Welcoming Spirits: Colonial Development and the Politics of Affliction x Recovering Histories

“This country really wants to kill us.” Uncle Zoda, a troubled husband, father and host of the author, makes this provocative comment after learning of a Chinese government plan to relocate villagers into state-built apartment buildings. Ting Hui Lau’s dissertation, “Colonial Development and the Politics of Affliction on the China-Myanmar Border” (Cornell University 2020a), provides a fascinating, unsettling exploration of the long-term effects of colonialism in Village Kosa, a Lisu indigenous community of approximately 40 households in the Nu River Valley located in the southern border region of Yunnan province.

Lau convincingly shows how Zoda’s seemingly hyperbolic statement reflects the outlook of a group of aging local residents who experience a seemingly never-ending barrage of interventions occurring under the sign of development as directly contributing to individual and collective death. Recent incursions include a ban on maize planting, a busing program for workers, and a boarding school for village children that erode local livelihoods and separate family members. Those who stay in the village note that the intrusion of outside forces—whether introduced through contaminated feed for pigs, tainted commercial alcohol or other means—contribute to “bad death” (chia li shi), strength loss (sei ba), and haunting (ni lele). Meanwhile, zealous practitioners of state-sponsored Christianity in the region subject Zoda and other elders holding on to Lisu traditions to additional censure and ridicule.

What possibilities for care exist in this besieged and divided community, a group suffering from the highest suicide rate of the country’s 56 recognized ethic groups (Lau 2020a, 10)? Echoing the uncanny resonances of violence enacted through medicine that Saiba Varma explores in her discussion of “shock treatment” in Kashmir (2020), Lau documents how the term “doing medicine” in the Sino-Tibetan Lisu language describes services available at local government hospitals while also evoking a brutal 1990s state compulsory sterilization campaign that Uncle Zoda and others claim were responsible for many of their long-term health problems (2020a, 83).

Drawing on encounters taking place in villagers’ homes and nearby fields rather than clinics, Lau argues symptoms of local “afflictions”— chronic pain, madness, and alcohol dependency—can be understood as “political speech acts” that “remember, refuse, critique, parody, and protest against the hegemonic forces of globalization, development, and industrial capitalism” (2020a, 203). Jokes and humorous narratives offered by Uncle Zoda and aging “leftover men” unsettle state and Christian narratives of modernity by playfully inverting hierarchies that would mark them as primitive and superstitious. Local afflictions also produce political effects through corporeal politics of refusal. Recurring injuries, unpredictable drinking, and bouts of madness disrupt village work schedules and, by extension, the “Han time” (2020a, 123) and attendant social norms promoted by state officials and local Christian authorities (cf. Ong 1987).

The scene of “alcohol madness” (ni mei) described in Chapter Three—also elaborated in an article draft (Lau 2020b)—offers an opportunity to think further about the local practices of care. On a wintry evening, Zoda and his “blood brothers” gather to engage in ritualistic drinking that is initially characterized by dancing, joking, and singing. As their consumption of alcohol intensifies, the group welcome the spirits of their ancestors who, perhaps due to their anger at the actions of Christian converts and Han transgressors, arrive as demons. The behavior of the men take a menacing and unpredictable turn—threats are made, fights break out and possessed participants pretending to be corpses dangle from trees before passing out.

Whose desires animate the evening’s frenetic activities, and for what purposes? Lau initially proposes that alcohol madness might be understood as an act of melancholic refusal which “regenerates cultural life through a refusal of cultural death” (2020b, 2). However, the text complicates this reading by drawing attention to the multiple audiences that the men might be addressing: other village elders, Zoda’s wife Aunti Yonna, the anthropologist armed with her camera, the invited ghosts of ancestors, and their Christian neighbors. Her description of Lisu rituals themselves also complicate our understanding of the group possession. While the men attempt to revive “cross-cupping practices” once common during weddings and other celebrations (Lau 2020b, 11), their gathering lacks the seasonal harvest offerings and village-wide consumption of sacred alcohol, which is now viewed as sinful by most villagers. In addition to festering grievances from the past, the anger of the spirits potentially derives from the summoning community’s inability to adequately perform their welcoming rites.

