Ritual & Cultural Diversity in Western China


A review of Nadun: Ritual and the Dynamics of Cultural Diversity in Northwest China’s Hehuang Region, by Gerald Roche.

Gerald Roche’s dissertation, “Nadun: Ritual and the Dynamics of Cultural Diversity in Northwest China’s Hehuang Region,” is an insightful study into the major annual ritual of the Sanchuan Mangghuer of Northeastern Qinghai Province. This study, however, is more than simply a close reading of a harvest ritual in Western China, but an in-depth examination of both the practices of the ritual itself and the local ontologies and ideologies that inform and surround it. In doing so, Roche does a wonderful job detailing the complexity of the historical and present ideologies working on Nadun in the twenty-first century, and the competing ideologies that are being negotiated in the Nadun ritual, with a clarity that belies their complexity.

Roche’s study follows a general trajectory that takes the reader from the traditional to the modern and from local to global. After first introducing the Hehuang and Sanchuan regions, and the regional context largely, in terms of the ethnic complexity of the region, Roche suggests a set of agricultural practices designed to remain illegible to the outside state much in the same way that James C. Scott has suggested for regions of Southeast Asia. The introduction also includes several maps of the region to help illustrate this point, by way of introducing primarily riverine systems that help to show the various “zones of refuge” he sees embedded in traditional Monghuor life in Sanchuan, and informing the ethnic complexity of the region. At the same time, he posits the theory that ritual plays an important part in reinforcing this ethnic diversity.

In the course of his introduction, Roche argues against the majority of Chinese and English language scholarship on the Monghuor Nadun for its usefulness in understanding the Nadun as a complex whole practiced among variously composed groups, and practiced in different fashions. He notes that descriptions of the Nadun as an exclusively Monghuor practice fail to recognize that Tiebie (the Monghuor ethnonym for Tibetans) populations also participate in this and other related practices, as do some Qidai (Han) and Saotur (Hui Muslim) groups. He also notes that a number of English-language articles (such as those published by Kevin Stuart and his colleagues) provide in-depth, village-specific descriptions of Nadun that do an excellent job describing practices in single villages, but fail to see the forest for the trees.

Roche aligns his research with a variety of scholars. His method relies heavily on Barth’s assertion that, “looking to [local] social life… as [the] only reality and authority… as it enhances the anthropologist’s chance to transcend received theory and knowledge and to learn from the only fully valid source: people speaking and acting in a living society” (Fredrik Barth, Balinese Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, 25, quoted in the dissertation on page 51). As such, this dissertation reads something like a cross between the highly detailed descriptive work of Kevin Stuart and the balanced ethnographic and theoretical folk-religious studies of Adam Yuet Chau—whose research on temple festivals in Northern China inform some of Roche’s understanding of the ideas of Monghuor notions of hospitality. The analysis of the Sanchuan region and traditional subsistence styles owes much to the scholarship of James C. Scott and his notion of state-evading subsistence strategies (James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). At the same time, he chooses to break with Geertzian and Turnerian suggestions that rituals are best seen as “texts” to be decoded. Instead, approaching rituals as arenas in which culture is expressed, and contested, and where meanings interact and overlap.

Roche also includes in his introduction a brief and very general description of the primary events of the Nadun ritual, which is carried out across 53 villages and village confederations on varying dates beginning in August and continuing until November of a given year. He describes and provides images for a number of the different dances that make up the bulk of the ritual performances.

Chapters two through five all employ a similar format, beginning with a brief fictional account of life in Sanchuan that is informed by his many visits to the region and corroborated as accurate by his research assistants. Roche then provides an analysis of one aspect of life in Sanchuan—religion, family, Qing imperial models, and modernism and globalism—to see how it can shed light on the Nadun ritual. At the end of each chapter, Roche includes between 20 and 55 “artifacts” (images, interview excerpts, song lyrics, etc.) with a comment on each for how they can clarify the contents of the chapter. This approach, though unorthodox, is highly effective at introducing a ritual and an ethnic group that is relatively unknown within China let alone to western readers, and speaks to Roche’s conviction that his interviewees should be allowed a voice with which to speak for themselves. In doing so, he also provides the reader with enough cultural information to make a small, and relatively unknown ethnic group’s practices accessible to readers from a variety of disciplines.

