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Pluto Press
Ethnic Distinctions, Local Meanings: Negotiating Cultural Identities in China

Ethnic Distinctions, Local Meanings: Negotiating Cultural Identities in China

by Mary Rack


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Ethnic Distinctions, Local Meanings: Negotiating Cultural Identities in China

This innovative book explores the way Western anthropologists use studies of ethnicity to 'interpret' local cultures. Mary Rack raises critical issues about ethnic classifications and the way they are used, making this a book that will be useful for all students of ethnicity.Overturning the generalising tendencies characteristic of classic anthropology, Rack demonstrates that ethnic classifications have little to do with the self-perceptions of those concerned –– and everything to do with political and intellectual elites. Focusing on a rural area of south China, Rack shows how so-called ethnic minority cultural events have become occasions for the exploration of personal identity by urban elites. She suggests that, historically, ethnic classifications were drawn up as a result of elite concern to demonstrate the existence of a contrasting homogeneous and superior civilisation. This study sheds new light on the ways in which Western anthropologists handle ethnicity and ethnic difference more generally.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745319391
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 04/15/2005
Series: Anthropology, Culture and Society Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Mary Rack works as a teacher for the Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Service in Gateshead, England. Previously, she lectured in Anthropology at Durham University and held the Sociological Review Fellowship at Keele University.

Read an Excerpt


Where are the Miao?

The new temple of the Celestial Kings was to be inaugurated that night at a small rocky outcrop on the edge of Yaxi. The traffic on the roads was quiet by now and the rice fields round about were noisy with frogs. The village was dark, though a few lights could still been seen among the low-rise buildings of the city of Jishou a couple of kilometres away. Beyond were the dark shapes of steep hills. Near the foot of the outcrop was another temple to the Celestial Kings. Illuminated by the lights of a rice spirits factory that had claimed use of the spring in which the Celestial Kings were said to have been born, it stood deserted. This temple had recently fallen into disfavour since its organisation had been taken over by a local government department. It was generally believed, for this reason, that the deities were no longer willing to reside there.

All day people had come on foot and by minibus to visit the rocky hill. With help from village women who had set themselves up as custodians, they burned incense in front of the rocks that were now believed to represent the three Celestial Kings and their mother. Then they made their requests of the deities. Many of these requests could have belonged to any era. People asked for health, a good marriage, children, grandchildren or success in their exams. Other requests were more situated in that particular place and time, the mid-1990s in a small city in China's interior. They asked when was the best time to go in search of temporary work elsewhere, or to buy up stocks of manufactured goods and fruit to sell in the city. They also turned to the deities, rather than to the police and local government, for help with a perceived breakdown in social order.

This temple, situated in the West Hunan Miao and Tujia Minority Autonomous Prefecture, was recorded as an example of Miao minority culture. No one whom I spoke to, however, regarded it in this way. Differences in ancestry among the worshippers could be guessed at from dress and language. Women from highland villages, Kho Xiong-speaking descendants of the indigenous people often classified as 'Miao', wore indigo tunics and wide-legged trousers decorated around the cuffs with embroidered strips of flowers and butterflies. On their heads were long pieces of lighter-coloured cloth wound into turbans. These clothes contrasted with the colourful Western-style clothes of visitors from Jishou City and the more sober blue tunics of the lowland, Chinese-speaking rural people including those from the village of Yaxi itself. These apparent differences were not a source of conflict or disagreement however. All agreed that the deities refused to live in the official temple. If asked, almost everyone at the temple would describe the deities as protective local figures, neither specifically Miao or Chinese. Although the event had been arranged by lowland, Chinese-speaking Yaxi women, and lowland villagers made up the majority of those attending, many of the ritual practitioners were highlanders. A number of women in highland dress were among the spirit mediums who attended the temple, speaking sometimes in the voices of dead relatives, sometimes in the voices of the Celestial Kings themselves. Later in the evening a ceremony was performed by a group of male ritual practitioners who were dressed in the bright orange robes and ornate headdresses that are associated with the highland Kho Xiong-speaking Daoist practitioners, the laoshi.

The inauguration of the new temple of the Celestial Kings was one of a number of fieldwork experiences which challenged preconceived ideas I had of a separate Miao culture. As a result, this book is a study not of Miao or Tujia identity or culture but of a sense of belonging to a border place, one which often goes unmarked in written accounts. I approach this by focusing on cultural events and practices, in which people of apparently very different backgrounds participated. I juxtapose these against the preoccupation with minority identity and minority difference that is so prominent in interpretations of West Hunan by the local elite and by people from elsewhere. Indeed, I argue that this disparity reflects an unfortunate preoccupation in the discourse of social science more generally. By doing so I hope to question the continuing emphasis anthropology continues to place on a concept of cultural groups.

