Shared Sentiments Inspire New Cultural Centers

Wuayusa and Incense

By: Yuan Wang and Theodore MacDonald

Burning incense to welcome the return of their ancestors’ spirits.


In the early afternoon of January 3, 2018, in the mountainous village of Shicang, Zhejiang Province, China, firecrackers burst into the air and flags waved in the wind as a parade of Clan Que members stepped out of their newly built ancestral temple. Behind them marched a band of local drummers, and cymbal players and suona trumpet performers played high-pitched folk music. Headed by Que Guande, a respected clan member and village chief, they walked through the gates, marching to village shrines and temples where, with incense burning, they paid tribute to the local spirits. They then carried the spirits’ statues to the new ancestral temple, informing these divinities that, in the evening, the Clan’s ancestor souls would return. It had been 172 years since the first Clan Que ancestor temple had been inaugurated—and 46 years since it had been removed. The marchers’ faces were solemn and proud. They were the patrons of this temple where their souls would remain after death, join their ancestors, and enjoy worship by their descendants in a rapidly changing world.

Four days earlier, and several hours before dawn, in the Ecuadorian Amazonian community of Arajuno, Margarita López, a teacher and eldest daughter of a famous shaman (yachaj), and her husband, Cesar Cerda, former president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP), sat with their children to drink wayusa tea, a daily ritual linking them to the spirit world. They were at the foot of Pasu Urcu, the hill that houses local spirits, and inside the Puka Rumi Community Center, which was created to illustrate the harmony between their Kichwa community and the biodiverse, spirit-laden forest which surrounds it. They were not alone. For the next several days, other leaders of the local ethnic federation, ACIA (Association of Indigenous Communities of Arajuno), elevated the domestic ritual to a large public event, Wayusa Upina, inviting people from the surrounding communities. The celebration seeks to restore Sumak Kawsay, the good life, that requires communal and spiritual ties as well as a degree of political and economic self-determination, amidst rapid environmental and political changes. In most ways Shicang and Arajuno could not be more distinct. They are literally worlds apart—geographically, culturally and historically. But both now share sentiments about cultural and spiritual losses and a desire to rebuild some of that communal life while adapting to inevitable, often positive but sometimes alienating, economic and political changes. The two sentiment-sharing communities did not connect through spirits, shamanism, or anything magical. The similarities were simply noted by the authors, who have worked separately for years in one of the areas and, recently, were fortunate enough to visit the other. Comparisons were obvious. Each village was originally settled by migrants with a strong sense of community and spiritual ties. Both were later challenged by national “modernization” policies, leaving a spiritual vacuum of sorts. Each is now actively restoring local history, spirituality and agency amidst growing national and globalized economies. Their new cultural centers are a shared way of saying “Let’s decide some of the future through the past, as we did before.”


Among the approximately 6,000 Shicang villagers now spread along the Shicangxi River, more than 4,000 belong to Clan Que. These ethnic Hakka arrived during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1636-1912) dynasties. They migrated out of the densely populated Shanghang County in nearby Fujian Province after lands in Zhejiang Province opened up because of rebellion, warfare, and population displacement. Initially, the Que Clan members settled in small huts and worked as subsistence farmers. In time some noted nearby iron deposits and began smelting. Several were quite successful and shifted from small farmers to manufacturers. By the mid-Qing Dynasty (1800s), the Que Clan’s change in status was displayed in more than thirty ornate estates which copied, and often embellished, the rich ornamentation of the wealthy original inhabitants. However, the Que Clan retained the basis structure of their ancestral Fujian houses. That was essential. The most important household space was the central incense hall, used for worshiping the ancestors. Associated responsibilities and duties were not merely obligatory tasks but, rather, a foundation underlying the moral values of the village.

In 1846 Que Tiankai, a rich Que Clan businessman, constructed the first community ancestor temple. While tracing the genealogy and constructing the temple, Clan Que elders dispatched a four-person team back to Fujian’s Shanghang, their original hometown. There this delegation acquired the ancestral spirits’ incense burners and furnace ash. Holding the incense burners in their hands to assure continuous burning and climbing the numerous mountains along a trade route, they carried the ancestor incense and its spirits to Shicang. After that was done, all the members of Clan Que placed their ancestors’ tablets, or the tablets of the newly deceased, inside the temple. They lived comfortably amidst their history for a while. However, as iron commerce grew nationally and globally, prices dropped and wealth declined.— reflected clearly in architectural history. Without funds to build new houses, families crowded into the old estates. In 2006, when we historical researchers first visited Shicang, it was obvious that several generations of the same family were living in the same house, sharing the courtyard and passageways. And they continued joint responsibilities for the maintenance of the incense halls. In 1972, however, the status of the community temple and related aspects of spiritual life changed against their will. And after 1989, as the Deng economic opening was introduced, many gradually took advantage of modern housing.


