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Figurations chamaniques. Écritures, dessins et broderies de Haute Asie

Manifesting the invisible. Writing, piercing, shaping, and taming potency in Southwest China

Rendre l’invisible manifeste. Écrire, percer, façonner et apprivoiser la puissance dans le sud-ouest de la Chine
Katherine Swancutt


La puissance est une forme souvent invisible de pouvoir qui devient manifeste lorsqu’elle s’inscrit profondément dans les corps et les choses. Chez les Nuosu, un groupe tibéto-birman du sud-ouest de la Chine, « écriture » ou « manifestation » (bbur ꁱ) est un concept polysémique qui, s’il trouve ses origines dans les écritures des prêtres, en dépasse largement les frontières. Les Nuosu manifestent la puissance de toute chose en l’écrivant non seulement dans les écritures religieuses mais également dans les effigies faites à la main, en la perçant dans les vêtements brodés et les corps tatoués, en la façonnant en statues publiques et en l’apprivoisant dans les animaux, ce qui permet de donner vie aux pouvoirs et aux présences animés.

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1“Manifesting” and “writing” are typically considered to be two different modes of action. Whereas writing tends to conjure up images of script, text, and other visual effects, manifesting evokes a sense of bringing something hidden into focus. But extraordinary forms of writing – from sacred texts to tattoos – do more than convey sounds, thoughts, ideas, knowledge, res sacra, and the like. They manifest invisible powers and presences that are not merely written onto surfaces, but deeply written into the bodies of people, animals, other beings, and even things. If, as Stephan Feuchtwang (2011, p. 73) observes, “visualization is a bringing to life”, then extraordinary forms of writing may reveal the invisible while giving it substance, animacy, and potency beyond the immediate moment. Just how extraordinary forms of writing accomplish this, though, depends on how they are produced.

  • 1 Pseudonyms have been used throughout the article. Nuosu terms appear without a prefix, while Chines (...)

2Bringing the invisible to life in the ethnically plural landscape of Southwest China is a complex act that, among ordinary people and scholars, is often traced to some form of writing (Vermander 1999; Harrell & Li Yongxiang 2003; Gros 2007; Swancutt 2012a; Harrell & Li Xingxing 2013; Kraef 2014; Mueggler 2014; Névot 2019). This is certainly the case among the Nuosu, a Tibeto-Burman group also known by their Chinese ethnonym of Yi, who reside across the Liangshan (Cool Mountain) highlands and uplands of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces. Nuosu writing is historically bound up with the vocation of “priests” (bimox ꀘꂾ), who, as the (always male) literary masters of a predominantly oral language, learn to read, write, recite, chant, and declaim scriptures composed of glyphs that are passed down through priestly teaching lineages1. The ancient glyphs favoured by priests take far more complex and diverse forms than the simplified version of Nuosu script that was derived from them in 1974, officially standardized within China in 1980, and made intelligible to only a small minority of often self-taught people. Literacy and the vocational standing of Nuosu priests commonly sets them apart from the many non-text-reading “male shamans” (sunyit ꌠꑊ) and “female shamans” (mopnyit ꃀꑊ) in wider society (Harrell 2001, p. 12; Bamo Qubumo 2001, p. 454; Kraef 2014, pp. 146-147). Priests are further distinguished from those people who lack a priestly genealogy but nevertheless train as their apprentices, becoming “impure” or “mixed priests” (ssutbi ꌼꀘ), who, as Bamo Ayi observes, “can perform only certain ceremonies […and] do not play an important role in transmitting the bimo [priest’s] status” (2001, p. 122). Yet while Nuosu priests hold the exclusive privilege of writing invisible powers and presences into their scriptures, they do not have a complete monopoly on manifesting animacy and potency in the wider world. Shamans, women, ordinary people, and even spirits have their own ways of manifesting the invisible in bodies and things. It should, then, come as no surprise that Nuosu often casually interchange their terms for priest and shaman in the flow of everyday speech, and only clarify that the two kinds of specialists should not be conflated when explicitly pressed on this point.

3Folded into the Nuosu term for “writing” – bbur () – is a whole semantic field that encompasses “pictures”, “images”, “models”, “model clay images”, and even the “taming” or “training” of certain animals. Bbur is a vernacular term used by priests, shamans, and ordinary people, usually in reference to writing, scriptures, effigies, and other things that are vital ingredients in the ritual space. It acquires a more elastic range of meanings, which includes the products of “writing”, “written language”, “script”, “glyphs”, “characters”, “decorative patterns”, “drawn or painted figures”, “knowledge”, or “education” when followed by a common classificatory term (bburma ꁱꂷ), while it means “statue” when followed by a term that often evokes an animate sense of being (bbursse ꁱꌺ), and it denotes “culture” when used twice in succession (bburbbur ꁱꁱ). As a polyvalent word, bbur suggests the qualities of animacy and potency that are written not only into material things, but also into people with specialist skills, trained animals, and spirit helpers – each of which may manifest salient features of the world that tend to be invisible.

  • 2 I would like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for this observation and for encouraging me to (...)

4What I call “manifesting the invisible” takes place through a multiplicity of crafts that write, pierce, shape, and tame potency, all through the actions of bbur. Each of these crafts may operate as a mode of “writing” among Nuosu, but not necessarily in the simple sense of making inscriptions. There are various and more complex nuances to bbur that go beyond texts and material-semiotic practices, allowing it to operate on a more expansive level by creating openings in the world through which animacy and potency are manifest. The English term “manifest” has at its root the polyvalent Latin term, manus, which can mean “hand”, “handwriting”, “strength”, or “power”2. Manifesting something captures the sense of bringing it into being – or to life – often with one’s own hands. So, while bbur may refer to any mundane act of writing onto surfaces, it frequently evokes the sense of manifesting, or deeply writing into things, people, other beings, everyday activities, or even ritual events. Nuosu writing may therefore penetrate more than bodies and things; it may permeate every aspect of life, from lines of descent to patterns of conduct, forms of material culture, and even the dimensions of specialist training that some animals and people receive. I will have more to say on how writing reaches beyond both the priestly vocation and the ritual context, which among Nuosu chiefly takes the form of ritual exorcisms. For now, let us keep our attention on how Nuosu use extraordinary forms of writing to manifest the invisible in their everyday lives.

  • 3 The “twelve sons of snow” (vonre sse cinyix ꃰꎝꌺꊰꑋ) may also be rendered approximately into English (...)

5At the centre of Nuosu life are the lines of descent that underpin their patriclan and lineage-based society. Genealogical memory is so important to Nuosu that within the past decade especially, some lineages have commissioned local scholars to write the names of their male members from multiple generations – and to add their photos where available – into large and heavy books modelled on Chinese “family trees” (Ch. jiapu 家谱) that may be rendered in Nuosu (which many cannot read), Chinese (the language taught in schools and readable to most), or a combination of both languages (Lu Zhifa 2014; Shamat Latbut 2014). These volumes are designed to remember, manifest, and perpetuate lines of descent into the future. Notably, Nuosu lines of descent are not limited to patrilines alone; they are also popularly recounted in oral histories that extend back to myth-historical times when the sky god, Ngetit Guxnzy, transformed humans, animals, and plants from snowfall into the “twelve sons of snow” (vonre sse cinyix ꃰꎝꌺꊰꑋ) from which all living beings are descended (Bender 2008, pp. 16-18; Bender et al. 2019, pp. lxx-lxxi)3. Similarly, patterns of conduct are manifest in the relationships that Nuosu hold to a variety of beings, including legendary heroes, animal friends, land or mountain spirits, spirit helpers, guardian spirits, spirits of illnesses, people from different ethnic groups, the ghosts of humans, animals, plants, and more. One important pattern of conduct, for example, is the work of women in maintaining the fire in the household hearth, which ideally should never go out because it is the cosmic centre of the home. Nuosu furthermore manifest the invisible in a variety of other material forms, such as lacquerware cups, bowls, and boxes, silver jewellery and decorative items, ancient lamellar armour made from plates of leather or hide, and other works of art that often bear motifs of cosmic importance within them (Bbaqit Zopha & Jjivot Jietjie 1992; Harrell et al. 2000; Harrell 2009; Harrell & Bamo Qubumo 2010). Conversely, Nuosu people and animals that receive specialist training become equipped to manifest their most potent skills and abilities.

