Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands

Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands

by Colin Legerton, Jacob Rawson

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"He's singing about how happy he is to be home," Teacher Ye explained as we sidestepped together. She had given up her cymbals to one of the children, and now was in the circle with the rest of us, leading the singing with her powerful voice. "He's a postman in the county seat. He and the others just came back from there on the electric mule." We swung our joined…  See more details below


"He's singing about how happy he is to be home," Teacher Ye explained as we sidestepped together. She had given up her cymbals to one of the children, and now was in the circle with the rest of us, leading the singing with her powerful voice. "He's a postman in the county seat. He and the others just came back from there on the electric mule." We swung our joined hands as we circled around the postman. "They aren't able to come home very often, so they're always very excited when they do get here. This song is very loose, so he can sing about anything he wants, and then the rest of us respond to him. That way the song is always from the heart."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This odyssey-spanning 14,000 miles in four months-details China's rich diversity in a narrative jeweled with dazzling descriptions but lacking analysis. Legerton and Rawson, graduate students in the region's language and history, meander along the Silk Road, reporting on various "hidden" minorities and gaining extraordinary access to people's lives and homes. However, they take much of what they are told at face value and provide only superficial analysis of their ambitious undertaking. This is unfortunate because their sources and observations speak directly to the intersection of politics and culture that came to the fore in the days before Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. It is only in the afterword that they make explicit the link between China's official party line on minorities and what they witnessed. Nor do they attempt to explain what forces maintained China's cohesion over the turbulent past half-century. Despite these structural weaknesses, this is a spectacular achievement reminiscent of early 20th-century anthropological monographs by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, with much to charm readers in search of a travelogue on China's remote border and interior regions. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Two American students of Asian cultures and languages chronicle their extensive travel through diverse, multiethnic regions of China. According to the Communist government, note debut authors Legerton and Rawson, China has 55 recognized ethnic minorities outside of the majority Han group, which makes up 90 percent of the total population. The remaining minority still incorporates 120 million people, organized into "autonomous areas" across China's vast landmass. The authors concentrate on these autonomous regions of the northeast, southwest and northwest, focusing on a dozen ethnic groups, their culture, way of life and language. Since Legerton and Rawson speak Mandarin, Uyghur and Korean, their conversations with locals seemed to glide along easily. They learned that the government allows the autonomous regions some advantages, such as exemption from the one-child policy; however, the ethnic residents are often denied passports and freedom to practice religious celebrations. The authors visited areas and peoples far and wide, including the ancestral forested hunting grounds of the northern Daur, Ewenki, Oroqen and Hezhen, where the residents are now prohibited from hunting; the thriving pockets of Koreans around White Head Mountain; the harsh terrain of the Inner Mongolians; the Kinh fishermen of the Gulf of Tonkin; the Wa people located near the Myanmar border; the self-profiting Naxis in the old-town architectural gem of Lijiang; the matrilineal society of the Mosuo on the shores of Lugu Lake; the Tibetans Buddhists; the Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in the arid northwest. Legerton and Rawson even scouted out a legendary, nearly extinct group of Jews in Kaifeng. Theiryouthful discoveries reveal a marvelous tapestry of vibrant history and culture. An earnest, revealing travelogue.
From the Publisher

"A spectacular achievement reminiscent of early 20th-century anthropological monographs by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, with much to charm readers in search of a travelogue on China's remote border and interior regions."  —Publishers Weekly

"Legerton and Rawson eschew flourishes and hew to description in imparting their experiences for travel readers intrigued by China's remote regions."  —Booklist

"An earnest, revealing travelogue." —Kirkus Reviews

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Invisible China

A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands

By Colin Legerton, Jacob Rawson

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2009 Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-263-9



* The Oroqen, Daur, Ewenki, and Hezhen *

The vigilant spotted deer loves the high mountain forests; The powerful bear loves the secluded craggy caves; The free-swimming fish loves the deep river currents; And the brave Oroqen loves the abundant Hingan Mountains.


The one-lane dirt road to Tuozhamin was masked on either side by a thick curtain of conifers. We sat jammed among fifteen locals as our eight-seater minivan bounced through the forest to our first destination. Nonetheless, it was far from the least comfortable ride we would encounter over the following months, and this was the only means of transport to Tuozhamin.

"Ours is an Oroqen village," the officer explained to us later that afternoon, "but these days it's mostly Han." Our first meaningful encounter in Tuozhamin began as a pointed interrogation by the village police officer, but we artfully turned it into anopportunity to learn more about our unique surroundings from the confines of a cramped police station.

