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Risk society, the predicaments of folk religion and experience of modernity: the guardian spirits in the Mandi Dailue ethnic society of Xishuangbanna.


In Mandi village, located in Xishuangbanna, China, as in other Dai communities, people believe that guardian spirits protect their houses, villages and regions (moeng). Aihampxiang, Mandi village's earliest male settler, is the most important village spirit (dubula ban). He is remembered for helping people and ancestors settle down. Being highly respected by the village people, he was given the honorary title of Suwannandiham. Mandi's regional guardian spirit (dubula moeng) is a goddess by the name of Nangpenghiu and people believe that she possesses the same power as other guardian spirits and gods; she was thus given the honorary title of Nanggangteladishuai.

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, all religious cults were forbidden, but at the beginning of the 1980s, Mandi villagers were again allowed to worship the guardian spirits and they built a shrine for their dubula ban and placed it in a hay-thatched hut. They have been practising their cults every year since then, and when village people became more affluent, it was decided that a better shrine should be built for their dubula ban. (1) As such, every family contributed money to purchase building materials like cement, ceramic tiles and bricks. By early 2002, when the author first visited Mandi, the construction of the new ceramic shrine was already completed.

Originally, the shrines for the village guardian spirit, Aihampxiang, and the moeng guardian spirit, Nangpenghiu, were housed in separate locations. The design of this second shrine incorporated a shrine for both dubula ban and dubula moeng. The new shrine looks like two adjoining Dai-style bamboo houses with separate roofs, one for each of the two guardian deities. However, when the author revisited Mandi in 2006, she learnt that the shrine with two separate roofs had been demolished in 2005, and then rebuilt later in the same year. (2) This third shrine, similar to the previous shrine, is inlaid with porcelain tiles but the design featuring two separate roofs is now gone--as is Nangpenghiu, who was moved back to the original abode in the sacred forest. What had occurred in Mandi? Why was the shrine torn down and rebuilt to house only the village spirit? Why did the goddess Nangpenghiu need to move back to the sacred forest?

It is not easy to find an answer to these questions. Investigating the reason why the Dailue people in Mandi pulled down the second shrine and then rebuilt it requires the analysis of the metaphorical and symbolic systems in a larger context of modernity and ethnic minorities in China. Global processes have led to unique development processes in China, and the encounter between Chinese ethnic minorities and modernity is characterised by many unique features. Giddens writes that: "Modernity refers to modes of social life or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence". (3) He further argues that we should see "capitalism and industrialism as two distinct 'organisational clusters' or dimensions involved in the institutions of modernity". (4) Modernity in East Asia is also linked to industrialisation and the transition from empire to nation-state. (5) Moreover, it has been a long, drawn-out process. In the coastal areas of east China, modernity might have begun 100 years ago, during the emergence of industrial production and labour force commercialisation. However, in southwestern ethnic minority societies, modernity had made its way in some places, through caravan routes and Yunnan trade links to the global market in the earlier 20th century; (6) but, for others, the crucial change came with the political process of the 1950s when the Chinese nation-state reconstructed the local identity based on ethnic minority classification. (7) Over the last 20 years, globalisation and neo-liberal market economics have increasingly affected the ethnic minorities. While people have not yet shaken off the ethnic minority stereotypes of being "primitive" and "backward" by which the social evolutionary theory can explain the emergence of such stereotypes, the ethnic minority society has in fact been involved in the global world system. As Ulrich Beck has pointed out, "we are witnessing not the end but the beginning of the modernity, that is, of the modernity beyond its classical industrial design". (8)

The Dai society of Xishuangbanna is one of the ethnic societies in China that is pursuing modernity. The launch of economic reforms and opening up in Xishuangbanna in the 1980s have brought about mass internal migration, along with tourism, rubber tree plantations, international timber trade, urbanisation, as well as infrastructural projects for rural roads and international transportation linkages. The closed minority communities are gradually exposed to influences from global economy and culture.

Meanwhile, in Mandi, its inhabitants also began to encounter new challenges and anxieties, such as community tensions due to rapid changes, higher rates of traffic accidents because of greater mobility, rising prevalence of diseases associated with rubber production and prostitution, and growing dependence on weather for commercial crop harvests. In other words, the Dailue people in Mandi face higher risks and had to develop "a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself". (9) In Mandi, risk management has taken the form of revisiting and revising guardian spirit worship, and this implies that local religion is far from being discarded in the face of modernity, and has continued to be a vibrant, though contested, part of the local society.

This article is an ethnographic research of social changes and religion in a Chinese Dai village. The study relies on the theoretical framework of Durkheim and Giddens to explain the important transitions occurring in the contemporary Mandi society, and it also analyses how locals turn to guardian spirits to help them manage new risks and anxieties. The author draws out several references related to the study of religion in contemporary East and Southeast Asia. First, based on Asian scholarship, the author questions whether modernity brings about secularisation in East and Southeast Asian societies. (10) Second, the author broadens the investigation of Dai/Tai religion and modernity beyond urban areas (11) to include villages, which are also experiencing fundamental transformations. Third, the author attempts to develop a more complex model for understanding the relationship between social changes and the impacts on religious rituals. And, finally, the author seeks to connect the rich Chinese ethnographic tradition with international scholarly discourse.


