The Shamaness and the Baby

by on Friday, 01 September 2006 Comments

A Nuosu (Liangshan Yi) ritual

Text: Benoit Vermander
Filming: Li Jinyuan
Reader: Jerry Martinson

This is the second day of the Torch Festival, July 15 2001.We are in the lodgings of a high school teacher in Yanyuan, Liangshan prefecture, Sichuan province. Teacher Hu is a remarkable man, a Black Yi who has married outside his cast, rejecting the bride with whom her parents had betrothed him in his childhood. He and his wife have a 57 days old baby, their second child. The baby is in the house, just out of the hospital after nine days and must return to the hospital that very evening. Pneumonia was diagnosed (the baby’s illness is known as syr-lup-na in Nuosu language.). It is around eleven in the morning and, besides two Yi friends and myself, there are Teacher Hu (a reluctant participant in the ceremony, who will go in and out), his wife, his wife’s mother and younger sister, their two children, four neighbors or relatives, and Ajjiemop Vaphlop, who is going to be the performer.

Ajjiemop Vaphlop is a female sunyit. Female sunyit are usually called mop-nyit in nuosu. She is 62 years old and comes from the village of Va-kup, also in Yanyuan county. She is married and has seven children. She became a mop-nyit when she was around 40 years old. She had been ill for around seven years and had finally invited a bi-mox to perform a ritual for greeting her wa-sa and become a full-fledged mop-nyit. She remembers that during her illness she was severely criticized in her unit for her sudden bursts of shaking that showed how much she was influenced by superstition. Her wa-sa (there are four of them) originate form her husband’s family, where one is sunyit from one generation to another. Her husband himself is not a sunyit. Would she die first, one of her daughters or her husband might be chosen by the wa-sa for continuing her office. Ajjiemop Vaphlop is extremely reserved in manners but has her own way to make a statement. Without blinking she tells us before the ritual starts that there is in this county a mop-nyit more known than she is herself, a mop-nyit whose good offices are looked for as far as Yunnan province. This particular mop-nyit has for a wa-sa a brother who died as an officer in the PLA. The quality of her wa-sa makes her prone to fire shots during the rituals for chasing the ghosts away, and it also helps for her being very popular with the cadres, who often invite her to perform at their houses.

The mop-nyit starts chanting, seated on the floor of the apartment (the rest of us seats on sofas.) A plate with salt and noodle as well as two small glasses of alcohol are put at her side. She herself has in her hands two other glasses, larger in size, and she pours the content alternatively form one cup to another. Her psalmody starts with the genealogy of her trade, the sunyit line to which she belongs. She takes the rooster presented to her and breaks its spur. The door of the room and the one of the little house are kept open.

The mop-nyit threatens the ghosts by recalling the reputation of her trade genealogy and the good deeds that she herself performed in the past. She takes a bowl of rice (buckwheat should be used but there is none in the house) and she blows it towards different directions. The chanting intensifies: “Devils from the north and the south, devils from every direction, do not come again persecute this household…Curses, turn back towards the direction you come from…” The words used are the ones uttered during the va-xi rituals. The operation is repeated three times. The rooster is knocked senseless and an assistant rubs the chief of the household around ten times, then his wife and their two children. The mop-nyit calls for peace and security on each of them. While marking the rhythm with an chopper she sings the origins and praises of the rooster (va-bbo-va-pat-sha – recalling the origins of the role of the sacrificed animal is a compulsory part of the ritual.) The egg has been brooded by the hen for 21 days, the rooster has been a chicken, then has grown to its present size Three times each day the rooster makes its call, first for making the sun rise, second for calling humans to work, third, at noon, for starting the slow descent of the sun. The rooster is told that it killed so that it might bring the enemy away. She turns an handful of rice around the head of the rooster and throws this handful away with a cry. The rhythm intensifies. She strikes the head of the rooster against the floor, and then cuts its throat, letting the blood flow into a bowl. She turns herself towards the wall, still holding the rooster, gluing on the wall a few feathers with blood and offering the blood to her wa-sa. She strikes again the rooster with her chopper. After a pause and some bowlfuls of alcohol a new sequence starts. New threats against the ghosts while her protecting spirits and the ones of the household are called to the rescue. She throws towards the door a piece of poked wood, the chopper and the rooster, head pointed forward. At this point, the ghosts are supposed to be concentrated on the rooster, the two other objects telling them not to come again. The mop-nyit takes her drum, singing in a curled up position, and puts the drumbeat into the rooster’s blood. A long pause subsequently takes place, as she finds the skin of the drum too humid. She goes out for drying it on a fire. During this time everyone eats the liver and kidney that have just been roasted.

Once the mop-nyit is back she proceeds to the calling of her wa-sa with the drum. The chanting amplifies into two successive solemn melodies. “Wherever you are, come and help me, I already prepared for you meat and alcohol.” After around fifteen minutes the drumming reaches a maximum of intensity. Standing up the mop-nyit enters into a trance, the melody evolves into long, strident notes alternating with plain drumming. She suddenly stops and sits down. Five similar sequences, each of them of around twenty minutes, will succeed and will stop as suddenly as the first one, producing moments of strong ritual and musical strength, with much melodic diversity - a very ritualized, controlled trance. In the process, she asks the spirits why the child is ill, if the ghost comes from the father’s or the mother’s family. Accompanied by the interjections of the grandmother of the child, whose role will be progressively asserted, she gets the word form the wa-sa that the illness will be cured. The illness comes from a piece of meat hosting a ghost, a piece of meat that will be progressively revealed having been eaten during the funerals of the little child of the older sister of the sick mother. The culprit is a shot-bit, a Han ghost, which will require an additional sequence, the offering of extra fat, Han ghosts being especially gluttons (the special ritual for cheating Han ghost with some extra meat is called cix-gur-mip-hmat-diy.) Once the identity of the ghost is revealed, the ritual goes on, water is spilled for chasing it away. Ghosts are cursed in a fashion identical to the one narrated in the first episode of this section. The calling back of the soul also follows a very similar pattern. However, two souls this time have to be called back, the one of the mother and the one of the child. Again, objects and two needles (a large one for the mother’s soul, a small one for the child’s) are put within a basket. Contrarily to what happened with Jimi At-zhi, the divination process is taken seriously: two times, the mother opens the basket and two times the needles happen to point in the wrong direction. The soul has to be called again. Finally, an assistant will substitute for the mother, hopelessly clumsy, and he will be able to make the basket turn in such a way as to have the needles point towards mother and child. Two sequences will conclude the ritual, one for confirming that the souls are back indeed and telling them to stay now where they are, the second one for sending away the wa-sa of the mop-nyit. In the course of the ritual the latter will also receive a cloth and 10 RMB. “Now, we can eat” she says quietly at the end of this enacting performance that has lasted for three hours. Is she tired? Not at all she says, for her wa-sa help her to hold and beat the heavy drum that she uses…



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