Incompleteness in Yi writings

une page d'écritureChina officially numbers fifty-five “minority nationalities” (shaoshu minzu 少数民族)—an expression often inappropriately translated as “national minorities” and wrongly regarded as “ethnic groups”. One of these is the “Yi nationality” (Yizu 彝族), ranked first among the country’s Tibeto-Burman speaking populations with about eight million people. Some of the branches of this group (which might be catalogued as “ethnic entities”) have developed specific writings. Chinese linguists have painstakingly identified six regional writings. One of these is the writing of the Stone Forest district (Shilin xian 石林县), which is specific to the Sani branch of the Yi (Yizu Sani zhixi 彝族撒尼支系). When a script is officially identified locally, those who master it may not share exactly the same writing throughout the territory. There are notable differences between these ritual practitioners, with each village developing scriptural specificities. Although most written characters are the same, others are specific to the village of the ritualist who masters them (a village may have a few ritual lineages). These specialists, called bimos, i.e. “Masters of psalmody”, are similar to shamans; they travel through the cosmos as a consequence of the intoning of their texts, meeting spirits and bargaining with them in order to heal people, or to perform exorcisms or prophylactic rituals. Their role is also predominant during funeral rites. My purpose is not to present this literate shamanism here,[1] but to focus on the characteristics of this writing as expressed in mythology. Note that this bimo writing is secret. Two verses, taken from a book written by my master-shaman,[2] read:

leu pu bi za li                          The son of bimo of the happy community comes.

ka di dje di bé                         His words are secret (ka).

The master’s membership of a ritual lineage is clearly expressed here and the esoteric nature of the shamanic speech is underlined by the word ka, which is a rather difficult expression to translate. It portrays both the idea of “being secret” and the idea of “indistinction”, of “confusion”. Indeed, what bimos say is incomprehensible to the non-initiated—who in fact compare shamanic speech to caterwauling or to the song of a particular bird (a vébi that is said to sing and to swirl like a bimo).

In fact, secrecy as well as incompleteness are fundamental notions in the mythology surrounding not only the Yi branch of the Sanis but the Yi writings in general—I won’t offer a detailed analysis of these myths here, but I will focus on the most interesting elements for discussion.[3]

As we know, the notion of “incompleteness” was used in the 1960s by Jacques Lacan for whom symbolism could work thanks to the existence of internal, missing elements seen as holes in the structure. During various conferences organized in 1966, Lacan made an interpretation of Velasquez’s painting, Las Meninas, which translates into English as The Maids of Honour. The psychoanalyst underlined the fact that the painter who draws hides what he paints; he hides it from the visible as though he wanted to say that what he is drawing cannot be shown in any form. Lacan said: “Instead of his object, the painter in this work, in this object he produces for us, comes to place here, in front of us, something that is made of the Other, of that blind vision proper to the Other in so far as it supports this other object.”[4] This notion seems heuristically fecund for our purpose. Let’s go back to the mythology of the Yis.

A first myth shows that the “Other”, the part that comes to complete the structure, is, as far the bimo‘s manuscript is concerned, an oak leaf: according to this myth, from Daliangshan, especially from the Nuosu branch of the Yis,[5] three bimos were sent down to earth to stop the deluge. Leaving the sky, on the back of three buffalos, they reached our world as their manuscripts became soaked in water. When the water retreated, they placed their manuscripts on oak leaves to dry. In doing so, half of each book stuck to an oak leaf. That’s why when a bimo reads a book, he first sticks a branch from an oak tree into the ground to represent the missing half of the book—this structure in “two halves” recalls the structure of bimo talismans from Shilin[6], as well as Chinese talismans, fu 符. The oak leaf is the other half of the book; it is like a transfer of the manuscript, almost a decalcomania. Together, the leaf and book form the same object made of heterogeneous materials. Alteration and otherness constitute the basis on which writing can be done.

A second myth, also from the Nuosu group of Yi people, shows that this time incompleteness concerns learning to write.[7] The story goes that a young, dumb man sets out every day with the local lord’s buffalos to take them to graze in the mountains. Free to come and go as he pleases, he secretly goes to the forest to follow the teachings of a monkey and a hen pheasant. The monkey speaks, seated on a branch, and the hen pheasant writes on the floor while the monkey dictates. The young cowherd has been studying for months when the landlord finds out. Realizing that his secret has been discovered, the cowherd suddenly speaks and asks the landlord to let him continue his learning; but it is too late: the monkey and the pheasant have already left. When interrupted, this writing apprenticeship reveals the words of the disciple, who was originally dumb: language and writing are the two halves of the learning associated with the two animal teachers.