Sandwiched between the Mongolian steppe and the Manchurian plain, this small village is nestled in the foothills of the Greater Hingan Mountains. The verdant forests of the mountain range were once the fertile hunting grounds of the Oroqen and their ethnic cousins, the Daur and Ewenki. As we came to learn, however, the old traditions were dying fast.

"Now, most of the Oroqen live in the Hunters Villages," the officer continued. He directed our attention to the wall map and pointed to the appendages on either side of the main village of Tuozhamin. "The Hunters Villages are meant to preserve their traditional ways. They used to make their living through hunting, but then in 1996 the government had to collect all the guns. They were compensated generously, and we now give them a monthly stipend to live on."

In this packed office, the lonely young officer was surrounded by photographic equipment and filing cabinets, while on the wall behind him hung a village map featuring each family's surname imprinted on its respective lot. Coming straight from Beijing, where a single apartment building housed more residents than this village, it was a jarring revelation to see that the police knew every resident by name.

"Even among the Oroqen there are many mixed families now. Their language isn't used very often either. Only the elders speak the language; everyone else uses Chinese and sometimes Daur. In this region, there are a lot of Daur. The Oroqen language can only be used within our village, but Daur is the language of trade."

We pressed the officer about how the Oroqen now spent the time once devoted to hunting. He seemed unsure how to respond but finally suggested that some gathered herbs in the mountains and sold them in the city to supplement their stipends. It was hard to imagine a whole village devoted to nothing but herb gathering. We finally broke free of the officer and went to see for ourselves.

As we walked toward the western Hunters Village, we observed that the animals really had the run of the town. Cows strolled down the main drag heading for the next pasture, goats rested in the shade of family-planning propaganda, an enormous pig reluctantly yielded to a honking bicycle cart. But most of all, we noticed the dogs. Large hunting dogs roamed the streets alone and in packs, fighting in the intersections and searching for food in every corner. Wherever there was a little shade, you could find one sleeping. Dogs and owners alike gave the town an aura of idleness and boredom. While the dogs wandered and played, the residents of the Hunters Village sat on wooden benches that lined the paths in front of their homes, whiling away the hours. We drew near to a motley group, and they listlessly beckoned us over.

They were three. On the bench sat an old lady twirling a whip in the dirt; beside her a one-legged man rested his arms on a pair of crutches. Across from them a younger fellow was proudly perched upon a shiny new moped. After the customary exchanging of pleasantries, we asked why they raised so many dogs.

"Habit," responded the old lady, encircling a shrub with a flick of the whip. "They used to help us hunt. But now we have no use for them, so they just run around freely."

Her family had once depended on hunting for their livelihood but turned to raising livestock after the hunting ban. She was not actually a resident of this Hunters Village but lived instead in the main village. Whether from the lingering habit of pursuing animals or out of sheer boredom, she simply spent the day following her pigs around town as they scavenged for food.

"This land is no good for raising animals," she continued. "There aren't any nutrients in the grass, so the animals are unhealthy. A few years ago, the government tried to start a milk industry here with all the cows and sheep, but malnourished animals make bad milk, so they gave up." She sighed and focused again on the whip.

The one-legged fellow who had been swatting flies and staring off idly suddenly piped in with an unexpected boast. "Do you boys drink rice liquor? We Oroqen drink like no other. We can each drink a bottle a day."

"Usually we just drink beer."

"Beer? What's the point? There's hardly any alcohol. You can't even get drunk." He motioned to his leg. "One day I got drunk and passed out in the street. When I woke up my leg was badly burned, so they had to cut it off. But now we can't even hunt, so it doesn't matter. I just sit around all day anyway. When I was young we didn't live in this village, we just followed animals through the mountains and set up tents wherever we stopped each night. Even during the Cultural Revolution, when the rest of the country was in such chaos, we didn't even notice, we just kept hunting." At this point, a large sow ran by, trailing behind her a litter of grunting piglets. Without a word, the woman stood up and followed them down the road.

The proud moped owner joined the conversation: "What about you? Are you still allowed to hunt in your country?"

"Depending on the season, sometimes hunting is legal."

He drew a breath and turned his head to think, then finally proclaimed: "What a good system! If we had that system, we'd still have meat to eat ... and something to do! Now we just sit around all day," he explained, motioning to the long line of benches on either side of the road. "Some of us used to collect herbs to sell, but now there aren't any left. We could play chess, but who has a chessboard? The government gave us these houses and 120 kuai each month as a stipend, but that's barely enough to scrape by."

We turned to each other in shock and discussed the amount in English. One hundred twenty kuai per month hardly seemed sufficient, as roundtrip bus fare to the nearest town where such herbs could be sold was forty kuai.

"Can you understand what they're saying?" asked the one-legged man.

