In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, we sat down with Professor Erik Mueggler, who talked about how to communicate with spirits and his experiences researching Yi People.
LRCCS: Where do you call home?
Prof Mueggler: I’ve been in Ann Arbor since ’97; I have a son here. This is pretty much home for me now. I was born in Montana and spent most of my childhood there.
LRCCS: How did you first get interested in China?
Prof Mueggler: Actually I came to study China rather late. I had a scholarship at Cornell through the Telluride House, and one of the first graduate students from China who came to study in the US was also living in that house and became my friend. She made China come alive for me in a way it never had before. When I graduated she helped me get a job teaching English in Xiamen; this was in the late 80s.
LRCCS: When did you decide you wanted to go into academia?
Prof Mueggler: I never decided. It just happened. I was really interested in anthropology and went to grad school to learn more. It was a shock for me to discover that the only thing you can do with a PhD in anthropology is become a professor.
LRCCS: What types of fieldwork have you done throughout these years?
Prof Mueggler: Most of my fieldwork has been in Yunnan with Tibeto-Burman-speaking people who are classed in the large umbrella group called Yi (彝族). Early on when I was traveling around China, I spent some time in Lijiang (丽江). People from all over the region came to the horse market there, and that’s where I learned that there were people who lived in the mountains who seemed to do things a bit differently than townspeople.
I did some early exploratory fieldwork in a village called Baisha outside of Lijiang. There was a path leading up the mountain behind the village, and I asked some local people what was up there. They told me that it is not a good place to go, as Yi people lived up there. So naturally, the next day I set out in the morning to walk up that path.
It rained heavily, and I wasn’t prepared for that. I found a small hamlet, and because I was very wet I went to the door of one of the houses, hoping to stand under the eves. The people inside were extremely surprised to see me, but they invited me in. We sat around the fire all afternoon, talking, eating roasted barley flour, and drinking. The oldest man there brought out a manuscript in one of the Yi scripts. He said it was a history of his village – former slaves who had moved to this place after being liberated in the 1950s. I was hooked.
LRCCS: What is it about this group of people that fascinates you?
Prof Mueggler: We know a lot about how many people in China engaged with the transformations of socialism. But we actually know very little about how people with different cultural resources than the Han majority adjusted to the enormous transformations of the 20th century. One of the important resources for the people I’ve worked closely with is poetic language, designed to do practical things, like communicating with ghosts, spirits, and all-sorts of non-human entities.
LRCCS: What sort of poetic language is this? Is it something like scriptures or mantras?
Prof Mueggler: There are many different forms. In some Yi groups, they are written; in the groups I know best, they are not. Basically, many people learn formulaic poetic verses with which they communicate with spirits. People believe that spirits only understand good language, poetic language.
LRCCS: It almost makes me think of a spirit rap battle. Are people freestyling these poems, or are they all memorized in advance?
Prof Mueggler: Memorization is very important, but so is innovation. For instance, one form is lament, used at funerals to express grief and communicate with the dead. The best lamenters learn most of their verses from older generations, but they also make up innovative verses for others to learn. Lament, in particular, has been adjusting to modern conditions – empty villages, a sense of being left behind, and so on.
LRCCS: What are you working on now?
Prof Mueggler: I have a book in press about how people make a dead body; because dead bodies have to be made just like everything else. That includes an enormous amount of ritualization, such as lamenting and other kinds of language. The book will be out late this year.
LRCCS: What is your vision for the work that you do? Other than it being fascinating, why do you do it?
Prof Mueggler: The people I work with have always been ignored by everybody except those who want to reform them, or rescue them -- make them different. My goal is to make visible what’s at the heart of the rich culture that has developed in these regions. That might seem like a small thing, but in communities where people have been told for decades how backwards they are, it seems empowering. I wouldn’t claim anything I do actually empowers anyone, but that’s what I hope for.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more interviews.