About 8,000 people now live on the right bank of the Arajuno River in the recently established municipality of Arajuno, with parks, stores, bank, bars, churches, schools and several large government offices. Claims on these ancestral lands, however, began in 1912 at the foot of Pasu Urcu. At the time, Pasu Urcu was simply an ancient rest stop with no permanent residents on a trail linking Kichwa settlements across various rivers. Some communities crafted small drums, violins and woven bags to trade for blowguns, poison for their darts, and salt. Each exchanged shamanic skills and provided ritual curing.

Two such travelers, Domingo Cerda and Roque Volante Lopez, well-known shamans, left their main settlement on the Upper Napo River and set up temporary residence near Pasu Urcu to enjoy the hunting and fishing, and to escape feuds. Compared to the more densely populated areas to the north, Pasu Urcu’s environs were ideal. Fish and game were plentiful. And at the foot of Pasu Urcu, a large section of the adjacent river’s flood plain, the isla, provided a relatively large and fertile site for subsistence gardens. Later, the new residents cleared a plaza whose obligatory maintenance, organized by the shaman through communal labor, or minga, architecturally centered the developing community.

Unlike Que Clan, Arajuno’s original settlers were not a single lineage. Families from various parts set up houses nearby, became friends and later intermarried, resulting in residence-based kindred known as muntun. It was not that ancestors and lineages did not matter; on the contrary, kinship, as well as place, formed the sense of community, provided identity, and shaped relations. But large family groups and settlements were often broken up by sudden illness and death, frequently attributed to shaman feuds. Some kin groups were also separated by abusive labor demands, ranging from public works to rubber gathering to debt servitude, all under the control of government officials or local patrons.

Parading to local spirit temples, inviting them to new Ancestor Temple.


Feuding, though conflictive between groups, nonetheless tightened relations within the muntun, where the yachaj’s ties to spirits, supai, were understood to insulate and protect muntun members. And while some Kichwa from the Upper Napo were hauled off as far as Peru to gather rubber or obliged to work on local farms and ranches, most of those who settled in Arajuno were fortunate enough to obtain essential manufactured objects (tools and cloth) and pay off the related debts to Upper Napo patrons by panning for gold along the river banks. Though the patron-client economy was truly exploitative, the residents were able to farm, hunt, and fish locally. To do so successfully, local yachaj had to establish close ties with the Pasu Urcu supai, who were understood to own and provide access to these essential resources. As the spiritual ties increased and relations intensified, Kichwa understanding of territory became coterminous with the supai’s control over resources. A territorial agreement developed, which tied muntun members to their land and consequently to each other, through spirits. Arajuno residents, though far less focused on tight genealogies and ancestor worship than Shicang dwellers, nonetheless developed a strong sense of kin-based community and self-identity grounded in spirit-based links to place and family.

But in the 1970s, spiritual ties and community bonds in both Shicang and Arajuno were challenged by government policies. The Chinese and Ecuadorian governments, coincidentally and for radically different reasons, mandated changes which produced disruptions to community and the spiritual world.


Today in Shicang, as in most Chinese villages, many young adults leave to work in the cities and send the money back to their parents and children who remain in the village. New red-brick buildings with modern amenities have sprung up with government support. Shicang’s local government has also built a parking lot, a bus station and public toilets. It has widened the road, enabling daily shuttle buses between the county seat and the village. Material life has improved. Some of the crowded, deteriorating old estates are being converted into museums and tourist attractions, with trained tour guides.

The Que Clan’s priorities were illustrated during one of our visits. A regional ministry had dropped off plans to convert the old houses into tourist attractions, based on attractive but inauthentic designs drawn up by an external architect. For the Shicang residents, there was a sense that something was missing...the spiritual and moral links to ancestors. Community leaders spoke to the author, an architectural historian, who then met with regional officials to express disagreement with the alien design. Fortunately, for budgetary reasons, the drawings did not become architectural reality.

Another, more serious, concern was political. In 1972, the old ancestor temple of Clan Que in Shicang was demolished and replaced by a primary school. Though not clearly stated, it was fairly obvious to community members that the move reflected the Maoist/Cultural Revolution’s (1966 to 1976) opposition to, and elimination of organized religion. Community spiritual concerns persisted when, in 2004, the primary school building was declared to be structurally dangerous. The school was temporarily relocated. The Que Clan responded gradually.

In the late spring of 2013, after a five-hour drive from Shanghai, the author returned, still impressed by the old residential houses with their rammed earth walls and black tiles, a rural landscape which was distinct from the “modern world.” She later attended a meeting held by Clan Que Committee for Ancestral Temple Reconstruction to discuss her rendering (architectural drawings) of an ancestral temple plan based on the older villagers’ memories. The Que Clan liked the plan, and then moved quietly towards recreating the ancestor hall, temporarily calling it a “culture center.”

In January, 2016, Que Longxing, the organizer of the ancestor temple project, showed the author a booklet “Records on Rebuilding the Weizeng Tang Ancestor Temple” prepared by the villagers. Many Clan Que members also wrote to government officials. Two letters were even sent to the national prime minister. Receiving no response from any government office, a few members of Clan Que moved a huge iron incense burner into the vacant lot to demonstrate the right of occupation. The villagers called all these actions the “Baoji Campaign (Protect the Base).” Some were then arrested and detained for a night. The Communist Party’s secretary of the village (also a member of Que family) was later removed from his position for failure to prevent the protest. Nevertheless, under the pressure of Clan Que’s actions, the local government decided to leave the disputed site alone. Nonviolent action and community mobilization won the day politically. And the ancestor hall began to fill a personal spiritual gap, which many sense in current-day China.