The total population of the Dai ethnic minority in China is 1.22 million, of which 316,151 live in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. (12) Mandi is a small village located in Mengla county of Xishuangbanna. In 2002, all of the 387 people living in 68 households in Mandi were Dailue, a Tai-speaking sub-group of the Dai nationality, except for one Han man married to a Dai woman. The author began the fieldwork in Mandi in 2002 with the aim of documenting the village's rapidly changing religious rituals.

In Xishuangbanna, as in many Southeast Asian societies, people practise Theravada Buddhism in parallel to guardian spirits-worshipping cults. However, the two religious cults hold different meanings for their practitioners. For example, Condominas notes that Theravada Buddhism and guardian spirit cults practised by Lao villagers show that the spiritual world represented by each belief are two poles apart: "Buddhism and Phiban cult, the former manifests one of the major cultural discontinuities in the history of Southeast Asia, while the latter represents one of the major continuities". (13) In Mandi, the Dailue villagers also recognised that the spiritual world as portrayed in the cults of Buddhism and guardian spirits are at two extreme poles. In Mandi's Dailue dialect, Theravada Buddhism cults are referred to as dan, and the guardian spirit cults as loen. The practice of dan includes that of more than 10 types of rituals such as dan sanhan (Buddhist temple rituals), dan hen (domestic rituals), dan haogubi (healing ritual for illness), dan denghuo (offering-making during the sixth month of the Dai calendar), dan haowasa (worship in Buddhist temple during the Close-Door Festival in mid-July of the Dai's calendar) and dan tanmu (sutra worship).

The cults of guardian spirits are also common in various indigenous Southeast Asian folk religions. One can find them in Burma, (14) Thailand, (15) Laos, (16) and China's Yunnan province. (17) For Lao, Shan, Thai and Dai groups, we can construct a paradigm of guardian spirit cults that transcends the political boundaries of Southeast Asian countries. The guardian spirits that are commonly worshipped are house guardian spirit (phi hen, dubula hen), village guardian spirit (phi ban, dubula ban) and regional guardian spirit (phi moeng, dubula moeng). As Condominas describes, the "spirit of the village" is also otherwise known as "the spirit who loves the village" or "the spirit who protects the village". (18) Tanabe points out that the category of guardian spirits "called phi ahak, denotes a supernatural agent believed to protect people, crops, livestock, and other forms of property within its territory". (19)

Guardian spirits in Xishuangbanna are divided into a hierarchy of gods based on regional traditional political and social systems. The Dai/Tai traditional political administration was based on the moeng, each of which covers between 20 to over 80 villages. At the village level, the village headmen, called boban, pia, zha, or xian, were responsible for managing public affairs, such as tribute, taxation, the appointment of corvee labour, irrigation or road construction. A hereditary ruler, the lord of the moeng, also known as zhao moeng, controlled the villages in his region. In Xishuangbanna, there were over 20 moeng or regions, with as many zhao moeng. Presiding over all of these zhao moeng was the hereditary ruler of Xishuangbanna called the zhao pianlin. In the 14th century, when the Chinese empire introduced the chieftain system (cheli xuanwei si) in Xishuangbanna, it recognised the zhao pianlin (which literally means master of vast territories) as the owner of both agricultural land and jungle areas. (20)

The common belief is that good, kind and capable rulers would become guardian spirits after their death. Upon death, a good zhao moeng becomes a dubula moeng, phi moeng or phi soe moeng, which is "the highest deity of the moeng [who] controls fertility and well-being within its territory". (21) Former boban would become the dubula ban, phi ban or phi soe ban and bless the people in the village community, whereas for families, dead male ancestors would become the phi hoen, guarding the household.

As is the case in other Southeast Asian locales, the earliest male village settler is the most important dubula ban in Mandi, where he was named Aihampxiang. He helped the earliest villagers settle down and was respected generally by village people, thus he was given an honorary title of Suwannandiham. The most important loen cult occurs during the ninth month of the Dai calendar, and oxen are sacrificed for this occasion.

The dubula moeng of Mandi is a goddess by the name of Nangpenghiu. Reviewing historical records from social investigations conducted in the 1950s, Zhu Depu, an expert on Xishuangbanna, originally thought that all moeng gods were either male or couples. (22) Thus, goddess Nangpenghiu appears to be an exception. (23) People conferred her an honorific title known as Nanggangteladishuai, and she lived in a cloud-shrouded, densely forested sacred hill named Guangjing, located along the Mandi River. Villagers believe that goddess Nangpenghiu is as powerful as the other guardian spirit gods, therefore by virtue of her presence, the hill earns its sacrosanctity, which means removal of vegetation on the hill is forbidden. The shrine for dubula meong was placed in Guangjing and Mandi people have worshipped the sacred loen forest for many generations. Every four years, people living in villages like Mandi, Mansai and Manlu and other neighbouring hamlets that are under the blessing of the same dubula moeng gather to practise a common loen cult performance.