6To show that Nuosu routinely bring invisible powers and presences to life, I build my discussion here upon their conceptualisation of bbur. My proposal is that Nuosu ways of manifesting the invisible frequently exceed the bounds of priestly scriptures and ritual practice. I illustrate this through a series of ethnographic vignettes that I have gathered since 2007, chiefly in the Ninglang Yi Autonomous County of Yunnan Province, China, hereafter referred to in Nuosu as Niplat. Some of the ethnography that I present in this article was gathered through conversations with Nuosu anthropologists in Yunnan’s capital of Kunming. Most of my findings, though, are based on fieldwork that I conducted in country villages of Niplat or in the Niplat county town, where I spent a good amount of time in the company of Nuosu ethnohistorians and priests who produced scholarly works and translations for Niplat’s local ethnological institution. Tensions within translation teams are common, particularly since the priests who may join them acquire such busy schedules that they often must decline invitations to hold rituals. Translation work also tends to erode the reputations of priests as religious practitioners while simultaneously – and ironically – highlighting the potency of their writing among scholars and ordinary people alike (Swancutt 2012a and 2012b). Starting, then, with the curvilinear strokes that are used to create Nuosu glyphs, I consider how animate powers and presences are written into a variety of mediums, from priests’ scrolls and implements to roof tiles. This leads me to a discussion of the animacy and potency that Nuosu women may unleash when piercing fabric during sewing, embroidery, and needlework or when piercing the skin of their hands, wrists, and forearms as they once commonly did when tattooing themselves. Both the act of piercing and the ink associated with tattooing may bring potency to a variety of Nuosu ritual contexts. From piercing, I turn to how Nuosu priests and their assistants shape ritual effigies into form by twisting plants into grass ghosts and shaping wood into ghost boards. Related to this is my discussion of how Nuosu may shape clay into the forms of effigies and statues. Like effigies, some public statues manifest invisible powers and presences, as I show for the statue of the legendary culture hero, Zhyge Alu, in Niplat. Finally, I reflect upon the training of certain animals, which – like the priest’s or shaman’s own training – is sanctioned by specific spirits. Throughout the article, then, I show that the invisible is manifest not only in the priestly vocation, but in every corner of Nuosu life.

Writing lines: ink, blood, soot, and charcoal

7It was the priest I call Fijy who made the concerted effort to teach me the rudiments of Nuosu writing. My studies under Fijy’s guidance unfolded from summer to winter 2007, when he was employed at the local ethnological institute in Niplat but living in his home village located several hours drive outside of the county town. Fijy was my fieldwork host at the time and gave me the strict instruction during our routine lessons to always write large, clear, and precise script that is aesthetically pleasing and free from any obfuscating irregularities. Using curvilinear strokes, Fijy showed me how Nuosu write their logographic script sideways and then rotate the text ninety degrees clockwise to read it vertically, reminding me that they are the only members of the Yi nationality to write in this way (Bradley 2001, pp. 206-207). Each glyph in Nuosu carries a unit of meaning unto itself, which Fijy usually had me write into sheets of notebook paper in its standard simplified form. He explained that the glyphs used by Nuosu and the wider Yi nationality originated with the priest’s craft (see Mueggler, this issue, on the use of ancient Né script for ritual purposes). Echoing his colleagues, Fijy also claimed that the priestly vocation has been the raison d’être for the continuity of Nuosu writing across the generations, during which time approximately eight to ten traditional scripted forms, or glyphs, came into circulation for each word. Some of these traditional glyphs were meant to carry meanings only recognisable to members of the writer’s own patriclan and lineage (Karlach 2021, p. 171, see also pp. 166-167). These clan and lineage-specific meanings were furthermore protected by their mode of transmission since Nuosu priests tend to use the ancient glyphs favoured by their mentors, who in the first instance are often their fathers or uncles, and later come to include other members of the patriclan and lineage. Every priest, then, learns to interpret, animate, and manifest potency according to his own priestly line of training.

  • 4 Névot discusses in detail how this colophon is produced among Yi-Sani of Shilin County in southern (...)

8Typically, Nuosu priests need to produce glyphs by hand in order to imbue them with what Stanley Tambiah (1968) calls the “magical power of words”. When they copy old scriptures as a way of preserving or expanding their repertoire, which Fijy often did using a black ink pen and an executive notebook, they write into their personal copies the powers and presence of their own “priestly spirit helpers” (bimox wasa ꀘꂾꊂꌒ) and of the priestly lineages that gave rise to the source texts. As the final step in their work, they may add the name of the priest whose scripture was copied, followed by their own name, to the last page or back cover of the fresh copy4. This practice is meant to ensure that other priests can trace any given work firstly to its owner, then to the person from whom the text was sourced, and finally to the priestly lineage from which the scripture originated. It also means that priests frequently harness the “metonymic technique” of reciting texts that manifest the powers and presence of their entire teaching lineage (Tambiah 1968, p. 190). By contrast, reproducing scriptures electronically in typeface – whether on a computer or any other electronic device – does not tend to equip priests with this full metonymic power (this may be because modern printing no longer involves even the manual work of setting type into print). To give a sense of this, Fijy once proudly showed me his copy of a book published by the Niplat ethnological institute, which featured translations that he and his colleagues had made of scriptures taken from his father’s private collection. Calling my attention to the back cover flap of the volume, he showed me a small colour “photograph” (bburxyyr ꁰꒌ), which in Nuosu can alternately mean “shadow” or “reflection” and contains a term closely related to bbur. The image was of Fijy himself, dressed in full priestly regalia. Despite the close associations that Fijy drew between this book, his father, his spirit helpers, and his own priestly teaching lineage, he confirmed that neither the scriptures reproduced within the book in typeface, next to their Chinese translations, nor his own photograph manifest any spirit helpers, animacy, or potency.

  • 5 In contrast, among the Yi-Sani masters of psalmody, writing is “read directly from a script. Animat (...)

9Priests, then, often feel that they must handwrite spirit helpers into their scriptures. They may also ritually instruct spirit helpers to enter their other handmade priestly implements, such as their felt hats (hlepvop ꆪꃱ), fans (qike ꏾꈌ), spirit quivers (vyxtu ꃻꄲ), brass bells (biju ꀘꏲ), and plaited hemp bags (hxiepkuo ꉍꈄ) for storing scriptures and ritual items. This way of writing into – or filling – scriptures and implements with spirit helpers ensures that priests can draw upon their powers, presence, and potency during rituals as needed. One key part of a Nuosu priest’s work, then, is to control the spirit helpers that are manifest in his scriptures and implements, as well as the spirit helpers that he summons from various locations in the living environments of his clients, the nearby mountains, and the heavens to assist him in a ritual. When spirit helpers arrive, they position themselves at the back of the priest, just as they do for Nuosu shamans, where they offer their support. The Nuosu term for “spirit helper” (wasa ꊂꌒ) literally means a spirit at the back of, or behind, a person (Swancutt 2022, p. 123). Both novice and experienced priests tend to memorise their scriptures and often “shift between text and no-text, between memorization and extemporization” in ritual settings (Bamo Qubumo 2001, p. 464)5. Sometimes, though, priests arrange their scriptures during rituals as though they were reading directly off their pages (see fig. 1). Handling the scriptures in this way facilitates the priest’s efforts at drawing upon the spirit helpers that are manifest within them.

Figure 1. Priest chanting scriptures written into a scroll while holding an exorcism, 2011

Figure 1. Priest chanting scriptures written into a scroll while holding an exorcism, 2011

© Katherine Swancutt

10Revealingly, when priests lose control of spirit helpers, they may become inadvertently manifest in the wrong spaces. This happened to Fijy in 2009, when he was tasked with driving numerous scriptures together with copies of the Niplat ethnological institute’s newest publications in its company van from Kunming to Niplat. The plan was that Fijy and his colleagues would later translate the newly acquired scriptures into Chinese for their future publications about what, since the 1980s, has been glossed as the “bimo culture” (Ch. bimo wenhua 毕摩文化) of Nuosu priests (Kraef 2014). Although Fijy was an experienced driver and had done this work for some time without problems, on that day he got into a serious accident. Many country roads in Yunnan are narrow, steep, winding, and hug close to the cliffsides, and on the day of the accident it was raining heavily. Knowing this, Fijy kept a careful lookout on the road but, to his surprise, partway through the long and rainy journey he suddenly saw a black cloud appear in front of him, which made him collide with and badly injure a bicyclist. For a long time after, he did not drive.

11Unable to account for the accident in any other way, Fijy attributed it to the fact that there were too many scriptures in the back of the institute’s van. He had seen no one approaching him during the moments leading up to the accident, when the road had appeared entirely clear and empty. However, the van was overcrowded with scriptures that did not belong to Fijy and had been written into scrolls generations ago for many different ritual, divinatory, and astrological purposes. Fijy’s explanation, then, was that the scriptures, or rather the ancient and powerful spirit helpers written into them, found themselves at cross-purposes and started fighting each other. Making unexpected chaos among themselves in the back of the van, they overwhelmed Fijy by manifesting a “vision” (sumujjip ꌠꃅꐛ) of a black cloud in front of his eyes, which prevented him from seeing anything else in his path.

