Dumont’s hierarchy among the Nuosu of China

by Peter van der Veer and Wu Da

Working Papers WP 17-04
March 2017
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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In this article we consider whether Dumont’s theory of hierarchy in the Indian caste system (or elements thereof) might be applicable to the hierarchal distinctions of Nuosu society in south-west China and vice versa. Nuosu society is characterized as both a ‘slave society’ and a caste society. It is the categories of ‘slavery’ and ‘caste’ that deserve our attention here. Like slaves in Nuosu society, Hindu society in India sees untouchables as ‘outsiders’. They live outside the village and have to use their own wells for drinking water. At the same time, they are in fact the slaves of the dominant ‘pure’ caste in the village and depend entirely on it. They have to show deference when they encounter a member of the dominant caste, and in some regions, such as Kerala, there were slave markets where they could be bought and sold. We do not produce a point-by-point comparison between Indian society and Nuosu society here, but examine Dumont’s theory of hierarchy in the light of what we know of Nuosu society.

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