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The poetics of grief and the price of hemp in southwest China

Posted on November 1, 1998

Done splicing her hemp. She dances in the marketplace. Shi Ching (Book of Songs)

One bright winter afternoon in 1992, in the mountains of Yunnan Province, China, Li Yong told me a story. Li Yong and I were crowded into a courtyard in his largely Yi (or Lolop’o) village, at a mortuary ritual for one of his affines. In the courtyard’s center, where the corpse had lain in its coffin seven days before, a crude trough had been scratched into the earth, with a shallow hole at the end where the corpse’s mouth had been. The dead woman’s daughter, her husband’s sisters and their daughters, and some of their female friends sat on benches on either side, singing formal poetic laments about labor and pain. To accompany her tears, the daughter ladled water from a bucket into the hole in front of her. The water overflowed into the trough and gradually turned the lower surface of the courtyard to mud. Women from the dead woman’s son’s family moved about the courtyard pouring alcohol for the hundreds of guests, who drank while squatting, sitting or standing, their feet in the mud.

Li Yong called his story “the underworld ghost market” (cimi ne vaeje in the Central dialect of Yi, his first language).2 He intended it to illuminate the transactions between living and dead conveyed by the tears, water, alcohol, and words that flooded the courtyard. This tale was widely known and often related; I had frequently heard encapsulated versions of it here and elsewhere in Yunnan, when people said, “When someone dies, it is said that he crosses a market street.” Since that afternoon, I have come to consider it a kind of Plato’s-cave tale of highland Yunnan. Like that parable, it voices widespread assumptions about relations between visible and invisible, authentic and unauthentic, and true and apparent, as it describes an exchange between living and dead:3 Long ago, the living [ts’o] could see the dead [ne], and the dead could see the living. Living and dead both attended the market: on that side of the street the dead sold their things; on this side the living sold theirs, and the dead took the same form as the living. At that time they used copper money, not paper. The dead used paper to stamp out coins that looked just like the copper coins of the living, and with this money they bought things from the living. But the living were not to be trifled with. They put the coins in a pan of water: the real coins made of copper sank, and the paper coins made by the dead floated. They returned the false money to the dead, and gradually the dead could no longer buy from the living; they could buy only from other dead.

If your father died, you could go to the market the next day and see him. But it was not permitted for living and dead to speak to each other. The dead were punished if they spoke to the living-their officials taxed and fined them-and the living were afraid to speak to the dead. So living and dead could only look at each other. Then as now, the dead sometimes harmed [k’s, literally “bit”] the living, but the living could beat the dead in return, so the dead had no power over them. Disgusted with this situation, the dead asked for a sieve to be set up between them and the living. The living could see the dead only vaguely, but the dead [being closer to the sieve’s holes could see the living clearly. The living did not like this, for the sieve was too thick to beat the dead through. The living were stupid: some say they asked for a paper screen to be placed on their side of the street; they could beat the dead through the paper, but they could not see them at all.

Many people in Li Yong’s village and the surrounding area had told me that the purpose of mortuary ritual was to disentangle the world of the dead (nemi) from that of the living (ts’omi). In this tale, coins, water, sieves, and paper are manipulated selectively to cut off social intercourse between living and dead. Nevertheless, each rearrangement of boundaries is circumscribed by the marketplace and the political authorities imagined to govern it. These authorities’ presence is always a given; living and dead both depend on them to regulate all transactions with taxes and fines.

In this part of highland Yunnan, mourning the loss of a family member was a matter of weaving a screen between living and dead and conducting transactions that involved seeing, hearing, beating, biting, bribing, buying, and giving through this screen-through, as it were, the openings in a bamboo sieve. In mortuary ritual another medium with similar weave took the place of the bamboo sieve: hempen cloth, used both as a shroud to separate the dead from the living and as a currency to enable their continuing transactions. Mourners explicitly associated the work of grieving with the labor of making hempen cloth (along with making offerings of cooked rice and buckwheat cakes) and with all the relationships this life-sustaining labor entailed-relationships with the market, with the political institutions that set its rules and regulated its prices, and with those who made claims on one’s labor and its products on the basis of those rules. Female mourners worked hardest at these connections as they sat in the courtyard weeping, ladling water, and singing laments. Their songs described in painstaking detail every step of the work of making the rice, buckwheat cakes, and hempen cloth they offered the dead, from crafting tools for plowing and sowing to cooking or weaving the finished product.

This article explores the nature of grief and mourning in this community by examining connections between the work of grief and work with hemp, the labor that historically had involved community members in the market most directly and massively. It investigates the values attached to hemp in this part of China, both its market values and the sensuous values entailed in its production and use, relating the verbal and material poetics of grief to the specific historical conditions under which hempen cloth was produced and marketed in the twentieth century, especially the latter half. To this end, it moves from (1) the history of hemp production and market values in the northern Yunnan highlands to (2) the uses of hemp to clothe the dead and bribe underworld officials during reinvigorated mortuary rituals in the early 1990s, and finally to (3) the poetics of ritual laments, particularly those which detailed the labor involved in growing, processing, spinning, and weaving hemp. The latter section focuses on a single such lament. As she grieved for her dead mother, I argue, the singer labored with those around her to fashion grief much as she had once worked with her mother to produce hempen cloth. The market conditions, under which the labor of making hempen cloth enriched or impoverished a household, were among the conditions of her grief.. And under these conditions the transactions of mourning became, like market transactions, a matter of falling under or extricating oneself from the domination of others.

Though variations on these practices of grief take place throughout the mountainous northern part of Yunnan Province, my discussion centers on a single group of villages called Zhizuo,4 where I conducted fieldwork in 1991-93.5 Presently an “administrative village” (cungongsuoM]), Zhizuo contains two large villages surrounded by about twenty small, scattered hamlets in the mountains of Yongren County (until 1962, Dayao County), Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture.6 Throughout the twentieth century, this group of villages maintained a strong corporate identity, centered, until 1965, on an ancestral trust of land and a set of ritual and political duties that rotated yearly among its wealthiest households (Mueggler 1998a). Based on claims of descent from an apical ancestor thought to have first settled this set of mountain valleys some 300 years before, about 95 percent of Zhizuo’s inhabitants referred to themselves as Lolop’o, while the rest claimed to be Han. Lolop’o and Han alike spoke as their first language a variety of a dialect of a Tibeto-Burman language, currently considered to be the Central dialect of Yi. In the socialist government’s massive ethnic identification project of the early 1950s, Lolop’o in Zhizuo were designated Yi, along with a diversity of mostly highland peoples in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi Provinces.7 In the 1990s, however, most continued to insist on the self-ascription Lolop’o, to differentiate themselves from neighboring Central dialect speakers (whom they called Lip’? or Mimp’o) and from other Yi groups in general.

Recent work on the poetry of grief in China and elsewhere, inspired by a ‘postmodern’ politics of ironic resistance, has treated laments as rhetorical strategies in which mourners express grievances at social injustice, compete with other lamenters for social status, or subtly seek to improve their social position (Johnson 1988; Herzfeld 1993; Abu-Lughod and Lutz 1990; Kligman 1988). Though such analyses have received praise for honing our awareness of the role of poetic language in the micropolitics of social life, they have also been aptly criticized for missing the point of these poetic forms-the deeply felt grief, sadness, and pain of which they speak. In response, some ethnographers have attempted to treat mortuary laments as outward expressions of profoundly personal and internal states of pain, grief, or loss (Desjarlais 1993; Maschino 1992). Neither avenue of approach is entirely adequate to the sense of mourning I wish to convey here. To treat ritual laments merely as strategic rhetorical positioning is to slip towards separating individuals into private, autonomous, competitive subjects. At its starkest, this is a vision of mourning in which the self “cannot experience truly transforming loss but plunders the world for the booty of its self-seeking interest” (Rose 1996, 37). Yet to understand laments as expressive of profoundly personal states of grief and loss is to rely implicitly on another version of this same vision, in which a subject’s ultimate reality is a private, internal core or locus of self, where all affect takes place prior to being publicly expressed.

The connections Zhizuo residents establish between grief and labor lead towards an understanding of mourning as neither a rhetorical strategy nor an outward expression of a prior, inner state. They evoke a view of mourning as an ethical activity which, as Gillian Rose puts it, “acknowledges the creative involvement of action in the configuration of power and law” (1996, 12). This mourning is a collective, corporeal labor, which fashions a grief intended to sustain life rather than to debilitate it, as grief might easily do. Mourning engages with power not as private, micropolitical maneuvering, but as a collective ethics, meant to manage the ways the daily, creative activity of production is brought into relation with abstract economic forces and the political authority imagined to underlie them. This ethics acknowledges the laws of price, debt, and repayment, along with the authorities that institute and enforce those laws, while it seeks actively to preserve the life-sustaining power of productive labor as much as possible from domination by others, living or dead.

