Merit and the millennium: Routine and crisis in the ritual lives of the Lahu people.(Book Review)
1 June 2004
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
ISSN: 0022-4634; Volume 35; Issue 2
Copyright 2004 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.
Merit and the millennium: Routine and crisis in the ritual lives of the Lahu people By ANTHONY R. WALKER New Delhi: Hindustan Publishing, 2003. pp. xxxi, 907. Maps, Figures, Plates, Bibliography, Notes, Index. DOI: 10.1017/S0022463404230181
As one of the most politically marginalised ethnic minorities living along both sides of the border between southwest China and several Southeast Asian countries, the Lahu people, along with their cultural traditions, have drawn little academic attention in either Chinese- or English-language literature. Resulting from intensive fieldwork and library research that spans 35 years, Anthony Walker's Merit and the millennium is a monumental work on Lahu religion. The extraordinary detail of its ethnographic descriptions, which some will treasure while others may debate, is further enriched by a large number of excellent illustrations and photographs. Complementarily, Walker's library research accesses archival material, historical sources, photographs and missionary reports on Lahu residents in several countries, giving admirable historical depth and comparative scope to this book. Contributing greatly to Lahu studies, this book will also become a valuable resource for specialists in Southeast Asia and religious studies in general.
The book has 11 chapters. Following two introductory chapters, Chapters 3 through 9 explore the religious ideas and ritual practices of the Lahu majority and Chapters 10 and 11 explore the cultural continuities and discontinuities among the Christian Lahu, who make up about 10 per cent of the population. Furthermore, while Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 8 all focus on indigenous Lahu traditions, Chapters 6, 7 and 9 highlight the influence of Mahayana Buddhism. On the one hand, all four of the chapters on traditions emphasise non-Buddhist features of the Lahu region, exploring respectively indigenous ontology and worldviews, animist ritual practices, the pursuit of merits and blessings versus sorcery practices, and rituals concerning annual and life cycles. The three chapters on Buddhist influences respectively examine Mahayana Buddhism in Lahu history, the similarities shared by contemporary temple rituals across different Lahu regions and the critical role prophets played in Lahu millenarianism in both historical and contemporary contexts.
In addition to a comprehensive presentation of the complexity of religious ideas and practices across the different Lahu communities, this book also addresses several important theoretical issues in Lahu studies. Most importantly, Walker provides an insightful explanation for a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon that is crucial to our understanding of Lahu culture and history. Specifically, although characterised as socially egalitarian and culturally autonomous in addition to being well known for their frequent armed resistance against various external powers, the Lahu have also drawn considerable interest for their spectacularly large-scale conversions to Christianity. Availing himself of several sociological theories on prophetic millenarianism, Walker argues that struggles for ethnic survival and cultural renewal have fused with mystic faith. The result has been that, while Lahu warriors faced the might of imperial China in addition to British and Burmese bullets (p. 546) with faith-based courage, there has been a massive zeal in embracing the Christian Messiah (p. 628). These analyses challenge, although only implicitly, the hegemony in most of the Chinese-language literature of Marxist-Leninist approaches to account for the large-scale Lahu resistance movements against local Dai officials and the imperial Chinese state.
Another major theoretical contribution of this book is the attempt to identify and explain the particularity of Lahu theism within the wider context of mainland Southeast Asia. Based on detailed comparative data on a large number of Lahu communities, Walker provides a fascinating illustration of how the Lahu across a wide expanse of regions and numerous countries all share, to a great extent, beliefs and rituals oriented towards the creator-divinity named Xeul Sha. The author also sharply and convincingly points out that, in contrast to similar creator-divinities among other Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples, the Lahu deity (Xeul Sha) is unique for being believed to be involved in and to determine the daily lives of human beings. After successfully identifying the traits of Mahayana Buddhism in many temple rituals revolving around Xeul Sha worship, the author traces the source of its uniqueness to the dramatic impact--especially through Lahu millenarian resistance movements (p. 628)--of the transcendental Buddhahood of Mahayana Buddhism (p. 161). However, it may be more accurate to state that Mahayana Buddhism greatly intensified, rather than determined, the significance of Xeul Sha in Lahu socio-religious life. After all, few Buddhist influences are identifiable in the encyclopaedia-like Lahu origin myths that revolve around Xeul Sha and lay the foundation for the Lahu worldview and rituals. Specifically, unlike temple rituals and despite their sporadic incorporation of both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist components, household rituals are often not only oriented towards Xeul Sha, but also closely concordant with indigenous Lahu origin myths.
Notwithstanding the risk of some controversy, Walker's work will stimulate further scholarly explorations of the mystic fusion in Lahu culture of theism with animism, which are often considered two extremes in the continuum of religious beliefs across cultures.