The shrine of the guardian spirit for the village guardian (dubula ban) is located below the hilltop Theravada temple and near a respected old man's house. This man's honorific title is bomoban, and he is the guardian spirits cult practitioner in Mandi. The shrine, which symbolically represents the home of the god, is devoted to the god of dubula ban and it is a sacred place of worship for the Mandi people where they also make offerings to the loen cults every year. Permitted to practise their local cults again in the beginning of the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution ended and at the advent of a religious revival in China, Mandi villagers built a shrine for the dubula ban and placed it in a hay-thatched hut. It is said that when bomoban prayed during the ceremony marking the inauguration of the shrine, some villagers saw an unusual ray of light that looked like fireworks shot from the riverside loen forest land on the hay roof of the shrine. The village people believe that the dubula ban god truly lives in the shrine and have been practising their belief in loen cults every year since then.

As the village people became more affluent and reconstructed their houses with tiled roofs, they decided to build a better shrine roofed over with ceramic tiles for their dubula ban god. In 2002, the author noticed that road improvement works leading to the shrine and terracing works around the shrine were carried out. Everyone in the village--including old women and children--were involved in these building activities. The new shrine, shaped like a typical Dai house, was constructed with bricks and concrete, and decorated with porcelain tiles.

The Mandi people imagine and believe that the desires of their god and goddess are just like their own, and that includes their wish for the dubula ban god and dubula meong goddess to be together. Thus, the design of this second shrine incorporated a shrine for the dubula meong too. This shrine was designed with two separate roofs, one each for the two guardian deities, the dubula meong on the left and the dubula ban on the right, although the female and male guardian spirits are not considered a couple belonging to the same family. People in Mandi believed that combining the dubula meong and dubula ban in one single shrine would increase the guardian deities' powers and capacity to protect Mandi, but it is also important to realise that the resettlement of Nangpenghiu had no precedence in the village history. In January 2002, the construction of the second shrine with two separate roofs was finally completed and a grand celebration of music and dance performances was held to mark the important occasion, which saw full participation from villagers decked out in their best outfits.

Despite the grand rituals accorded to the inauguration of the shrine, the guardian spirits, dubula meong and dubula ban apparently did not to bring the villagers the blessings they expected. In 2005, the second shrine was pulled down and rebuilt. The third shrine is pagoda-shaped comprising three components: the foundation, the main tower and the rooftop. The tower integrates the architectural features of a pagoda with the four corners of the rooftop intricately decorated with sculptures. The villagers told the author, who did not attend the inauguration ceremony, that every villager had made every effort and contribution to the major construction of the third shrine.

The Dailue people in Mandi rebuilt the sacred shrine twice within three years between 2002 and 2005, which the old villagers explained as unprecedented in the history of Mandi. The villagers' collective action to house the god and goddess in the same shrine in a bid to increase the guardian spirits' spiritual power suggested the anxiety of villagers over the effectiveness of the power wielded. The demolition of the shrine had proved that the effectiveness of guardian spirits in Mandi had been challenged.

The 2005 shrine "crisis" concerning the dubula moeng and dubula ban made people question whether the guardian spirits could help them overcome the many new risks that they now faced, which in many ways have been caused by the expanding rubber economy.


Rubber is a strategic commodity for both the state defence and car industries. In Xishuangbanna, rubber tree planting and rubber production have forged a link between tropical jungle villages like Mandi and Ganlanba, which is the hub of China's booming car industry, and the wider capitalist world system. The new interlinkage is exemplified by Ganlanba (Menghan in Dai language), located 35 kilometres from Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna. The traditional Dailue architecture found in this village has been adapted to promote Ganlanba as an important tourist destination. Nonetheless, Ganlanba is one of Xishuangbanna's main rubber production centres and also home to many processing factories and production plants. During the rubber tapping season from May to December, farmers from the surrounding villages and mountain regions provide the workforce required in this industry. They daily transported the latex to processing plants by motorcycles, tractors and trucks. The processed rubber is then exported to Guangdong and other industrial bases. Today, the rubber industry has become the livelihood of ethnic minorities living in the modernising jungle villages. From dawn until dusk, the villagers plant rubber trees and harvest the latex, and the reward for the toil is cash from sales of processed rubber.

Rubber prices in Ganlanba are subject to price trends in global markets, which also determine the Dailue people's household income derived from rubber planting. As such, global markets also determine the expenditure, choice of recreation, leisure and lifestyle, standard of living and purchasing power of Dailue households. The income has empowered farmers to afford a host of consumer goods ranging from stereo products, LCD TV sets, to motorcycles, trucks and so on. An analogy can be drawn between rubber tree planting in the Dailue society and sugarcane plantations in South America as examined by Sidney W. Mintz. (24) Indeed, from the 17th to 19th century, Europe's increasing sugar consumption had promoted major social changes in sugarcane-producing Caribbean nations, much like how global rubber markets have driven different though fundamental changes in Xishuangbanna nowadays.