The production of hempen cloth, marginal or nonexistent elsewhere in China, was central to domestic economy in Zhizuo and its surrounding mountains through most of the twentieth century. In this work, people experienced their vulnerabilities to power at both its most abstract and most immediate levels-both to the distant state institutions imagined to establish market prices, and to the local landlords or production-team leaders who claimed their labor. The effects of fluctuations in the price of hemp were immediate and intimate, while their causes were distant and mysterious; they could only be imagined. As the first step in this exploration of work and mourning, I wish to show how Zhizuo residents conceptualized this indeterminacy in much the same way they understood the indeterminate relationship between living and dead: the dead had real and immediate effects on the lives of their descendants, but the forces that shaped these effects were as distant and abstract as those that shaped prices, causing them to fluctuate suddenly and mysteriously to bring disaster or wealth. This will require a brief exploration of the history of hemp production and prices in Yunnan, a history to which people in Zhizuo made repeated reference as they spoke of grief and mourning.

Clothing the Living: Hemp and Cotton in Yunnan

“The Chinese readily mock people dressed in hemp,”8 observed Alfred Lietard of the Societe des Missions Etrangers de Paris around 1911, “so this cloth is disappearing gradually, especially in the plains, to make way for Chinese cotton] cloth” (1913, 93). Lietard’s parishioners, Lolop’o who inhabited a plain not far from Zhizuo,9 were among a tiny minority of Chinese who still wore any hemp at all. In the Ming, cotton cloth, lighter than hemp, cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and taking as little as a tenth of the land to cultivate, had replaced hemp (dama[M]) and ramie (zhuma[M])lo through most of China (Chao 1977, 33). By the Qing, cotton textile production had become the most important peasant industry, decisively shaping a unique, household-based production system (Elvin 1972). As Susan Mann has shown, cotton cloth production informed ideas about virtuous and productive peasant households: in the eyes of elite Qing men, cotton weaving was “an emblem of woman — as-wife-and-mother, the anchor of the household and the moral center of the family” (1997, 149). In their campaign to subdue and civilize the non-Han peoples of the Southwest, Qing officials sought to transplant these values to the high, rough soil of Yunnan, taking the cotton-weaving region of Jiangnan as a model for Yunnan’s economic development, and drawing up plans to manufacture and distribute looms to peasant households there (Mann 1997, 148).

Despite such efforts, a native cotton-weaving industry did not develop in Yunnan until the late nineteenth century. Cotton plants could be cultivated in only a very few locations in the province and raw cotton or yarn for household production had to be imported from elsewhere. Only during the 1890s did factory yarn begin to flow into the province from India, and some peasants begin to weave cotton cloth (Chao 1977, 181). The Lolop’o Lietard evangelized between 1896 and 1912 still clearly found hemp, grown, spun, and woven locally, to be competitive in price with cotton. He found the men dressed in wide, hemmed, hempen pants held up with a sash of white hemp or blue-black cotton, two shirts of hemp or cotton, and cotton turbans or cotton caps. The women wore unhemmed cotton pants, shirts and aprons of hemp or blue-black cotton, and cotton turbans (1913, 94-98). Though the Lolop’o districts of this county exported over 500 mule loads of hemp a year to Kunming and beyond (Qiao 1996, 325), Lietard observed that many Lolop’o women found hempen cloth too tiresome to produce themselves. Preferring “to pass their time plaiting leather sandals, which they sell, eight cash a pair, to Chinese merchants” (Lietard 1913, 94), they bought most of their hemp from their neighbors in the mountains to the north, in Dayao county. Stretching from the salt wells of Baiyanjing to the Qinglin river,ll these mountains were inhabited by “the numerous tribe of the Li,” as Lietard called them,12 who continued to produce hempen cloth well into the twentieth century. On the eastern slopes of these mountains were the narrow valleys of Zhizuo, whose residents the Lolop’o of Lietard’s mission called “ [‘cloth folk’), making allusion to the hemp that grows abundantly in their mountains and which they sell in great quantity to the Lolop’o” (1913, 43). The dun-colored hempen clothing of these mountain residents signaled their poverty and backwardness, making them objects of mockery to cotton-clad lowlanders, “Chinese” and Lolop’o alike.

Though residents of the plains snubbed hempen cloth as uncomfortable, aesthetically ridiculous, and onerous to manufacture, its production held decided advantages over cotton weaving for “the numerous tribe of the Li.” In the late 1920s and early 1930s, cotton textile production expanded in Yunnan as improved transportation from the coast made cheaper foreign and domestic machine-spun cotton yarn available there (Chao 1975, 194). Nevertheless, by the 1930s and 1940s, households that engaged in handicraft cotton textile weaving found that it barely contributed to their subsistence. Pressed by competition from machine-woven cloth, both foreign and domestic, handwoven cloth merchants offered the lowest possible prices to producers (Walker 1993, 365). Capital outlay was significant: weavers had to buy paste, fuel, looms, and machine-spun yarn, which had replaced hand-spun yarn for most handicraft weaving in China in the late nineteenth century. By the late 1930s, in Yunnan’s foremost textile-producing region, only landed households or those with another reliable income source could weave; landless peasants could not afford to buy thread (Fei and Chang 1949, 240). In 1939, Fei and Chang calculated that in this area, a woman weaving all day earned a wage of about 0.70 yuan, insufficient to buy her food, while women doing field work earned 1.70 to 2.00 yuan a day (1949, 243).13 As in China’s other handicraft cotton-weaving regions, the agricultural economy subsidized household cloth production, making it unnecessary for merchants to offer subsistence wages for this work, even as households grew dependant on this marginal sideline income (Walker 1993).

The crucial difference between hemp- and cotton-textile production lay in the cost of inputs. Most hemp-weaving households produced their own looms and other tools, and few bought their thread, spinning it instead from hemp they grew and processed themselves. In the mountains in and around Zhizuo, hemp was cultivated on land not suitable for grain production, in steep, high, shady ravines where there was plenty of moisture and the stalks grew long and thin as they reached for the sun. Such land was cheap and abundant, and in some high-mountain hamlets people simply planted their hemp in unclaimed ravines. In 1950, a team of ethnographers sent to the nearby village of Yijichang under the new government’s ethnic identification project found hempen cloth production to be a crucial sideline income-producing activity for nearly every household (Yunnan Sheng bianjizu 1986 [1950, 102). Grain land in these mountains was scarce: in 1948, farmers in Yijichang divided only 2.1 mu[MI]4 per capita between irrigated paddy land for rice and winter wheat; unirrigated terraces for maize, wheat, and barley; and swidden land for oats, buckwheat, and potatoes. Only a few landlord households produced enough grain to feed their members for the entire year. To supplement grain income, women in all but one of the village’s forty-six households, from the six classed as rich peasants to the twenty — two classed as poor peasants or agricultural laborers, produced hempen cloth for sale. All but a handful of households owned a few fen of hemp land; those that did not bought raw hemp in the market. Nearly every woman and girl spent most of her time processing and weaving hemp. The average household of about five people produced all the clothing worn by its members and sold an additional 767 keM] of cloth a year. This could buy 153 sheng[M of husked rice, sufficient to feed one person well for over eight months. The most productive households sold 2,000 ke a year, enough to feed two people adequately for the entire year (101-2). Hempen cloth production was best suited to the most labor-rich and land-poor households, especially those with an abundance of women. A mu of hemp land took forty-eight days of labor for men and women and one ox day to cultivate; it produced an average of 400 catties of raw hemp. With hundreds of hours of additional labor, all performed by women, this could be made into 2400 to 4000 ke of hempen cloth, depending on the quality of raw hemp, and this cloth could be exchanged for between 480 and 800 sheng of husked rice. By contrast, a mu of the most productive rice land took only eighteen days of labor and three ox days to cultivate, but it produced an average of only 206 sheng of husked rice (102).

By 1950, most hempen cloth was made into gunnny bags to transport grain and other agricultural products: not even the Lolop’o of the plains where Lietard had once preached bought hempen textiles to wear. The demand for gunny bags created a strong, though fluctuating market for hemp through the early twentieth century. Zhizuo residents recall that after 1935, Lip’o and Lolop’o from the surrounding mountains converged on Zhizuo’s largest village every ten days for a periodic market where they sold their hemp to traders from a large hemp-buying corporation with branches all over northern and central Yunnan. In 1933, one catty of raw hemp at farm prices bought about 5.3 catties of rice, a ratio that was about the same in 1950 (Liu and Yeh 1965, 136; Zhang 1984, 17). Though one can only speculate about hemp prices in the intervening war years, it is very likely that throughout the 1930s and 1940s hempen cloth production remained economically crucial for most families in these mountains, as it had been from the time of Lietard’s mission and before. Like cotton in the Yangze delta, hemp likely encouraged population growth and land subdivision, contributing to the scarcity of grain land in these mountains, but once these conditions were in place hempen cloth production could not be dispensed with.