When I arranged to do fieldwork in and around the small city of Jishou, capital of West Hunan prefecture I had every intention of studying the Miao. I decided to go to this area because, on a previous stay in China, the Miao, with their distinctive costume and highland way of life, had seemed to present such an intriguing contrast to my life in a large Chinese city. But my fieldwork quickly led me to question the usefulness of this category, however subtly explored, as a basis for ethnographic description. It is perhaps possible that I would have continued to follow up a romantic quest for the highland Miao had restrictions placed on foreigners doing fieldwork in West Hunan in the 1990s not prevented me from applying for permission to work in rural areas. Instead I took a job in Jishou University and undertook a study based largely on the city and the surrounding lowland areas. This seemed to offer little in the way of exotic culture. Apart from a few streets of old wooden houses by the river, the city at this time consisted of a large number of administrative and educational work units alongside a mixture of concrete department stores, hotels and glass-fronted banks, crowded into a narrow valley. Work units, built in the Socialist era, were self-contained, enclosed compounds which, as well as being a place of work, met accommodation and other needs. With the economic liberalisation that followed the ascent to power of Deng Xiaoping, small entrepreneurial businesses were also much in evidence in that the streets were lined with small restaurants, karaoke bars and shops. As in the rest of China, these last were filled with Chinese and imported electrical and electronic goods, multinational and joint venture household products, convenience foods and high-prestige imported goods such as European whisky and brandy. Western fashions were also popular, and a row of street stalls known as 'Hong Kong Street' sold cheap versions of recent Western styles in jeans and other clothes. I was told frequently that I would have to visit the highland areas if I wanted to find something interesting for my research. This, at first, made me feel frustrated because the conditions of my research permission did not allow me to.

During the course of my fieldwork I encountered, among some, a fascination with the Miao, among others, an almost complete disregard for incomer/indigenous differences. Young educated people such as students, most of whom were from elsewhere, were fascinated by images of the Miao and the contrast they presented to city life. As an outsider myself, it was completely appropriate that I too should consume these images. The fascination with which many outsiders regarded the Miao was reinforced by local government agendas, which were themselves part of the wider politics of the nation. For example, Jishou, long regarded as a remote and mysterious region, is today connected to the rest of China by a railway line. When you approached the city, a recorded announcement tells you that, as well as being a government, education and business centre, the city is also a tourist destination. The main attractions, the announcement stressed, are the local Miao and Tujia minority peoples. There are several Miao festivals each year, the people speak a local version of the Miao language and there is a museum housing Miao and Tujia artefacts. At first these claims appeared improbable. In contrast to the landscape of steep ravines and wooden houses through which the train had approached, the city appeared like any other. But the idea of a separate Miao people, referred to on the train, was reiterated in its public architecture and iconography. A new pagoda had been built in a park overlooking Jishou decorated with reliefs showing the traditional customs of Miao and Tujia people. At a roundabout in the centre of the city there was an older, Socialist-realist-style statue of heroic figures in Miao dress performing a drum dance. Tapestry hangings on sale at the department stores repeated these themes, depicting colourful minority dances and craggy landscapes. But the claims made for Jishou's Miao festivals and culture turned out to be promotional rather than reflections of actual day-to-day life. Minority festivals were not held in the city itself and the museums had closed down through lack of money. Though more than twothirds of the population of Jishou was officially registered as Miao or Tujia, minority languages were rarely spoken. Visitors were usually only aware of minorities when they saw women in minority dress selling produce by the road or walking into town on rainy days or when there was no work to be done in the fields.

The images found in the local government infrastructure of transport and architecture marked out the Miao as a sign, an 'Other' which is exotic and often female, but does not correspond with the actualities of daily life. These images of the Miao have multiple meanings, demonstrating the superiority of the mainstream Chinese but also the primordial and ancient nature of Chinese culture. They also justify current administrative policies for those categorised as minorities by stressing their happiness and progress. The use of images of the Miao is evidence of the superiority of what Harrell (1995) has described as the 'civilising project' of the Han Chinese.

Restrictions placed on my activities also sent me in a rather different direction. As my fieldwork went on, I felt decreasingly welcome among educated and professional people and instead found myself more and more in the company of the people who gathered around temples on the outskirts of Jishou. Here, lowland people, descended from a mixture of indigenous people and incomers from various periods, almost never discussed indigenous/incomer differences. It was through meeting people on the rural outskirts of Jishou city, that I became aware of the limitations of my interest in 'the Miao'. I am not the first to have found a beneficial effect in being directed away from my original aims. A decade earlier, scholars had been prevented from pursuing intensive, small-scale community studies. For example, Gladney (1991) writes that while doing fieldwork in China in the mid-1980s, he came across a series of difficulties, including 'government employees looking over one's shoulder, residence in state-owned institutions or hotels, restricted access to one's informants, and the need for multiple bureaucratic procedures' all of which were hard to combine with the ideal of 'classic-style ethnography in one location' (106–7). Since he was not permitted to stay in villages for more than two weeks at a time, his study was, of necessity, multi-sited. Other writers have lived in cities, which is less problematic in terms of getting research permission, and have attempted to embrace large populations, such as Shanghai (Gamble 1996) or Huhhot (Jankowiak 1993). A result of the multisited and often interview-based approach of these writers is that they too emphasise the complexity and fluidity of their fieldwork site, and describe their approach as 'dialogic' (Gamble 1996: 10; Pieke 1996: 5). Gamble describes his work as 'an innovative and original approach which presents a broad-brush ethnographic account of a metropolis' (1996: 4). Jankowiak takes a symbolic interactionist approach that considers the whole city and takes culture as a 'dynamic process' (1993: 1). Similarly, Pieke writes of how the interview-based nature of his fieldwork led him to consider how people 'continually renegotiated their social roles and culture knowledge' (1996: 16–17), and Gladney's multi-sited approach allowed him to consider 'a polyphony of voices ... each contradicting the other, sharing different visions of Hui-ness' (1991: 103). Nonetheless, where Gladney has called for a more nuanced view of minority identities, the result of my fieldwork was to question whether it should be the central subject of study at all.


