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Professor Xijuan Zhou and her students

Professor Xijuan Zhou and her students pose with Yi people after a ritual. Kali Bonife ’12, Heather Hurlburt ’12 and Audrey Hirschberger ’12 dressed in traditional Yi costumes.

Morgan Faricy

Morgan Faricy ’10 speaks with a Bimo, a Yi religious expert who is a combination priest and scholar.

Heather Hurlburt

Heather Hurlburt receives a mouth harp, one of the Yi folk musical instruments she studied.

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Willamette professor and students collaborate on research in China

It is not every day that college students can say they met a shaman or witnessed an exorcism. Or that they spent three weeks in China working side-by-side with an expert professor on an interdisciplinary research team.

Five Willamette University students had those unique experiences this past summer as they traveled to villages in the Nuosu Yi community with religious studies Professor Xijuan Zhou to study shamanistic rituals.

The group was able to make the trip after winning an ASIANetwork Freeman Foundation Student-Faculty Fellows Award. ASIANetwork is a consortium of more than 170 North American colleges that focuses on broadening Asian studies in the liberal arts education.

Heather Hurlburt '12, Morgan Faricy '10, Audrey Hirschberger '12, Kali Bonife '12 and Matthew Satterthwaite '12 made up the team.

They brought an array of academic interests to the interdisciplinary project, each gleaning a unique vantage point through the lens of his or her area of study — one focused on music, one on Shamanic blessing rituals, one studied art and fashion, one focused on religious rites of passage, and the last, sustainability.

The team also worked collaboratively with Zhou, who is an expert in Asian religions, including Buddhism, Taoism and shamanism.

"Few undergraduates are given the chance to participate in research with a professor, let alone do the research in a foreign country," says Satterthwaite, a Chinese and international studies major. "This opportunity was one of the most beneficial experiences of my academic career."

Discoveries in the Field

The group visited Beijing and Chengdu, but spent most of the time in the Daliangshan region in China's Sichuan Province. They also participated in a two-day conference on the Yi people, a rural ethnic minority who practice magic and worship the spirits of their ancestors and elements of nature.

The Willamette researchers documented four shamanic rituals, one funeral ceremony and two torch festivals. The rituals included everything from soul calling to exorcism to blessings, highlighted by a wide range of music.

Hirschberger's project focused on the development of fashion and art in Yi culture.

"Yi costume has been greatly affected by modern Han and Western fashions as well as the new availability of machines, fabrics and dyes," the Japanese studies major says. "In one village it is common to see older women in traditional dress, men in traditional hats but wearing business suits, and children in western or Han clothing."

Hurlburt, who is majoring in Asian studies, focused on traditional musical instruments used in Yi ceremonies, such as the moon lute, panpipe gourd, end-blown flute and straight flute. Faricy, a Chinese studies major, compared the blessing rituals performed by two types of shamans.

Bonife, an English major, investigated the role of the shaman in funeral rites. "The most important Yi ceremony sends the spirits of the deceased back to their ancestral home," she says. "If it is not successfully done, they believe the ghost can follow the family for years."

Satterthwaite observed the role of sustainable agriculture in Yi society, where people have lived and farmed on the same tracts of land for thousands of years.

"The sustainable practices of the Yi should serve as a lesson for the contemporary world, and the implementation of these practices in modern society could potentially alleviate current environmental problems," he says.

Learning Back at Home

Faricy, who graduated last spring, has finished a report on the project. Zhou and the other students are compiling and writing about their research as they prepare to present their project to the campus community in November.

"This experience is valuable to the students' academic and personal growth," Zhou says. "The varied events and settings of the trip provided opportunities for them to investigate issues, hear scholars' views on what they observed and interact with different kinds of people."

Back in the swing of daily Willamette life, the students say their time in China still has an impact.

"I have learned much about the Yi culture and even more about myself," Hirschberger says. "This project has enabled me to see with new clarity the opportunities my future holds and the incredible wealth of knowledge and diversity that the world has to offer."