Her Love Rests: the Price of Hemp

For people in Zhizuo, the phrase that best described Liberation in 1950 and Land Reform in 1952-53, was not “turning bodies” (fan.rhen[M]])ts but “changing clothes” (huanyi[M]). Until Land Reform, nearly everyone in this community dressed in the undyed hempen clothing produced by their households. There was one cotton loom in the district, in the home of the hereditary chieftain, or tusi[M], 20 kilometers away, and within Zhizuo only the families of the two wealthiest landlords could afford cotton robes. Four decades later, in tones that recalled the “speak bitterness” meetings of the 1950s, Zhizuo residents spoke of hempen clothing as a reminder of past hardship. As Qi Shenlin, who was an adolescent at Liberation, recalled,

It was ugly and rough. Women wore robes buttoned on the side-their clothes were all in the form of the clothes they wear to weddings and festivals today, but they were all hemp…. People wore straw shoes and hempen belts. Or they made shoes of hemp. Some people didn’t have hemp and wore shoes of plaited banana leaves. … Not even landlords had the type of cotton quilts we use now. They made very thick blankets of hemp to cover themselves with. Imagine covering yourself with a mat of hemp! Cold! Some people made thick felt blankets out of wool, but this was very cold too, because it was stiff and couldn’t be tucked around your body. When it rained, people wore thick, short, heavy cloaks of hemp or straw and bamboo hats. Some of those cloaks were as heavy as two or three kilos! Now you just stick a piece of plastic in your pocket and take it out when it rains.

By 1952, state procurement policies for hemp and hempen cloth allowed Zhizuo residents to change their dull hempen garb for blue or black cotton, as the Lolop’o of Lietard’s mission had begun to do a half century before. Upon consolidating power in northern Yunnan, the revolutionary government created Supply and Marketing Cooperatives in prefectural centers and market towns. In order to attract mountain residents to these initially voluntary cooperatives, the state set the prices paid for hemp and hempen textiles well above market prices. Nationally, hemp procurement prices rose 33 percent between 1950 and 1952, far outstripping prices for grain and cotton (Zhang 1984, 10). In late 1953, the unified purchase and supply order (tongguo tongxiao[M]) eliminated private markets for hemp, grain, and cotton cloth altogether, allowing the state to sustain high hemp prices relative to grain and cotton prices for the next three decades. In 1952, one catty of raw hemp could purchase about 26 percent more rice than it could in 1950; by 1963, it could purchase up to 30 percent more than in 1950. More striking yet, one catty of hemp bought about 23 percent more cotton in 1952 than 1950 and around 73 percent more by 1963 (10; see Fig. 1).

Between 1953 and 1976, most peasants in China were subjected to a “scissors effect”: grain procurement prices were adjusted upward only periodically, while the price of inputs, especially chemical fertilizers, rose steadily (Oi 1989, 54). According to one calculation, by 1976, peasants growing grains could make a scanty profit only on rice; growing other grains required them to spend about 5.6 percent more on production than the procurement price yielded (Zhang 1984, 20). In dramatic contrast to grain, procurement prices for raw hemp were about 86.6 percent higher than production costs (21). And rendering the raw hemp into cloth added more value at a high cost in labor but little in other inputs. Moreover, grain-poor, hemp-producing brigades received free relief grain from richer brigades (from 1956 to 1962), then later bought relief grain at prices lower than the procurement price (from 1962 to 1976). In a period when real incomes for most peasants in China were stagnating or declining, this sideline nongrain cash crop, coupled with household craft production, enriched hemp-producing brigades.

Encouraged by these conditions, the residents of Yunnan’s mountainous districts became prolific producers of hempen cloth: between 1949 and 1959, peasant handicraft hemp production in the province more than doubled (Yunnan Sheng difangzhi bianzan weiyuanhui 1992, 157).16 In the mountians of Dayao County, where more hempen cloth was produced than in any but one of Yunnan’s other 100 or so counties (158), cloth production replaced nearly all other peasant activities with which men in this area had once sought to generate cash for their households-such as working as porters along salt, sugar, and opium trading routes. At Land Reform, hemp-growing acreage was distributed evenly among each village’s households. The families of the region’s few former landlords had to learn to grow, process, spin, and weave hemp to survive, and formerly landless peasants grew hemp on their newly acquired land. In contrast to household cotton textile production, which the state quickly eliminated by controlling cotton yarn distribution to peasant households (Chao 1975, 199), hempen cloth production in this region remained almost entirely private. In 1956, as land and agricultural labor were collectivized throughout China, hemp cultivation was turned over to production teams, each of which assigned a few members to live in high-mountain seasonal houses (tianfang[M]), where they grew hemp and herded goats. The harvested stalks were divided among the team’s households according to their number of able-bodied laborers, male and female. Households sold their hemp to the Supply and Marketing Cooperatives as raw hemp, thread, or cloth, depending on the price and their number of available female laborers. Cooperative officials divided the hemp into grades according to published national standards and priced it accordingly.’ With the cash from hemp sales, women supplemented their households’ rations of grain and bought clothing, salt, alcohol, utensils, and other necessaries.

Apart from the collective work of cultivating, harvesting, and transporting hemp stalks, women performed every step of hempen cloth production. Men participated only by cooking meals and crafting tools. Making cloth went on all year, but it was busiest in the rainy season when agricultural work was only intermittent. It was exhausting, time consuming, and often painful labor. The raw hemp was soaked, peeled, washed, and pounded; the fibers were picked apart by hand, spliced with the fingers, soaked, dried, and spun; the thread was wrapped on a frame, dried, washed, boiled with ash, washed again, boiled with rice and beef fat, rinsed, boiled a third time with beeswax, and dried. The thread, now white, strong, flexible, and ready for weaving, was wound onto bamboo reels; a large, wooden, horizontal loom was set up in the courtyard, and the warp was strung onto the loom. Weaving was only the final step in this process, repeated as often as twice a month in the most productive households. As we shall see, women complained eloquently of the exhaustion and pain of this work in mortuary laments: washing hemp in winter streams turned feet into iron blocks; splicing wore away the thumbs and fingers; weaving strained the eyes and back. “When the old woman was weaving hemp,” one man recalled, “she was always in a sour mood. You cooked her meals, left them out, and stayed out of her way.” But however unpleasant, working hemp gave women the prestige of cash earners. As the husband of a woman who had worked hemp for thirty years put it, “One woman weaving hemp could earn as much as two or three schoolteachers.” In most households, this prestige translated into authority over economic affairs, especially after Land Reform deprived men of significant opportunities to generate cash. Women handled most market transactions, kept the resulting money on their persons, and decided how it would be spent. This cash bought the crucial margin of grain to fill a granary, and in most households the senior woman kept the granary key with her money, using it to regulate her family’s consumption of grain at each meal.

Women clothed their families as well as fed them with the proceeds of hemp sales. In the 1950s, women began to use their more abundant cash to buy black or navy cotton cloth from the Supply and Marketing Cooperatives. Black clothing held a special appeal for Zhizuo residents. Before Liberation, wealthy landlords and officials had worn black cotton or silk robes. Ordinary people bred herds of all-black goats whose skin they made into glossy, black-haired capes, associated with youthful beauty, intimacy with one’s ancestral origins, and a sense of warm connection to one’s kin. Now women fashioned black cotton cloth into shirts, trousers, aprons, sashes, and carrying-cloths, ornamenting them with applique of colored cotton cloth. Those with extra cash bought embroidered shoes and caps or embroidered panels to sew onto their sleeves, collars, and aprons. An ordinary women could now aspire to assemble an entire set of embroidered black or navy cotton clothing to wear at weddings and festivals, an elegance once restricted to the wealthiest. Women made wide-bottomed black or navy trousers and zhongshan[M] jackets for the men in their households. By the early 1960s, many women found it cheaper and easier to buy ready-made green army-style clothing, especially for men, but they kept black and navy clothing for festive occasions.

Women were judged as wives, mothers, and daughters-in-law by their ability to clothe their families. “If I wear dirty or torn trousers, people don’t laugh at me, they laugh at my wife for being unable to clothe me,” a man in his early fifties told me. Young wives were expected to dress their entire households, which often included their husband’s parents and unmarried brothers. For women, weaving hempen cloth to dress their families warmly or even sumptuously was an expression of love, care, and intimacy as much as of economic ability. Women spoke of the exhausting labor of making hempen cloth as the work of “raising” (ho) a family, an expenditure of love that could be recompensed only after death. In mortuary laments, a silent spinning wheel and loom were metaphors for a mother’s death and the cessation of that life — giving love that fed and warmed her family: (Formula Omitted)

The looms and spinning wheels of Zhizuo, steady generators of food, clothing, and love throughout the collective period, halted abruptly after the first wave of market reforms in 1978. In the late 1970s China had begun to produce synthetic fibers at rapidly accelerating rates, and one of their earliest uses was to replace hemp in bags for grain and fertilizer (Zhongguo fangzhi gongye nianjian 1994, 122). At the same time, base-quota and above base-quota grain prices were raised substantially: in Yunnan the median price rise in 1978 was about 23 percent (Yunnan Sheng zhi jingji zonghe zhi 1989-95). In August 1980, unable to support procurement prices for hemp any longer, the state instituted a floating price for hemp procurement and sales, causing prices to plunge over 12 percent over the next year (Yunnan Sheng difangzhi bianzan weiyuanhui 1992, 160; Yunnan Sheng zhi jingji zonghe zhi 1989-95). By the end of 1981, a catty of raw hemp bought about 33 percent less grain than it had in 1978, less even than in 1950 (see Fig. 1). Throughout the 1980s, grain and cotton prices inflated as the state allowed increasing quantities of basic staples to be sold on the market. Hemp prices inflated apace for two years in the mid 1980s, but by 1987 they were again in free fall. By 1994, a catty of hemp (had anyone attempted to sell one) would have bought a quarter the grain and half the cotton it had bought in 1950 (see Fig. 1).

