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Editorial Introduction

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image of Inner Asia

This issue of Inner Asia ranges over diverse themes in the history and anthropology of Inner Asia. Lewis Mayo’s two-part article on ‘Illness, Threat, and Systems of Authority in Dunhuang’ is a notable contribution to the Journal because it relates history with anthropology in a theoretically innovative way. Medicine and politics,Mayo argues, are both forms of ‘event management’, and with this perspective we can see parallels between the management of disease at different historical periods in the same environment. The history of endemic disease in Dunhuang articulates a threefold linkage between sickness, geography and administrative power, in which each element helps to define and constitute the other. Describing the Dunhuang region involves constructing a history of the diseases to which that region has been prone, and the work that has been done in relation to them. On the one hand, modern public administration gives illness a geographical articulation, one that involves a distinctive local configuration of minerals and microorganisms. The geological and biological particularities of the Dunhuang area manifest themselves in the prevalence of certain kinds of diseases in the region, which public health authorities detect and seek to counteract. On the other, over a thousand years earlier, Dunhuang’s rulers were also scripting methods to keep the area safe from, threat, disease and instability. The battle against disease and misfortune was waged every year in an exorcism ceremony, but through analysis of particular late-9th-century texts Mayo relates an enhanced sense of threat to a specific political and institutional juncture – a particular combination of challenges to authority. In both cases, the prestige of physicians and political leaders rests in their calmness in the face of events, as well as their capacity to anticipate and prevent them. The medical manual, the gazetteer and the ritual guide all promise a mastery of events. Like the notion of the endemic disease, there is a regional profile to suffering, one that Mayo suggests is constituted by and helps constitute the local political order. The historical and anthropological analysis of illness must engage with the systems of authority whose actions and structures seek to regulate and eliminate it. In this sophisticated piece, Mayo argues that if we accept that our sufferings have an institutional form and often an institutional cause, we can grasp how the endless labour of reproducing co-ordination and regulation also generates its own structures of threat.


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