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Turning Gwer Sa La Festival into Intangible Cultural Heritage: state superscription of popular religion in Southwest China.


In May 2006, the "Gwer Sa La of the Bai" in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Yunnan province was announced as one of the 518 "National Intangible Cultural Heritage" projects by the People's Republic of China (PRC) State Council. (1) The "success" was credited to the promotional efforts by the prefectural and provincial governments, which codified the application to the imagined viewers--the inspectors from the Ministry of Culture and the domestic and international tourists. However, the promotion significantly deviated from the meanings that the un-empowered participants are accorded, and also contradicted the previous official attitude. While the government had for years been accusing the Gwer Sa La Festival practices of being superstitious, wasteful and unseemly, it now describes how extramarital relations have been tolerated during this "ethnic festival". What caused such a radical change? How is Gwer Sa La practised and what significance do participants accord to it? Why were extramarital relations "tolerated" and how did they become the focal point? How, and in what sense did the Festival turn into an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) and what are the implications? In this article, I examine the practice and meanings of the Festival against the backdrop of the campaign to turn it into an ICH, and analyse the issues arising from the state authorisation. I argue that the state's effort to turn Gwer Sa La into an ICH is "superscription without encompassment", that is, the effort is based on an imagined, "primitive fertility cult", leading to sexual promiscuity, while the locally sanctioned practices are intended to renew prosperity and wealth through a series of encompassing powers.

The ICH campaign marks an emerging phenomenon in the chronic problems encountered in the relationship between the Chinese state and religion. Many studies portray the relations as "troubled" in modern China. (2) Some suggest that these "troubles" are the result of a surge in China's enthusiastic self-strengthening whereby practices that are deemed "superstitious", "backward" and "wasteful" are dumped into a category classified as "religion". (3) Others blame the "communist atheism" for causing the suppression of religious expression. (4) While these observations tend to presume a secularised state-society dichotomy, historical studies have highlighted the religiousness of the state. (5) Prasenjit Duara put forward the concept of "superscription" to explain the state-religion relations in late imperial China, where the emperor sustained a dynamic relation with various state-recognised religious practices through the "superscribing power" vested in the emperor's "Mandate of Heaven" (tianming). The state legitimised some cults by recognising their values shared by the state--say, for example, filial piety and loyalty, but never incorporated them into the state orthodoxy. This was the case of Guandi, the Chinese God of War. (6) Duara argues that "superscription" is an effective tool for the Chinese state to regulate popular religions and China's current government should consider restoring this power. (7)

Indeed, today's Chinese state does share a certain form of religiosity with the imperial court. Both the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its predecessor, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), wielded strong regulatory measures on religious practices through nationalising religious associations as well as creating a "superstitious regime" for suppression. (8) During the first half of the PRC regime, the state levied harsh policies to suppress religion on the basis of the religion-superstition dichotomy, (9) but starting from 1980, the state began to adopt soft measures and began to develop formal or informal types of apparatus to accommodate various religious practices, albeit with condescending disdain. (10) As Oakes and Sutton observed, in contemporary China, "[a] key theme of the reform period is the continuing state effort to co-opt and subsume religious activities, as well as (more obviously) to control and supervise them administratively and by law ... The gods and churches are sponsored and are in principle subsumed within the party-state--much as approved gods and religious institutions in imperial times were subsumed ideologically within the imperial metaphor and bureaucratically within the official system". (11)

If the post-Mao Party-state began to adopt the way the imperial China co-opted various religious practices, is turning Gwer Sa La into an ICH project a state tool to "subsume", or, to use Duara's term, to "superscribe" religions? If so, how does it fit with the local meanings of such practices?


Gwer Sa La is an annual festival in the Dali plain, the political, economic and cultural centre of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Celebrated from the night of the 22nd to the 25th of the fourth lunar month, Gwer Sa La means "strolling in three places". Most of the Bai in the Dali basin visit these three places. The Capital of the Gods (Shendu) is the first and major destination, where people join in the celebration in one way or another, burning joss sticks, dancing, jostling one another in a great crowd, or engaging in song duets. The next two destinations are the Riverside Town and Mer Ger Yu village, where more merrymaking ensues. By the time Gwer Sa La ends, the itinerary in the Dali basin completes a circle. The Old Women Associations of each village, representing their village patron gods (benzvlt), pay homage to the images and temples at these destinations. Vendors rent spots in the marketplace and sell refreshments, cloth, shoes and CDs with local music. Dance troupes and music bands provide entertainment in the open field near the temple. Government agents--policemen and low-ranking officials--oversee the crowd and maintain order. Friends of the same gender ("old pals") come together in horse-drawn carriages, auto rickshaws, or motorbikes in the warm breeze of early summer. Some of them may seek to reunite with "lovers" (jiani). (12)

According to the practitioners, the Gwer Sa La Festival dates back to "the beginning of mankind" (youren jiuyou le), but was not recorded until the late Qing. During the Republican Era (1911-1948), the local government decided that it was a "corrupt" and "decadent" festival. In the 1916 edition of the Dali Gazetteer, Gwer Sa La was described as "superstitious, forbidden and abandoned, and the images had been destroyed", probably by the Muslim insurgents of the 1870s. (13) In the 1930s, the government directly banned the practice and posted notices in every village. However, villagers continued to participate, (14) as a local populist elite wrote in the 1940s, "[the custom] was handed down over generations for more than 1,200 years. How could thousands of peasants give up their belief for the sake of a piece of paper written with a government order?" (15) After 1949, the communist government assumed an ambiguous attitude because it believed that the practice marked the ethnicity of the people, who turned into the Bai, one of the officially recognised ethnicities, (16) but the "superstitious" and "unseemly" elements were dismissed as backward practices and the Gwer Sa La was interpreted as "annual mobilisation of the agricultural labour". (17) Hostility took a radical turn during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when no one dared to join the Festival except for some "bold" villagers, who were arrested and accused of "committing improper man-woman relations". (18)

From the 1980s, Gwer Sa La experienced a vibrant revival. Not only were the activities open to all, the municipal government also began to provide logistical support to the event where hundreds of thousands would appear. Almost everyone I interviewed has been involved in the Gwer Sa La Festival at least once, many of them never missing one. It also attracts domestic and international tourists, especially after 1996 when the provincial government promoted it to "build up a great province of ethnic culture". Actually, as noted later, the word "culture" has become a keyword in describing the Festival.