In 1980 and 1981, devastated by the first plunge in the price of hemp, families in Zhizuo abandoned cloth production almost entirely. For over thirty years, hempen cloth had formed the woven doorway through which mountain residents in northern Yunnan had entered the marketplace, cash in hand. Its loss decisively transformed many aspects of their relation to money and the marketplace, not least the gendered aspects. Searching for new means to generate cash, Zhizuo residents began to harvest timber illegally from the mountainsides, sawing it by hand into boards, which they hauled by mule to the lowlands for sale. As working hemp had been exclusively women’s labor, working wood was entirely men’s, and women saw their economic authority in their households disintegrate as they fought a losing struggle to control the cash wood generated. By the early 1990s, the best timber had all been cut, and most Zhizuo households depended heavily on free relief grain. Brigade and township cadres spent long hours and much money on schemes to recreate the magic of hemp in another form: Walnuts for shipment to Burma? Orchards of apples and pears? Workshops to make embroidered bags for tourists? The ground was said to be full of gold and silver, if only there were a way to find it.

People in Zhizuo traced for me many times in talk the trajectory I have retraced here with the help of national and provincial price statistics. They spoke of the price of hemp as a mysterious abstraction whose fate was decided as far away as Beijing by unnamed and unseen bureaucratic officials. At the same time, this price could not have had more concrete effects. It was as though the price of hemp connected two distinct realms: the mysterious and distant world of high officials and the immediate world of daily life. Woven hemp formed the porous screen or bamboo sieve between these realms, on whose surface distant officials cast signs, numbers, and slogans that the knowing could read like omens. To talk of the price of hemp was to speak of an uncanny disjuncture between the immediacies of daily life and a mysterious place where decisions of officials created wealth and poverty, life and death in the immediate realm. And it was precisely this kind of disjuncture-the conditions for its existence, the procedures for generating or transcending it-that preoccupied people in Zhizuo as they mourned their dead.

(Graph Omitted)

Captioned as: Figure 1. Procurement and market prices for hemp, grain and cotton, 1950-1994. (All prices are indexed to 100 in 1950.)

Between 1964 and 1978, state sanctions against “superstitious practices” severely restricted the scope and complexity of mortuary ritual in highland Yunnan. Most families in Zhizuo held private, small-scale funerals for their dead, to which only a few of their closest kin were invited. But in the late 1970s, even as market reforms began to destroy hemp’s monetary value, Zhizuo residents took advantage of a political atmosphere more tolerant of large-scale ritual activities to invest mortuary rituals with new energy. Many families reinstituted a funeral process that included a night — long vigil three days after a death, a second, daytime vigil seven or nine days after the first, and yearly activities at the grave site.Is By the mid 1980s, these activities often involved the participation of hundreds of the deceased’s kin and friends. In mortuary rituals, where it formed both a screen or sieve between living and dead and a currency for their interaction, hempen cloth had lost none of its worth.

Clothing the Dead: the Hemp’s Eyes

In Chou times]the character pu [ ; ] denoted a certain type of spade-shaped money and hemp cloth, both of which served as a commodity of exchange. Dieter Kuhn (1988, 19)19

As people in Zhizuo were quick to point out, unlike most lowland rural residents they did not wear hempen cloth to mourn the dead (dai xiao[M]). Living mourners wore ordinary clothing; the dead wore hemp. Hempen shrouds separated dead from living and enabled the transactions of grief through their crossed threads. Clothing the dead took place during a vigil begun immediately after the moment of death and kept up for three days and nights as preparations for the funeral were made. A son or daughter2 stripped the body, washed it with water boiled with a poisonous vine, and combed its hair straight up from its head, to invert the hairstyle of the living. Around the corpse’s waist lengths of hempen cloth, six ke each (about eight feet), were wrapped like sashes. Each of the deceased’s brothers (if a woman) or wife’s brothers (if a man) contributed one length of cloth. “They are belts, but they are also money. She has money under her shirt to use along the road,” one funeral participant told me. A long hempen shirt, ideally spun, woven, and sewn by a daughter, was placed over these shrouds. “The shirt is one of the rules you must follow or be punished by the underworld officials. It is a tax you must pay so they allow you to pass.” Each foot was clothed with two one-ke lengths of hempen cloth sewn into a pocket shape and tied at the ankle with strands of raw hemp, so that the corpse could pay the entrance fee as it stepped over the threshold of the underworld gate. The corpse was given a hempen towel to wash its face and a cotton-lined hempen wallet to carry its silver or tobacco and wave away flies and bandit ghosts. “If he has no wallet to wave he will be terrified of the ghosts on the road to the underworld,” a mourner commented. All these hempen offerings were to serve as currency to pay taxes or bribes to the many officials the corpse would encounter on its path. “It’s like the paper scattered along the path when you carry the coffin to the grave; it’s for the wild bandit ghosts and the ghost officials.”

When Zhizuo residents began to sport dark cotton clothing in the 1950s, they clothed the dead with more elegance as well, adding layers of silk or cotton clothing to their hempen shrouds. In the 1990s, each son and daughter prepared at least one new, beautiful set of cotton or silk clothing for the corpse. Dead men were dressed in old-style black or blue robes, with buttons down the right side, women in black or blue embroidered shirts, aprons, and trousers. Men were given silken hats of the style once worn by local gentry; women were adorned with embroidered cotton hats, silver earrings, bracelets, and apron-clasps. Often sisters (of a deceased man or a deceased woman’s husband) and their daughters also contributed sets of new clothing; some corpses were bundled in ten or twelve layers of cotton or silk. The coffin was lined with layers of cotton quilts, and more quilts were piled on top of the corpse. Nevertheless, as Li Huilin, one of those who explained the funeral process to me, succinctly put it, “The silk and cotton is just to look good; the hemp is to follow the rules.” While the sartorial splendor of cotton and silk displayed a family’s love and care, the drab hempen underclothing and accessories were the crucial woven sieve between living and dead through which were borne gifts of rice, meat, wine, water, tears, work, and pain.

A red cloth veiled the corpse’s eyes before it was carried to the coffin in the courtyard, hiding the preparations from it, “so it doesn’t have unfulfilled expectations.” The head was lain on a square pillow of hempen cloth stuffed with raw, unspliced hemp, the eyes closed, a piece of silver placed on the tongue, the mouth sealed, the arms aligned, and the clothing smoothed. Two six-ke-long hempen cloths were crossed diagonally over the corpse to form the last cloth layer beneath the coffin lid. Then the red veil was lifted, displaying to the corpse its elegant attire. “You lift the veil so it can see its good clothes and so it can see to walk the road.” This veiling and unveiling was repeated with the coffin lid. Two men placed the lid on the coffin, lifted it off, and replaced it, seven times for a dead woman and nine for a man, before settling the lid into place. Benches were placed on either side of the encoffined corpse, and the dead’s daughters with their mother’s sisters and their daughters, placed their heads against the coffin and sang laments until daybreak.

The screens of cloth and coffin impeded and facilitated seeing, hearing, and speaking between living and dead. As the corpse was veiled and unveiled with cloth, covered and uncovered with the coffin lid, the mourners’ sight of the dead was obstructed, but the dead’s view of the living remained clear. Indeed, the work of grieving was intended to force the corpse to see and hear so it would understand the work and pain that went into making or buying its clothing and other gifts. As the lament we shall examine below belabors the dead with details of making its hempen shrouds, it repeatedly entreats the corpse to clear its mind and sharpen its ears as it walks the road to the underworld: (Formula Omitted)

The corpse was to see, hear, and understand so as to accept everything offered it, but it was not to speak. The command, “don’t say you don’t understand, don’t say you don’t see,” was part of a more general injunction against speech by the dead, which was taken as a disastrous sign that the perilous segregation of living and dead had not been accomplished. People in Zhizuo frequently told stories of spirit possession, in which a dead parent or sibling spoke through one’s mouth, bemoaning its hunger or tattered clothing and insisting on further gifts and mortuary rituals. This speech was the “biting” (k’s) to which the story of the ghost market refers. Death from violence, hunger, suicide, or childbirth produced ghosts (chene) who spoke with their descendants’ voices or troubled their bodies, requiring additional, elaborate ritual action (chenepi) to disentangle living from dead. According to the ritual specialists who treated them, possessions by dead parents or siblings increased dramatically after the Great Leap famine (1959-62) and remained a common source of chronic illness through the early 1990s. Those who had died in the famine and had not been properly mourned because of restrictions on mortuary ritual between 1958 and 1978 still bit the flesh of their descendants.

