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Notions of health and personhood in transition, and the containment of life

Professor Elisabeth Hsu
University of Oxford


Panel Abstract

The theme of personhood has been central to the social anthropology of Southeast Asia in so far as kinship and socialities in the region are infused by life energies known for their transformative powers. However, they need to be channeled and contained in accordance with distinctive (seasonal, diurnal, dynastic, etc.) rhythms. Thus, the technique of wrapping is well-developed: among the Chinese and national minorities of Southwest China babies are tightly wrapped into cloths; or one’s legs when hiking should be wrapped into gaiters; gifts of any worth are generally given in wrappings, etc.  Alternatively, as Marina Roseman (1992, 2007) has observed, the soul is patted into the body as one pats the earth when planting a plant into the earth. Techniques of the kind persist in contemporary health practices. This panel explores health preventive and therapeutic techniques indicative of the idea that life energies need to be supplemented and contained, and that health arises from a sense of their accrued thickness and density.


Session I: Skills and body techniques

Paper 1: The heavy and full: a China-Pacific cross-cultural comparison

Professor Elisabeth Hsu
University of Oxford

In response to an earlier tentative exploration of the cross-cultural experience of “Feeling lighter”, as a positive experience of the patient who expresses an unspecific but overall betterment after medical treatment or due to certain daily routines (published for medical scientists interested in “traditional” medicine, in 2012), I account in this presentation for the positive evaluation of being weighty and pregnant/full. Without denying the positive attributes that feeling lighter has – in medical settings and everyday life – and the negative implications of depression/denseness (yu), fullness (ting)  and sluggishness (zhong) in some situations, it is noteworthy that these very terms can be used in a reverse sense too, where yu refers to luxurious growth and dense vegetation, ying/shi to a wanted and cherished pregnancy and zhong to authoritative weight and importance. I will assemble both verbal phrases and observed body techniques, in the past and contemporary world,  with the aim to find out how life energies and their containment have been secured, and whether these practices of bodily maintenance have now changed. The focus will be on Chinese and Southwest Chinese sayings and practices, but in cross-cultural comparison.


Paper 2: Tying the hand: life sustaining technique in northern Thailand

Dr Junko Iida
Kawasaki University for Medical Welfare

In Thai folk concepts, human life is believed to be sustained and animated by a spiritual essence or soul spirit called khwan. At certain crisis points, the khwan tends to leave the body, and its temporary absence causes suffering including sicknesses and misfortunes. Thai people therefore perform rituals to recall the khwan to their bodies when they are in a state of suffering, or to bind the khwan to their bodies in order to prevent it from leaving on certain occasions including New Year’s Day, upon departing for a journey and during a rite of passage such as childbirth, marriage and ordination. This presentation explores these rituals called ju khwanhiak khwan or hong khwan, which all mean ‘calling the khwan’ in Northern Thai. In these rituals, an elder binds khwan to the body of the participant by tying a piece of cotton thread to both of the participant’s wrists. This action – mat mue, which means ‘tying the hand’ – forms the heart of the ritual. I will demonstrate the importance of the body techniques, routines, and sensory experiences as well as the messages of the words recited in these rituals.


Paper 3: Permeable Personhood and Techniques for Negotiating Boundaries of the Self among the Luangans of Indonesian Borneo

Dr Isabell Herrmans
University of Helsinki

In this paper I take the Luangan saying that they have “a hundred souls and eight essences” (juus jatus, ruo walo) as a clue to understanding the permeability of Luangan personhood and the continuous need to both reinforce and extend boundaries of the self. According to the people I worked with, the expression should not be understood literally, but as metaphorically pointing to the evasiveness or inherent instability of human souls and the many efforts needed to contain or integrate them. As Luangans see it, the soul or life force (juus) of living people, which under normal circumstances is lodged somewhere in the body, may become lost or stolen by spirits, resulting in illness, or death. In addition, there are a number of other aspects of the self, such as invisible plant counterparts (samat) and the placenta (juma), which similarly affect human well-being. While well-being is generally contingent on the strength and fixity of the soul and these other components of persons, health is also adversely affected by alienation, or lack of integration, of people and their unseen counterparts with other beings. A principal factor influencing the stability of souls, for instance, is their strength or hardness, which in turn essentially reflects connections with spirits and sociality with other people. In my paper, I will explore different techniques for strengthening and restoring souls used in Luangan curing which variously serve to maintain or extend boundaries of persons in attempts to negotiate a transient personhood.


Session II: Social movements and community events

Paper 4: “Kembeeh weeh” (Us Together): Bolstering the life force through community healing in the forests of Malaysia.

Dr Marina Roseman
Universiti Brunei Darussalam

In December of 2011, while staying in the Temiar village of Kg. Santeh, in the hinterlands of peninsular Malaysia, a young boy suffering with fever fainted while playing outdoors with his friends.   Immediately he was brought inside, and his family did first-level traditional treatment options for his suffering, massaging him with tepid water, blowing spiritual coolness and sucking out illness, while neigbours arrived with the ginger roots and leaves to be pounded and soaked in water, later to be massaged on his body.   Within minutes the word had gone out of his fainting (kesbus), which carries in the Temiar language of these Orang Asli or ‘aboriginal’ people, the same meaning as ‘death’.  Neighbours gather twenty thick at the doorways, passing in ritual objects, leaves for leaf whisks, while healers arrived one by one from the surrounding areas.   Over the course of three hours, as word spread, healers multiplied and the crowd grew until finally the most senior healer of the area arrived and began to do his ministrations. All this was happening in the home where I was staying while doing my latest research project with the people I’ve studied with over 30 years. As usual, I felt the mixture of angst and excitement, angst because my research was proceeding on the basis of someone else’s suffering, excitement because when studying the subject of medical anthropology in this kind of setting, no one can predict when someone will fall ill and healings will occur, and there I was in the right place at the right time.   So with camera and notes, I covered the event, feeling slightly guilty about gaining material from the boy’s suffering.  After three hours of the first day’s treatment, as healers and elders were beginning to leave, one leaned over to me and said proudly, gesturing to the collectivity of people who had gathered to minister, in their various ways, gathering leaves, pounding herbs, worrying and gossiping, ministering, and said in Temiar, “Now put that in your book!”