Many factors may have contributed to the revival of Gwer Sa La--the relaxation of religious control, rapid growth of the tourism industry and the incentive to create local revenue. In 1990, a well-known ethnologist proposed to legalise the "benzvlt", a network of village patron gods central to Gwer Sa La, as a formal religion for its "peaceful", grassroots nature. (19) This proposal stood no chance of acquiring the status of an official religion, but it rightly pointed out the religiosity of Gwer Sa La--the temples, images, rituals, pilgrims, legends and efficacy of bestowing heirs to a household. Since the proposal for official religion status never drew attention from the political authority, another word became more appropriate. In 1994, an ethnologist-official, Yang Zhengye, found a way to legitimise the patron god system by calling it a "culture" instead of a "religion". (20)

Applying for ICH Project Status

Identifying the Gwer Sa La Festival and the patron god system as "culture" rather than "religion" helped it avoid sensitivity and suspicion from the state, since the PRC government stuck steadfastly to recognising only five religions. This depoliticising move gave some room to the local government to categorise some apparently religious practices, and finally enabled it to launch a campaign for ICH status. In 2005, the Bureau of Culture of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture submitted an application through the provincial Bureau of Culture to the state Ministry of Culture, asking to include the Gwer Sa La Festival in the national representative list of ICH Projects. The application was made immediately after China joined in the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2004. According to Yang Yanjun, then deputy-governor of the Dali prefecture and the major architect of the application campaign, it was a "triumph" of the "Bai culture". (21) It turned out to be so: Gwer Sa La was officially included in the national ICH list in May 2006.

In 2008, a Gwer Sa La "master" was located and subsequently endorsed by the Ministry of Culture as the "representative transmitter" (daibiaoxing chuanchengren) of the Festival. Before long, another man was nominated for the same position. Given the Festival's diverse activities, it was doubtful to claim that one or two persons could represent a "cultural activity", but following the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage protocol, transmitters had to be singled out anyway, because one of the safeguarding measures of the prefectural government was to "identify representative transmitters ... encouraging them to take some apprentices". (22)

Application for an ICH project, like most applications in China, entailed a series of procedures involving the coordination of different bureaucracies. Though expert opinions were sought, time and money were spent mostly on lobbying efforts by the local government to convince their superiors--provincial and national--who made the decisions. In the case of Gwer Sa La, the participants had very little say, if nothing at all, in the process of application. To the officials in the hierarchy of the Party-state, the participants were anonymous and homogeneous, lumped together as "the mass", subject to observation and representation. Actually, the Gwer Sa La participants I interviewed seldom knew what intangible cultural heritage was all about.

In order to convince the decision-makers, the ICH applicant (the Dali government) must demonstrate three values--cultural, social and economic. The application material was thus prepared to show the superiors these values by imagining an audience of government officers, who were in turn imagining an audience of tourists and their superiors. Therefore, material was gathered to analyse how Gwer Sa La was codified by low-rank state-agents and ratified by their superiors sitting behind the office desks in provincial and national capitals. The major application material was a brochure called Application Book of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, authored by Yunnan Province's Bureau of Culture. Its compilation was commissioned by its subordinate--the Bureau of Culture of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. The following analysis is based on this brochure. Hereafter, its author is called "the applicant".

The brochure starts with a series of defining sentences: (23)
   The 'Dali Bai Gwer Sa La' (Dali Baizu Rao Sanling) is a traditional
   folk cultural activity, created through the Bai's long agricultural
   practice and rice-paddle customs. It was intended to amuse gods and
   man, performed through songs, dances and sacrifices, hosting a
   spectrum of cultural activities including history, religion,
   folklore, art and commerce ... Its original meaning is probably to
   visit three 'public houses'. The 'three spirits' (sanling) refer to
   three symbols of gods, who are the most important ones among the
   benzvlt, a religion particular to the Bai ...

Here, Gwer Sa La represents beliefs the applicant is almost entirely sure of: a materialist origin arising from rice cultivation and the religious nature (to "amuse gods and man") transcending the Bai-ness ("hosting a spectrum of cultural activities").

The application booklet enumerates more Bai cultural "items" and activities found in Gwer Sa La, all of which are "uniquely" Bai. Gwer Sa La takes place in the central area of the Bai's prefecture. A variety of tools--"sun patch", the willow, the gourd, the dancing stick ("tyrant's whip") and the drum ("golden coin drum" and "double-swallows")--are found nowhere else but among the Bai. Some standard Chinese musical instruments such as the suona (a Chinese shawm) and sanxian (a Chinese lute) are described as "Bai suona" and "Bai sanxian". All are related to the religious past of the Bai, so that the Festival is "a folk carnival entertaining gods and man, solely possessed (duyou) by the Bai". Three legends are provided as the possible origin of Gwer Sa La, each of which tells how the Bai king ruled his Bai subjects. It is represented as the survival of a mysterious cult, having "irreplaceable artistic value", because it "remembers the formation and the history of the Bai ethnic costume, and reflecting the richness of the Bai culture".