As it sharpened the eyes and ears of the dead, grief dulled those of the living. Mortuary laments speak of a happy, noisy, cluttered house grown silent and empty: The orphaned sons and daughters listen for their parent’s voice but hear only silence; they look for her form in her accustomed places but find them empty; they stumble about their daily tasks, eyes full of tears, seeing nothing: (Formula Omitted)

But even as it blunted their sight and hearing, grief facilitated mourners’ speech. One of the tasks laments describe is making the warp-stringing hempen threads through the eyes of a bamboo warp frame to make hundreds of orderly parallel strands between posts set up in the courtyard. A chant sung by male ritual specialists in a mortuary ritual once performed in the tenth lunar month following a person’s death (ts’ihonepi) associates stringing an orderly warp with the abundant speech that bears the dead smoothly into the underworld. (Formula Omitted)

The even meter and parallel structures of mortuary laments form an orderly warp for the shroud of speech that divides and connects living and dead.

Hemp was woven in a simple tabby weave (juan t’), in which each weft goes alternately over and under one warp end (Cheng 1992). Loosened a bit, this weave resembles that of the bamboo sieve through which the dead peered out at the living in the story of the ghost market. The warp and weft of simple tabby weaves frame orderly absences in the gaps between their threads. Weaving sieves of threads and gaps to dull the eyes and ears of the living unveiled as it veiled, making knowledge of the dead possible, as knowledge of absence. While in the best of circumstances the dead never spoke, they did communicate with their living descendants through mute signs cast onto the world’s surface. In the early 1990s, most people in Zhizuo could list many omens which predicted disaster for oneself or members of one’s household: masses of spider webs in a house’s eaves, crows cawing from a rooftop, chickens laying double eggs, paired squashes or gourds, flattened circles in fields, mating snakes on the paths, rice stalks knotted in the paddies, to select only a few. People took such omens as messages from dead kin warning of the imminent death of a loved one. The dead, able to see clearly everything in this world, expressed their continued care for the living by watching out for future wealth or disaster that the living could not see. Upon an accumulation of omens people often went to diviners to seek more precise communications from the dead. In a technique used by the most powerful seers, the diviner laid a length of hempen cloth along his forearm. He examined the cloth and saw the messages of the dead spring out of the “hemp’s eyes” (yeme), the tiny square openings between the woven threads. Like the gaps in the weave of the bamboo sieve that divided the ghost market street, the hemp’s eyes were apertures through which the dead, in their absence, could be known. As they watched for omens and consulted diviners, people in Zhizuo treated the entire world as a woven hempen shroud. The absent dead were everywhere, becoming known to the living wherever the world’s weave loosened up to reveal another world through its gaps. The hemp’s eyes were also the unit of value of hempen currency. Weavers in Zhizuo were well aware that the more eyes in a length of hempen cloth (the closer its weave) the greater its market value. In mortuary laments, mourners tell the dead that the silver and hempen currency they are offered will expand in value in the underworld: one silver coin will be worth ten, one hempen eye worth a hundred: (Formula Omitted)

The absences that allowed the living to glimpse the dead through the weave of speech were the units that gave hemp its price-both in the underworld and the world of the living. The myriad empty spaces left in the world by the dead were windows through which fugitive messages from other worlds (the world of the dead, the world of distant market officials) could be sought. Whether omens of future death or speculations about future prices, these messages foretold prosperity or disaster for the living.

Her Pitiful Eyes: The Poetics of Ritual Laments

I collaborated with two life-long residents of Zhizuo to record, transcribe, and translate mortuary laments. Luo Lizhu, a widowed grandmother of five in her early seventies and the liveliest and most cheerful of friends and informants, was renowned as a master of multiple genres of poetic language, including laments. Li Qunhua, a married mother of three in her early forties, was a frequent presence on wailers’ benches, though she claimed to be inept at the poetry of grief. Both women were well respected and extraordinarily well connected among their neighbors, and they seemed to have little trouble obtaining permission from kin and friends to sit beside them at mortuary rituals and record their songs. As we replayed these recordings, Luo repeated each line word for word so I could transcribe it accurately, and both women helped with translation by discussing the various metaphorical possibilities of each line and explaining difficult passages.

Luo and Qi divided mortuary laments into two genres. The first they called chrmeko “orphans’ poetry.” Female kin of the dead sang orphan’s poetry in a vigil over the corpse from the moment of death until burial. These laments, usually in the form of antiphonal dialogues, described the orphan’s life from her birth to her parents’ deaths, elaborated each step of the funeral process, and detailed the labor required to make each of the gifts. The genre on which I will focus here was called achaga, “lamenting songs.” Women sang these laments at nihepi, “dawn-to-dusk offerings,” the setting for this article’s opening paragraphs, held seven days (for a woman) or nine days (for a man) after burial. At these events, people with ties of kinship or friendship to the dead’s kin gathered in the courtyard where the corpse had been prepared for burial days before. The guests brought gifts for the dead, ranging from a small bag of unhusked grain to a chicken or a goat, depending on their relation to the dead and obligations incurred at earlier mortuary rituals. They distributed themselves through the courtyard with reference to the shallow hole and trough scratched in the dirt floor at the courtyard’s center where the corpse had lain in its coffin. Those connected with the dead’s brothers (if a woman) or wife’s brothers (if a man) gathered at the “head” of this absent corpse, those associated with her sons (or uxorilocally married daughters) at its “foot,” and those attached to her married-out daughters (or married-out sons) at the sides.

A row of benches was placed on either side of the trough, as though around a coffin. Near the absent corpse’s head, a basket, a length of hempen cloth, some incense, and a little bit of money sat on a small table. Female kin of the dead-her daughters, her husband’s sisters and their daughters, and women with more distant connections-emptied small bamboo boxes packed with cooked rice and fatty meat into the basket and sat on the benches to sing schapa laments. A married daughter sat near the shallow hole into which she ladled water from a bucket as she wept. The water flowed through the scuffed-out digestive tract and swamped the lower part of the courtyard. Grain alcohol flowed with the water and tears: the dead’s daughtersin-law and their friends and daughters circulated through the courtyard pouring repeated libations for each guest, men and women alike, into jars or bowls they brought for this purpose. This drink changed hands rapidly: some women passed their share to their husbands; others confiscated their husbands’ or sons’ portions, which they delivered to other kin or friends or saved for later. Meat from the slaughtered goats and chickens circulated in large baskets; each guest took a handful and ate it, pocketed it, or passed it on to a child.

A skilled male mourner initiated the lamenting for a fee-the hempen cloth, the bottle of alcohol, and the money on the table by the absent corpse’s head. He squatted at the foot of the mourners’ benches and sang a lament called s/rsa, “weeping for the dead.” The same elderly man performed at most of the “dawn-to-dusk offerings” I attended. His melody was the same as that of the women, but his language was more formal, closer to ritual speech than the more ordinary language of female lamenters. He asserted that this was the correct day and hour for the offering, listed the gifts to the dead, and reported on the details of the surrounding scene-the table and benches, the buckets of water, the rice basket. He described the main task of the day for close male kin of the deceased: gathering the soul from a mountain slope where it had settled into a pine tree, “like a flying fox” and establishing it beneath the roof beams of the deceased’s male descendants’ houses. And he sang of the flow of water and tears that began with the deceased’s daughter ladling water into the absent corpse’s shallow “mouth”: (Formula Omitted)

The daughter, who began to sing and ladle immediately after the paid mourner, was quickly followed by the women sitting next to her on the mourners’ benches. “Once you look at her weeping and ladling water, your own eyes begin to weep,” Luo Lizhu explained. Women learned laments by sitting beside mothers, sisters, or friends and repeating their lines. With the exception of kinship terms for the dead, they inserted little biographical detail into their songs. Innovation consisted in elaborating the detail and metaphorical richness of the lament’s standard subject-the labor of making gifts for the dead-in ways that other women could admire and borrow. If the daughter’s “pitiful eyes” moved her companions to tears, most of these were not tears for the newly deceased. With the exception of daughters and daughters-in-law, most lamenters mourned others who had died months or years before, begging the newly dead to deliver a portion of their gifts to these other, more remote dead. Here, for instance, a woman pleads with her newly deceased sister’s husband’s father to pass news and food on to her long-dead father’s sister’s son and his wife: (Formula Omitted)