12Several of Fijy’s colleagues offered me a brief coda to his story, which underscores the powers and presence of spirit helpers that are written into scriptures. They explained that in ancient times, priests wrote their scriptures in blood, which they collected in small amounts from themselves, or more preferably, from a child (ideally that of a young girl) whose blood was especially pure and potent because the child had not yet had sexual relations – a theme that echoes the emphasis Nuosu place upon the purity of blood relations not only among priests, but among members of their clans and lineages more generally (Bamo Qubumo 2001, pp. 470-471). Some of this human blood may have been mixed with the blood of animals such as oxen, sheep, or dogs. Since most scriptures are copies of older texts, and many ancient texts were seized and destroyed during the Democratic Reforms (Ch. minzhu gaige 民主改革) of 1956-57 that dismantled the Nuosu practice of keeping slaves and incorporated ethnic minorities across the southwest into the People’s Republic of China, the surviving copies written in blood are now rare. Scriptures written in different mediums therefore fit within a hierarchy of types among Nuosu, with those written in blood often containing the most potent, ancient, and dangerous spirit helpers, those written in ink having more commonplace spirit helpers, and reproductions in typeface lacking spirit helpers altogether, although they still tend to be handled with a modicum of respect and care.

13The potency that Nuosu associate with writing in blood resonates with how writing is conceptualised among the Yi-Sani, another Tibeto-Burman group of China’s Yi nationality. Yi-Sani denote “writing and blood” by the same term, “se”, and consider it to be a kind of “writing-blood” (Névot 2019, p. x, see also pp. 5-6, 13). But while both Nuosu and Yi-Sani have been influenced by the officially standardised versions of the “Yi script” promoted in their regions, Nuosu have retained greater autonomy over their writing. Many Nuosu, including my research partners in Niplat, benefit from the fact that the officially standardised Yi syllabary across Liangshan is Nuosu-derived and follows the widely used Shypnra dialect (Bradley 2001, p. 207). Nuosu priests are also free to learn, read, write, and give voice to the ancient glyphs from which the officially standardised syllabary was produced. These ancient glyphs underpin the teaching lineages of Nuosu priests and are routinely handed down to them by their mentors. In contrast, the Yi-Sani who reside in the Stone Forest County of southern Yunnan have had to dramatically homogenize their writing since the 1980s, after adopting the official Yi script for their region, which was “based on a character-by-character compromise between Eastern, Southern, Southeastern, and Northern [Nuosu] Yi characters” (Bradley 2001, p. 208). This was no doubt a very complex and involved process. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s the Stone Forest County’s Bureau of Religious Affairs decided to produce a new standardised script drawn from the different lineages of Yi-Sani bimo, or “masters of psalmody” (Névot 2019, p. 5). Although this new script was designed to facilitate the official transmission of Yi-Sani bimo teachings, it led to a conceptual drift away from their traditional notion of writing-blood and “the connections between men belonging to the same ritual lineage” (Névot 2019, p. 5). By the 2010s, the new script was being taught at Yi-Sani schools and its computerisation was underway (Névot 2019, pp. 200-223). As a result, Yi-Sani texts and rituals are now heavily controlled by “the state that also imposes the use of a unified bimo writing” (Névot 2019, p. 7) – even to the extent of photocopying Yi-Sani scriptures printed in the new syllabary and distributing them to practitioners as a replacement for their own manuscripts (Névot 2019, p. 20). Some Yi-Sani scholars have taken this a step further by championing the parallels they perceive between writing in their native tongue and the Chinese tendency to envision “writing” either as a kind of “xiàng , that is to say ‘image’, ‘figure’, or else ‘drawing’” or in terms of “the Chinese concept of sign (wén ) […that] alludes to ‘written tradition’ or to ‘culture’” (Névot 2019, p. 203). Arguably, Nuosu priests and scholars have managed to elide much of this reinterpretation precisely because the officially standardised syllabary in Liangshan is based on their own Shypnra dialect, in which bbur holds a similar polyvalency to “writing” in Chinese.

14Many Nuosu in fact trace the potency imbued in their scriptures back to the ancient past (and ancient script) of China’s Yi nationality. This is especially true of scholars like Fijy who have worked in ethnological institutes and been influenced by the “Yi Culture School”, which seeks “to demonstrate the length of Yi history and its importance for Chinese and even world history” (Harrell & Li Yongxiang 2003, p. 366). It is not uncommon to find scholars and some ordinary people in Niplat who, following the Yi Culture School, consider the Nuosu (Yi) to be somehow descended from the Bronze Age Sanxingdui Culture of 1700-1150 BCE, which coincided with China’s Ancient Kingdom of Shu (Ch. Gu Shuguo 古蜀国) that flourished on the Chengdu plains of Sichuan (Harrell & Li Yongxiang 2003, p. 384). According to my Nuosu research partners who are both ethnohistorians and adherents of the Yi Culture School, it is even possible to uncover the depths of time across which Nuosu have manifested their presence in China and all the world by pairing archaeological findings with their own research, which, they suggest, lays bare important insights into Nuosu myth-history, cultural memories, scriptures, religion, and everyday life.

15Scholars who seek to write the Yi Culture School’s findings into Nuosu social life often produce revisionist histories that present Nuosu achievements as being potent and formative to the world’s great discoveries and major developments. Similarly, priests who write scriptures or draw spirit helpers, culture heroes like Zhyge Alu, legendary animal friends, animate beings like the sun and moon, and other figures from Nuosu myth-history into ritual effigies seek to make them potent and pivotal to the lives of their clients. Within the context of a ritual exorcism, Nuosu priests may dip a twig into the blood of a sacrificial animal as well as the soot scraped from the bottom of cooking pots that are blackened by the smoke of burning wood (usually pine) in the household hearth. Using the twig as a pen, priests may write glyphs and draw the heroes, spirits, animal friends, animate beings, and other myth-historical figures that they summon to assist them into wooden “ghost board” effigies, which help them to command ghosts and unwanted spirits to leave the client’s home (Bamo Qubumo 2001, p. 460; Swancutt 2015, pp. 134-135). Alternatively, they may draw the ghosts that they seek to exorcise into ghost boards, making them into attractive effigies that resemble the troublesome ghosts themselves. Both priests and shamans occasionally also use pieces of charcoal taken from the household hearth to write the cardinal directions into ghost boards – or into Chinese-style clay roof tiles used in lieu of ghost boards – to show ghosts the routes they should follow when exorcised from the home (see fig. 2).

Figure 2. A shaman’s charcoal drawings of the cardinal directions that ghosts should follow when exorcised from the home, written into clay roof tiles, 2011

Figure 2. A shaman’s charcoal drawings of the cardinal directions that ghosts should follow when exorcised from the home, written into clay roof tiles, 2011

© Katherine Swancutt

16Writing the cardinal directions into ghost boards and roof tiles is a popular method for combatting the “ghosts of slaves from other ethnic groups” (shuobbot ꎰꁥ). Most of these ghosts are considered to be Han (the ethnic majority of China) and unable to understand Nuosu language, but receptive to Daoist principles of geomancy like those evoked in “Eight Trigrams” (Ch. bagua 八卦) divination. Until the Democratic Reforms in the late 1950s, any Nuosu person could keep slaves. The general Nuosu term for “slaves” (gaxy ꇤꑭ) is a common shorthand for an idiom that literally means “the hands and feet beside the fire pit” (gaxy galot ꇤꑭꇤꇇ); these terms evoke the typically young and unmarried ethnic outsiders whose work as “household slaves” centred around the household hearth. Before the Democratic Reforms, any Nuosu person could also keep “itinerant field-hands”, who traced their descent to a Nuosu lineage that had fallen into poverty or to “serfs” who had been captured from other ethnic groups, both of whom were referred to by the same idiomatic term that means “someone who lives just outside of the doorway to the house and can easily enter it” (mgapjie ꈵꏦ). Neither slaves, serfs, nor itinerant field-hands tended to have a full and proper connection to a Nuosu patriclan or lineage (Hill 2001; Hill & Diehl 2001). But while itinerant field-hands might pay off their debts, resume their previous lives, be sent at death to their lineage’s place of origin, and join the “ancestral afterlife” (shypmu ngehxat ꏃꃅꉬꉎ), the ghosts of slaves (and serfs) from other ethnic groups often could not find their way back to their places of origin and were left to perpetually wander the Liangshan highlands and uplands. Nuosu therefore tend to show the ghosts of slaves from other ethnic groups the cardinal directions they should follow to reach their places of origin. Alternatively, some priests and shamans write a simple “X” – which many Nuosu consider to be both a universally understandable warning to leave and a kind of spontaneously erected cosmological barrier that cannot be crossed – into ghost boards to send slave ghosts away from the home.

  • 6 Many of the Nuosu scholars and some of the ordinary Nuosu people I know considered that while Chine (...)