However, the application brochure declares that Gwer Sa La, being an old cult, is "on the verge of extinction". The rhetoric of marginality is constructed by the applicant: "because of the time-change and impact from the dominant culture, Gwer Sa La as an old folk cultural activity is facing the crisis of gradual extinction". It suggests that "the introduction of modern agriculture", "the media", "social mobility" and all aspects from the "dominant culture" (qiangshi wenhua) are to be blamed. The Han Chinese, with all its economic, social and cultural activities, is regarded in this context as the "dominant culture", which "changes significantly the Bai's lifestyle" and "marginalises the Bai's village culture". Paradoxically, tourism, one of the incentives for the application, is also named by the applicant as a major reason for "changing significantly the spatial environment that Gwer Sa La depends on, and contributing to the decline of Gwer Sa La". In a word, according to the applicant, all threats are not the Bai's but are external.

The applicant believes that the "cultural value" of Gwer Sa La is its inherent religious theme. The festival name refers to "three gods" where people visit "public house"-turned temples, the applicant believes. All of the "cultural activities"--dances, songs, costumes--are intended to "amuse gods". It is by nature a religious event that the integrity of the Bai culture is "preserved". The "three public houses" (gongfang) in the applicant brochure--credited as the Festival's "original meaning"--suggests a kind of imagined abode for the girls to take boys for "free sex". The image was drawn from the Morgan-Engels theory of primitive promiscuity on the one hand, and the "A Hsia" (24) practice going on among the nearby Moso people on the other. Gwer Sa La is thus associated with an imagined primitive history, a "living fossil". "Public house" is a term proposed by Yang Zhengye, director of the prefectural Bureau of Cultural Heritage, who was involved in the commission of the application brochure, and the ethnologist-official who also proposed that benzvlt is a "culture".

The "free sex" imagination is very likely drawn from the fact that Bai villagers do engage in some furtive relations during the Festival. However, they prefer to keep the lover-meeting theme of Gwer Sa La to themselves, and refrain from telling outsiders. The official attitude towards it has always been negative, if not hostile. However, along with the application of intangible cultural heritage, the once-"unseemly" lover meeting was turned from a taboo topic into positive moral value of the Bai. In the application brochure, one of the most highlighted contents about Gwer Sa La is the "open dating" (kaifang xianghui). (25)
   During the Gwer Sa La Festival, 'open dating' is allowed, or even
   encouraged, among men and women, old and young. They can take
   advantage of the Festival to meet their lovers whom they met before
   marriage. Gwer Sa La provides a time of open togetherness for
   lovers who could not turn their relations into marriage. This is
   allowed by their family members, free of moral denouncement.

As discussed earlier, the official attitude towards the Festival has always been negative, to the extent that lovers who meet in the event would be arrested for extramarital relations. Many Bai elites also try to deny its existence. (26) Given the political and intellectual elites' persistent rejection of the "lover meeting", this paragraph in the brochure goes against the grain by explicitly admitting its existence and praising it. "Open" (kaifang) here is an allusive reference to sex, so open dating suggests that Gwer Sa La provides lovers an opportunity for sexual relations, though it is not mentioned. What is more surprising is perhaps the value accredited to the "lover meeting": (27)
   Gwer Sa La is a place of Bai's free communication of their
   feelings, retaining some elements of primitive promiscuity ... It
   singularly reflects how the Bai society respects women, and
   recognises their status. (italicised words are the author's)

The evolutionist narrative, as reflected in the application brochure, is very interesting. Gwer Sa La is an old custom, older than the feudal society. However, it is also "modern": by allowing lover meetings to take place, Gwer Sa La fits the feminist standard--respect for women. To the applicant, having free sex means having respect for women, for probably in their minds, the modern West advocates: respecting women and having sex at will. Both the Bai and the West are romanticised, with a contrast to the "dominant" Han whose practices are "conservative" and thus "backward".

With no inhibitions about giving publicity to a so-called "unseemly" practice, media reports, folklore writings and tourism books begin to cover stories with various romanticised (mis)interpretations. Some Bai scholars argue that Gwer Sa La is a fertility cult. The mountains near the Gwer Sa La site were identified as "the valley that has sexual intercourse with women", a boldly male perspective. The "primitive Bai" would come to Dali every year for a "sex carnival", celebrating some kind of mysterious event. Gwer Sa La becomes, according to Wang Wei and some local scholars, "the survival and witness" of "primitive fertility cult", and "the survival of inter-clan group marriages at the time of the matrilineal society". (28) In the application brochure, the Festival is "a chance to unleash the freedom of life that the Bai cannot afford to miss", "an occasion where the Bai people wildly enjoy without any pretension", and "a festival where the Bai can enjoy the communication between lovers." It is therefore called the "Bai's Valentine's Day".

From hiding to promoting, the lover relations are justified by the applicant as a lost cult based on an imagined religion imprinted with primordial memories. This is valuable because on the one hand, Gwer Sa La is reminiscent of the early days of the Bai culture, when Morgan-Engels version of primitive marriage was practised, and on the other, it embraces the modern value of gender equality: (29)
   During the (Gwer Sa La) activities, the Bai men and women may
   establish a furtive lover relation through duets. This form of
   moral code not only allusively carries the Bai's correction over
   the Confucian dogma of feudal society, but also demonstrates the
   ultimate concern of human nature. It is externalised as the icon of
   intimacy among humans, and between humans and nature. (italicised
   words are the author's)

Here, the three "spirits" are thus associated with mysterious cult and primitive promiscuity, crystallised into three temples that participants visit. Gwer Sa La, due to its antiquity, is depicted by the applicant as superior to the "Confucian dogma of feudal society" that is associated strongly with the Han and the Chinese society as one that disrespects women. The politics of difference in terms of ethnicity, contrasting the Bai with the Han, are played out in a series of dichotomies: old vs. new, minority vs. majority, traditional vs. modern, pure vs. adulterated, superior vs inferior and weak vs. dominant.