The man on the moped sighed. "If I could understand what they were saying, I wouldn't be living in a place like this."

* * *

The awkward, stifled atmosphere we first felt with the bored residents of the Hunters Village was heightened by the abundance of stiff propaganda billboards everywhere we looked.

Fiercely Attack Pornography, Gambling, and Drug Use. Diligently Cleanse Our Socialist Environment. Such lessons were found up and down the narrow road of the village and its two small satellites. Implement The One-Child Policy. Collectively Construct a harmonious society read one sign in the main intersection. Immediately across from it was Loving and Protecting Our Baby Girls Starts with me. Outside the clinic: Actively Develop Morality, Enforcement, Education, Culture, Law, Sanitation: The "Six Essentials for Building a Community."

As we entered the general store that evening, we noticed one in Chinese Newspeak: Strengthen Enforcement and Patrol. Maintain A Structured and Harmonious Society. We needed a drink.

When we reemerged from the store, beers in hand, we were summoned to the village pool table by a group of Oroqen locals. We immediately recognized two we had met on the ride in to Tuozhamin: a pair of twenty-something businessmen whom we already knew to be resilient fellows. Despite the bumpy dirt road, they had each successfully downed two bottles of beer on the bus.

While some of the group started shooting pool, one middle-aged Oroqen man came over to show us his wounds. He removed his shirt and revealed a torso unnaturally white and rubbery — one enormous scar. "I used to hunt in these mountains: roe, deer, bears, wolves. Then they took our guns away. Now I work the fields, standing in the sun day after day. It's hell on the skin, as you can see. Back when we hunted, I would spend all day in the shade of the trees, so my skin wasn't ready for the beating sun. I burned until I had blisters. Then they popped and I burned some more. Now I don't even look like a man."

Having said his piece, he sat down quietly. We offered him a beer, but he refused. "I'm a hunter." He drew up his hands as though holding a rifle, then shook them to suggest that alcohol would impair his aim. Even though the government had taken away his hunting rights, it was apparent that his hunting identity had not been shaken.

One of our friends from the bus took us aside. "Are there hunters where you come from?" We said that there were. "We should go hunting together sometime."

"You're still allowed to hunt?" After being told several times about the death of Oroqen hunting, we were shocked by the unexpected invitation.

He grinned and nodded.

"You have your own gun?"

He nodded again, this time with an uneasy smile and quickly walked back to the pool table, leaving us no opportunity to pursue the revelation. Suddenly, the light over the pool table flickered, and the whole area was engulfed in darkness. The other side of the street still had power, so our companions went off in search of a better-lit venue. We could see through the store window that the well-prepared owner had already lit candles, so we went inside.

Power outages were nothing new to the village, which had just been connected to power lines in the year 2000. While the rest of the world was recovering from Y2K, learning that a slight technical glitch would not end all civilization, the residents of Tuozhamin were switching on their first light bulb.

Before long, enough power returned to light one of the fluorescent bulbs, and we were soon joined by the only other traveler in the village. We noticed him earlier when he arrived on the afternoon bus. His appearance was one immediately familiar to anyone who has traveled in Asia. With a large-zoom camera slung around his neck, a hefty rucksack borne on his shoulders, and Teva sandals strapped to his feet, all that was missing was an open Lonely Planet guidebook in his hand. Like everyone else in town, we had assumed he was a foreigner, but he now introduced himself as a well-traveled Han from Beijing.

"Yeah, I've been all over this country: Tibet, Xinjiang, everywhere," he explained.

Across the room, an Oroqen woman frantically tinkered with an old television set.

"I found this place in a Chinese guidebook. I had some free time, so I wanted to come see the minority culture."

"Why won't the TV turn on?" we overheard the woman complain to the owner.

"The guidebook really built up the Oroqen hunting tradition and their primitive ways. It made Tuozhamin sound like a totally different world. I thought when I got here everyone would be riding around on horseback, shooting at deer with long rifles," lamented the Beijinger.

"If we turn off these lights, will there be enough power to watch TV?" continued the Oroqen woman's frustrated monologue.

"I guess that was a pretty stupid idea. No matter where you go now, everything's basically the same. That kind of old culture just doesn't exist anymore."

"But if I can't watch TV, what else can I do?"

* * *

We Left Tuozhamin the next morning. Our next destination was another village just a hundred miles downstream, but the tricky geography of the Hingans forced us to travel a roundabout path. A few days later, we arrived in Dular by the only possible means: a jerky three-hour bus ride down a one-lane dirt road stuck in the early stages of construction. Unlike the dense forests of Tuozhamin farther upstream, the smooth, rolling hills of Dular were covered in corn and potato fields disturbed infrequently by the occasional pine grove.