From the 1950s onwards, China had established a successful natural rubber industry on the steep slopes in southern Yunnan Province. The rubber production is concentrated in Jinghong, (25) and mainly controlled by state rubber tree plantations. Mandi was part of this development process, and small-scale rubber tree plantations were developed in Mandi village in the late 1970s during the period of collective production. However, China introduced radical changes to its agricultural policy in 1978, promoting market-led reforms that encouraged family farming. As such, rubber smallholdings grew rapidly during the 1980s. (26) In the 1990s, the local government trained farmers to cultivate and tap rubber. (27) Since China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, rubber production in Xishuangbanna has been closely linked to the global rubber market.

In the reassignment of collective production to domestic family production, rubber forests were decollectivised and allocated to each household. Hence, each household in Mandi became a production unit, holding private ownership of the rubber cultivation, and in order to expand rubber planting land, forests were cleared. (28) The mid-1990s saw a further expansion of rubber tree planting. For example, the household of Botao Yin was allocated 10 mu (1.6 acres) of rubber land after decollectivisation. However, by 2001, his household had already planted about 50 mu (8 acres) of rubber land. The area of rubber cultivation land for each household could range from about 100 mu (16 acres) with the largest plantation area to the smallest plot at nearly 10 mu (1.6 acres) in Mandi Dailue village of 68 households. Most households maintain between 30 and 50 mu (4.8 acres to 8 acres) of rubber tree land. Rubber planting requires levelling and terracing of land, soil digging, planting of tree saplings and constant care and monitoring, which demand skills quite different from those required for planting rice.

After 10 years of careful monitoring, the saplings will grow into big trees from which latex can be harvested. The Dailue people in Mandi have mastered the delicate skill of tapping rubber trees--they learnt how to determine the number of cuts required on each tree, when to tap to achieve the highest yields and best-quality latex, and also the method of bulk storage in large tubs by mixing latex with rice water. The Dailue people keep the natural latex till the fermentation process emits an odour, and they then bring it to Ganlanba to sell on the market. As the world market price for natural rubber soared, the price of natural rubber in Mandi rose from five yuan per kilogramme in the 1990s to 20 yuan per kilogramme in 2006, due to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In 2008, rubber prices reached a record high at 25 yuan per kilogramme and the richest household in Mandi earned over 100,000 yuan from their rubber plantation that year.

Rubber has become the main source of income for Mandi farmers, and all Dailue households, without exception, are now involved in this industry. The Dailue people have traditionally been an agricultural society based on a single-product economy with rice as the main crop, (29) and after they began to grow rubber trees at least 20 years ago, they are now equipped with an extensive knowledge about this crop. As cash crops grow in importance, traditional paddy rice agriculture recedes in significance. The rubber sector has spun off various sectors such as transport, motorcycle and vehicle repair, housing construction, retail and tourism. This further advanced the development of division of labour. Theorising the social division of labour, Durkheim classifies societies into mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity characteristics can be found in smaller, isolated, rural societies with a relatively homogenous population. These societies tend to have little, if any, specialisation or division of labour. However, societies classified as organic solidarity are normally characterised by larger population groupings, and therefore inevitably involve more complex forms of division of labour. Also, there tends to be fewer shared beliefs and values but greater emphasis on individual freedom. Durkheim stresses that mechanical solidarity "implies individuals resemble one another", while organic solidarity "assumes that they are different from one another". (30)

Like the Dailue people from Ganlanba and Mandi, many ethnic minority societies are currently experiencing the transition from traditional agricultural society to modernity. Increased social labour division has become a basis for ethnic minority societies to connect with the modern world systems. This is manifested in motorbike repair shops in Mandi acquiring spare parts from Menglun township or from Ganlanba; grocery shops procuring goods from urban wholesale stores; and Mandi villagers adapting to the system of labour division in the outside world. As Giddens has noted, the people's daily lives "between different social contexts or regions become networked across the earth's surface as a whole". (31) Indeed, as local Mandi people increasingly engaged in activities involving external actors, division of labour and social differentiation became increasingly significant. Division of labour has impacted upon the strong social uniformity that characterised Dailue as mechanical solidarity. Disparities among villagers and social stratification have become more and more apparent as rubber production increases and people's purchasing power and consumption increase. The Dailue people in Mandi have undergone a social transformation from a rice agricultural economy characterised by mechanical solidarity, which Durkheim "implies individuals resemble one another", to a market economy characterised by organic solidarity, which "assumes that [individuals] are different from one another". (32)

Traditional paddy rice cultivation involves social exchange, such as plowing land, growing seedlings and harvesting crops, carried out in groups and at designated periods. Moreover, the Mandi villagers' communal utilisation of natural resources, such as forests and rivers, reflects similar and common consumption patterns and habits, which form the underpinning of social solidarity. The division of labour in modern society, however, threatens this form of social solidarity. As observed, ownership of rubber plantations in Mandi varies between households. Households that own 100 mu of rubber plantation will inevitably earn higher annual incomes than those owning 10 mu. In other words, differentiation in rubber plantation ownership has increased income gaps in the village.