17Now, the animate qualities and potentialities of Nuosu glyphs, drawings, the cardinal directions, and even an “X” used as a barrier in ritual settings are not lost on ordinary Nuosu, who perceive them as being more than text written into an inert background. Any Nuosu person can recognise these forms of writing as being animated with the presence and powers of spirit helpers, culture heroes, animal friends, and other potent spirit beings that assist in exorcisms. There is even a sense in which the Nuosu conceptualisation of bbur resonates with the ancient and still popular Han Chinese notion that writing is often filled with the potent spirit presences it evokes (Harper 2004; Harper & Kalinowski 2017). Bbur therefore suggests the potency that comes from writing deeply into things, whether the writing is composed of strokes traceable to priestly teaching lineages (glyphs), a signposting tactic for Chinese ghosts (the cardinal directions), or universal warnings (the barrier of an “X”)6. As I learned in 2011 from the young man I call Datlamuo, who at the time was a member of my fieldwork host family in Niplat, ordinary Nuosu sometimes harness this potency by writing an “X” into things that mysteriously appear in the home. Datlamuo recounted to me the story of when his mother had been extremely hungry but found herself alone in her country home with nothing to eat. Before heading outdoors to carry on with the farm work, she mumbled that she wished she had just an egg to sustain her. Later in the day, she was surprised to return home and find an egg waiting for her on a shelf. Unable to explain this strange occurrence, she reasoned that the ghost of a former slave in her family must have heard her plea and worked to fulfil her request. Despite her hunger and the seemingly benign behaviour of the ghost, she was wary of the egg because Nuosu often consider that ghosts eventually bring illnesses and other troubles in their wake. She therefore took a piece of charcoal from her household hearth, wrote an “X” into one side of the egg, and put it back where she had found it. Sometime later, the egg had disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived, apparently at the hands of the ghost. Here, Datlamuo’s mother had done more than mark the egg with a warning to leave, or a cosmological barrier, which would prevent the ghost that brought the egg from staying in her home. Her writing also signalled to the ghost that she had drawn upon the often invisible support of her household’s “guardian spirits of fate-fortune” (jjyplup ꐰꇑ), which typically come to the aid of Nuosu who need ritual protection. On another level, her treatment of the egg echoed the common practice among priests, shamans, and ordinary people of ritually offering eggs to ghosts when sending them away from the home (Swancutt 2015, p. 136) as well as the use of eggs by priests and shamans to divine which ghosts or spirits may be afoot in the client’s living environment (Swancutt 2021). Seen in this light, her message on the egg was a manifestation of her own power to harness the potency and presence of her guardian spirits and, if needs be, to arrange for a priest or shaman to hold a ritual exorcism. Like Datlamuo’s mother, many ordinary Nuosu set out to manifest the invisible in diverse arenas of their lives – and not only through writing, but by piercing cosmically potent patterns into fabric, their own skin, and ritual settings.

Piercing patterns: thread and tattoos

18Just as blood, ink, soot, or charcoal may be written deeply into texts, effigies, or even foods such as eggs brought home by ghosts, so Nuosu women’s sewing, needlework, cross stitch, and embroidery threads may pierce the surfaces of fabric, loop under them, and emerge on their surfaces again. Similarly, women’s tattoos are inked under the skin in a way that literally writes them into the body. Both these arts manifest the invisible in women’s lives in ways that reinforce their connections to the animist cosmos. Women’s needlework is famous across Liangshan for its lively decorative patterns, each of which carries its own meaning and becomes especially important during funerals when women wear their finery to honour the dead (see fig. 3). Many of the patterns that women pierce into fabrics evoke animate beings or entities such as the sun and moon, stars, or clouds (Harrell et al. 2000, p. 16). Certain resonances, then, may be drawn between the patterns – of clouds, for example – that women pierce into fabric and some of the motifs that priests and shamans draw into effigies. Fijy once told me that the human soul loses its corporeal form as a tiny “soul-spider” (yyr ) when a person dies (Swancutt 2012a, p. S105). When freed from the human body, the “soul” (hla ) becomes light and moves down the road to the ancestral afterlife like a cloud in the wind. Some young women in Datlamuo’s home village also explained to me at a funeral in 2011 that the needlework on their clothing may call to mind animate forces that underpin life, death, and the transmutation of the human soul. The value placed on traditional clothing at important ritual events was brought further home during the funerals I attended in Fijy’s village in 2007, and later in Datlamuo’s village in 2011, where my hosts decided that I would wear a borrowed Nuosu woman’s skirt, vest, and jacket. There were complex reasons behind this choice of clothing, including funeral etiquette, women’s tastes, and ethnic “pride” (Banfill 2020). But the key reason, only voiced by some in hushed whispers, was the need to manifest – through my outward appearance – the semblance of a Nuosu woman so that my ethnic otherness would not give the deceased pause to reconsider setting out on the road to the afterlife. Most women at these funerals, myself included, wore needlework that was machine stitched and purchased from shops. However, unlike the use of typeface in printed publications, needlework rendered mechanically is still capable of imbuing clothing, purses, and other elements of attire with some degree of animate potency – perhaps because many sewing machines in Liangshan are still operated by women who steer and guide the fabric with their hands under the machine’s needle to pierce, and thereby write, directly into it.

Figure 3. Women wearing embroidered finery at a Nuosu funeral, 2011

Figure 3. Women wearing embroidered finery at a Nuosu funeral, 2011

© Katherine Swancutt

19Tellingly, some women stitch Nuosu glyphs fully by hand into clothing, as I found when one of Fijy’s student priests asked to pose for a photograph with his wife who had meant to stitch the word for “priest” (bimox ꀘꂾ) on the front of his jacket in white thread but ended up with the homologous variant of bimop (ꀘꃀ) instead (see fig. 4). This variation in orthography was amusing to Fijy and his student alike not only because it deviated from the conventional term for priest but also because the Nuosu word mop () frequently means woman, which no priest can be but which the woman who embroidered the jacket most certainly was. Fijy’s student wore the jacket with affectionate pride in his wife’s work at manifesting the powers and presence of his spirit helpers, laughing away the inaccurate glyph which did not impede his priestly studies.

Figure 4. A priest’s student wearing a jacket hand embroidered by his wife at his side who had set out to stitch the Nuosu word for “priest” (bimox ꀘꂾ) in white thread but ended up with the homologous variant of bimop (ꀘꃀ) instead, 2007

Figure 4. A priest’s student wearing a jacket hand embroidered by his wife at his side who had set out to stitch the Nuosu word for “priest” (bimox ꀘꂾ) in white thread but ended up with the homologous variant of bimop (ꀘꃀ) instead, 2007

© Katherine Swancutt

20Needlework glyphs are occasionally machine produced for the clothing used in specific events, such as the 2015 “Fire Festival” (Dutzie ꄔꊒ) competitions in the Niplat county town, often described as the “Torch Festival” (Ch. Huobajie 火把节) in Chinese. Judges at this event wore vests that featured the script for “China’s Nuosu” (Zhoguop Nuosu ꍏꇩꆈꌠ) on the back. These vests also sported a contemporary machine embroidered design of a torch that many children (and some adults) carry during the festival as well as a traditional interlinking pattern around the collar and base. According to the Nuosu ethnohistorians I know in Niplat, this pattern alternates between a ray-like motif of the sun and a spiral-like motif of an opening flower. Since the Fire Festival takes place in summer when the sun is often high, flowers open, and bitter buckwheat (Fagopyrum tataricum) becomes ready for harvest, the interlinking pattern pierced into the judges’ vests evokes the prosperity that Nuosu often seek to manifest during this seasonal celebration. Patterns like this are often positioned adjacent to each other in ways that call to mind resonances between their various meanings. That these vests are considered suitable both for judging the public competitions of the Fire Festival and for the household-based ritual sacrifices that typically follow them in Niplat is evident from the choice that some male ethnohistorians make to wear them at home even after the competitions have ended (see fig. 5). Embroidered clothing on men’s and women’s bodies alike, then, may manifest animacy and potency in a variety of ritual contexts.

Figure 5. Judge’s vest machine embroidered with Nuosu script, the sun and opening flower motif, and the modern design of a torch, worn when making offerings to the ancestors during the Fire Festival, 2019

Figure 5. Judge’s vest machine embroidered with Nuosu script, the sun and opening flower motif, and the modern design of a torch, worn when making offerings to the ancestors during the Fire Festival, 2019

© Katherine Swancutt

  • 7 Nuosu may pat their saliva onto swellings in the neck as a palliative measure against them.