The ICH application material has turned the Gwer Sa La Festival into a specimen of radical essentialisation of the Bai-ness, necessitated by survival, vulnerability and liberal sexual relations, which characterise it as being the Other. This representation reproduces what Stevan Harrell calls the "civilising projects", in which ethnic minorities were represented by the dominant political centre as ancestors, children and women. (30) In other words, the post-imperial Chinese state had very limited knowledge about the de facto religious practices of ethnic minorities to justify its deployment of imperial superscribing power.

Gala of an Imagined Religion

The application brochure aside, the ICH campaigners somehow felt compelled to represent Gwer Sa La in a tangible way. The opportunity came in 2009, when the Ministry of Culture decided to nominate Gwer Sa La for candidacy in a UNESCO "representative list" of intangible cultural heritage. Media coverage was coordinated at municipal, prefectural, provincial and national levels to "propagandise" the event. The prefectural governor's report to the local legislation emphasises the need to "accelerate the application of Gwer Sa La to world intangible cultural heritage". A committee composed of various political bodies was created to pool resources together for the new campaign. In addition to upgrading roads and renovating the temples, the committee mobilised a large team to stage a show on the first day of the Gwer Sa La Festival to showcase an ICH Project in a tangible way to a group of specialists from the Ministry of Culture who were sent to Dali to "instruct the work".

The show was unprecedented in terms of location, scale, spectators and performances. It was staged in a park in the Chongsheng Temple, the icon of Dali but has no significant alliance to the festival itself. (31) The show was seen as a government-sponsored gala performance no different from the Spring Festival Gala of the China Central Television. The entire show was conceptualised as a mysterious epic entitled Wishes of Cang Mountain and Er Lake and had three chapters ("Happily Receiving the Benzvlt"; "Dedication to the Time of Prosperity"; and "Giving Our Best Wishes"). The televised Gwer Sa La show involved 3,500 "artists and common Bai", who were grouped into four ensembles: the sutra-chanting ensemble, the ancient music ensemble, the "Gwer Sa La" ensemble and the dragon and lion dance ensemble. None of these performance items was ever found in the actual Gwer Sa La's festivities, which see genuine involvement from the spontaneous participants. The audience in the show was presumably from "all walks of life", but was headed ironically by "provincial and prefectural cadres". Also, all performances--songs and poems, dances and costumes--were newly created and intended to create an atmosphere of mystique and euphoria.

Before the start of the show, "distinguished guests" (guibin) from the Ministry were welcomed with "three gusts of fire", claimed to be the pious ceremony of Bai hospitality. The fire was said to symbolise "auspice, wishes, intimacy", and exorcism. Then, a group of pretty girls dressed in fanciful "Bai-style cloth" sprinkled "holy water" on the guests and placed "sun patches" on their temples.

The show began with an "ancient" Bai song, singing praises for the merit of the ancestors of the Bai, followed by an elaborate and carefully choreographed ceremony of benzvlt sacrifice, officiated by a "Bai priest" who was assisted by some "Bai warriors". They performed a "dance of offering"--gifting wine, chicken, pig, fish and fruit to the benzvlt sitting in a sedan-like altar. They jumped over the fire pyre, crossed the ring of fire, and climbed the fire pillar, imitating an imagined "wild people", or barbarians. They appeared to be dedicated believers of the mysterious, unknown "Bai religion", reminiscent of the past of the Bai. Chanting poems and words from time to time encouraged the performers and audience to enjoy the ecstatic mood: "Once a year, we Gwer Sa La/Amused Gods and human are/Mountains and rivers smile/Songs and dances roar into the sky ... So let us exhaust ourselves in songs and dance". Described as the Bai carnival by reporters, tourists and the local government, Gwer Sa La seems to offer a chance for men and women to "enjoy the freedom of life", "appreciate the authentic humanity", "clean the contaminated heart" and "feel the primitive moment of the human being".

The gala reflected what ICH applicant in the local government imagined about the Gwer Sa La Festival--an imagined religion based on the idea of an imagined community of the Bai. The free, artistic creation of the staged show not only presented itself as an avenue to experience the politics of difference in post-Mao China, but also an avenue of "real politics" to convince officials from the Ministry of Culture to invest in the Festival and the bidding for the world intangible cultural heritage status. By enjoying this carefully choreographed show on the day of Gwer Sa La, the officials from the Ministry were denied the chance to observe the entire process of the "real" Festival. The fact that the officials and the local government agents actually spent their time on the show demonstrates that there was a deep complicity: whoever the Gwer Sa La participants are, they do not matter in terms of interpretation or application.

Practising Gwer Sa La: The Religion Encompassed

Though the ICH applicant's presentation of the Festival almost creates a religion out of thin air, it would be a mistake to say Gwer Sa La is not religious in essence, and this is surely not religion as represented by the ICH applicant, namely, both the provincial and prefectural governments. Four years before the ICH application campaign, I began to collect data about Gwer Sa La and produced several publications. (32) My data were obtained through interviews that I held, during several fieldwork trips from 2001 to 2010, with the people who actually went to Gwer Sa La. The data show that prior to and after the ICH application, Gwer Sa La, to its practitioners, embodies a series of practices related to temples, rituals and household, encompassing one into another in terms of territoriality, where prosperity in human and wealth (fawang) is accorded great importance.

Health and wealth (fawang) are the most important concerns of a household, but they do not come from the house or from the alter of the house. A household usually seeks fawang through maintaining proper relations with the household's alterity--such as the in-laws, "old pals" (fvl jiart), and most important of all, the village patron gods (benzvlt). The gods are enshrined in the benzvlt temple, constituting a system of territorial cults found in every Bai-speaking village. Benzvlt means "my/our master", who sits in the middle of the temple dedicated to the deity or a group of deities, often one or more historical figures with a particular hagiography of great merit to the locality. The temple also contains four kinds of standard deities that bestow prosperity of different sorts--the god of fortune (caishen), the goddess of childbirth and infant mortality (niangniang), gods of domestic animals (liuchu dawang) and Prince Sakyamuni (dvn zix cainl). The last one, a half-naked boy image, is a favourite among newly-wed girls, accompanied by the mothers-in-law (or mother in the case of matrilocal residence), whose "grand tour" of praying for pregnancy and fertility must include paying homage to Prince Sakyamuni. The newly-wed girls would try to aim and hit the penis of the boy with a coin, and shyly disappear after her attempt is accomplished.