The tradition in Mandi used to be that there is "no need to lock the door at night" (ye bu bihu). However, the situation began to change in 2006, when affluent villagers, who were top revenue earners of rubber plantation, perceived the need to buy safes for their homes. As such, the introduction of safes brings about a symbolic inherent cultural change, which has wide-ranging implications on moral values and the code of ethics as well as the concept of personal wealth and property. Clearly, new attitudes have developed towards personal wealth and money in a context where cash economy becomes ever more important. The "safes" are therefore the symbolism and medium of modernity, which as a social mechanism of "anomie", (33) reflects people's social and psychological behaviour. This also signifies that the code of ethics inherent in the Mandi society and wealth equity that underpins the social solidarity face unprecedented challenges. Durkheim observes that "if the division of labor does not produce solidarity, it is because the relationships between the organs are not regulated, they are in a state of anomie".34 The increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and that between the winners and losers, is leading to new social stratification and has further exacerbated the heterogeneous behaviour of individuals in the community. As a result of "anomie", tensions and misunderstandings among village people are on the rise; compared to the past, the community is now less harmonious and less peaceful and there are more issues involving social relations. Indeed, people have to deal with wealth inequality, social stratification and intense competition, and the growing squabbles, friction and conflicts among villagers already reflect their discontent.


Modernity is multidimensional. Not only does modernity reconstruct the social organisation and structure in Mandi Dailue society, it also influences religious practice, redefines spiritual pursuit of people and increases the appeal of folk beliefs. American scholar Thomas Borchert points out in his discussion of the relation between modernity and Buddhism in Xishuangbanna that "modernity has intruded into this picture of 'traditional' Buddhism", leading to "Theravada engagement with modernity". (35) Similarly, modernity also has an influence on beliefs associated with guardian spirits ritual and the practice of folk religion. One of the main questions that previous studies on religion and modernity have asked is aimed at determining if modernity is secular or sacred. One argument suggests that modernity has weakened the hold that religion asserts on society. Proponents of this secularisation thesis argue that religious values have been replaced by secular ones. Empirical studies have illustrated the practical conflicts between forces of modernity and symbolic sacred values. (36) However, empirical research conducted in Mandi with the Dailue people suggests that social changes have induced increased risks in its modern systems. Indeed, guardian spirit cults are being held responsible for risk management in these societies, and social transformation has ineluctably exerted an influence on traditional religious practices.

In this society with religious beliefs, the worship ritual of guardian spirits plays an important mediation function. Conflicts among households must be reported to the guardian spirits, dubula moeng and dubula ban, during worship rituals. Also, each household must contribute a chicken as an offering for the ritual. Households that are involved in quarrels are expected to offer a few more chickens as punishment. As for more serious offences such as adultery, they are punished through the imposition of fines. Such a system creates symbolic connections between social behaviours and the cults of guardian spirits.

Returning to the shrine crisis in Mandi in 2005, there is a collective anxiety about the efficacy of guardian spirits that comes from the sense of a lack of solidarity in the community and discordance among villagers--particularly between respected old men and youths, between men and women, as well as between the wealthy and the poor. As an old man named Botaoguang said, "There is no more harmony between the villagers, and one does not listen to the other anymore."

Anomie, or "lacking in unity" (37) and "non-integration of a social system", (38) that characterises modern social transformations, occurs in conjunction with the perpetuation of the guardian spirit cult. As such, villagers are drawn into new and complex psychological experiences and allocate new functions to the guardian spirit cult. The villagers seek solace in the worship ritual of guardian spirits; rituals are expected to facilitate villagers' adaptation to social transformation; guardian spirits to attenuate social tension among the villagers; and a common faith in guardian spirits to bring back solidarity among the Dailue people.

Modern society is filled with risks. Improvement in transportation infrastructure increases the potential for long-distance travel as much as it creates new risks. The Dailue people in Mandi perceive risk as both individual and collective experiences. Fear still lingered when Botaoguang, the old man from the Mandi village, narrated his motorbike accident. His nephew, who had no motorbike licence, was once riding on a dirt road and Botaoguang rode on the pillion. While trying to evade a police checkpoint, they crashed head-on into a car. Wearing no protective helmets, they were both thrown off their motorbike eight metres away and were later taken to a hospital in Jinghong by the traffic policemen that came to their rescue.

The trading of rubber and latex products requires modern roads and transportation infrastructure to connect Mandi to Ganlanba and other outside markets. In 2003, the Dailue people in Mandi donated money to construct a muddy road from their village to Menglun town. Despite the poor road condition, villagers rushed to purchase their motorbikes and were eager to drive to town. Worsening road conditions led to frequent road accidents. Thus, each time the villagers ride out, they will bring along candles and offer some money to the ritual practitioner, bomoban, to ask him to invoke the guardian spirits' protection against traffic accidents. Facing the ever increasing requests, the bomoban goes to the shrine dedicated to the dububan almost every early morning. There, he burns candles and recites prayers for those travelling out of the village. As such, the collective belief in guardian spirits and the related cults, including making offerings, becomes individualised behaviours that are subscribed as part of their everyday life. Also, the risks accompanying modernity are among the various reasons and the increase in the frequency of villagers' requests for protection from spirit gods. These rituals concurrently protect villagers from social risks and reduce their exposure to modern individual risks. In other words, social transformations have influenced traditional religious practice since traditional guardian spirit cults are practised solely to address social risks.

