- Religious and Ethnic Revival in a Chinese Minority: The Bai People of Southwest China by Liang Yongjia
One of the best-known works on the Dali 大理 region of Southwest China’s Yunnan Province remains Francis L.K. Hsu’s 1948 Under the Ancestors’ Shadow, which treats the residents of the pseudonymous West Town as paradigmatically Han, though today most officially belong to the Bai 白 minzu 民族 (ethnic group or “nationality”). Both before and after Hsu conducted fieldwork in West Town (now openly recognized as Xizhou 喜洲, a town on the northwest side of Er Lake 洱海), scholars visiting Dali have developed widely divergent views of Bai ethnicity vis-à-vis majority Han culture. Some argue that the Bai are essentially no different from the Han, and the minzu label preserves ethnic difference where no cultural difference survives; others argue that, while some Bai people might represent themselves as Chinese or Han under certain conditions, specific cultural differences—especially language, but also including religion—distinguish them as a separate ethnic group.1
Liang Yongjia’s Religious and Ethnic Revival in a Chinese Minority: The Bai People of Southwest China returns to Hsu’s fieldwork site, Xizhou, to revisit many of the issues that Hsu raised in the 1940s. As its title indicates, Religious and Ethnic Revival in a Chinese Minority focuses on the connections between the reform-era (1978–present) celebration of ethnic culture and revival of religious practices in Xizhou, the Dali region, and the PRC more broadly. Liang argues that the two phenomena of ethnic and religious revival are, in fact, joined in their common goal of attaining what Liang refers to as transcendence and alterity.
The introduction lays out the terms of this argument, which centers around these two concepts of transcendence and alterity. Liang does not explain what he means by transcendence, but his use of the term suggests that it refers to a utopian or idealized state. For example, he describes the Chinese state, in its imperial and communist forms, as offering a kind of universal transcendence that encompasses all religions. Liang explains his use of alterity a bit more, quoting Marshall Sahlins (who in turn was quoting Viveiros de Castro): “Since death exists, it is necessary for society to be linked with something that is outside itself – and that it be linked socially to this exterior” (p. 10). Alterity is this exteriority, or “something” outside society. Liang chooses this concept to get around more limiting terms such as “the supernatural” or “power.” He argues that establishing contact with alterity is the goal of both ethnic and religious revival.
Liang’s approach is admirable for resisting reductionist readings of religion as a political or economic epiphenomenon, or as an exercise of social power played out through a postcolonial framework of oppression and resistance. However, his own framework needs further clarification. The concept of transcendence and the relationship between transcendence and alterity are particularly unclear. Liang observes that, through the PRC’s minzu identification project, “[e]thnic identity thus gained transcendence that oriented towards the communist alterity” (p. 11). Even if we understand “communist alterity” [End Page 300] as the utopian socialist future, the concepts of “ethnic identity gaining transcendence,” “religious transcendence,” and “communist transcendence” remain obscure both on their own and in connection with alterity. Given the long histories and complex uses of the terms transcendence and alterity in Religious Studies, Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, and Literary Criticism, they need significantly more attention to underpin the book’s overall argument.
Chapter 1 introduces the backgrounds of Xizhou and Dali history, with a focus on kingship in the Nanzhao 南詔 and Dali kingdoms (the dates of which Liang gives as 652–899 and 937–1254, respectively) that ruled modern-day Yunnan Province and surrounding areas until the Mongol conquest. Liang follows Marshall Sahlins’s notion of the “stranger-king” to argue that Nanzhao and Dali rulers were outsiders who married into powerful indigenous families and then claimed kingship. Kings thus embodied alterity, and...