In (schene) laments and in the context of their performance nothing-not food, wine, water, words, tears, nor grief-remains an individual possession. Everything is put into motion, passed from hand to hand, mouth to mouth, and eye to eye. My first instinct as an ethnographer was to approach these laments as expressions of profoundly personal and internal states of grief and pain (Desjarlais 1993). This understanding of affect resonated with my own habits of experiencing grief. My grief is my singular possession; I may express it to others as I maneuver for their pity or respect, but none can truly share it with me. It isolates me even in the company of others who mourn the same person, for I know my relationship with him was unique. Sometimes it becomes a different kind of possession: a state of being. Then it might overwhelm me, take over my body, reduce me to tears or incoherence. But it is still my own state, still fundamentally inaccessible to others. By contrast, the grief these laments fashion is neither a possession nor an individual state of being; it is neither the property of a single grieving subject nor directed at a single object of grief. Mourners move each other and their audiences to tears, and their tears and gifts flow from one object of loss to another. Their sadness is made through shared labor, like the gifts they describe. It emerges from the pain and exhaustion of this labor to become the flows of tears, water, alcohol, and words that immerse those gathered in the courtyard. And it touches me as I wade through the mud it creates. Griefs Transactions

Pain is a medium of exchange, a currency, an equivalent. Gilles Deleuze (1983, 134) Of all the laments we collected, my two collaborators admired as most “complete” one sung for her dead mother by Su Ling, a mother of five in her mid-forties. In three lengthy sections, Su Ling detailed the processes of making the three gifts that laments discuss in greatest detail: cooked rice, buckwheat cakes, and hempen cloth. Here, I wish to quote at length from the final section, which describes the gifts of hempen cloth. (From this point on, all selections from this lament will be presented in consecutive order.) Unlike those who used her mother as a messenger to transfer their words, tears, and gifts to other dead, Su Ling addressed her directly. She began the final section as she had the previous two, by reflecting on a difference in the structures of value that pertained in the underworld and the world of the living: (Formula Omitted)

People in Zhizuo agreed that the authorities who establish the value and authenticity of currency apply different standards of value in the underworld; a coin or length of hempen cloth that would insult a living official might successfully bribe a number of dead ones.. In the story of the ghost market, the living use a pail of water to sort out these differences, separating coinage into silver and paper-true and false in this world. In mortuary ritual, a member of the deceased’s household buys the water that will be ladled into the absent corpse’s mouth by casting copper coins into the river. The coins increase in value tenfold to a hundredfold, and the water bought is a precious gift, for the dead pay dearly for water.

These diverging structures of value are not merely a convenient fantasy in which mourners imagine their gifts to the dead to escape market laws. Zhizuo residents had long experience with the differences in value created by geographical distance. In the first half of the twentieth century, Zhizuo was located on an important trading route, along which some of its inhabitants worked as porters, carrying salt cakes from the nearby salt wells to sale in the lowlands, sugar from the hot lowland plains to the mountains, opium from Sichuan to Yunnan towns, or manufactured goods from the provincial capital to the highlands. After market reforms in the late 1970s, many began again to carry cloth, thread, fruit, candy, and patent medicine to sell in the mountains, or lumber from the mountains to sell in town. Mortuary laments take advantage of a similar geographical distance/difference to imagine a shift in the market value of gifts as they cross into the underworld. The flow of water, tears, and words transports the gifts over this distance. Grief is transportation or, more accurately, bearing.

Laments are rich with images of bearing (bai) on one’s back and carrying (ve) in one’s arms. In her lament, Su Ling repeatedly described how those gathered in the courtyard-her mother’s residentially rooted agnatic kin (multiply branched groundsquash vines) and residentially dispersed affinal kin (fragrant but scattered m*ni tree leaves)-come bearing and carrying gifts over the path to the underworld: (Formula Omitted)

(Formula Omitted)

The flows of water, tears, and words in ochoa laments are explicitly intended to bear gifts across the distance between worlds. Neither a possession nor a state of being, grief is a movement and an exchange. It is a conversion of value, working within the laws of the market while taking advantage of them by exploiting differences in value that pertain over geographical distances.

People in Zhizuo were acutely aware of the dangers of market participation in trade, especially when this involved borrowing capital. Su Ling’s lament insisted repeatedly that the gifts for her mother were not borrowed nor rented, but earned and saved. (Formula Omitted)

Su Ling included similar sections for the gifts of cooked rice, buckwheat cakes, and hempen cloth. As she vouched for the latter’s origins, she implied that borrowing currency involved one in relations with fearsome and unknowable external forces, here figured as wild ghosts. (Formula Omitted)

During this mortuary ritual, transactions of gifts that stood for currency-money, paper, incense, and hempen cloth-were structured differently from transactions of other gifts. Grain, meat and wine were passed from hand to hand or mouth to mouth as mourners wept and were embedded in complex, deferred, reciprocal transactions among the participants, involving obligations incurred at numerous former events. But gifts that stood for currency were consumed directly by the dead-burned or buried in the coffin-and people insisted that the giver must either make them herself (in the case of hemp) or scrupulously pay for them with cash (in the cases of paper and incense). “All of these things you must pay for,” said Li Hulin, one of those who took time to explain mortuary processes to me: Paper, incense, these things are not expensive. But even if you want to give them to me, I still must pay for them. I mustn’t borrow a thing. If you don’t agree to sell them to me, if you insist on giving them to me, I still must speak as though I am buying them. Underworld officials (mbmi tsima) are very careful about accounts! Discrepancies in these accounts can have serious consequences for the living. “For instance, if you steal incense for the dead,” Li Huilin continued, “they will cause terrible trouble for you.” This trouble might include chronic illness, possession by the dead, or sudden, accidental death. Both before Liberation and during the market reform era, poor mountain residents found that borrowing or stealing capital to participate in market trade was very likely to end in servitude or incarceration. In the 1930s and 1940s the hereditary chieftain, or tusi, who controlled the district where Zhizuo was located, lent money to Zhizuo residents at usurious rates. Many ended up working off their debts as laborers in his fields or porters in his trading enterprises. Some still recall with horror a cell beneath his house where debtors were imprisoned up to their knees or waists in water until their families paid up (Wang and Liu 1989, 139-40). In the 1990s, after a decade of market reforms, those who borrowed substantially to set up tiny shops or engage in the mushroom trade sometimes spoke of their debts as a trap or a burial pit. Borrowing, renting, or stealing the currency that guaranteed the dead’s safe passage to the underworld had similar results: people described the feeling of being possessed or harmed by the dead as incarcerationbeing buried in a hole, trapped under an overturned back basket, or imprisoned beneath a tomb (Mueggler 1998b). Anthropologists commonly interpret ritualized mourning as means to recovery and restoration of social structures or individual psyches breached or threatened by death (see, for example, Bloch and Parry 1982; Holmberg 1989; Ahern 1973). In the poetry of ach/ip laments, however, ritualized grief might as easily be debilitating as restorative; it might as easily incarcerate and punish one’s soul as reassure or reconstitute it. Grief is a complex set of transactions that rearranges the boundaries of a living soul in the dead’s absence. These transactions are regulated by the conventions of the market established by the state and its various, dispersed bureaucratic authorities, conventions such as prices, interest, bribes for official services, and punishment for unpaid debt. Historically, these conventions more often reduced mountain residents to poverty and servitude than enriched or liberated them, yet they nevertheless remained the conditions under which grief disabled or restored. The poetics of ochaga laments establish a practical ethics for these transactions, which allows mourners to work within the inevitable terms of power and the law while evading their most devastating effects. In this ethics, the proper currency for griefs transactions is not borrowed, rented, or stolen; it is made through the labor and pain of a family working together. The reason hempen cloth is so dear in the underworld, some in Zhizuo claimed, is that there it was accorded its true value-the value of the pain and sweat of its production. Why do underworld officials accept only hemp as bribes, not cotton? Li Hulin: “Because they know that hemp comes from an extreme amount of work. You have to grow it, peel it, soak it, boil it, wash it, splice it, spin it, weave it The bulk of Su Ling’s lament makes precisely this point, systematically describing all of this work, from preparing the mountain fields to weaving. Making the currency of grief, rather than borrowing or stealing it, the lament implies, also has its costs: pain, exhaustion, the gradual wearing away of one’s living flesh. Yet it is only through such labor that the memory of the absent dead may be composed and decomposed in such a way as to evade its devastating effects. I will quote only a few brief sections of Su Ling’s description of the work of making hempen cloth, beginning with the second and third months, when the family bears manure up the mountain: (Formula Omitted)

(Formula Omitted)

The manured fields must be plowed with “a harness of braided vines, a wooden yoke and plow frame, an iron tongued plow,” Then, “within the pine-shingled barn, within the tile-roofed house,” mothers and daughters winnow and sieve hemp seeds. They “shake and rattle to sieve, toss and circle to winnow.” They “carve a yellow wood ladle, plait a golden bamboo urn, prepare a bamboo scoop” and scoop the seed into a little hempen bag. “Mothers and daughters-in-law, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren bear hemp seed up the mountain, bear to the field’s head, bear to the field’s tail.” Then, (Formula Omitted)

In the fourth and fifth months, when each hemp plant is but two slim leaves, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, drive wild animals from the fields’ head and livestock from the field’s tail, only to find “all the earth’s wild grasses, all the earths wild leaves” growing among the hemp seedlings. (Formula Omitted)

In the seventh and eight months, the hemp is harvested, separated into male and female, and stacked in round stacks in the fields to dry. Once dry, it is borne down the mountain to “a house of mountain logs, a barn of stacked logs” and put away. Then, in the frosty eleventh and twelfth months, it is borne down to the river to soak. It is in speaking of soaking and peeling the stalks that Su Ling most eloquently evoked the pain and exhaustion hemp work entails: (Formula Omitted)

(Formula Omitted)

The skins are washed “with painful toes” (hemp was washed in running streams with one’s feet), borne back up to the house, and dried under its tiled eaves. Once dried, the skins are separated, “long from short, big from little” and then pounded into a tangled mass: (Formula Omitted)

The spliced strands are spun on a “yellow wood frame, a golden bamboo spinning wheel, a palm-leaf spindle.” The thread is wound onto “golden wood spools,” boiled in a pot on the stove, borne down to the river and washed “in eleven gullies, in twelve streams.” It is then borne back to the house, dried out again under the tiled eves, unwound from the spools, pounded in the treadle pounder until it is soft, then wound onto bamboo reels. At last, the warp can be prepared: (Formula Omitted)

A loom is set up in the courtyard, its posts made of bat wood, its beams made of pine, with hempen heddles and a bamboo comb to pound the weft. The thread is finally woven, “with painful laboring hands, with painful iron fingers.”