"Risk", as posited by Ulrich Beck, "may be defined as a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself". (39) However, Giddens reads risk as a "menacing appearance" caused by "knowledge gaps". (40) Risk manifests itself in different forms in different areas--diseases and man-made disasters that occur frequently in one area and not in the other. In the era of globalisation, modernisation brings about both happiness and risk for ethnic minority societies in China. For instance, when most forestlands were converted into rubber tree plantations, man-made uncertainty came into the picture. For the Dailue people in Mandi, these modern risks are both realistic and unrealistic. The social transformation and the "anomie" of social systems are creating new visible or invisible risks for the Dailue people. Moreover, "the dynamic of risk society rests less on the assumption that now and in future we must live in a world of unprecedented dangers". (41) As a response to these risks, Mandi Dailue people sought to "revamp" their guardian spirit worship.

At first, the objective to build a two-roof shrine for the dubula moeng and dubula ban was to increase the power and efficacy of these spirits. This, in turn, was also aimed at helping Mandi people manage the increased risks. During a revisit of the area in 2006, Botaoguang told the author: "It appears that the dubula ban, god Suwannandiham, and the dubula moeng, goddess Nanggangteladishuai, cannot live together in peace, as the shrine with a double roof brought no harmony in the village". Thus, on behalf of all villagers, the bomoban and three other respected senior men in the village offered two chickens, two bottles of liqueur and 400 yuan in cash to Miemo, a 50-year-old female shaman in Ganlanba who can communicate with dubula spirits. She was charged to inquire about what was wrong with the village gods.

During the communication, Miemo spoke out both in her normal voice and on behalf of the god and goddess, as if conducting a conversation with Mandi's two dubula. Miemo told the four old men that Nangpenghiu goddess felt displeased that her shrine was moved from the sacred Guangjing riverside forest to the village shrine. As such, the bomoban only worshipped her in the village and no longer made sacrificial offerings to her in Guangjing. Miemo also said that since the dubula ban god and dubula moeng goddess were not a married couple, they could not be placed together in a double shrine. On their return from Ganlanba to Mandi, the old men agreed that the shrines should be separated again and that the shrine built in the village should be dedicated for the dubula ban god only. Indeed, the villagers' idea and efforts to put the god and goddess together in one shrine to augment their power and efficacy brought adverse effects. Instead of increasing the guardian spirits' strength, the double shrine seemed to have caused the spirits to lose their supernatural power. The double shrine was therefore pulled down. Goddess Nangpenghiu was returned to the shrine in Guangjing and the bomoban started to make offerings in meat and vegetables as he had done so previously. The rebuilding of a pagoda-shaped shrine for dubula ban then marked an end to these episodes.

The fact that the Mandi villagers rebuilt the sacred shrines twice within a span of three years reveals their tremendous anxiety over the risks they faced and the efficacy of their guardian spirits. Seen from the perspective of the villagers, the unusually high incidence of disasters encountered affirmed their anxiety. The informants spoke of health problems, run-ins with the police, natural disasters and the seemingly omnipresent pressure for change. For example, one informant, a housewife aged below 40, died from lung cancer. It was the first time that such a serious disease had been diagnosed in Mandi. The tragic death brought dramatic changes to the family of the deceased housewife. In 2005, Sudi River, which is the cradle of culture and history of the Mandi Dailue people, suffered severe flooding. This was the worst flood in decades in Mandi as the inundation of flood water changed the course of the river. A year later in 2006, in the township capital, more than 10 young boys from Mandi and youths from neighbouring hamlets were involved in fights over girls. As a result, three Mandi boys faced criminal charges and were held in custody for 15 days. This was the first time that someone from Mandi had to undergo the judicial process. In the summer of 2007, disastrous winds hit Mandi, damaging many rubber trees. Villagers, including the old people, claimed that they had never witnessed such destructive power from strong winds. In the same year, the income of many households decreased sharply. In 2008, the Mandi people resisted eviction by an investor of a dam construction project in Luosuo River and drove away the survey workers. In 2009, three women in Mandi were infected with syphilis by their husbands, who had had sex with prostitutes after trading rubber.

Thus, the recent years have brought uncertainty and increasing perceived and real risks. The future is however also brimming with opportunities and risks. In 2010, the local township government initiated a tourism project that includes Mandi in the development of the nearby scenic Kongming Mountain area. The villagers would expect tourism to increase their incomes, and similar developments elsewhere in Yunnan suggest that the tourist industry also brings about new challenges and anxieties.


