The Lòlop’ò of Southwest China’s Yunnan Province have a folktale in which they, Han Chinese, and Tibetans were given the technology of writing. The Han man was wealthy, purchased paper, and wrote on paper. And so the Han continue to have writing today. The Tibetan man wrote on an animal hide, and so the Tibetans now have writing as well. The Lòlop’ò man, being poor, wrote on buckwheat pancakes. He ate the pancakes on the way home, and the Lòlop’ò now keep their texts orally among a group of ritual specialists. In Erik Mueggler
’s Songs for Dead Parents: Corpse, Text, and World in Southwest China
(University of Chicago Press, 2017), Lòlop’ò oral literature and Han Chinese writing feature prominently in local “work on the dead.” For the Lòlop’ò, one’s familial ancestors, and non-familial ancestors are present in the world, and people maintain complex intimate relations with them that are not constrained by death. These relations find expression in rituals in which souls are given material body and then dispersed again, in laments and chants, and in gravestones inscribed with Chinese. In examining these various factors, this book provides new pathways for studying the anthropology of death, and for understanding ethnic minority experience in Southwest China.
Timothy Thurston is Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds. His research examines language at the nexus of tradition and modernity in China’s Tibet.