Kichwa drummer
Traditional Kichwa wedding drummer/chanter and violin player, now electronically amplified.



Beginning in the 1960s, as part of the agrarian reform that took place throughout Latin America, the Ecuadorian government encouraged colonization of Amazonian lands. Unaccepting, or at least unaware of indigenous perceptions of territory, government officials regarded the forested areas around villages like Arajuno as tierras baldías, idle lands, and thus available to settlers. A few colonists moved in and acquired government-awarded, 50-hectare plots near the center of town. Some indigenous residents also began to request and receive such plots. But initially there was little impact on the old sense of territory and community. The spirits were alive and well.

However, a more aggressive, national-economic, agrarian reform took place after 1972, when oil development began in the Amazon. By 1974, as property owners, the Kichwa of Arajuno were required to visibly exploit their land holdings. They were told that it was best (i.e., highly visible) to raise cattle, and were provided with bank credit to do so. Consequently, land use patterns in

Arajuno changed radically. By 1975 portions of every 50-hectare plots were converted to pasture. While the broader sense of territory and spirit ties did not disappear, private property became the primary concern, challenging the earlier sense of communal territory.

The induced privatization created tense social and political relations with colonists and among the Kichwa as well, confusing the indigenous sensibilities that had formed the community. To illustrate, in 1975, while surveyors from the agrarian reform agency were working in Arajuno, some members of the community became angered by the principal yachaj’s efforts to acquire more land on the riverside garden area, the isla. They suggested that a large section of that communal land be divided in half— one section, including the plaza, would go to the yachaj and his family while the other section would remain for communal agricultural use. Although the division would have given the yachaj a large piece of land, he reacted violently, arguing that members of the muntun should be made to realize their obligation to maintain the plaza, which reflected the organization of the muntun, where he was the internal authority figure.

At the time it struck me as ironical, yet understandable, that this spiritual leader, who daily seesawed between subsistence horticulture and production for the market, private property and communal land, the muntun and government initiatives, should rage at actions that whittled away at the symbols of his previous authority and status, while at the same time acting in a manner that encouraged such behavior. He was caught between contradictory desires to maintain his previous role and prestige, while also attempting to maximize his personal economic condition. Many shared that confusion, as individual families began to experiment with independent forms of social and economic life, away from the unifying spiritual and communal ties. Fortunately, perceptions changed in 1979, when young leaders founded ACIA, an organization inspired by other indigenous ethnic federations that emerged throughout the Amazon as oil and agribusiness interests, as well as expanding colonization, increased threats to indigenous territories. The organizations regularly battled with colonists and oil developers. And in 1992 Arajuno residents participated in a massive, multiple-day, protest march from the provincial capital of Puyo to Quito. Shortly thereafter, the government formally recognized indigenous rights to a number of large territories, including Arajuno. Gradually the presence of colonists and cattle diminished, and communal land holdings re-emerged. As in Shicang, nonviolent protest redirected government actions and resuscitated spiritual life.


These changes are not a movement backward in time. Like the incense wafting in Shicang’s ancestor hall, Arajuno’s guayusa upina ceremonies and Puka Rumi Culture Center, are not simple folkloric answers or utopian responses to current and future needs. Throughout China ancestor worship is on the rise, not in opposition to any economic development or government planning, but simply to fill a perceived gap in people’s lives. In Amazonian communities the new language of Sumak Kawsay, the good life, also expresses a need by communities to take more control of future economic development. It suggests a pause, time and space to allow thinking and encourage discussion as oil and logging companies now sit perched at the edge of Arajuno’s territory. ACIA members, consequently, are asking the government to recognize their territory as a CTI, circumscripción territorial indígena, a space for exercising self-determination. And at home they are ceremoniously linking themselves to the past, as when the founding yachajs first linked themselves to the supai in 1912.

In both Shicang and Arajuno, new culture centers are linking old communal sentiments to changing worlds. They do so in positive ways, by providing a sense of order and culture that, communities agree, is often lacking as states rush to modernize, or even revolutionize economies and societies. The two communities are not unique in China or Latin America. They were observed by coincidence, and the underlying sentiments invite future cultural comparisons as China’s presence in Latin America expands.

Wedding dance
Villagers at a wedding dance.



Yuan Wang, an architectural historian, was a 2011 Harvard-Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar, and is an Associate Professor,
Department of History, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China.


Theodore Macdonald, an anthropologist, is a Lecturer in Social Studies and a Faculty Affiliate at DRCLAS, Harvard. Although
he began working in Arajuno in the mid-1970s, his current interests were rekindled as his Harvard Social Studies student Megan Monteleone (now an Associate in the Latin America Division at Human Rights Watch) researched her DRCLAS Hammond Prize-
winning thesis, Guayusa Upina.


See also: Ecuador, Culture