Why do minority groups, such as the Miao and the Hui continue to be the focus of ethnographic works? The notion that distinguishable cultures exist has long been connected with anthropology and is hard to separate from it. There is an unspoken implication that the notion of bounded and homogeneous cultures is the basis of anthropology. As Abu-Lughod has written, '[a]nthropological discourse gives cultural difference (and the separation between people it implies) the air of the self evident' (1991: 143) and, despite critiques of area studies paradigms, we continue to be committed to 'nationalisms, cultures and ideologies' (Karakasidou 2000: 415).

In its preoccupation with culture and difference, anthropology has its roots in the Enlightenment thought of the eighteenth century. In part this was the influence of the specific approaches to classification that had developed in this era. Cohn has written of how ethnography paralleled other Victorian classifying studies such as ethnology (1987: 24), and Pratt (1992) of how travellers' attitudes to the people they encountered were influenced by the totalising schema of zoology and botany. The Enlightenment also resulted in the emergence of specific notions of 'culture'. It was the time when the idea of the four-stage progress of humanity was developed, with hunter gatherers, or savages, developing over time through pastoralism, then agriculture to modern commercial society. This appeared to suggest that all of mankind could be differentiated only by degrees of progress and, partly in reaction to this, a rather separate tradition developed in Europe with an emphasis on the existence of different national cultures. Both these approaches have had their influence on an anthropological view of culture in which, as Abu-Lughod writes '"culture," shadowed by coherence, timelessness, and discreteness, is the prime anthropological tool for making "other"' (1991: 146).

In suggesting that anthropology should question its emphasis on culture my approach is close to that of Kahn who writes that 'the concept or concepts of culture can be continually shown to be part of our own discourse, rather than being situated somewhere in the world of others' (1989: 11). In making this point, we should not suggest, however, that culture and cultural distinctions are necessarily a Western conception. As Chatterjee (1996) has pointed out, classifications such as nationalism, are not the preserve of Western thought they are often considered to be. Specifically relevant to the minorities in China that I describe in the next chapter, Hostetler has shown how the classification of Chinese peoples should be seen, not as a Qing dynasty adoption of Western practices but a Chinese manifestation of early modern approaches and processes (2001: 1).

Inevitably, scholarly concerns with culture paralleled the administrative concerns of colonial powers for whom the classification of peoples was an important aspect of their control. The notion that anthropology was a 'handmaiden of colonialism' has been generally refuted. While Evans-Pritchard's work may have been undertaken to further the understanding of the colonial administration, it is widely agreed that anthropologists were not, on the whole, very influential. Their role in supporting colonialism was 'trivial' their knowledge 'too esoteric' (Asad 2002: 134) and in many cases they were themselves critical of colonial administrations (see James 1973, Vincent 1991). Nonetheless, it was hard to avoid reinforcing assumptions about cultural difference found within colonial situations. Even if not directly supportive, social sciences developed within the political context of colonialism and drew on information itself heavily influenced by colonial administration. Thus Dirks describes how 'taxonomies of land type and use, caste constituency and status, and political status under the Raj became first fixed and then reified through the colonial institutions that promulgated and implemented this colonial sociology' (1987: 9).

While anthropologists were less reliant than historians on colonial data collection, they were nonetheless dependent on colonial authorities for permission to carry out their studies (James 1973: 42) and there developed, as Gough puts it, 'customary relations ... between the anthropologists and the government or the various private agencies who funded them' (2002: 111), which may have influenced their outlook. Moreover, the object of their study, the people who lived around them, were themselves subject to rigidly upheld classificatory categories. For example, Anderson writes that in the Malaysian censuses, the British were intolerant of 'multiple, politically "transvestite", blurred or changing categories' because 'the fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one – and only one – clear place' (1983: 166). Often the categories of the colonialists were quite at odds with indigenous views. As Lentz writes:

... the dominant characteristics of pre-Colonialist Africa were mobility, overlapping networks, multiple group membership, and the flexible, context-dependent drawing of boundaries. The concept of 'tribe' and the idea that each person belongs to one and only one 'tribe' is a colonial import. (1997: 31)


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Copyright © 2005 Mary Rack.
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Table of Contents

1. Where are the Miao?
2. Miao Rebels and 'Common Ground'
3. Multiple Meanings of the Miao
4. The Rituals of New Year
5. Authority and the Local
6. Conflict at the Temple of the Celestial Kings
7. Conclusions

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