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(Guest Editor: Giovanni da Col)

  • Giovanni Da Col: Spirits of Uncertainty: Eventologies of Nature on China’s Frontiers
  • Stéphane Gros: Nature De-naturalised: Modes of Relation with the Environment among the Drung of Northwest Yunnan (China)
  • Magnus Fiskesjö: People First: The Wa World of Spirits and Other Enemies
  • Koen Wellens: Resilient Cosmologies: Water Deities and Divine Agency in Post-Mao China
  • Charles F. McKhann: Crimes Against Nature: Kincest, Cosmology, and Conservation in Southwest China
  • Admet Yuet Chau: Human Organs in Oil Tank Trucks: An Extractology



Guest Editor: Giovanni da Col

Giovanni Da Col

SOAS, University of London

Spirits of Uncertainty: Eventologies of Nature on China’s Frontiers

pages 307-320

Studies of the environmental spirit world have been pursuing two main lines of inquiry: (1) that indigenous claims on ecological thought, including beliefs in chthonic spirits and mountain deities, are the outcome of a global process of abstraction and the commoditisation of nature which acts as technology of governmentality for the production of discursive formations through which neoliberal environmental subjectivities can emerge and (2) that the pitfalls of the nature/culture dualism can be avoided by giving priority to nonhuman subjectivities and positing sociologies of nature as subordinate to ontologies of the self-other divide or action-orienting cosmologies of local ‘nature’. The contributors of this collection engage with the spirit worlds and other invisible agents that constitute the everyday landscape of a number of ethnic groups in western China. While declining to engage with the notion of animism or subscribing to totalising ‘cosmologies’, the authors prefer to extract the eventfulness of haphazard and radically uncertain interactions with spirits or wondrous signs apt to be transformed into marvels and rumours. The ethnographies presented in this collection reveal an eventology of spirit worlds and landscape on China’s borderlands, an inquiry that – unlike history – does not study ‘events’ as such but the relation between what is deemed to be an event, a surprise, or a manifestation of wonder and what is deemed to be the innate, natural, ordinary, everyday life.networks.


Stéphane Gros

Center for Himalayan Studies, CNRS, France

Nature De-naturalised: Modes of Relation with the Environment among the Drung of Northwest Yunnan (China)

pages 321-339

This article is about the ways the Drung (Dulong), a minority inhabiting a remote mountainous valley of Northwest Yunnan province (China), view the ‘natural world’ as part of a cosmological order in which human society is integrated. The article explores the principles of differentiation that preside over the modes of relation between the diverse components of this world, by paying close attention to subsistence activities. Until recently, the Drung people practised swidden agriculture, and hunting and collecting remained important secondary sources of food. These activities imply specific relationships with natural forces, deities and spirits, which constitute a socio-cultural means of accessing natural resources and obtaining prosperity, or ‘good fortune’. Four mutually non-exclusive modalities of transaction with these entities are identified, which capture the variability of peoples’ attitudes toward natural resources and ideas of social reproduction. Recent socio-economic reforms that have brought traditional cultivation to an end, threatening Drung people’s livelihood and culture, seem to influence the dominance of a certain modality of economic transaction.


Magnus Fiskesjö

Cornell University

People First: The Wa World of Spirits and Other Enemies

pages 340-364

The Wa spirit world implies a certain rootedness. Knowledge of the location and propensities of spirits is necessary to engage their capricious menace through divination diagnostics and sacrificial remedies. Even as outsiders have attempted to introduce modern medicine, spirit neighbours and enemies continue to figure prominently in Wa health, disease and death. I outline how these practices for managing the menaces of the spirit world survived the demise of the political autonomy of the Wa in the 1950s and 1960s, when the ancient Wa lands were divided and annexed by the nation-states of China and Burma. Finally, I discuss the disastrous consequences of recent forced displacements of large numbers of people, which caused many unnecessary deaths by disrupted the victim’s established ways of dealing with disease as anchored in the local landscape.


Koen Wellens

University of Oslo

Resilient Cosmologies: Water Deities and Divine Agency in Post-Mao China

pages 365-381

This article explores ritual practices among the Premi people in Southwest China at the beginning of the new millennium. Living in the periphery of Tibetan, Han Chinese and other Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups, Premi villagers have continued to keep an understanding of how the world works that is markedly different from their neighbours. The all-encompassing economic development of China is posing new challenges to the intangible entities in Premi cosmology. In its management of forests, waterways or birth control, the Chinese state is increasingly interfering with Premi ways of dealing with their surroundings. The chapter proposes to focus on the way one category of intangible entities of Premi cosmology, the lwéjabu or water deities, are seen as acting towards these challenges, rather than on the underlying ontological changes. An event where a member of a neighbouring ethnic group becomes an unwitting participant in a Premi medium séance makes the case for approaching extra-human forms of agency by beginning with the ‘work’ or ‘effect’ of the divine entities.


Charles F. McKhann

Department of Anthropology, Whitman College, Walla Walla

Crimes Against Nature: Kincest, Cosmology, and Conservation in Southwest China

pages 382-401

The post-Mao era (1976–present) has seen a number of great changes in China. Two of these – the revival of religion and the emergence of a nascent, but powerful environmental movement – have come together in a unique way in the revitalisation of dongba religion among the Naxi nationality (pop. 300,000) of northwest Yunnan and southwest Sichuan provinces. This paper examines the relations between indigenous Naxi and outside tourists (mainly Han from other parts of China) through multiple lenses, including traditional Naxi cosmologies and theories of kinship and hospitality, as well as contemporary ideas concerning tourism development and environmental protection. The aim is to show that: (1) Naxi theories of alterity occur at multiple levels simultaneously – gods/demons vs. humans, kin vs. non-kin, native vs. stranger, host vs. guest, etc. – but that a unified logic underlies the relations, transactions, and interpenetration of these groups and (2) this logic is a productive force in its own right, that is, capable of harnessing new situations to it, even as it itself evolves as novel meanings are engendered in the process of intentional action. In all of this, one figure stands out: the dongba, a traditional shaman-priest viewed as a kind of mediator or facilitator in interactions and exchanges involving a wide range of human and non-human subjects.


Admet Yuet Chau

Department of East Asian Studies, University of Cambridge

Human Organs in Oil Tank Trucks: An Extractology

pages 402-421

Since the 1980s the northern part of Shaanbei (northern Shaanxi Province) and neighbouring areas of Inner Mongolia have been experiencing a huge economic boom, thanks to the discovery and successful extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas. While conducting fieldwork on the revival of popular religion in this region in the mid- and late 1990s, I came across various stories relating to suspicions of human organs being transported in large oil tank trucks going out of Shaanbei. Could there have been a link between what is invisible that lies underneath the surface of the earth (coal and oil) and those that lie within human bodies but then allegedly taken out and transported in oil tank trucks (human organs)? This article proposes an ‘extractological’ approach that brings together yet diverges from the methodological and theoretical concerns in anthropological studies on extractive industries and the commercialisation of human organ transplants. In analysing the image of ‘human organs in oil tank trucks’ in juxtaposition with various other pertinent extractological scenarios, an analytical tack emerges, crucially drawing upon Carlo Severi’s work on images and pictography, that goes beyond (or by-passes?) the anti-extraction politics of indignation and points towards an anthropology of conceptual interfacing and articulation (through investigating various kinds of ‘conceptual clutches’).