In Erik Mueggler's powerful and imaginative ethnography, a rural minority community in the mountains of Southwest China struggles to find its place at the end of a century of violence and at the margins of a nation-state. Here, people describe the present age, beginning with the Great Leap Famine of 1958-1960 and continuing through the 1990s, as "the age of wild ghosts." Their stories of this age converge on a dream of community—a bad dream, embodied in the life, death, and reawakening of a single institution: a rotating headman-ship system that expired violently under the Maoist regime. Displaying a sensitive understanding of both Chinese and the Tibeto-Burman language spoken in this region, Mueggler explores memories of this institution, including the rituals and poetics that once surrounded it and the bitter conflicts that now haunt it.To exorcise "wild ghosts," he shows, is nothing less than to imagine the state and its power, to trace the responsibility for violence to its morally ambiguous origins, and to enunciate calls for justice and articulate longings for reconciliation.
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"In terms of its richness of data, this is one of the best ethnographies I have read about any locale anywhere. It is also exemplary in its novel and creative synthesis of literary analysis and more conventional social science-oriented anthropology. . . . The book has a consistent focus, both disturbing and riveting, on the ways that pain, loss, and social upheaval are woven into people's attempts to reconstitute new lives over some fifty years of rapid social change." P. Steven Sangren, author of Chinese Sociologics
"Mueggler writes with uncommon grace, elegance, and charm. . . . Readers will come away from this book with lasting memories of various aspects of these peoples’ lives death, hunger, fear, sex, humor and with an understanding of their all-too-powerful humanity as well as their genius for adapting their lives to the often-changing demands of the communist state."
Robert B. Edgerton, author of Death or Glory
"A rare work that really gives us a new way of thinking about what modernity (or one version of it, anyway) means to people who have had it thrust upon them involuntarily."
Kenneth Pomeranz, author of The Great Divergence
Erik Mueggler is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.
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