For the Mandi Dailue people, man-made and natural disasters coexist with the increased benefits that accompany the heightened exposure to modernity. These developments are understood and managed through the rituals associated with the guardian spirit cults. Rather than associating lung cancer with the harmful fumes from the burning of waste rubber for cooking, or associating windstorms with deforestation, or attempting to understand that the fluctuation of rubber prices are subject to national and global market forces, the Mandi Dailue people embrace their own approach to interpret and control such risks. For them, the answer lies in guardian spirit rituals, and the greatest risk they face is the refusal from the guardian spirits to protect them. In order to ensure continued protection, the Mandi people prefer to invest more in the repair and maintenance works of Theravada temples and to maintain close relationships with the bomoban, the shrine manager. Seen from another angle, the anxiety of the Mandi people over the guardian spirits portrays a kind of social metaphor that reflects the psychological state of the Mandi people. As people with shared beliefs and sentiments come together, the strong human relationship forged will increase sanctity of the deities. Confronted with the risks of modernity, ethnic minority societies must stay united once again in their common religious and folk beliefs.

In conclusion, the Mandi Dailue people's predicament in their folk beliefs and guardian spirits is one of the many consequences of modernity experienced by ethnic minorities in Xishuangbanna. The Mandi village case study highlights the connection between social risks in the context of modernity and social risks associated with folk religion. It also brings into focus the general issues represented by the relevance of modernity and folk religion, which are of great significance in China and East Asia. With the prevalence of increasing social risks, it is inevitable that modernity has piqued the consciousness of communities, such as the Dailue people from Mandi, to revisit and question the building blocks of their folk religion. Indeed, folk religions can hardly offer viable response to new, constant and wide-ranging social risks. The modern predicament of Chinese folk religion is not simply about a lost faith, or losing the materialisation of religious practice during the process of social transformation; it is also a situation in which the increasing demands of risk management are being transferred to the belief system. Just as modern society cannot possibly allow every individual to fulfil his/her every desire, folk beliefs will not be able to satisfy every single protection request against the increasingly complex risks associated with modernity too. That is the exact predicament of folk religion in the face of modernity in China.


This research was supported and made possible by grants from the Ford Foundation and the Ministry of Education of China. I wish to thank Yu Shaojian for assistance in the fieldwork and Aiwei Jian's family for their hospitality. I am also grateful to Liang Yongjia, Zhu Xiaoyang, C. Patterson Giersch and Jean-Francois Rousseau for their comments on earlier versions of this article. I also wish to thank the editors and peer reviewers for providing insightful and constructive suggestions.

Shen Haimei ( is Professor of Anthropology at the Yunnan Provincial Ethnology Research Institute, Yunnan University for Nationalities, China. She received her PhD in Chinese Ethno-History from Yunnan University in 1999. Her main research interests include Yunnan local history, women/gender studies and ethnicity in southwest China and HIV/AIDS and public health.

(1) For ethnic minorities in China, hay roofs are linked with poverty, backwardness and underdevelopment.

(2) The ethnographic research was conducted by the author from 2002 to 2009 in Mandi Dai village (Sudi in Chinese) of Xiangming township, Mengla county, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous prefecture, Yunnan Province.

(3) Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 1.

(4) Ibid., p. 55.

(5) Duara Prasenjit, The Global and Regional in Chinas Nation-Formation (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 62.

(6) Giersch C. Patterson, "Across Zomia with Merchants, Monks, and Musk: Process Geographies, Trade Networks, and the Inner-East-Southeast Asian Borderlands", Journal of Global History 5 (2010): 215-39.

(7) Shen Haimei, "Minzu guojia yu guishu de xingbie zhenzhi: Jiyu Yunnan minzu shibie de taolun" (The Chinese Nation-State and the Gendered Politics of Belonging: A Discussion Based on Ethnic Minority Classification in Yunnan), ed. Lin Chaoming, The Ethnological Review 3 (2010): 5-15.

(8) Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), p. 10.

(9) Ulrich Beck, Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (London: Sage Publications, 1992), p. 21.

(10) Tong Chee Kiong and Kong Lily, "Religion and Modernity: Ritual Transformations and the Reconstruction of Space and Time", Social & Cultural Geography 1, no. 1 (2000): 29-44.

(11) Shigeharu Tanabe, "The Person in Transformation: Body, Mind and Cultural Appropriation", in Cultural Crisis and Social Memory: Modernity and Identity in Thailand and Laos, ed. Shigeharu Tanabe and Charles F. Keyes (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002), pp. 43-67; Morris C. Rosalind, "Crises of the Modern in Northern Thailand: Ritual, Tradition, and the New Value of Pastness", in Cultural Crisis and Social Memory: Modernity and Identity in Thailand and Laos, ed. Shigeharu Tanabe and Charles F. Keyes (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002), pp. 68-94.

(12) "Xishuangbanna zhou 2010 nian di liuci quanguo renkou pucha zhuyao shuju gongbao (di yi hao)" (The 2010 China's Sixth Census Data, Xishuangbanna Communique [No. 1]), at < rkpcgb/rkpcgb/201112/22689.html> [15 Dec. 2011].

(13) Condominas Georges, "Phiban Cults in Rural Laos", in Change and Persistence in Thai Society: Essays in Honor of Lauriston Sharp, ed. G.W. Shinner and A.T. Kirsch (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 255.