Yet this evening’s activities also display a more destructive logic at work in the “antagonistic subjectification” enacted by Zoda and his friends. Throughout the dissertation, Lau’s key interlocuters predict imminent individual and collective demise. No longer believing that their voices can be heard, this aging group at times seem to feel that it is only through excessive drinking leading to premature death that they might reclaim power over their indifferent neighbors. The untimely passing of Uncle Mobi, Zoda’s closest friend and drinking companion, supports this vision, as Christian and non-Christian villagers alike reckon with evidence of new hauntings and a return the “superstition” many hoped to banish (Lau 2020a, 146-7).

The affliction of madness in Kosa differs in important ways from other accounts of possession in China. The Lolop’o minority community in nearby Zhizuo also contend with angry ghosts who return, in part, to protest injustices of past state violence, including the devastating effects of the state sterilization campaign. However, acts of possession linked to the “fragile dreams” of this community occurring in the 1990s are ultimately “reaffirmed in memory and ritual technique” (Mueggler 2001, 318). Meanwhile, Emily Ng in her examination of hauntings considers how encounters with ghosts in Henan province enable a distant intimacy amid outmigration and provide rhythms of daily work to occupy mediums who “walk Mao’s path” (2020, 93, 165).

While Lau’s ethnographic material and political commitments leave possibilities for other readings, I understood Kosa village elders’ encounters with spirits as shaped by the absence of painful but open-ended work of community regeneration or guiding eschatological visions described in these other accounts. The pain of the village elders is not easily translated into a new form of political agency, even when it is shared and made public. Instead, one might see the collective alcohol madness Lau witnesses as an expression of the fear of “the loss of loss itself” (Butler 2003, 467). In this bleak alternative interpretation, Uncle Zoda and his friends welcome the ghosts of ancestors they will soon be joining as the absence of renewal of cultural life in the face of colonial development inspires a form of care best understood as preparation for a future haunting of those who live on in the twilight of Village Kosa.

Like Lau’s work, my book Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform Era China (University of California, 2020) explores themes of dependency and state development in a minority-designated border region of Yunnan province. However, the subjects in my account are Han urban dwellers who at one point in their lives directly benefited from the state-led reforms that opened local mining to private sector actors. Born in the late 1960s and 1970s and first encountering heroin in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, this generation of long-term heroin users witnessed and participated in Gejiu’s transformation from a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) stronghold to an entrepreneur-led mining boom hub, to a resource depleted, increasingly postindustrial city. Shared unconventional trajectories through the country’s reform and opening leaves this group particularly attuned to the challenges and contradictions of inhabiting the country’s historical present.

Care in my account is fragmented and intimately connected to diverging understandings of what life after heroin should look like. Participating in gatherings at outdoor restaurants, in living rooms, at workplaces and hot springs retreats during my fieldwork allowed me to explore how members of this generational cohort grapple with their own positions in a rapidly changing society. The final five chapters of the book each present a distinct way that an individual or small group of people with heroin use history came to conceptualize and attempt to realize a “return to society” (huigui shehui). While some saw the need to deviate from early working experiences, others hoped for a “return” to familiar regimes of laboring at government-sponsored jobs, private businesses, or even compulsory labor centers designed to “remold” wayward subjects. Wedding planning and rituals, civil society training sessions, drop-in center lounges, entrepreneurial workplaces, and evening entertainment venues all became spaces for recovering heroin users to reimagine future trajectories for their lives and repair and build relationships that might enable these life projects.

