Asian Ethnology 81 1&2 | article Moving the Living and the Dead The Power of Bronze Drums in Contemporary Ethnic China

William David Nitzky

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Bronze drum China cultural heritage material culture Yao sacred

The bronze drum in Asia has long been regarded as a form of antiquity and a cultural relic of the bronze age, representative of cultural groups found in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar’s border region. Through a close examination of bronze drum culture among the Baiku Yao ethnic minority of northwest Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in southern China, this article reveals the constitutive role drums play in contemporary social and religious life. This article draws on eight years of ethnographic data and builds on a material culture studies analytical framework to describe the sacralized life of the bronze drum. Through a ritualized anthropomorphic metamorphosis, the bronze drum is said to become a constituted member of the Baiku Yao community and hold sacred power to bridge the human and spirit worlds during funeral ceremonies. This article analyzes the symbolic dimensions of the bronze drum as a cultural practice and as a medium through which Baiku Yao ritual order, social organization and arrangements, and interactions with the spirit world can be understood. It reveals that bronze drums today possess agency in their power to move people, living and dead.