(14) See Edmund R. Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure (London: University of London & G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1954); F.K. Lehman, "The Relevance of the Founders' Cult for Understanding the Political Systems of the Peoples of Northern South East Asia and Its Chinese Borderlands", Paper presented to the Advanced Seminar of Socio-Cultural Anthropology of China, second session (Jan. 1997).

(15) See Stanley J. Tambiah, Performative Approach to Ritual (London: British Academy, 1979); Herbert P. Philips, "The Culture of Siamese Intellectuals", in Change and Persistence in Thai Society: Essays in Honor of Lauriston Sharp, ed. G. William Skinner and A. Thomas Kirsch (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 324-57; Charles F. Keyes, "Ambiguous Gender: Male Initiation in a Northern Thai Buddhist Society", in Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, ed. Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Harrell and Paula Richman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), pp. 66-96.

(16) Georges, "Phiban Cults in Rural Laos", pp. 252-73.

(17) Shigeharu Tanabe, "Spirits and Ideological Discourse: The Tai Lu Guardian Cults in Yunnan", Sojourn: Social Issues in Southeast Asia 3, no. 1 (Feb. 1988): 1-25.

(18) Georges, "Phiban Cults in Rural Laos", p. 255.

(19) Tanabe, "Spirits and Ideological Discourse", pp. 1-25.

(20) Dao Guangqiang and Zhu Depu, "Xishuangbanna zhao pianlin jiqi quanli jigou xitong" (Zhao Pianlin and its Power Structure in Xishuangbanna), Daizu shehui lishi diaocha (The Dai Social Historical Investigation), 1988, pp. 69-108.

(21) Tanabe, "Spirits and Ideological Discourse", pp. 1-25.

(22) Zhu Depu, "Jinghong Daizu jishen Qingkuang diaocha" (Survey on the Dai's Ritual in Jinghong), Daizu shehui lishi diaocha (The Dai Social Historical Investigation) 9 (1988): 243-82.

(23) Shen Haimei, "Xiangxiang de shequ, xing de zhengzhi yu quanli duiying: Mandi Daile ren de xinyang nushen yu nanxing zongjiao shijianzhe" (Imagined Community, Sexual Politics and Power Correspondence: Goddess and Male Religious Practitioners in Mandi Dai Society), Journal of Guangxi University for Nationalities, no. 1 (2009): 70-7.

(24) See Mintz W. Sidney, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Press, 1986).

(25) E.C. Chapman., "The Expansion of Rubber in Southern Yunnan, China", The Geographical Journal 157, no. 1 (Mar. 1991): 36-44.

(26) Ibid.

(27) Janet C. Sturgeon, "Governing Minorities and Development in Xishuangbanna, China: Akha and Dai Rubber Farmers as Entrepreneurs", Geoforum 41 (2010): 318-28.

(28) In Xishuangbanna, tea is another new cash crop cultivated on terraces in some regions nowadays. Historically, the Dailue people in Mandi have never cultivated tea before. They grow some tobacco in the valley in order to exchange tea with the Han Chinese, who live in the upland near Mandi. At present, tea plants are not grown on terraced slopes in Mandi due to the land and labour shortage in village.

(29) Cao Chengzhang, "The Single-Product Agriculture of Rice and the Reform of Economic Structure of the Dai Nationality", in Ethnicity and Ethnic Groups in China, New Asia Academic Bulletin, vol. VIII, ed. ed. Chien Chiao and Nicholas Tapp (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1989), pp. 89-102.

(30) Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, trans. W.D. Halls (Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers, 1984), p. 85.

(31) Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, p. 64.

(32) Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, p. 85.

(33) Ibid., p. 304.

(34) Ibid.

(35) Thomas Borchert, "Worry for the Dai Nation: Sipsongpanna, Chinese Modernity, and the Problems of Buddhist Modernism", The Journal of Asian Studies 67, no. 1 (Feb. 2008): 107-42.

(36) Tong and Kong, "Religion and Modernity: Ritual Transformations and the Reconstruction of Space and Time", pp. 29-44.

(37) Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, p. 304.

(38) Olsen E. Marvin, "Durkheim's Two Concepts of Anomie", in Emile Durkheim: Critical Assessments, vol. II, ed. Peter Hamilton (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 47-54.

(39) Beck, Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity, p. 21.

(40) Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, pp. 124-5.

(41) Ulrich Beck, World at Risk (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), pp. 7-8.

Characteristics of Mechanical Solidarity and Organic Solidarity
in Mandi

* Rice agriculture

* Common time in agricultural season

* Common sharing of natural resources like forests and rivers

* Similarity in food

* Gender division of labour

* Equilibrium of wealth

* Cooperation to construct house

* No need to lock the door at night (no locks)

* Market economy

* Division of labour

* Income gap of rubber planting (winners and losers)

* Competition for wealth and display of consumption

* Social stratification

* Building contractors

* Security door and safes
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Title Annotation:PART ONE: Special Issue on the Religious Revival of Ethnic China
Author:Shen, Haimei
Publication:China: An International Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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