie Névot outlines the issues at stake in her anthropological research, which covers a case study of "the cult of unification" and its mechanisms in China, as well as reflections on the category of "writing shamanism" and the political uses of religious matters. In clear and concise language, the introduction gives even the non-professional reader the intellectual keys required to comprehend the five sections which make up the main body of the work.

In the first part, she retraces the origins of the Nipa through myths, memoirs, and historical sources, followed by a study of the village microcosm, the organisation of society into "moieties" and the logic of its marriage and territorial structures. The shamans - the bimo or "masters of psalmody" - are at the heart of this social edifice, and the author gives us a fine analysis of the role of writing and utterance in their ritual practices, as well as their transmission of knowledge through "shaman lines of descent", in order to emphasise their key function in the organisation of Nipa political and religious life.

The second part takes us right into the territory of the ethnologist, in order to truly discover the village of Lava, and the underlying operations of its ancient organisation based on the responsibilities of territorial chieftains and shamans. The political changes and the governmental reorganisations over the recent decades have had their effects on this organisation. The author analyses what she identifies as an intention on the part of the Chinese State to unify the Yi, especially through devising a uniform Yi writing - which amounts to a sort of "secularisation" of the ritual writing - and to establish an official cult (mizhi) whose ultimate aim would appear to be to bend the local political-religious systems towards a more "federated" structure for the Yi as a whole, in order to govern them more effectively.

The last three sections take the reader deep into the ethnography of a village ritual, the "communal sacrifice to the land" (midje), the local counterpart of the official unifying cult and its underlying source. The description of this seven day ritual entails an account of the ni conceptions of the universe and the ritual techniques - particularly the sacrificial ones - which allow its proper continuation. She considers closely the relationships with the ancestors and the sacred conjugations which give birth to the vital energy; and then she analyses the spatial referent in the ritual, which articulates the link between autochthonous origins and the social inscription in a shared territory. …

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Comme le Sel, Je Suis le Cours De L'eau: Le Chamanisme À éCriture Des Yi Du Yunnan (China)/(Like Salt, I Follow the Current: The Literate Shamanism of the Yi of Yunnan)
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