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Songs for Dead Parents

Corpse, Text, and World in Southwest China

In a society that has seen epochal change over a few generations, what remains to hold people together and offer them a sense of continuity and meaning? In Songs for Dead Parents, Erik Mueggler shows how in contemporary China death and the practices surrounding it have become central to maintaining a connection with the world of ancestors, ghosts, and spirits that socialism explicitly disavowed.
Drawing on more than twenty years of fieldwork in a mountain community in Yunnan Province, Songs for Dead Parents shows how people view the dead as both material and immaterial, as effigies replace corpses, tombstones replace effigies, and texts eventually replace tombstones in a long process of disentangling the dead from the shared world of matter and memory. It is through these processes that people envision the cosmological underpinnings of the world and assess the social relations that make up their community. Thus, state interventions aimed at reforming death practices have been deeply consequential, and Mueggler traces the transformations they have wrought and their lasting effects.

352 pages | 21 halftones, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: East Asia, General Asian Studies


“Like Mueggler’s earlier works, Songs for Dead Parents shapes engagingly detailed and intimate ethnography into an enviably imaginative narrative. Mortuary and commemorative practices, associated ritual and literary forms, and culturally manipulated bodies (both corporeal and otherwise materialized) combine complexly in what amounts to an implicit existential meditation, culturally specific, on how ‘the persons and bodies of the dead’ impact the personhood of the living. In the process, Mueggler advances any number of distinctive interpretive-cum-analytical propositions likely to provoke considerable emulation and productive debate for some time to come.”

Steve Sangren, Cornell University

“Working with villagers in north-central Yunnan over more than twenty years, Mueggler analyzes funeral rituals once banned as ‘superstition’ and now critical to sustaining rural communities serving as labor reserves in China’s new economy. Embodiments of the dead—corpses, stones, texts, chants—have disturbing counterparts in their living descendants whose prolonged absences as labor migrants from their natal communities threaten to extinguish them as social persons. This extraordinary study will be of vital interest to scholars within and beyond Asian Studies, including anthropologists and historians of religion, politics, kinship, and the political economy of health, and those integrating methods and theories from anthropology, history, and literature.”

Gillian Feeley-Harnik, emerita, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

"The entire Lòlop’ò funeral system collapsed in 1958 with collectivization, followed by the Great Leap Forward, famine, and an age of wild ghosts. When ritual returned in the late twentieth century, laments were revived and modernized, but the specialists of the great nèpi̠ songs were already largely defunct. This book is an astonishing exegesis of those songs, and richly fulfills the author’s debt to old Lòlop’ò friends (who complained that his first book was more about politics). The world has contained thousands upon thousands of local religions, and the disappearance of each one represents a further step in a global loss of theodiversity. Our access to these is so fragile. Some of the greatest documentation in anthropological fieldwork happens by luck as well as persistence, and some key interlocutors tease their anthropologist with obscurity all the way to their coffin. What would Mueggler have made of the wrapped corpses (and what would I have made of their muteness) without the lucky break of Li Bicong’s ambivalent invitation, the nights spent in hopeless anticipation on a hard, narrow bed in a barn, and his sudden command to turn on the tape recorder?"

Piers Vitebsky, author of Living without the Dead

"This is an extraordinary work that challenges some of our most precious assumptions about the nature of theory, about the nature of ritual, and, perhaps most importantly, about the relationship between the two."

Michael Puett, author of To become a God and co-author of Ritual and Its Consequences

"...[an] extraordinary book..."

Carlo Severi, author of The Chimera Principle and Capturing Imagination

"...Songs for dead parents is not only an ethnographic account of death rites among Lòlop’ò of Southwest China—not another book, that is, that treats death as a culture-bound syndrome and the dead as figments of cultural belief. This is a book about the death that lives intimately within our bones and skin, and about the dead who gesture through our hands and infiltrate our dreams."

Jean M. Langford, author of Consoling Ghosts

Table of Contents



Part 1

1 Corpse, Stone, Door, Text
2 A Life, a Soul, a Body 
3 Playing with Corpses
4 Making the Dead Modern

Part 2

5 Songs for Dead Parents 
6 Earth Work
7 Soul Work
8 Body Work



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