This event is combined with a recent protest and blocking of logging roads in January 2012 by Temiars of Kelantan state, near where the above healing took place.  At the site of their blockade, they had a table with medicinal leaves, leaves for healing ceremonies, jungle foodstuffs, forest building materials, all the things they said “Gave them life (gesgos)”, and were endangered by unbridled logging of the rainforest.

I explore, then the pride of an aboriginal animist forest people, marginalized by the state and the majority Muslim Malays, who despite continual onslaughts on their practices and the environment that supports those practices, continue to take pride in their collective engagement with individual suffering, and their connection to the forest.  I also explore the conflicting situation of the medical anthropologist whose ‘business’ is to document suffering.


Paper 5: Containing lennāwa: Relational techniques for sustaining life in Ifugao, the Philippines

Jon Henrik Ziegler Remme
University of Oslo

For the Ifugao of Northern Luzon, the Philippines, life, health and well-being depends on the containment of the life force called lennāwa within the body. The life sustaining lennāwa-body relation is, however, inherently instable. The potential for lennāwa-body separation entails that they need to engage in practices that constitute and sustain the lennāwa-body relation. In this paper I discuss how these practices are relational in the sense that the containment of the life force within and its eventual release from the body depend on the relations the person enacts with other humans and nonhuman beings (spirits). I describe how the Ifugao use various techniques such as small acts of sharing, carrying ginger and keeping a chickweed plant over their ear and argue that these are ways of managing relations with other humans and spirits which, when enacted properly, will stabilize the lennāwa-body relation. When this relation is weakened, the Ifugao engage in elaborate therapeutic rituals the purpose of which is to retrieve the lennāwa and ensure that it is rejoined with the body. These rituals take the form of exchange of lennāwa between humans and spirits by means of the sacrifice of pigs and subsequent observance of a series of taboos. Altogether these practices are meant to mend relations between the patient and spirits which will ensure that the retrieved lennāwa remains within the body of the patient. In sum, I discuss how Ifugao techniques of containing life must be understood within a relational framework in which the stabilization of the life force in a human body emerges as an effect of an assemblage of relations that includes human and nonhuman beings.


Paper 6: Sacrificing blood and accruing political energies: the 2010 Red Shirts protest in Bangkok

Dr Claudia Merli
Durham University

This paper analyses the protest of the Red Shirts (United front of Democracy against Dictatorship) staged in Bangkok in 2010 by the supporters of exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra and culminating in a mass blood donation. Protesters fielded both sacrificial and biomedical discourses, paramedics as well as a person dressed as a Brahmin took active part in the operation. In its aspect of biopolitical counterconduct the mass blood donation can be read as a form of political contestation based on controlled disembodiment, shedding the essence of life. The blood donation’s hygienic faultlessness during the sampling phase was captured by the global media and opposed by a counterintuitive pooling of blood in large plastic bottles, carried in procession to government buildings’ gates and splashed on asphalt. A complete subversion of the rhetoric of previous ‘gift’ usually attached to the donation procedure. By wasting and casting away blood in a sacrificial ritual of disembodying engagement, new political individual and collective energies were accrued in a time of political crisis and transition. A form of democratic citizenship was campaigned by a political opposition that was promptly portrayed by the government as being un-Thai, and using a prominently biomedical rhetoric as particles to be expelled from the body of the nation, as red ‘germs’.


Session III: Film

Film: Blood for the Gods: Ritual Revival Among the Pumi People in Southwest China

Markus Schiesser

The Anji/Hangui is a ritual specialist among the Pumi (Premi) people who live in southwestern China. He works in the same field as the Lama monk of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the dominant tradition in the region. This film shows three Anjis, their daily life and their rituals in Yiji village of Muli county, Sichuan province. It highlights how Anjis today navigate pressures from the state and Buddhist authorities while attending to the demands of their rich world of gods, spirits, demons, the ghosts of the dead and, of course, the local people themselves.

In the centre of an Anji’s culture are the scriptures that detail the rituals and chants. Many of these scriptures were burned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but some Anji families managed to hide them in remote mountain caves. These books are all the more crucial today as they assist the current generation of Anjis to continue an interrupted tradition. Occasionally, the information derived from these books is seen to fill the gaps left by their fathers, who were not allowed to study the rituals.

The Anjis refer to these scriptures when they defend the need for blood sacrifices against the objections of both Buddhist and state authorities. They explain that it is only the Anjis who can deal with the most powerful spirits, and those all need to be fed with blood and meat in order to peacefully co-exist with, or even become helpful to, human beings. Inevitably, some of the Anjis have given in to the pressure and gave up blood sacrifices. While these Anjis acknowledge that according to the scriptures blood sacrifices are needed, they reject them as ‘feudal superstition’ and feed the dangerous evil spirits usually with red colour.

A great part of the rituals in this film are part of the ritual practices among monks from the Bön monastic tradition, in particular, of the Dru (‘bru) lineage monastery called Menri (sman ri) that was founded in the 14th century. However, the scroll depicting different stations after death in hell testifies to a local funeral ritual tradition seemingly no longer performed.