Chapter 2, entitled “Deities, Monks, and Mediums,” examines the religious ideologies informing the Nadun and religion in Minhe, modeled primarily around dyadic relationships between deities and their worshippers. The logic of these relationships is that deities are entertained, given offerings, and placated in expectation that they will in provide direct worldly aid in return. In doing so, he draws upon Giovanni Da Col’s “economies of fortune” as he traces the various kinds of luck and karmic action at work and up for evaluation in Mangghuer folk religious practice (Giovanni da Col “The View from Somewhen: Evenemental Bodies and the Perspective of Fortune around Khawa Karpo, a Tibetan Sacred Mountain in Yunnan Province.” Innner Asia, 2007, 9(2): 215-235).  He also examines the considerable long-term influence Tibetan Buddhism has exerted in the Sanchuan area, with specific relation to both the history and the influence of Tibetan Buddhism in Nadun ritual practice, with particular reference to the only half-successful attempts by Buddhist clergy to reform the ritual itself.

Chapter 3 then moves to examine ideologies of the family and community, in Sanchuan. He examines the dyadic interpersonal relations inflected by kin relatedness, relative age, gender, transethnic interactions, and territory pattern interactions.  In the end he moves towards the somewhat larger field of ideologies of hospitality and etiquette, which structure both the minute interactions of everyday life, and larger public events such as feasts, and (indeed) the Nadun ritual. Roche suggests that the Nadun ritual is best seen as an event that follows the conventions of hosting as deities are first invited, then entertained, and then seen off, with the entertainment value seen to be key in procuring the deity’s worldly aid.

Chapter 4 scales up to the national level, examining the Nadun and its relation to attempts by the Qing imperial state to create legible and taxable subjects who could be conscripted, controlled, and relied upon. In this section, Roche suggests that a number of the masked dances performed during the Nadun ritual—particularly those depicting scenes from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms—were part of a Qing dynasty policy propagating the cult of Guan Yu. He goes on, however, to suggest that these ideas largely failed and only partially took hold within the Sanchuan Mangghuer community. This is accomplished primarily through comparing the roles of Guan Yu in Mangghuer culture and Ge sar in Tiebie (Tibetan) culture.

Chapter 5 moves temporally to the twenty-first century, focusing on changes Nadun as a result of modernity, globalism, and capitalism. This chapter first examines the high modernism of the Maoist period, and the post-Maoist entry of Jesus to Sanchuan, before examining the trends and effects of globalism and consumerism. In each case, he further shows that approaches suggesting that the local is powerless to stop onslaught of hegemonic trends fail to appropriately address the complexity with which these are received at the local level. With the exception of consumerism, Roche shows at least a partial coopting of the regimes to fit within existing cultural structures. Roche sees consumerism, however, as being more nefarious and difficult to coopt. Described as resting upon the dialectic of the tu (the local, and therefore boring) and the yang (the exotic, and therefore interesting and worthy of consumption), consumerism is one of the key threats to the practice of Nadun today as more and more Sanchuan Mangghuer leave the region in search of riches.

Roche provides a number of examples throughout showing how, despite surface-level appearances of the pervasiveness of top-down ideological hegemonies, the interaction between the local and the hegemonic ideologies is far more complex. Using Nadun as a starting point, Roche has delved into the processes of cultural change and variation, and comes to the conclusion that the forces of modernity and hegemons frequently only get accepted after being refracted through the lens of local practices. Through examining ideologies as the unit of analysis rather than cultural groups, he suggests that the basis of cultural diversity is ideologies, their circulation within regional systems (like the Hehuang region), and individuals’ attempts to negotiate with the ideologies available to them.

This study can benefit researchers from a number of fields including, but not limited to, Sinologists (particularly those studying Northern China, and ethnic minorities), Tibetologists, folklorists, anthropologists more generally, and any who study the processes by which minority groups interact with hegemonic ideologies. Its detailed description of local ideologies and practices keep it accessible while its conclusions about diversity add both depth and diversity to scholarly discourses on relationships between the local and the national and global.

Timothy Thurston
PhD Candidate
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures
The Ohio State University

Primary Sources

In-depth, semi-structured interviews with local predominantly male elders, ritual practitioners, and Nadun participants

Dissertation Information

Griffith University. 2010. 446pp. Primary Advisor: Colin Mackerras


Image: Photograph by Gerald Roche

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