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  • Religious Revival in the Tibetan Borderlands: The Premi of Southwest China
  • Gerald Roche (bio)
Koen Wellens. Religious Revival in the Tibetan Borderlands: The Premi of Southwest China. Foreword by Stevan Harrell. Studies on Ethnic Groups in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010. xx, 278 pp. Hardcover $70.00, ISBN 978-0-295-99068-2. Paperback $30.00, ISBN 978-0-295-99069-9. [End Page 381]

Religious Revival in the Tibetan Borderlands is primarily a descriptive work providing a historical and ethnographic introduction to the Premi of southwest China. This book is the first monographic work in a language other than Chinese to deal with the Premi.

The introduction reviews the literature on religious revival in China, especially among minorities. Wellens emphasizes that in studies of religious revival in minority—particularly Tibetan—contexts, religious revival is seen as a straightforward resumption of previous practices, whereas literature on religious revival among Han communities paints a more complex picture of revival as a process involving recreation and reinvention in addition to resumption. Given Wellens’s suggestion of the usefulness of literature on Chinese folk religion, it is disappointing to see several important sources on religious change and revival in Chinese societies missing (e.g., Guo 2005; Hymes 2002; Brown 2004; Tan 2006). In addition to the literature review, the first chapter details the research underlying the work, focusing on the unique challenges of doing fieldwork in China, which includes interference from local government officials and bureaucracy, and the impossibility of conducting classical Malinowskian fieldwork. A useful reference at this point would have been Heimer and Thogersen’s (2006) edited volume that deals explicitly with these issues. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the ethical issues involved with the research.

Chapter 1 introduces Muli Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan Province, the geographical context of the study. Relevant historical literature in English and Tibetan is summarized, showing how the region was incorporated into the Lhasa polity during the sixteenth century but then increasingly was incorporated into Beijing’s sphere of influence after Qing troops entered Lhasa in 1720 to intervene in a conflict with the Dzungar Mongols. Details of more recent history are also given, including a focus on the ethnic classification project that was undertaken in Muli in early liberation-era China. Use of local Tibetan sources is notable and makes accessible to a broader audience a history of which few would otherwise be aware. Reliance on these limited sources also poses a problem, however. Wellens states that these sources give an elite-focused view of local history, provide limited insights into village life, and contain “few traces suggesting the existence of local cultures within villages inhabited by Premi, Na, Shuhuin, or other ethnic groups” (p. 45). Little effort is made to construct an “autonomous history” (Scott 2010) of Muli using oral histories, folklore, and toponymy, which would have made this possible. Reliance on Tibetan religious histories gives a limited and biased view of local history. Another issue with this chapter is the lack of defining or delimiting Muli as a substantive entity beyond that of administrative unit.

Chapter 2 narrows the contextual focus to Bustling Township, a sub-county administrative unit of Muli County. The author describes the local ethnic composition, economy, and subsistence patterns and provides details on administration and education in the township. This chapter provides a refreshingly grounded and [End Page 382] detailed look at the complexities of minority life in China, in contrast to many studies of Chinese minorities that tend to generalize at the level of ethnicity (see Rack [2005] for a discussion of locality-versus ethnicity-based approaches in the anthropology of minority China).

Chapter 3 further restricts the focus of the research by providing a discussion of Premi kinship and family life. The first major section discusses local marriage practices and concepts of relatedness, focusing on the practice of polygamy contextualized by extensive appeal to the literature on Tibetan marriage practices. This is followed by a section on local clans and their history and a discussion of death, funerals, and Premi soul concepts in Bustling Township. The final sections of the chapter deal with the Premi household and household rituals, including...


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