I just received word that a paper I’ve proposed to the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs (MCAA) has been accepted. Since I’ve already got the abstract written, now I just have the write the paper! Here’s the abstract:
“The pretas are coming! A ghostly topography
of city and country in modern Cambodia
In the Theravada Buddhism common to most of mainland Southeast Asia, pretas are ‘hungry ghosts,’ a life resulting from one’s former misdeeds. Pretas starve the entire year, except during the festival of Pchum Ben, when the king of hell releases them to go seek food from their relatives in the world of the living. This ghostly pilgrimage, from a place of suffering and privation to a place where loving relatives care for needs, is mirrored by the pilgrimage undertaken by the living.
Since Pchum Ben should ideally be celebrated in one’s home village, the holiday involves massive evacuations of cities and places of wage employment to the agricultural villages of one’s birth. Although the vast majority of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the cities, over eighty percent of the population still lives in such villages. The human pilgrimages back and forth between city and village during this period are undertaken in order to serve one’s poor dead relatives, but the economic and social distinctions between the city and the village are also points of contention. These secular distinctions are often rendered in a single vocabulary, but with markedly different results.
This paper examines pretas as metaphors for social difference, mutual dependence, and as barely-coded signals of disdain and resentment. It intends to outline how one particular ‘ghostly topography’ of modern Cambodia, rendered through ritual and shared belief, intersects with the social and economic topographies outlined in economic and development reports.