On a regular basis, female members of the household would pay homage to the benzvlt. Each household knows which benzvlt it "belongs to" because there is a direct correspondence between a benzvlt temple and territorial-based settlements consisting of several dozens of households. However, a household also pays obligatory homage to the neighbouring benzvlts, "like visiting a good neighbour". Actually, benzvlts are supposed to get along well with each other but the relation is egalitarian, as in the relations among households. Female members of the households, most often the old and young wives, bring joss sticks, fried rice cookies and steamed cakes to offer to the benzvlt statue and other deities, assisted by the temple caretaker who announces the visit. After the offerings, those who come for particular house affairs--such as death, birth, travel, etc.--commune with gods by cooking and eating in the temple. They then bring the leftovers home to share with other members of the household. Their departure is marked by the lighting of a string of firecrackers.

The occasions to pay homage vary but all are related to household concern about prosperity, as shown in the prayers. The concerns include starting a business, availability of irrigation water, building a house, taking an exam, travelling away from home and even settling a family dispute. Another category is important life events such as births, weddings, illness and death. Visitors conduct similar rituals to register birth and death, pray for pregnancy, recover from sickness, and of course to ensure prosperity of the household.

The responsibility to connect the household with the benzvlt temple goes far beyond making visits on occasions of household events. In Dali, each benzvlt temple accommodates an association of cultivators, called guyaonihui, or the Old Women Association (OWA). It is the destination that a woman wishes to go after she becomes socially "old", that is, when all her sons and daughters are already married. At this stage, she and her husband will retreat from household routines and sleep in separate beds as a new pregnancy is deemed shameful. Most of their spheres of activity take place outside the home, mainly devoted to temple visits and sutra chanting. The woman will receive congratulatory gifts upon initiation into the OWA. Given their relatively similar life paths, many association members have known each other since childhood or from their marrying into the same village.

The new life devoted to merit cultivation does not imply that the female member of the household leaves the concerns regarding the household's prosperity behind; instead she further enhances it. In fact, many believe that their households become prosperous because the old mothers cultivate good merits in the temple. Women cultivators are very important to the household because she cultivates for her family, while a man's cultivation, whatever it is, benefits only himself (guoyao ni xup yi jia, lao kuer xup yi ke). The cultivation involves a variety of positive and negative duties. For example, she should learn to recite as many sutras as possible, be dutiful to the service of gods, be generous in donation and be active in raising funds for the celebration of benzvlt's birthday. She should abstain from non-vegetarian food and avoid quarrels, telling lies, cheating or cursing. Some women were so devoted to the practices that after death, tablets dedicated to them are placed in the benzvlt temple.

Encompassing the Benzvlt Gods: The Gwer Sa La Venue

If the patron god (benzvlt) temple is the source of a household's prosperity, then Gwer Sa La is the source of prosperity of these gods. The major events of Gwer Sa La take place in the Capital of the Gods, where participants are numerous. People of both sexes and all ages can come, often with their "old pals", or non-kin related friends of the same sex and same age group. Besides the old pals, OWA are obliged to show "face" and "stroll" in the Capital of the Gods on behalf of their patron gods. Each association will form a contingent and parade around. They wear bizarre dresses--paper patches and colourful and exaggerated headgear--and dance with willow and gourd to "solicit a prosperous harvest in the field, in human multiplicity, and everything". Records from 1900 to 1948 showed that the parades were more elaborate, and each procession represented its patron god. The assembly of all these processions was called "attending the emperor's court". (33)

The Capital of the Gods, venue for the Love People Emperor, is believed to be the most powerful place of prosperity. (34) Female members of the households will also pay homage to it after visiting their own benzvlt temples. Newly-wed girls also visit the Capital of the Gods to pray for pregnancy. She replaces one of the many pairs of embroidered shoes offered to the statue of Guomu (Queen), with a new pair of shoes made personally by her. It is believed that keeping these shoes almost ensures pregnancy.

To face (chaol) and to stroll (gwer) are words that visitors use to describe what they do here. "Chaol" semantically implies coming from afar for a hard-laboured veneration. By facing, one connects to the gods in the temples of the venue. Chaol includes a series of veneration--getting down on one's knees before the image, burning petitions, offering incense and food, communing with the gods and donating some cash. A "chaol-er" will receive a red or yellow-coloured ribbon, sometimes written with "the merit of chaol to X temple" (X chao gongde), from the temple caretakers, A chaol-er will wear it proudly during the Festival, and bring it home to tie at the door, celebrating his or her deeds.

Strolling (gwer) means visiting, sightseeing and having fun that involves singing and dancing, enjoying snacks and drinks, "shopping" from vendors, watching live performances of local opera and meeting with strangers. Strolling takes place in or around the temples, which also gives the name of Gwer Sa La ("strolling in three places").

A discrete act of strolling is to take a jiani (lover) or bir sai bair vux (engage in furtive relations or flirt). An alternative name to Gwer Sa La as suggested here is Felu Hui (a gathering for extramarital/premarital romance). The relationship is usually established through singing duets at night. It involves a serious lifelong commitment to reunite with each other each year at the Festival, but the lovers are also obliged to limit their reunion to only this occasion. This is the reason many people give to explain why participants usually come with "old pals" instead of persons of the opposite sex, especially married couples. Spouses usually tolerate jiani relations, though it is not openly discussed. I was told of a supportive wife whose 70-year-old husband fell ill and missed a reunion with his old lover. She tried many medications on him but he did not get better. The next year, after she made him a pair of new shoes and let him attend Gwer Sa La, he miraculously recovered.