21Previously, Nuosu women took their displays of needlework a step further by piercing circular tattoos into their hands, wrists, and forearms. In Nuosu, these tattoos are called “ink” (manza ꂷꋶ), an idiomatic term composed of the glyph ma (), which in this case denotes “a typically round-shaped item”, and the glyph nza () that means “black dye” (see fig. 6). Tattoos, made with needles that pierced the skin and sank deeply into it, are still common among older generations of women. However, as was the case among other Tibeto-Burman groups, Nuosu tattooing declined rapidly after Communist authorities forbade it in the late 1950s because they considered “this practice a violation of women’s rights” (Gros 2021, p. 324). Since then, the growing popularity of Han women’s beauty ideals, which prize unmarked skin, have further discouraged Nuosu women from tattooing themselves. Nevertheless, tattooing is still part of Nuosu living memory. Older women commonly gave tattoos to girls using ink made from a combination of human saliva, soot scraped from the bottom of a cooking pot, and “artemisia” (hxixke ꉇꈌ), which is a purificatory substance commonly used in Nuosu rituals. It is likely that the indigo colour of women’s tattoos came from this admixture, which is considered to have healing properties due to the artemisia and the saliva in it7. Soot is also an important ingredient because it is a product of the hearth, which, as mentioned above, may be used by priests and shamans to write animacy and potency into ritual effigies. Like the Drung, a Tibeto-Burman group located in the northwest of Yunnan province, Nuosu consider that soot from the cooking pot draws upon the powers of “the hearth – the very center of the house, a space of cosmic ties, and a symbol of matrimonial alliance” (Gros 2019, p. 2).

Figure 6. Women’s tattoos inked into the hands, wrists, and forearms, 2015

Figure 6. Women’s tattoos inked into the hands, wrists, and forearms, 2015

© Katherine Swancutt

22However, there are dramatic differences between Nuosu and Drung methods of applying tattoos, the patterns they pierced under the skin, and the meanings they have come to attribute to them. Drung tattoo ink was made from hearth soot taken from the bottom of a cooking pot, which was steeped in water for about a week to dilute it (Gros 2017, p. 170). This ink was then added to piercings made in the skin with thin or thick bramble thorns that were held in one hand and tapped lightly into place with a small stick held in the other hand (Gros 2017, p. 170). Intricate facial tattoos were once the norm among Drung girls, who through them gained entrance to a kind of “social puberty” that enabled the reproduction of society (Gros 2017, pp. 173 and 175, 2019, p. 2, 2021, p. 327). While Drung tattoos varied somewhat from person to person, they were designed to follow the “tradition” of a look worn by the girl’s own elders (Gros 2017, p. 171, 2021, p. 326). Women’s tattoos were therefore endowed with a “metamorphic faculty (faculté métamorphique)” that reproduced the Drung social order on several levels (Gros 2017, p. 176). Stéphane Gros explains that the Drung word for “tattoo” (bāktùq) is linked etymologically to terms for women’s domestic work, fertility, prosperity, good fortune, the wealth of grain stored in the granary, cooking, the hearth support for the cooking pot (which is associated with the second level of the sky), and the cooking pot itself, from which the soot for tattoos comes (2017, pp. 180-181). Drawing upon Terence S. Turner’s ([1980] 2012) study of the “social skin”, he shows that the multiple resonant meanings written into Drung tattoos reveal that skin is “more interface than surface (davantage interface que surface)” (Gros 2017, p. 167). These resonances also show that the Drung “woman’s body should be considered part of a cosmological assemblage in which diverse forces condense in an interplay between the exterior and the interior” (Gros 2021, p. 322).

  • 8 Gros shows that Drung tattooing pierces “the multilayered and complex structure of the skin [which] (...)

23Nuosu tattoos were also pierced into the skin so that they were not simply on the skin as if limited by its cartographic condition” (Gros 2019, p. 3, see also Gros 2012 and 2017)8. But Nuosu women tattooed their hands, wrists, and forearms by holding several needles together in a bundle, which pierced the skin collectively and produced round disc-shaped tattoos to which the ink was added. Rather than evoking the nubile girl, Nuosu tattoos were typically associated with death and the afterlife since, as Benoît Vermander observes, usually the round “circles represent money used for buying water during the travel in the after-world. Thirst is the main danger one has to overcome during such travel and women, having no economic resources of their own, need to use this monetary device” (2004, p. 210). Yet the relationship between Nuosu tattoos and currency runs deeper than this because it is not only women who need money for their travels at death. Both Nuosu men and women have traditionally had silver coins put into their mouths and their hands at death so they can purchase water, food, and all manner of things both on the road to the afterlife and after having arrived there. Nowadays paper bills may be substituted for silver when placed into the deceased’s hands, but silver (or an even more precious metal) is still needed for the mouth. Parallels can be drawn here to the hemp cloth that the nearby Lòlop’ò, who share the Yi ethnonym within China, attach to the corpse at death as currency to be used on the road to the afterlife (Mueggler 1998, pp. 991-992). Similarly, “woven hemp is a ‘psychopomp’ material” among Yi-Sani, who use strips of it during funerals and rituals to call back lost souls (Névot 2019, p. 107). Tattoos among Nuosu women, then, supplement the actual wealth that all Nuosu carry on their bodies at death. What is nonetheless particularly gendered about Nuosu women’s tattoos is that they reveal the often invisible potency of the labour they undertake with their own hands, which leads to the creation of supplementary and cosmologically important wealth.

24During my 2007 fieldwork in Fijy’s home village, his wife and niece gave me a related explanation that points to the potency of women’s manual labour, which often only comes fully into focus during ritual engagements with spirits, ghosts, and the ancestral afterlife. They drew my attention to the similarities between the clusters of tattooed discs that graced the forearms of Fijy’s wife and the round, disc-shaped “bitter buckwheat cakes” (mgefu ꈾꃚ) that many Nuosu women routinely bake among the coals, embers, and ash of their household hearths. Bitter buckwheat is not only an ancient grain traditionally farmed by Nuosu women but also a dietary staple used as an offering or to create an effigy in numerous rituals, including the “post-mortuary ritual” (nipmu cobi ꆀꃅꊿꀘ) that is meant to send the deceased down the road to the ancestral afterlife for the very last time. Priests who conduct the post-mortuary ritual produce effigies of the roads that the dead should follow from peeled sticks that are made to stand upright, and they sometimes also “place a large buckwheat cake pierced with a hole within the stick pathway, signifying the passageway between this life and the realm of the ancestors” (Bender et al. 2019, p. xxxii). Although Fijy’s niece did not tie her explanation specifically to the ritual uses of buckwheat, she suggested that the tattoos would ensure Fijy’s wife would have plenty of food on route to the afterlife and when she reached it. She added that women tattoo images of bitter buckwheat cakes under their skin in ways that manifest the often invisible potency of their manual labour, which, after all, is what produces buckwheat in the first place. Yet she considered the tattoos to be unattractive and preferred the beauty aesthetics of the Han that (as she pointed out) had displaced this particular Nuosu aesthetic. I asked both women if going without tattoos could lead to poor harvests in the afterlife, but while they agreed this could be the case, Fijy’s niece laughed away my question of whether she might acquire any. Running her hands along her forearms and admiring them, she declared that she would not get tattooed, even if this meant going hungry after death.

25Connections between Nuosu women’s tattoos, death, and the afterlife reach even further than this. On an everyday level, women’s tattoos are composed of discs that may serve as “emblematic marks, signs, or symbols on a person” (satma ꌐꂷ) that show they come from a higher social rank than former slaves or serfs. According to the Nuosu anthropologist I call Tuosat, Nuosu girls tended to receive their tattoos when very young, but female slaves who were captured in their later youth or adulthood did not tend to be tattooed. Older women who now wear Nuosu clothing but lack tattoos may therefore give the impression of having originally been ethnic outsiders. Since women’s tattoos mark them as ethnically Nuosu, older women who lack tattoos today – particularly where there are ambiguities about their origins – may face the impossibility of being fully integrated and, in this sense, of manifesting the potency of “becoming Nuosu”. Tuosat also suggested that tattoos might aid in the retrieval of women’s bodies in the case of large-scale natural disasters, such as earthquakes, or even after battles with other groups where the question of ethnic identification would be key. While Nuosu women did not fight as warriors, they occasionally protested the fighting taking place, including by taking lethal opiates in the thick of a fight (Liu Shao-hua 2011, p. 155).

  • 9 This mention of distant officials and ghosts in the Nuosu ritual for sending back bad speech resona (...)

