Ethnicity and Shared Meanings: A Case Study of the “Orphaned Bones” Ritual in Mainland China and Overseas



ABSTRACT  Several theories of ethnicity emphasize the analysis of intergroup relations. They neglect, however, the conflation of ideas and values structuring these relations—notably the cross-cultural aggregates of shared cultural meanings that underlie forms of cooperation and competition between interacting groups. In this article, I explore this kind of process through a multisite ethnography of the Xiu gugu (“refining of orphaned bones”), a ritual that the Chaozhou people of northeast Guangdong province, an ethnic subgroup of the Han, perform periodically. The celebration of this rite in Chaozhou is compared to versions resulting of the ritual in Malay Muslim and Thai Buddhist contexts. In the latter case, close conceptions of malevolent death underlie a fascinating interethnic cooperation, with most of the unfortunate dead whose bones are “refined” during the Chaozhou ritual being Thai.