However, among strangers, men and women flirt casually from time to time. In 2002, I overheard an interesting conversation between a male visitor and several women who were baking a cake by the roadside. Seeing the cake shrouded in dense smoke, the man asked one of the women,

'How could you eat this black thing?' 'Black is delicious.' 'How could you eat it raw?' 'Cooked is no good, in Gwer Sa La we eat raw things.'

"Raw" is a pun meaning food and strangers, and "black" (he ququ) actually refers to a penis.

Nowadays, it is less common for lovers to meet in this fashion, and most participants insist on keeping the relations to themselves, and refrain from revealing to outsiders, especially non-local people. Many may say, "I never heard about the lover things", or "we go but we come back before dark", or "people of other villages may do, but we don't". There are even some academic papers attempting to deny the existence of lovers. (35) Extramarital or premarital relations would be an "appalling" custom to the mainstream Chinese culture. In fact, the three days of merrymaking beyond village and home already go against the grain, along with the "eccentric" dances, gods, temples and rituals.

Encompassing the Capital of the Gods: Pilgrimage to Dali's Alterity

The temple of the Capital of the Gods pertains to the superior power of prosperity, a connection forged by the Bai people of Dali who come with their old pals through the act of "facing" and "strolling", including some who come to meet lovers among strangers. The superiority of the Capital of the Gods also manifests itself as being the source of the benzvlt temple, which is renewed by the OWA, who comes to face and stroll too. Then, is there a source for the Capital of the Gods? The question calls for an understanding of the prehistory of Gwer Sa La, where the OWA plays a central role. This history is based on a legend of "Princess Jingu", one of the most popular legends in Dali. It tells the story of how Princess Jingu, daughter of Love People Emperor who lived in the Capital of the Gods, eloped with a hunter. She ran away from home to the south on the ninth of the second month after a scolding from her father. In the wild, she met a hunter named Fumagong who saved her from a serpent. Out of affection and gratitude, she gave her virginity to him in the dark. The next morning, she passed out at the sight of the extraordinarily ugly face of Fumagong. But she eloped with him anyway to his home in Weishan, a mountainous "backward" place. Love People Emperor sent his son Tuan Ssu-p'ing to look for Jingu, but the son got lost in Weishan and suffered a bitter life there. The Emperor, though angry with his daughter's unapproved marriage, finally accepted the reality and permitted the princess to pay a visit in Dali. Jingu's friends set out to receive her on the same day she vanished. Although uninvited, Fumagong accompanied her to Dali. On the way, Jingu's friends began to worry about his ugliness. Fumagong also felt himself undeserving, and since he was not invited after all, he left the band and hid in the Protected Peace Temple to wait for Jingu, just a few miles south of the Capital of the Gods. On the third of the third month, he became impatient and decided to leave alone. However, when he passed by the City God Temple at the Dali city, he changed his mind and stayed there. On the 23rd of the fourth month, Princess Jingu finished her visit, joined Fumagong, and they set out for their home. The legend ended with the Emperor's decision to pass the throne to Fumagong.

This is a classic example of stranger-king in the sense that it is a story about the "politics of alterity" (36) that the king must be someone of foreign origin other than the autochthonous people, and someone whose behaviour is "beyond humanity". Fumagong ("Lord Fuma", also known as the Emperor's son-in-law) was powerful and eligible to assume the throne because he was a hunter from a backward land draped in animal skins with an absurdly ugly face that was almost not human, and one who dared to elope with a pretty princess.37 Actually, the legend contains many textual sources that span the last 12 centuries, especially some sources that justify the historic expansion of the Nanzhao Kingdom (652-899) from Weishan to Dali with mention of how the first king was married to the daughter of the White King of Dali. (38) As suggested by Sahlins in his bold but provocative assertion that "the elementary forms of politics, kinship and religion are all one", that is "the assimilation ... of the alterity". This alterity has essentially become the "elementary forms of economy" by imparting the power of agriculture and wealth to people who come to the Capital of the Gods and re-enact the legend.

The Dali OWAs re-enact the legend on a much fuller scale by launching three pilgrimages according to the dates in the legend, all of them taking place before Gwer Sa La. The first pilgrimage is called "receiving Jingu". On the ninth of the second month, the OWAs will leave the Dali plain, heading south to the Great Temple of the West (xibian dasi) in Weishan, approximately 100 kilometres away from the southernmost town of Dali. Some of the pilgrims sleep in different temples along the way if they travel by foot, but nowadays most will take minivans. In the Great Temple of the West, they change the costumes on the statues of Jingu and her husband, Fumagong, with new ones they bring along. However, since it is impractical for every OWA to execute this step, many just bring the new dresses, drape them on the statues and bring them back on horseback or in the basket on the head of the OWA (called the "sutra mother"). The costumes the pilgrims bring back will be sent to the Protected Peace Temple where Fumagong hid, and to the Capital of the Gods to be offered next to the image of Love People Emperor's wife, Guomu, who was Princess Jingu's mother. Some pilgrims proceed further south to bring Jingu's brother, Duan Ssu-ping, called the Founding Emperor, back to Dali in a similar manner. It is critical that each OWA finds an opportune moment to re-enter the Dali plain in order to pray for rain at this moment. Otherwise, "we have to prepare for a year of drought".

The second pilgrimage starts from the second of the third lunar month, when members of the OWA climb the mountain where the Protected Peace Temple is located and spend the night there. The OWA will burn offerings the next morning to symbolise the sending-off of Fumagong on the day he became impatient and left the temple. This pilgrimage inaugurates the beginning of the duet-singing season. From the third of the third month to the ninth of the ninth month, the Bai can sing to each other at any time or any place except within their households or between persons whereby the incest taboo applies.