26Beyond this, the animacy and potency of the “ink” (manza ꂷꋶ) that can alternately mean women’s “tattoos” is occasionally evoked during the ritual for “sending back bad speech” (xixkebur ꑞꈌꀱ), which in Niplat is one component part of the larger ritual for “turning back the enemy” (jjijo ꐚꏮ). During this ritual, priests set out to return all the bad words, speech, or curses that may have affected their clients to all the possible people who may have spoken or written them, from the closest relatives of their clients to far-off officials residing in the capital of China. As Tuosat explained, priests first send bad speech back to their clients’ immediate family members, who have the fullest knowledge of the people with whom they share a household and are therefore best equipped to reveal their weak points and secrets, whether in speech or writing. Anyone’s bad speech may be composed of fabricated allegations, which, in the case of written documents, may even be certified by official stamps, seals, chop marks, or human fingerprints that press a ratifying mark down into them in ink. Once priests have sent all manner of bad speech back to their clients’ immediate relatives, they send it on to more distant relatives, friends, and eventually the ghosts of distant officials9. When concluding this ritual, priests call upon their spirit helpers to return “all writing in paper, and all ink pressed down in writing” (tepyy ka bbur su, manza ka bbur vut ꄯꒉꈁꁱꌠ, ꂷꋶꈁꁱꃴ) to those that produced it. The first clause of this ritual declamation refers explicitly to the documents into which bad speech has been written, while the second clause refers to the documents that contain stamps, seals, chop marks, or even fingerprints certifying the bad speech.

27Women may also help to send away bad speech, ghosts, or unwanted spirits during ritual exorcisms when using thread not for needlework but to erect temporary barriers in the form of an “X” like the one that Datlamuo’s mother wrote into the side of an egg. On the instruction of priests or shamans, women first pierce threaded needles into the doorways and corners of the home, before arranging the free ends of the thread so that they crisscross whole rooms and cordon off certain parts of the household. These lines of thread may alternately lure ghosts and unwanted spirits into the ritual purview or prevent them from escaping it, so that priests or shamans can fully expel them from the home (Jiarimuji 2022, p. 206). Similarly, women are frequently tasked with stringing a single line of white thread, which evokes a spider’s filament, across the household threshold during soul-calling rituals. They typically thread this soul-calling line through a needle that they pierce into a small box or basket to keep it in place. The person’s lost soul-spider is then urged to climb the soul-calling thread so that it can trace its way back to the basket or box inside of the home (Swancutt 2012a, pp. S112-S113, 2012b, p. 63). When the ritual concludes, the soul-calling thread is promptly wound up and placed inside the basket or box with the needle before it is shut. Later, and often on a good astrological day, Nuosu may open the basket or box to check the success of the soul-calling ritual by examining “the position of the needle [inside of it, which] determines whether the soul has returned” (Aku Wuwu et al. 2005, p. 129, note 24). Handwrought labour such as this is used not only to pierce animate powers into the world but to shape a variety of things into cosmologically potent forms within and beyond the ritual context.

Shaping forms: wood, grass, clay, and bronze

28Both priests and shamans routinely handmake effigies during exorcisms, shaping their materials into attractive “lures” or “representations” of the ghosts and unwanted spirits they seek to expel from the home (Swancutt 2015, pp. 136-137). While effigies are not meant to contain the dangerous powers and presences of ghosts, they do evoke the potency of the religious specialist, who joins forces with his or her spirit helpers and the guardian spirits of the client’s household during an exorcism. Each effigy is, then, manually shaped into a form that the priest or shaman uses like a “ritual prop”, which “conveys elusive nuances regarding the play of things in everyday life” (Kendall 2008, p. 154). Priests or shamans may, for example, carefully hew pieces of wood into the wide, flat, and pointed stakes of ghost boards that become the canvases into which they write or draw glyphs, the barrier of an “X”, cardinal directions, legendary heroes, animal friends, animate beings like the sun and moon, ghosts, or unwanted spirits. By shaping effigies into forms that manifest the potency of the spirit beings and entities that support them – or which resemble the ghosts and unwanted spirits they seek to attract into the ritual purview – priests and shamans evoke the end goal of a successful exorcism.

  • 10 According to Tuosat, clay ghosts may historically have been an “innovation” that arose when Nuosu p (...)

29Effigies take numerous forms, including human and animal ghosts, the spirits of animals or insects (such as butterflies), human ghosts riding horse ghosts, and even the jails, shelters, or roads away from the home that ghosts and unwanted spirits are meant to take. In addition to the wood used for ghost boards, effigies may be composed of grass, straw, other plants, soil, thread, peeled sticks, various materials such as pieces of cloth that are used to dress an effigy so that it resembles the ghost of a particular person, and so on. Across Niplat, priests and shamans twist and plait grasses that they freshly obtain for a ritual into the forms of grass ghosts, using what many Nuosu consider to be an aggressive motion that evokes the physical effort of ousting ghosts from the home during an exorcism. As Datlamuo explained in 2011, Nuosu sometimes pluck a blade of grass or other plant from the ground and twist it until it rips in the direction of their enemies, ghosts, or any unwanted spirits encountered outdoors. This gesture is impolite and bears within it repelling, and even curse-like, properties precisely because it imitates the priest’s or shaman’s work of creating grass ghosts. Much like writing the barrier of an “X” into the side of an egg, twisting a blade of grass wards off dangerous people, ghosts, and spirits while potentially signalling to them that one has the support of guardian spirits and, if needs be, can arrange for a priest or shaman to hold an exorcism. There is, moreover, another kind of effigy that is not – at least yet – part of the repertoire in Niplat but is common across northeastern Liangshan: clay ghosts10. Shaping a clay ghost by hand manifests the priest’s or shaman’s intent to achieve a successful exorcism, just like hewing a ghost board or twisting a grass ghost does. Notably, when Nuosu seek to condense the multiple activities of a ritual exorcism into a single potent form, they tend to create a compound effigy composed of curvilinear lines (such as glyphs written into a ghost board), patterns (such as drawings of ghosts), and forms (such as grass ghosts bound to the top of a ghost board; see fig. 7).

Figure 7. Ghost board effigy with grass ghosts bound to the top of it. The figures of ghosts and Nuosu script were written by a priest into the ghost board with a mixture of the blood of a sacrificial chicken and soot scraped from the bottom of a cooking pot, 2011

Figure 7. Ghost board effigy with grass ghosts bound to the top of it. The figures of ghosts and Nuosu script were written by a priest into the ghost board with a mixture of the blood of a sacrificial chicken and soot scraped from the bottom of a cooking pot, 2011

© Katherine Swancutt

30There are also some ordinary Nuosu statues that were not designed for the ritual context but which nonetheless manifest animacy and potency. I learned this in relation to Niplat’s bronze statue of the legendary culture hero Zhyge Alu, who is sometimes invoked in rituals (see fig. 8). Towering above pedestrians on its impressive vertical pedestal, the statue had long served as a locally famous landmark and meeting point. It was fashioned to look like Zhyge Alu seated astride his winged horse, with his bow and arrow poised skywards, during the legendary moment when he shot down the excess suns and moons to prevent the earth from overheating (Bender 2008, p. 31; Bender et al. 2019, pp. lxix, 26-28). This legendary act is famous in Nuosu myth-history, not least because Zhyge Alu “so terrifies the remaining sun and moon that they must be coaxed out, bringing with them regular divisions between day and night” (Bender et al. 2019, p. lxix, see also pp. 29-30; Bender 2008, p. 31). Erected in 1996, the statue was relocated some years later to a small traffic island in a tight corner. As the years passed it gradually became dwarfed by the buildings around it, yet it refused to be entirely camouflaged.

Figure 8. Statue of Zhyge Alu in Niplat, 2015

Figure 8. Statue of Zhyge Alu in Niplat, 2015

© Katherine Swancutt

31Twenty years later, in late summer 2016, the statue was moved for the second time to the outskirts of the Niplat county town during one of my fieldwork trips. Curious about this new development, I mentioned it to Tuosat on a telephone call when he was in Kunming, who explained that the statue had been the subject of popular controversy from the start. Soon after the statue was erected in 1996, torrential rain had set in for the rest of the year – rain of the kind that, across Liangshan, causes car accidents, mudslides, agricultural damage, and other hazards. Many people in the Niplat county town observed that the arrow on the statue had pointed menacingly eastwards in the direction of the very last sun that Zhyge Alu had allowed to remain in the sky. Rumours spread across Niplat that the sun had become afraid and angry that it might now be shot down by Zhyge Alu as well. To show its wrath, the sun had spent all of 1996 hiding and sending down rain, which led many people in Niplat to call for the statue to be moved so that its arrow would not point aggressively at it. Jokingly, Tuosat advised me to go out and capture a photograph of the statue in its newest location, as a way of documenting its ongoing story.