The Daur are the primary minority and namesake of the Morin Dawa Daur Autonomous County, though they are still outnumbered by the Han eight-to-one countywide. While Morin Dawa primarily consists of these two ethnic groups, Dular and several smaller neighboring villages boast a thriving Ewenki community. Accordingly, it has been officially termed the Dular Ewenki Village. Like their Oroqen cousins to the north, both Daur and Ewenki have long hunting traditions, once plying the Hingan foothills in search of big game.

We hopped off the bus at the village intersection, and the driver pointed us toward the only inn. As we entered the squat concrete building looking for the proprietor, it became clear that this "inn" was little more than the village mechanic's workshop. The mechanic, busily tinkering with a tractor engine, heard us enter and smiled as we approached. We asked about lodging, and he led us to a row of bunk beds separated from the shop by a moldy green curtain. The mattresses, no more than stacks of cardboard boxes wrapped inside dirty sheets, left much to be desired, but there were no other options, so we paid for the first night.

* * *

That evening we walked down the road to the village basketball court. Situated next to the Communist Party office, it was a popular gathering place for villagers of all ethnicities and ages. We played a basketball game similar to Horse with a group of local youth while several more watched from atop a concrete sign that read Friendship First, Competition Second in faded red characters. It dawned on us that this was the only sign we had yet seen in Dular that was reminiscent of the socialist propaganda billboards spread throughout Tuozhamin. In the much more relaxed atmosphere, we began to ask our new friends about ethnicity in the village.

"We're Daur," one boy answered in Chinese, pointing to five of his companions. "He's Ewenki, but he can also speak Daur," he continued, motioning toward a lanky boy standing at the back of the group. "So when we're together we always speak Daur." We asked where they had learned to speak Chinese, and he pointed to a two-story building with sheet-metal siding that looked completely out of place among the mud-plastered farmhouses. "At school, all of our classes are taught in Chinese. Sometimes our teachers explain things in Daur, but Daur has no writing system, so we always have to write in Chinese anyway. And most Han can't speak Daur, so we always have to speak Chinese to them."

After a skilled Han friend sunk a jump shot to seal his victory, we cleared off the court to allow a hodgepodge group of farmers, road workers, and government officials to play a full-court game. We watched the game for a short time, but were soon drawn away by lively music coming from the small courtyard between the Party office and the government building.

Eight teenage girls in two uneven lines waved their hands back and forth to the rhythm of a cheery melody playing out of the instructor's boom box. We joined a small group of spectators sitting on the wide doorstep of the government building, then asked a well-dressed fellow about the dance.

"Next week there will be a dance competition in the county seat. Villages from all over the county will participate, and we're sending these girls to represent our village's Ewenki heritage. Right now we're celebrating our fiftieth anniversary, so this year's competition is especially important. They've been practicing for weeks to get these dances just right." The man proudly introduced himself as an Ewenki, and Dular's number two leader.

Each level of Chinese administration consists of parallel party and government bureaucratic hierarchies. The cadres of the party structure always outrank their governmental peers. Though this party official did introduce himself to us by name, he was so quick to point out that he was second in the more powerful party bureaucracy that we always referred to him between ourselves as Cadre Number Two. His superior, naturally, became Cadre Number One.

"I've heard that we Ewenki are related to the Eskimos in your country. So are the Oroqen and Daur, Hezhen, and the Mongolians: we're all closely related. That's why we don't look like the Han. Our cheekbones are much higher. See?" He proudly posed in profile as we leaned in to get a better look at his face. It was not a characteristic we had noticed on our own, but he and many of the others did indeed have higher cheekbones. "Our traditions are very different from the Han as well," he stressed.

One of the most significant differences was certainly the reliance on hunting. Wishing to learn if the situation was now the same as in Tuozhamin but also hoping to broach the topic gently, we asked if his government job allowed him time to chase game. "No, not anymore. In recent years the deer and roe populations have started to dwindle, so hunting was outlawed to protect the wildlife. We had to collect all the guns a few years back," he explained without any noticeable emotion.


Excerpted from Invisible China by Colin Legerton, Jacob Rawson. Copyright © 2009 Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Jacob Rawson earned a BA in Chinese and Japanese Language and an MA in Chinese Language and Literature. He has served as a translator and editor for Buddhist publications and works as a counselor for international students. He lives in Washington state. Colin Legerton holds a BA in Chinese Language and Literature and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies. He translates from Uyghur and Chinese, edits for various publications, and produced Diamond in the Dunes, a documentary film about western China’s only baseball team. He lives in Southern California.

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