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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .


The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence and Place in Southwest China
Erik Mueggler

Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2001
360pp. Biblio. Index. Pb.: $19.95/12.95; ISBN 0-520-22631-3.



This book is an extremely vivid and thoroughly researched ethnographic study of a rural community in southwest China. The community's members speak a Tibeto-Burmese language, and fall in the category of "national minority" for official purposes. Han Chinese comprise about 95% of China's population and dominate its institutions; some fifty-six other ethnic groups are recognised as minorities. Among them, Han supremacy is contested by many Tibetans and Muslims of the northwest. In southwest China, most minority groups, like the one described in this book, are poor, poorly educated, dispersed, and outnumbered.

The study illuminates the relationship between state and ethnic group; and it tells a devastatingly sad story in many respects. The book is especially valuable since its author learned the local language, resided among the community, and brings his anthropological training to bear on its present and recent past.

Much of the book offers detailed reporting and analysis of customs and rituals of village life: dreams and their interpretation; land-use; funerals; exorcisms; courtship; healing. It is all especially valuable because, as far as I know, there is very little material available in English of comparable density. The ethnography is interlaced with accounts of the power of the state in the communist era, which impacted and often overwhelmed the villagers' lives: purges, famine, and social disruption in the 1950s, compulsory birth control in the 1990s.

On the latter topic, Mueggler is absolutely justified in reporting, and by implication condemning, the clumsiness bordering on brutality with which much of the population control has been imposed: for example mass sterilization campaigns that "spayed women like sows" (p.305). At the same time it is worth remembering that after twenty-five years of state-promoted birth control, by the late 1990s, China's 1.2 billion population was growing at a rate of around one per cent per year. Most demographers believe that this is a sustainable level, at which China has good prospects of providing basic necessities for the vast majority of the population into future generations. Terrible injustices have been inflicted in the process; but the irremediable problems of uncontrolled population growth have been avoided.

Altogether, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone concerned to understand the "bitter ocean" of China's rural communities and its ethnic minorities.


Alan Hunter
Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation




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