32Later that afternoon, I strolled to the part of town where the statue had been moved. It was concealed beneath a large protective square tarpaulin bound tightly shut with rope, but the builders creating the statue’s new site explained that it had been laid carefully on its side near to its new foundation pit. The builders’ team, which was composed of Nuosu and non-Nuosu people from inside and in Yunnan’s capital of Kunming, showed me the architectural plans for levelling the statue’s foundations (see fig. 9). They also shared with me some model images for the finished design on their mobile telephones, which involved remounting the statue on its plinth amid a new and broad traffic island filled with greenery and flowers. Zhyge Alu’s statue would continue to face east in its new location, but as the team explained, it would be positioned along a wide avenue so that the wind could approach it from the most optimal direction and usher in an unimpeded prosperity. Their explanation was framed more in terms of geomantic (Ch. fengshui 风水) principles popular among Han, rather than in terms of Nuosu myth-history. Nevertheless, they also confirmed that the statue manifests the animate powers to attract or repel prosperity – and that these powers could be controlled by orienting it in the right direction. Controlling animate potencies like these is neither easy nor automatic, which is why they often must be mastered through specialised modes of training, such as the priest’s lifelong study of scriptures or the taming of animals in sacrifices and agricultural work.

Figure 9. Discussing architectural plans for the new foundation of Zhyge Alu’s statue next to the work being done for it at the outskirts of the Niplat county town, with the statue hidden behind the protective square tarpaulin centred in the background, 2016

Figure 9. Discussing architectural plans for the new foundation of Zhyge Alu’s statue next to the work being done for it at the outskirts of the Niplat county town, with the statue hidden behind the protective square tarpaulin centred in the background, 2016

© Katherine Swancutt

Taming potency: the training of animals and selves

33Earlier, I mentioned that bbur can mean to tame or train. Some skills, though, can only be learned by Nuosu people and animals with the help of certain spirits. Priests and shamans, for example, must draw upon the support of their spirit helpers when beseeching – and thereby taming – sacrificial animals to agree to being slaughtered on behalf of a client who cannot otherwise overcome an illness or other trouble. This sacrificial request may be the most sophisticated form of animal taming or training within the Nuosu canon. However, ordinary Nuosu across Niplat, and particularly those of an older generation, may also persuade cattle to accept forms of training that properly fall under the jurisdiction of their “earth spirit” or “land spirit” (musi ꃅꌋ), which many Nuosu conflate with their local “mountain spirit” (bbosi ꁧꌋ) because Liangshan is a land composed of mountains. Nuosu who train cattle to pull ploughs in Niplat may coax them with spoken reminders that run along the lines of “it’s not a human training you, but the mountain spirit”. Here, the idea is that only the mountain spirit, which is a local territorial deity, has the right to tame, train, or – as Tuosat told me in English – even “enslave” cattle within its territory. Revealingly, though, the Nuosu approach to training cattle cannot be explained solely in terms of the mountain spirit’s rights to its territory or to looking after the flora and fauna within it, even if this is often the case among nearby Tibetans or further afield among Mongolians (Karmay 1998, pp. 426-427, 432-434; Schicklgruber 1998, pp. 99-100; Uray-Köhalmi 1998, p. 211; Swancutt 2007, pp. 245-247). Like many other people across Southwest China and the wider Inner Asian region, Nuosu in Niplat make annual offerings to their local mountain spirits in typically all-male groups, which do not require the assistance of a priest or shaman. They also make offerings to repay their debt to the local mountain spirit when taking its resources, such as the trees they cut during wood harvesting or the wild animals they hunt. But unlike elsewhere in Inner Asia where mountain spirits tend to take a humanoid form, Nuosu mountain spirits may take a variety of wild animal forms, such as boar, pigeons, deer, or even large snakes. Many Nuosu therefore find that what they had initially perceived to be a wild animal was in fact a mountain spirit in one of its myriad wild animal forms that change over time (e.g. from a large snake to a pigeon).

  • 11 A related term is “vopndit” (ꃱꅑ), which refers to beings that “have claws or fingers, and cannot be (...)

34Important animistic principles underpin Nuosu ways of envisioning mountain spirits, the related notion that humans are often not the rightful beings to train animals, and their methods for ensuring that plough-pulling cattle ultimately manifest the animacy and potency of the mountain spirit’s training. In line with their myth-historical origins as members of the twelve sons of snow, Nuosu may call themselves the “snow people” (voco ꃰꊿ) and, as Tuosat explained, they also class themselves as “our kind” (vodip ꃰꄃ)11 with the understanding that the word vo can alternately mean “snow” or “human-like” while the word dip can mean “kinds”, “organs”, or sometimes even “hands”. Human hands have palms, but this is a trait shared with bears, dogs, cats, frogs, and many other creatures, including horses, which, according to Tuosat, Nuosu consider to be all-palm rather than creatures with hooves. By contrast, animals with hooves such as cattle, goats, sheep, or pigs are “the hooved kinds” (bbitdip ꁖꄃ) and have a special saying devoted to them: “the camel is the biggest of the hooved kinds” (bbitdip hopmop yy ꁖꄃꉼꃀꒉ). Birds, which are “the winged kinds” (ddurndit ꅐꅑ), also have a special saying: “the lord of the winged kinds is the peacock” (ddurndit sixpo ne shutnyivople ꅐꅑꌊꁈꆏꎺꑌꃱꇌ). But as Tuosat observed, there is no special saying about the leader of “our kind”, which suggests that humans are comparable to other animals with palms, such as horses and dogs. He admitted that hunting dogs, due to their training, acquire a much higher position in the social and cosmic order than dogs that safeguard livestock or the home, as shown by the saying “the hunting dog does not drink dirty water”, or literally, “the hunting dog does not drink water that has already been used for washing hands” (shexke lotcy yy ap ndo ꎷꈌꇇꋌꒉꀋꅝ). Reflecting on this further, he added that prior to the Democratic Reforms, the Nuosu nobility owned hunting dogs and horses of a value that often exceeded that of human slaves, who, however, were usually ethnic others and not always classed fully as “our kind”. The value of fine horses compared to undesirable slaves is underscored by the saying “a resplendent horse will be traded many times, but a bad man will be handed on to many places” (mubbop ne jo, coddi ne jo ꃅꁨꆏꏮ, ꊿꄸꆏꏮ). Overall, though, Tuosat concluded that since cattle are not members of “our kind”, Nuosu have no right to train them – which is why many Nuosu across Niplat credit their training of cattle to the local mountain spirit, even though the work invested into this training tends to be simpler than that invested into horses or hunting dogs.

  • 12 Nuosu, for example, have traditionally treated snakebites anywhere on the body with secretions from (...)

35Horses broken in for riding often start off with having just a blanket put on their backs for several days, after which the loads they carry are gradually increased to build up a tolerance for transporting heavier items or human passengers. Ordinary horses are trained as beasts of burden to carry goods across the mountains or for everyday riding, whereas remarkable horses may be trained to become excellent riding steeds or even racehorses that compete at festivals once or twice a year. Famous horses are so prized for their training that their genealogies, which follow the “patrilines” of stallions that sire winning foals, become known among those who breed them. Similarly, dogs may also receive elite training, which, however, hones their ability to hunt a wide variety of animals, including boar, bear, wild goat, muntjac, musk deer, and Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis), each of which have meat and medicinal properties12. Legendary accounts of hunts from the past suggest that Nuosu used dogs to hunt tigers and leopards (now extinct in Liangshan) as well as rabbits, which were used to feed – and thereby train – dogs to be “particularly obedient” (Wu Jingzhong 2001, pp. 41-42). Nowadays, the many prohibitions on hunting shape the preferences of hunting dog owners, who may train dogs to lead people to trees where certain pheasants congregate in winter or to flush other kinds of pheasants out from their forested hiding places in summer. Female hunting dogs are especially valued for their ability to teach puppies the hunting skills they have learned themselves, effectively helping their owners to carry out a kind of team training, or partnership training, of their young. In contrast to these grand pursuits, though, cattle are trained to carry out ordinary agricultural labour. Ploughing up or tilling under the soil is work that Nuosu facilitate wherever possible with cattle, which wear wooden yokes and pull wooden ploughs often fitted with a metal ploughshare (see fig. 10). To speed cattle about their work, Nuosu may switch a long thin stick on the ground behind them or against an animal’s flanks, while calling out aggressive commands to keep them moving. They also train cattle to tolerate having a rope either put through their nose (often without a ring) or bound around one or more of their horns so that they may be led from place to place. Some Nuosu cattle also must become accustomed to wearing bells.