These verbal reconstructions of sensuous bodily actions weave for the singer and those moved by her song a shroud that constitutes memory of her dead mother. This shroud wraps an absence: mother’s absent corpse, her empty bed, her seat at the fire, her quiet loom, the courtyard where her footfalls are heard no longer. Like the woven gaps or “eyes” in her hempen shrouds, mother’s absence is everywhere, in each of the pain-laden activities through which mothers and daughters together created gifts of hemp. Near the end of her lament, Su Ling sang of this absence as a loss of sensuous contact with her mother, of the mutual gaze of loving faces, the touch of elbows and especially the breath of speech: (Formula Omitted)

The daughter’s unending speech flows into this emptiness like water into the absent corpse’s mouth. What is transported or borne by this flow is the shared bodily substance of a family working together-its pain, breath, tears, and flesh. The flow is a diminishment of living bodies to wrap and nourish the dead’s memory, a wearing away of the fingers and thumbs that shred and splice hemp strands or grasp and peel stalks in icy water.

Yet even as it composes memory of the dead from the absences that texture the world, Su Ling’s lament also decomposes that memory. It unravels the wraps that define the shape of the absent corpse into the labor of their production. It translates the empty shroud back into the bodily actions that created it, dispersing it in the long flow of words through walking and bearing to and from the mountain fields, washing and peeling in cold streams, shredding and splicing while tramping village and mountain paths. This balance between composing memory of absences and decomposing it into the presences of life and life-giving labor is the essence of the delicate transaction between living and dead cataloged in laments. To negotiate this balance through grief is to extricate oneself from the domination of one’s debts to the dead. At the end of her chant, Su Ling expressed the hope that the gifts her grief bore to her mother would forestall the possibility of her own future poverty and servitude. She asked her mother not to destroy the wealth of her family as she lived on forever in the memories of generations of descendants: “let herding go smoothly, let selling go well, let buying go smoothly . . don’t destroy our sea of wealth, don’t destroy our overflowing granary.”

Grief can nourish or destroy. If the absences left by the dead and woven together by grief become too palpable, assuming the vague flesh of ghosts, they might isolate and immobilize their descendants, trapping their souls as though under baskets or in holes, or weighing them down as though under tombstones. If those absences go unremarked, the unappeased dead may take out their wrath on their descendants’ households, attacking the health and fertility of crops, animals and people alike. Su Ling picked out a precarious path between these possibilities as her flow of words and tears at once spun intimate threads of shared pain with her mother and gently unraveled those threads. The shroud with which she shut away her mother’s absent corpse from sight and sound was intended to nullify at last the capacity of her debts to, and memory of, her mother to do her harm.

That the currency with which mourners escape domination by memory of the dead was hempen cloth was an irony of which Su Ling and her fellow mourners were acutely aware. Women in Zhizuo made hempen cloth the currency of their economic “liberation” between 1950 and 1978. In the early 1950s, work with hemp helped them extricate themselves and their households from the domination of landlords and trading enterprises; between 1956 and 1978, it helped them attain a measure of independence from the production teams that directly controlled their labor in all other significant economic activities. The hempen gifts in Su Ling’s mother’s coffin were probably made by mother and daughter together in the late seventies, and stored unsold after the precipitous fall in hemp prices left hempen cloth valueless. Su Ling’s appeal to the differences in the structures of value in the realm of the living and that of the dead, implied that the officials of the underworld rendered hemp its “true” value, the value of the labor it embodied under the favorable price conditions of the collectivist era. Implicit in Su Ling’s grief was a powerful complaint against the injustice of the current structure of prices and the distant socialist-bureaucratic edifice imagined to set prices. Yet, contrary to views of grief as ironic resistance, Su Ling did not sing to protest this injustice, nor to mourn the lost “sea of wealth” mother and daughter had once filled together. She sang to mourn her dead mother. Still, the forms of mourning subjected her grief to the bureaucratically established laws that regulated market transactions. The historical trajectory of these laws-including the liberating power of hemp work in the collectivist period and the recent and devastating loss of that power-were among the conditions of possibility for her grief. This history had powerfully shaped the shared pain of others and daughters of which lamenters sang. Now Su Ling and her companions fashioned it into the flow of words with which they moved each other to tears and transported their gifts across the screened market street that regulated their memories of the dead.


In Li Yong’s tale of the “underworld ghost market,” distinctions between visible and invisible, and between authentic and unauthentic, were brought into being as living and dead negotiated transactions under the regulatory eye of underworld officials. Among the tasks of the living was to discriminate between authentic copper money-authentic because it was invested with value by the state-and unauthentic paper money. Before this distinction was made, living and dead transacted freely; afterwards, exchanges across the market street involving money gradually came to an end. It is the same with speaking, seeing, biting, and beating: in each case a discrimination is made and a porous barrier to exchanges created through the authority of underworld officials. In the poetics of mourning, to make the transition from an unregulated, potentially devastating state of grief was also to make discriminations that gradually subjected one’s transactions with the dead to the abstract authority of the state. Mourning ritual engaged with state power as a distant, imagined unity rather than with the immediate, embodied authority of local officials. This abstract unity, essential to state legitimacy (Anagnost 1987;1992), was made immediate and palpable to Zhizuo residents in the early 1950s as the socialist state raised hemp prices, decisively transforming the conditions under which people fed and clothed their families. When market reforms began in the late 1978, people in Zhizuo again found themselves directly affected by abstract market laws and the distant institutions imagined to control them, as hemp prices plunged, transforming every aspect of life and work at least as effectively as the periodic political campaigns to which they had been subject for thirty years. The poetics of mourning engaged people’s imagination of this abstract and disembodied state authority through the use of hemp. Like work with hemp, the work of grief involved Zhizuo residents with invisible forces with the potential to bring them disaster or prosperity. As mourning wove a porous shroud to render the dead invisible, muffle their speech, and sharpen their hearing, it made their communications as mysterious and difficult to read as the messages emanating from distant state institutions, which the wise might also use to divine prosperity or disaster in the future. At the same time, mourning made hemp a currency for griefs transactions across this shroud, subjecting grief to the rules that governed market exchanges: price differences across spatial and temporal distances, punishment for unpaid debt, bribes for official services.

To submit grief to these laws was to make it social in a particular way. Mourning was not the expression of a prior internal state of grief and loss so much as a collective reorganization of boundaries. While pathological grief might be the singular possession of an individual-his trap, prison, or burial pit-ritualized mourning fashioned grief as a communal, corporeal labor, like the labor of making hempen cloth. In this way, mourning engaged with power and the law, not as a strategic competition for social status, but as a practical, collective ethics. Under this ethics, the work of grief, like the labor of making cloth, created an authentic currency for market transactions, not borrowed, stolen, nor rented, but created through shared labor and pain. Grief fashioned under these conditions evaded the pits and tombs of unpaid debt; it gradually raveled and unraveled a shroud for the absent dead, in the end rendering this absence powerless to do harm.