My book argues that the disparate experience of individuals in this account are unified in the shared importance of navigating the complex relationship between individual and social experiences of time—a theme I explore through extended attention to historicity. One crucial place where practical exigencies met broader attempts to navigate social time was in relation to labor. Facing the prospect of chronic unemployment known as “idling”, recovering heroin users in Gejiu agreed that the work of recovery could not be accomplished in methadone clinics, hospitals, or state-sponsored drop-in centers. Most were deeply invested in the potential therapeutic value of engaging in particular forms of labor. However, members of this group internalized different lessons from Maoist, Deng, and post-Deng state regimes regarding what a post-addiction career might look like and how it should connect a “normal person’s life.” In this context, “development” for my interlocuters was powerful but multivalent symbol tied to overlapping understandings of society requiring diverging forms of bodily labor and visions of individual and collective futures.

Reading Ting Hui Lau’s powerfully moving work and participating in our collective discussions has provided me with an opportunity to revisit my approach to recovery. At our first group meeting, Felicity Aulino suggested that Emily Ng’s attention to spectral collisions and punctuated insistence of cosmic time might productively disrupt phenomenological approaches. I have similarly found Lau’s interest in “interrupting normative assumptions” (2000b, 7)—both in her interlocuters’ village-based routines and in her own textual strategies—inspiring as I attempt to unsettle some of my own insalubrious tendencies. In particular, as I was going through late-stage revisions of the book, I became uncomfortable with the way that my chapters tended to reify particular structures of experiences in ways that failed to capture the complexity of individual lives. In contrast to the “disruptive defrosting potential” Cheryl Mattingly evokes in her discussion of critical phenomenology (2019), I found my thematic attention to distinctive visions of “return” defined by individuals’ narratives, temporal orientations, habits, and outlooks offered a false sense of unity and coherence.

In an effort that I hope parallels Lau’s generative attention to ambiguity in alcohol madness rituals, the final chapter of my book partially calls into question some of my earlier claims. Drawing on a dream occurring at a crucial moment in the writing process, I document my struggles to offer an adequate interpretation of the recovery of a close friend and collaborator. I try to show how my repeated attempts to characterize his motives and “return” became increasingly futile and compelling. Talking about the dynamics of our relationship over time, his relationship to multiple audiences and institutions, and my growing awareness of my inability to grasp his motivations or actions—and by extensions those of others in this account, including my own—offers a helpful corrective to the book’s earlier tendencies to present a straightforward relationship between narrative and experience or past events and present action. If Lau’s approach to intoxication and haunting infuses her account of colonial intrusions with a productive plurality of interpretations, my discussion of the limits of representing others’ experiences of recovery re-introduces uncertainty into recovering histories that are also indelibly shaped by Chinese state visions of collective life.

Nicholas Bartlett is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Chinese Culture and Society in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is an anthropologist of China with training in medical anthropology and psychoanalysis. His first book, Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform-era China (University of California and Columbia Weatherhead 2020), offers a phenomenological account of long-term heroin users’ experiences recovering from addiction in a tin mining city. His current research explores the introduction of group relations conferences to China.



Bartlett, Nicholas, Recovering Histories: Life and Labor after Heroin in Reform Era China. University of California Press, 2020.  

Butler, Judith, “Afterward: After loss, what then,” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning. David Eng, David Kazanjian, and Judith Butler, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 

Ng, Emily. A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost After Mao. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020. 

Lau, Ting Hui. 2020a. Colonial Development and the Politics of Affliction on the China-Myanmar Border. Ithaca: Cornell University 2020 dissertation. 

Lau, Ting. 2020b. “Conjuring the Spirits: The Melancholic Refusal of Indigenous Lisu alcohol-drinking men on the China-Myanmar border.” Unpublished article draft.  

Mattingly, Cheryl. “Defrosting Concepts, Destabilizing Doxa: Critical Phenomenology and the Perplexing Particular.” Anthropological Theory 19.4 (2019): 415-439. 

Mueggler, Erik. The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 

Ong, Aihwa. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia. New York: Suny Press, 1987. 

Varma, Saiba. The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020. 


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