Figure 10. Ploughing an upland slope to plant bitter buckwheat, using a cow borrowed from a neighbour, 2011

Figure 10. Ploughing an upland slope to plant bitter buckwheat, using a cow borrowed from a neighbour, 2011

© Katherine Swancutt

36Notably, cattle manifest the animacy and potency of the mountain spirit’s training whenever undertaking agricultural work. As Tuosat explained, the coaxing that cattle receive when trained is sometimes echoed by Nuosu who accidentally or perhaps even intentionally kill members of “our kind”, such as frogs, bears, or snakes – all of which, like humans, are members of the twelve sons of snow. To rectify this mistake, Nuosu may tell the unfortunate animals something along the lines of “it’s not me who killed you, but the mountain spirit”. In these cases, no offering to the mountain spirit is necessarily made to repay it for the animal’s death. But the strategy of offloading the responsibility for killing onto the mountain spirit creates an opening in the world through which the mountain spirit’s animacy, potency, and territorial sovereignty are revealed and manifest. This strategy is echoed by Nuosu children who accidentally or perhaps intentionally kill a frog or snake when playing outdoors and heap the responsibility for their act upon the mountain spirit. Drawing on his childhood memories, Tuosat added that some children may even jokingly proclaim to the dying creature that they did not kill it, while placing the blame on another child whom they do not like. Each appeal made to animals that are members of “our kind” but are nonetheless killed resonates with the priest’s or shaman’s beseeching of sacrificial animals to give up their own lives to ensure the potency of a client’s ritual. Yet while Nuosu ways of taming, training, or killing animals may sometimes evoke the importance of “taking animism seriously, but perhaps not too seriously”, they are generally not meant to unfold as “trickery” or a “game of endless deception” with animals (Willerslev 2013, p. 54). What Nuosu seek to manifest instead are the most potent skills and abilities that humans, animals, and spirits have to offer – and to do this not only in a ritual context but in every aspect of their lives.

Concluding thoughts on manifesting animacy and potency

37Throughout this article, I have suggested that Nuosu use extraordinary forms of writing to create openings in the world that reveal, and even manifest, spirit powers and presences. The Nuosu term for writing, bbur, encompasses not only everyday ways of producing text by hand or machine but also a wide variety of extraordinary handwrought techniques, from the priest’s act of writing curvilinear glyphs and drawings into ritual effigies to women’s acts of piercing cosmically potent patterns into their clothing and skin. These techniques are complemented by Nuosu acts of shaping ritual effigies and public statues into powerful forms, as well as their methods for taming cattle into manifesting the animacy and potency of the mountain spirit. Each kind of Nuosu writing folded into the term bbur illuminates the often invisible connections between the everyday world and the wider universe of animate beings, spirits, and ghosts. Many Nuosu, then, set out to write, pierce, shape, and tame potency deeply into bodies and things, as a way of bringing it into focus and bringing it to life.

38When anthropologists and other scholars think about how the invisible is brought to life, they often turn to contexts in which this is an explicit goal, such as rituals, ceremonies, and festivals that display spirits and their powerful “manifestations of presence” (Kendall & Ariati, in press). These settings frequently throw light onto the invisible in ways that are often only fully understood by specialists, such as Nuosu priests or shamans. But ritual contexts may also be spaces in which ordinary people manifest their most potent skills and abilities, much like Nuosu women do when using thread to guide lost souls back home or to corral ghosts into place during an exorcism. Many ordinary people may also manifest animacy and potency outside of the ritual purview, as residents of the Niplat county town did when insisting that the statue of Zhyge Alu be moved to a more felicitous location where it would attract prosperity rather than the wrath of the sun.

39Often understated and not openly discussed, the penchant for manifesting animacy and potentcy enables ritual specialists and ordinary people alike to prosper in a variety of situations. Among Nuosu, this includes situations where people overstep their own animistic principles concerning the relationships between “our kind” and other kinds. Overstepping important principles like this is probably an inescapable feature of everyday life, which, for Nuosu, pervades everything from the training of cattle to ritual sacrifice. To make the best of this or any other situation, many Nuosu draw upon handwrought techniques that are redolent with the strength and power they seek to write deeply into bodies and things. Any manual technique associated with the polyvalent term bbur may therefore unleash the most potent skills and abilities that Nuosu people, animals, and spirits have to offer. Does this not reveal the potency of techniques that, whether designed to be ritually and magically efficacious or not, end up manifesting the invisible?


40Especial thanks go to Tony Milligan and Elisa Tamburo for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article as well as to Aurélie Névot for her penetrating comments and the invitation to join this special issue. My gratitude also goes to the two anonymous reviewers, whose excellent comments I have endeavoured to write deeply into – and manifest within – this article. Any shortcomings are, of course, mine alone. This article is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement no. 856543).

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1 Pseudonyms have been used throughout the article. Nuosu terms appear without a prefix, while Chinese terms are preceded in the text by “Ch”. I have followed the standard romanization system for Nuosu, except for the culture hero Zhyge Alu, whose name is commonly rendered in English without tonal diacritic markers.

2 I would like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for this observation and for encouraging me to use the concept of “manifesting” the invisible.

3 The “twelve sons of snow” (vonre sse cinyix ꃰꎝꌺꊰꑋ) may also be rendered approximately into English as the “twelve tribes of snow” or the “twelve branches of snow”.

4 Névot discusses in detail how this colophon is produced among Yi-Sani of Shilin County in southern Yunnan Province (2019, p. 51).

5 In contrast, among the Yi-Sani masters of psalmody, writing is “read directly from a script. Animated by the voice, this writing is perceived as a medium between the world of humans and the world of spirits, se” (Névot 2019, p. 4).

6 Many of the Nuosu scholars and some of the ordinary Nuosu people I know considered that while Chinese characters may be filled with spirit presences and powers, they are less potent than the glyphs or drawings that Nuosu priests write into their scriptures and ritual effigies.

7 Nuosu may pat their saliva onto swellings in the neck as a palliative measure against them.

8 Gros shows that Drung tattooing pierces “the multilayered and complex structure of the skin [which] ensures the continuous communication of the interior world and the external one as it is both an inward- and an outward-looking surface, our most fundamental sensory organ” (2019, p. 3).

9 This mention of distant officials and ghosts in the Nuosu ritual for sending back bad speech resonates with the expulsion of the “wild ghosts” of Han officials in community-based rituals among the Lòlop’ò, which were held to mitigate the damage that came from dismantling their rotating headmanship system (Mueggler 1999 and 2001).

10 According to Tuosat, clay ghosts may historically have been an “innovation” that arose when Nuosu priests and shamans located in the Ebian Yi Autonomous County and Mabian Yi Autonomous County of northeastern Liangshan, Sichuan Province, visited the nearby Leshan Giant Buddha and other clay Buddha statues in the Wuyou Temple of Leshan, which date to the Tang Dynasty.

11 A related term is “vopndit” (ꃱꅑ), which refers to beings that “have claws or fingers, and cannot be eaten [… such as] horses (because of their dewclaws), dogs, cats, frogs, bears, monkeys, and people” (Harrell et al. 2022, p. 166; see also Bender et al. 2019, pp. lxxx, lxxxv).

12 Nuosu, for example, have traditionally treated snakebites anywhere on the body with secretions from the water deer’s scent glands, which were applied to a small wound made on the victim’s head. These strong-smelling secretions were understood to forcibly push both blood and the snake’s poison out from the wound.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Priest chanting scriptures written into a scroll while holding an exorcism, 2011
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 597k
Titre Figure 2. A shaman’s charcoal drawings of the cardinal directions that ghosts should follow when exorcised from the home, written into clay roof tiles, 2011
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 687k
Titre Figure 3. Women wearing embroidered finery at a Nuosu funeral, 2011
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 697k
Titre Figure 4. A priest’s student wearing a jacket hand embroidered by his wife at his side who had set out to stitch the Nuosu word for “priest” (bimox ꀘꂾ) in white thread but ended up with the homologous variant of bimop (ꀘꃀ) instead, 2007
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,1M
Titre Figure 5. Judge’s vest machine embroidered with Nuosu script, the sun and opening flower motif, and the modern design of a torch, worn when making offerings to the ancestors during the Fire Festival, 2019
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 499k
Titre Figure 6. Women’s tattoos inked into the hands, wrists, and forearms, 2015
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 303k
Titre Figure 7. Ghost board effigy with grass ghosts bound to the top of it. The figures of ghosts and Nuosu script were written by a priest into the ghost board with a mixture of the blood of a sacrificial chicken and soot scraped from the bottom of a cooking pot, 2011
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 712k
Titre Figure 8. Statue of Zhyge Alu in Niplat, 2015
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 811k
Titre Figure 9. Discussing architectural plans for the new foundation of Zhyge Alu’s statue next to the work being done for it at the outskirts of the Niplat county town, with the statue hidden behind the protective square tarpaulin centred in the background, 2016
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 578k
Titre Figure 10. Ploughing an upland slope to plant bitter buckwheat, using a cow borrowed from a neighbour, 2011
Crédits © Katherine Swancutt
Fichier image/jpeg, 973k
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Katherine Swancutt

Katherine Swancutt is Reader in Social Anthropology, Director of the Religious and Ethnic Diversity in China and Asia Research Unit, and Project Lead of the ERC synergy grant “Cosmological Visionaries” at King’s College London. She has published extensively on shamanic and animistic religion and currently researches dreams, visions, and climate change in Southwest China. Recent publications include her edited collection Crafting Chinese Memories. The Art and Materiality of Storytelling (Berghahn, 2021).

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