And finally, a third myth, from the Yi group I am working with (the Sanis), is about the master-disciple relationship, that is father-son relationship, and the incomplete relationship it generates with the teacher killing his student out of jealousy—the disciple being cleverer than his master. The wife asks the master, on his return home, about the disappearance of their son. The father goes to the world of the dead to find his son who doesn’t want to come back despite the fact that his father orders him to. Taking him by his hair, the father forces his son to follow him home. However, on falling asleep, he loses hold of his son who stays in the other world. Nevertheless, the son-disciple remains symbolically present on the altar thanks to a kind of grass used by bimos to kill demons, a grass that represents the hair of the murdered mythical disciple. The transmission, although broken, is re-activated by the representation of the dead disciple.

In these different myths, something appears to be interrupted; something is always missing in the transmission process between master and disciple, and yet a substitute (a leaf, language, grass) restores the link: a parable in order to explain what transmission is.


[1] For more detail (in English), see A. Névot. 2012. Literate Shamanism in Southwestern China: Bimo Religion, the State and Christianity. SHAMAN: International Journal of Shamanistic Research 20 (1): 23-54.

[2] On this ritual book, see A. Névot. 2013. Versets chamaniques. Le Livre du sacrifice à la terre (Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie, Collection Écritures).

[3] The themes of lacking part or of lost writing is common in scripts from Chinese minorities, cf. M. Oppitz. 2008. Die Verlorene Schrift. Zürich: Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich.

[4] “À la place de son objet, le peintre, dans cette œuvre, dans cet objet qu’il produit pour nous, vient placer quelque chose qui est fait de l’Autre, de cette vision aveugle qui est celle de l’Autre, en tant qu’elle supporte cet autre objet” (seminar, the 25th of May 1966). See,d.ZGU .

[5] See Yizu fengsu zhi 彝族风俗志. 1992. Beijing, Zhongyang minzuxue chubanshe.

[6] See Névot, A. “Imager l’invisible. Tableaux talismaniques d’un Maître de la psalmodie”, Acte du colloque international Agalma ou les figurations de l’invisible. Approches comparées, 12 and 13 February 2012, INHA (forthcoming).

[7] This myth was collected in 1928 by Ching-Chi Young. 1935. L’écriture et les manuscrits lolos. Genève, Publication de la bibliothèque sino-internationale, no.4, p. 17.

Aurélie Névot

Aurélie Névot is a social anthropologist at the CNRS (CR1). Since 1998 she has been focusing her research in China on the Yunnan Province where she is studying the religion of the Nipa (the Sani branch of the Yi nationality). This involves a form of shamanism that is based on the use of a secret writing reserved exclusively for shamans called bimo, or Masters of Psalmodia. This literate shamanism, which is only effective through the voicing of ritual texts, leads us to rethink the relationship between orality and writing. Apart from the writing process, A. Névot is interested in the “ritual machinery” (bloody sacrifices) of this literate shamanism and she highlights the idea that the ontology of the Nipa is a “trans-substantial” one. She is also developing an anthropology of transmission (master-disciple relationship, transmission between shamans and between mediums). Another aspect of her research concerns the interplay between religion and politics – the Chinese State has engaged in a process of standardising rituals and of secularising shamanic writing –, as well as the inculturation and acculturation phenomena introduced by Christianity – Catholicism has been established locally since the 19th century. The recent institutionalisation of literate shamanism prompts notably A. Névot to question the process of patrimonialisation as implemented in China since 2003 and monitored by UNESCO. A new research has emerged since the World Expo Shanghai 2010: by analyzing the national Pavilion, she is highlighting that this building is a ritual device which shows the new cosmological orientation of China regarding the international constellation. It imbricates and re-elaborates Chinese representations in order to edify a new era where China rules the world, i.e. it insures the universal Harmony. Key words: acculturation - bimo - bloody sacrifice - body - China - Chinese pavilion - Christianity - ethnopolitics - gouvernance - inculturation - ontology - patrimonialisation - shamanism - secret writing - Shanghai - transmission - trans-substantiation - Yi – Yunnan - World Expo Fieldwork: China – Yunnan - Shanghai

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2 Responses

  1. Dan says:

    Thank you so much for this posting. I feel like I learned a great deal from it. The idea of incompleteness here is quite reminiscent of some early Jewish art and practices, like the crushing of the glass at weddings, or a patch of the wall left unpainted or painted black (and therefore incomplete). Truly in many of our human cultures there we notice a lot of misplaced emphasis on completeness, often of the unachievable kinds, I often think. And an aesthetic of near (not absolute) completeness is somehow so much more human, and for that reason more suitable for us given our limitations.

  2. Aurelie says:

    Dear Dan, I am sorry for not having replied earlier to your comment. Thank you very much for your reaction. Incompleteness seems indeed expressed in many cultural discourses and artefacts. I have recently developed once again this topic regarding talismans drawn by bimos who always refer to a “lack”: whereas their spirits are “presentified”, part of the divinities remains hidden. The visual game, established between what is seen and what is hidden, may also refer to the mystery of intersubjectivity. All the best!

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