On the 22nd of the fourth month, a day before Gwer Sa La, members of every OWA again come out from their villages and gather at the courtyard of the City God Temple outside the south gate of the Dali city. Each woman carries a large basket on her back stuffed with things needed for the next three days, including food, joss sticks, wooden drums, pots, an umbrella, blankets and stools. In the following days, they will enjoy divine communion with the gods by cooking inside and outside the temple courtyard. Before cooking begins, they must offer the raw food to the gods by carrying it and kneeling before the images. They must also leave the pots open while cooking so that the gods can partake their shares. Before mealtime, the cooked food is offered to the gods again. These processes will be repeated whenever the women prepare their meals, thus repeatedly experiencing the joy of communion with different deities. After the meal, each association would form two parallel lines, facing each other to chant the sutras under the lead of the head. This monotonous repetition carries on until dark, when entertainment in the form of singing and dancing takes over. People living nearby will come and watch with amusement in the pleasant breeze of early summer. After midnight, these old women gradually turn in and sleep either on the temple floor or in the neighbourhood inns.

The Gwer Sa La practised by the participants involves a set of embodied knowledge--singing, dancing, chanting, dressing up deities, making offerings, praying and preserving a set of institutions--the benzvlt temples, the Capital of the Gods, Old Women Associations, the households and a "Magna Carta", the legend of Princess Jingu. The intertwining divine engagement is regarded as the fulfilment of a common concern for life--prosperity in human and wealth (fawang); or to borrow from Charles Taylor, "human flourishing". (39) Prosperity is embedded in the hierarchies through the institutions--the households, the benzvlt temple, the Capital of the Gods and the Weishan in the south, each of which is encompassed by the other, materialised and enacted by the spontaneous participants, their old pals and the Old Women Associations. Gwer Sa La is religious in the sense that it represents the ultimate encompassing power to prosperity vested in a hierarchy of temples, and is sanctioned by the legend of the stranger-king, as well as worshipped and practised by participants.

Conclusion: Superscription without Encompassment

In China, what anthropologists usually term as "religions" are actually subject to the regulation of at least two government organs: first, the Public Security in the case of heterodox cults, and sometimes unregistered churches; and second, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs that takes charge of the five major religions. With the increasing number of ICH projects, a third organ--the Ministry of Culture--is gradually emerging as a new approach to co-opt religions of non-subversive nature. The ICH project offers a chance for many practices of popular and ethnic religions to be legitimised. Therefore, they can be protected by law without being recognised as religions. The Gwer Sa La Festival, declared as a national ICH, together with other rapidly growing cultural heritage projects, may mean that the superscribing state is back, albeit in stumbling steps.

However, the Gwer Sa La participants--the Bai men and women and the Old Women Associations--are never empowered. They have never been consulted with or observed in any degree of complexity or patience by the decision-makers. The official meanings of Gwer Sa La are bestowed upon the practitioners like a gift they have never desired, or a debt they have never owed. However, the structure of prosperity--household, communal, territorial and celestial--remains intact, leaving the practitioners to carry on with what they have been doing, apart from the paid performances of the Gwer Sa La gala and the tourist development projects around it. The new additions ranging from ICH monuments to infrastructural renovation are either applauded or ignored without interest. It seems that in the foreseeable future, the ICH project is ultimately the state's burden. In other words, without recognising the logic of encompassment in the Festival, the superscription is "legible" only to the state.

On 29 November 2011, the UNESCO's 6th Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage adjourned in Bali. Following the efforts of the Chinese Ministry of Culture, Gwer Sa La (Raosanling) was nominated for inscription on the UNESCO's Representative List. But the application was ultimately rejected. Ten days later, in a national conference for safeguarding ICH, vice-minister of the Chinese Ministry of Culture, Wang Wenzhang, urged that "... one should sufficiently respect the cultural value and particularity of the cultural heritage, and we must stop 'fake folklore'." (40)

State authorisation of grassroots, religious practices has to be made clear through objectification, materialisation and codification. However, the process of turning Gwer Sa La into an ICH Project has almost entirely created a new version of it, starkly different from what the practitioners have been practising and observing. The new version--the evolutionist discourse, the imagined history and the materialised gala--is perhaps not an appropriation of the local knowledge. The appropriation is hardly acknowledged given the fact that most local people have never heard about the ICH application, and the new version is a potentially contending or complementary representation of the Festival as such. Therefore, appropriation barely goes beyond the state agents of the local government, who are themselves ethnic elites. While the local meaning of the Gwer Sa La Festival is embedded in a system of institutional encompassment, the superscribing power of the state seems to continue to remain as a disembedded Other, unlikely to engage and participate in the local world.


This article is based on a project supported by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

(1) General Office, "Guowuyuan guanyu gongbu diyipi guojiaji feiwuzhiwenhua yichan minglu de tongzhi" (State Council's Notice Regarding Publicising the First Batch of National Intangible Cultural Heritage Projects), State Council of China, no. 18, 2006.

(2) Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, "Introduction", in Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation, ed. Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), pp. 1-42.

(3) Ge Zhaoguang, "Chuan yijian chicun buhe de yishan: guanyu Zhongguo zhexue he rujiao de zhenglun" (Wearing a Badly Tailored Cloth: Dispute on the Chinese Philosophy and Confucianism), Kaifang shidai (Open Times) (Nov. 2001): 49-55.

(4) For example, Yang Fenggang, "Between Secularist Ideology and Desecularizing Reality: The Birth and Growth of Religious Research in Communist China", Sociology of Religion 65, no. 2 (2004): 101-19.

(5) John Lagerway, China: A Religious State (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010).

(6) Prasenjit Duara, "Superscribing Symbols: The Myth of Guandi, Chinese God of War", Journal of Asian Studies 47, no. 4 (Nov. 1988): 778-95.