While in many ways the verbal and material poetics of grief I have touched on here were specific to one small mountainous corner of China’s Southwest, in other respects they resonate with what we already know of ritualized mourning in China. Li Yong’s tale of the “underworld ghost market,” for instance, brings to mind a rich historical and ethnographic literature on detailed underworld “spirit realms” evoked by rituals and literature of mourning throughout China. In these realms, hierarchies of spirit officials oversee the dead, conducting tribunals, dispensing justice, ordering tortures, collecting taxes, circulating documents, engaging in corruption, and receiving honors and chastisements in ways that seem to mirror the activities of officials in the Imperial bureaucracy (see for example Teiser 1988; Kuhn 1990; Kleeman 1993; Ebrey and Gregory 1993; Johnson 1995). Scholarship on popular religions in China has inquired most frequently about the sociological function of transactions with these spirit realms: Did they serve to legitimate state authority? Did they disguise the economic control that landholding elites exercised over all other classes? Did they enable ordinary people to mount resistance to this domination? Or did they teach people to understand and manipulate the real bureaucratic apparatus to which they were subject?zl Though legitimate and interesting, these questions have tended to eclipse inquiries into the grief and loss which lies at the root of these transactions, and which must ultimately underlie any engagement of mourning with state or economic power. Like the “underworld ghost market,” the spirit realms of Chinese popular religions were imagined arenas in which people worked out the discriminations between authentic and unauthentic, true and apparent, through which they gradually separated themselves from the dead. Imaginative transactions with the dead and the officials who oversaw them were very likely most often in the service of these discriminations-that is, ultimately in the service of the work of mourning, however distant or attenuated. That, in renderings of such spirit realms, each transaction was accomplished under the supervision of imagined officials should tell us as much about the topography of grief as it tells us about attitudes towards external bureaucratic authorities. Here I have attempted to show how in one corner of the Southwest a remembered history of market conventions and the imagined authority that backed them were among the conditions for griefs social existence. Further investigations into how the rituals and literatures of mourning in China fashion affect might sensitize us to the parts pain and loss play in the imaginative representations of political power still characteristic of popular religion everywhere in China.


  1. Throughout this article, I use words, phrases, and chants from two different languages, in which nearly all Zhizuo residents were bilingual: Mandarin Chinese and Loloqo, which may be considered a subdialect of the Central dialect of Yi, a Loloish Tibeto-Burman language (Bradley 1979; Chen 1963). To distinguish these two languages, Loloro terms and chants are left unmarked, while romanized Mandarin terms are followed in their first use by lM/. Chinese pronunciations in this region vary widely, from a local variation of Yunnan Mandarin to the standard Mandarin used in radio and television broadcasts. For the sake of clarity, however, I use the standard romanization system used in the People’s Republic of China (pinyin[M) to transcribe all Chinese words and phrases. My orthography of Lolo emends in the following ways a version of the International Phonetic Alphabet employed by Ma Xueliang (1948,1951, 1992) to record Yi languages: (1) Five aveopalatal consonants are represented as /chl (voiceless aspirated), /j/ (voiced), Icl and /sh/ (voiceless fricative), and /rl (voiced fricative). (2) Only three tones are distinguished: high level and mid-high rising tones are marked with an acute accent; low falling tones with a grave accent, and mid level and mid-high level tones are unmarked.
  2. Underlining of vowels indicates laryngealization or a final glottal stop. 3Commenting on Plato’s cave parable, Cornford remarks, “The image was probably taken from mysteries held in caves or dark chambers representing the underworld, through which the candidates for initiation were led to the revelation of sacred objects in a blaze of light” (Cornford 1951, 227).
  3. Zhizuo (u () is the official, written name for this area, used on all maps and administrative documents. The second character means “hemp,” hinting at outsiders’ associations of that product with this area and its inhabitants. Zhizuo is a transliteration of the Loloqo name, Juzo, preferred by locals and meaning “little valley.”
  4. Thirteen months of field research were conducted in Zhizuo between October 1991 and June 1993. Sponsoring units were the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming and the Yi Culture Research Institute in Chuxiong.
  5. Zhizuo was part of Dayao county until 1962. In 1925, Yongren County was created out of the northernmost section (fensiM) of Dayao, but Zhizuo remained within Dayao’s Zhonghe district (guM), controlled by the Xia family of hereditary officials (tusi[M). Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture was created in 1950, incorporating Dayao and Yongren as its northernmost counties. In 1958, when the political lines of China’s rural areas were redrawn, most of Zhonghe district, including most of Zhizuo, was added to Yongren Commune. From 1958 to 1962, Yongren Commune was absorbed with four other former counties into Dayao County. It became an independent county in 1962, taking Zhizuo with it. This redivision left a few outlying villages formerly included within Zhizuo in Dayao County (Yunnan Sheng bianjizu 1986 [1950], 109; Yunnan Sheng renkou tongji bangongshi 1990).
  6. While many of these peoples had long been called Yi (a) in historical and administrative texts, the Nationalities Commission adopted a different character with the same pronunciation to neutralize the derogatory connotations of the term as formerly written. Yi were one of the most complex and diverse of all the “nationalities” (]) produced in this project: six major subgroups were identified, speaking six mutually mostly unintelligible dialects and using at least four different varieties of written script (Chen 1963). Some of these subgroups exhibit very significant differences in social structure. Northern dialect groups, for instance, residing mostly in Sichuan, have neolocal marriage, highly developed patrician systems, and a structure of strictly ranked and strictly endogamous social strata (Lin 1961 [1947; Harrell 1995, 65), while the other dialect groups have mostly virilocal marriage, weak to nonexistent clan organization and, in the case of the Lolop’o of this article, practices intended to level out some economic inequalities (Mueggler 1998a). The 1990 census put the number of Yi at 6,572,173. Of these about 600,000 are members of the Central dialect group, which includes the people of Zhizuo. In Western writings, Yi groups most often appear as Lolo, from the derogatory Chinese term Luoluo, applied to many of these peoples by their neighbors and administrators for centuries. People in Zhizuo tend to find highly insulting the suggestion that the word Lolop’o (Lolo people) might be derived from the former derogatory designation, insisting instead that it comes from the ancient Lologo word for tiger or ox, lo.
  7. Lietard found that Lolop’o often mixed their hempen yarn with yarn from a wild plant, gerbera delavayi (huocaoM), which produced a boll resembling that of cotton (1913, 101-2).
  8. The plain of Goudi, on the borders of Dayao and Yaoan counties.
  9. Cannabis sativa and boehmeria nivia, respectively (Kuhn 1988, 27). Throughout this article, I use the word hemp to refer exclusively to the former plant and its products, rather than, as hemp is often used in English and ma in Chinese, to mean bast-fiber products in general.
  10. Lietard’s Pe-ien-tsin and Fleuve Bleu, respectively.
  11. After the formal self-ascription used in many of these communities: “Lip’o Limo,” or “Li men and women.”
  12. Hsu made a similar calculation in 1943 for weavers in a village near Dali. There, according to Hsu, a woman weaving all day could earn about 60 percent of what she could earn in field labor (1967, 71).
  13. Units of measure used here are as follows. A mu is about 1/15 hectare (or 1/6 acre), afen a tenth of a mu. A sheng is about 1.08 liters (or 0.96 quarts). A catty (jin) is about one-half a kilogram (or 1.1 pounds); a sheng of husked rice weighs about 1.6 catties. A ke, the unit of measure used for hempen cloth, was about 17 centimeters wide by 50 long (or 6 by 18 inches). Zhizuo residents used these Mandarin terms for marketing.
  14. A phrase used through much of rural China to describe a person’s personal economic and ideological transformation during the Land Reform campaign (Hinton 1967).
  15. In the 1960s and 1970s, hemp production in most of Yunnan declined in response to the state’s renewed emphasis on grain production as the main peasant activity. Areas such as Yongren and Dayao counties, where hemp was planted on land unsuitable for grain, became the province’s largest hemp producers (Yunnan Sheng difangzhi bianzan weiyuanhui 1992, 158).
  16. For examples of the tables Supply and Marketing Cooperative officials used to grade raw hemp, see Liu 1957, 8. The hemp grown in northern Yunnan was or Sichuan hemp, and was priced according to the standards for Sichuan. Hebei, Shanxi, and Shandong.
  17. Kuk edo “courtyard dance,” nihepi “dawn-to-dusk offering,” and shangfen[Mj “ascending to the grave,” respectively. This sequence was a truncated version of a much longer funeral process that Zhizuo residents once conducted after the death of every adult. Before 1953, two further large-scale mortuary rituals were performed for every adult: a “tenth-month sacrifice” (ts’ihontpi) held on the lunar calendar’s tenth month following a death, and a “sleeping in the wilds” (likadhhe) ceremony held several years after a death. The latter ritual was prohibited during the Land Reform movement in 1953, the former discontinued during the Great Leap Forward in 1958 (see Mueggler 1997). 19Kuhn’s source is Hsu 1965, 123.
  18. Here as in all mortuary responsibilities, parents, siblings, or other kin could substitute for sons or daughters if the dead left no descendants.
  19. For representative discussions of each of these positions, see Duara 1988; Feutchtwang 1992; Weller 1987; and Ahern 1981, respectively.

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Author Affiliation

Erik Mueggler is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. In memory of my brother, Karl Mueggler, 1967-97. I am indebted to Norma Diamond, Thomas Fricke, Stevan Harrell, Charles McKhann, Sidney Mintz, P. Steven Sangren, Louisa Schein, G. William Skinner, and participants in the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies Faculty Seminar for their comments and suggestions. The Committee for Scholarly Communications with China and the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research funded the research for this article.

Copyright © 1998, Journal of Asian Studies. All rights reserved.

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