(7) Prasenjit Duara, "The Historical Roots and Character of Secularism in China", in China and International Relations: The Chinese View and the Contribution of Wang Gungwu, ed. Zheng Yongnian (London: Routledge, 2010).

(8) Vincent Goossaert, "Republican Church Engineering. The National Religious Associations in 1912 China", in Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation, ed. Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), pp. 209-32; Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009).

(9) Yang Fenggang, "Between Secularist Ideology and Desecularizing Reality".

(10) Adam Chau, "Introduction: Revitalizing and Innovating Religious Traditions in Contemporary China", in Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation, ed. Adam Chau (London: Routledge, 2011).

(11) Tim Oakes and Donald Sutton, "Introduction", in Faiths on Display: Religious Revival and Tourism in China, ed. T. Oakes and D. Sutton (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010), pp. 14-5.

(12) Liang Yongjia, Diyu de dengji (Territorial Hierarchy) (Beijing: Sheke wenxian chubanshe, 2005).

(13) Zhou Zhonglin, ed., Dali xianzhi gao (Dali County Gazetteer Draft) (Kunming: Chengwen chuban Gongsi, 1948 [1916]).

(14) C.P. Fitzgerald, The Tower of Five Glories: A Study of Min Chia of Ta Li, Yunnan (London: Cresset, 1941), p. 122.

(15) Zhao Guansan, Writings from the Dragon Lake (Hong Kong: private print, 1999 [1947]), p. 307.

(16) Liang Yongjia, "The 'Ethnic Error' in Under the Ancestor's Shadow and the Dali Ethnicity in the Republican Era", Chinese Sociology and Anthropology 42, no. 4 (Summer 2010): 80-96.

(17) Zhang Wenxun, Bai zu wenxue jianshi (History of the Bai Literature) (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 1959), p. 301.

(18) Wang Ningsheng, Xinan fanggu sawu nian (Thirty-Five Years of Historical Journeys in the South-West) (Jinan: Shandong Pictorial Press, 1998), p. 77.

(19) Zhan Chengxu, "Shiyi jiang Baizu de benzhu chongbai dingwei zongjiao" (Proposal for Calling Benzvlt Cult Religion), Yunnan shehui kexue 3 (1990): 48-53.

(20) Yang Zhengye, Baizu Benzhu wenhua (Bai Benzvlt Culture) (Kunming: Yunnan minzu chubanshe, 1994).

(21) Yang Yanjun and Yang Zhengye, Baizu Raosanling (Gwer Sa La of the Bai) (Kunming: Yunnan minzu chubanshe, 2005).

(22) Bureau of Culture, Guojiaji feiwuzhi wenhua yichan daibiaozuo shenbaoshu (Application for Representative List of National Intangible Cultural Heritage) (Kunming: Yunnan Provincial Government), p. 16.

(23) Ibid., p. 5.

(24) A Hsia practice is the major form of sexual relations of the Moso people north of Dali prefecture. Observing strict incest taboo, the Moso men and women enjoy relative freedom in choosing sex partners. The practice is often romanticised as either survival of primitive marriage or a specimen of modern liberalism.

(25) Bureau of Culture, Guojiaji feiwuzhi wenhua yichan daibiaozuo shenbaochu, p. 7.

(26) For example, Zhao Yuzhong, "Difang fengsu de quanshi yu jiangou" (Interpretation and Construction of a Local Custom), Sixiang zhanxian 34, no. 1 (2008): 9-12.

(27) Bureau of Culture, Guojiaji feiwuzhi wenhua yichan daibiaozuo shenbaochu, p. 10.

(28) Wang Wei, "Cong 'Raosanling' de huodong xingshi kan Baizu wenhua tezheng" (The Bai's Ethnic Cultural Characteristics Seen from Gwer Sa La's Activities), Dali Wenhua, no. 157 (2006): 50-1.

(29) Bureau of Culture, Guojiaji feiwuzhi wenhua yichan daibiaozuo shenbaochu, p. 10.

(30) Stevan Harrell, "Introduction: Civilizing Projects and the Reaction to Them", in Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers, ed. Stevan Harrell (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), pp. 3-36.

(31) When the Gwer Sa La participants passed by the temple on the first day, they skipped it and headed to Capital of Gods a dozen miles away.

(32) Liang Yongjia, Diyu de Dengji; Liang Yongjia, "Ethnicity in Legend: The Gwer Sa La of the Bai in Southwest China", Contemporary China Research Centre (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Shue Yan University, 2007).

(33) Xu Jiarui, Dali gudai wenhuashi (Cultural History of Ancient Dali) (Kunming: Yunnan minzu chubanshe, 2005 [1948]), p. 241.

(34) Liang, "Ethnicity in Legend".

(35) For example, Zhao Yuzhong, "Difang fengsu de quanshi yu jiangou".

(36) Marshall Sahlins, "The Stranger-King, or Elementary Forms of the Politics of Life", Indonesia and the Malay World 36, no. 105 (2008): 177-99.

(37) Liang Yongjia, "Stranger-Kingship and Cosmocracy; or, Sahlins in Southwest China", The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 12, no. 3 (2011): 236-54.

(38) Hou Chong, Baizu Xinshi: Baigu Tongji Yanjiu (History of Heart: A Study of the General History of the Ancient Bai) (Kunming: Yunnan minzu chubanshe, 2002).

(39) Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 29.

(40) See <> [20 Dec. 2011].

Liang Yongjia ( is Professor of Anthropology at China Agricultural University, Beijing. He received his PhD in Anthropology from Peking University. Currently, his research interests include religious revival in China, secularism and ethnicity in post-imperial China, and comparative study of world renunciation and kingship.
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Title Annotation:PART ONE: Special Issue on the Religious Revival of Ethnic China
Author:Liang, Yongjia
Publication:China: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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