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Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China's Cultural Politics

Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China's Cultural Politics

by Louisa Schein, Arjun Appadurai (Editor), John L. Comaroff (Editor), Judith Farquhar (Editor)

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Minority Rules is an ethnography of a Chinese people known as the Miao, a group long consigned to the remote highlands and considered backward by other Chinese. Now the nation’s fifth largest minority, the Miao number nearly eight million people speaking various dialects and spread out over seven provinces. In a theoretically innovative work that


Minority Rules is an ethnography of a Chinese people known as the Miao, a group long consigned to the remote highlands and considered backward by other Chinese. Now the nation’s fifth largest minority, the Miao number nearly eight million people speaking various dialects and spread out over seven provinces. In a theoretically innovative work that combines methods from both anthropology and cultural studies, Louisa Schein examines the ways Miao ethnicity is constructed and reworked by the state, by non-state elites, and by the Miao themselves, all in the context of China’s postsocialist reforms and its increasing exchange and fascination with the West. She offers eloquently argued interventions into debates over nationalism, ethnic subjectivity, and the ethnography of the state.
Posing questions about gender, cultural politics, and identity, Schein examines how non-Miao people help to create Miao ethnicity by depicting them as both feminized keepers of Chinese tradition and as exotic others against which dominant groups can assert their own modernity. In representing and consuming aspects of their own culture, Miao distance themselves from the idea that they are less than modern. Thus, Schein explains, everyday practices, village rituals, journalistic encounters, and tourism events are not just moments of cultural production but also performances of modernity through which others are made primitive. Schein finds that these moments frequently highlight internal differences among the Miao and demonstrates how not only minorities but more generally peasants and women offer a valuable key to understanding China as it renegotiates its place in the global order.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Minority Rules is breathtaking. Combining sophisticated cultural analysis with sharp attention to political economy, Schein illuminates not only the way the Miao have been constructed historically but how they shape their own identities through cultural performances, whether in state theater or for tourists.”—Lila Abu-Lughod, author of Veiled Sentiments and Writing Women’s Worlds

“A highly readable exploration of the cultural politics of reform-era China that deserves a broad readership among anthropologists, historians, and those in cultural studies.”—Ann Anagnost, author of National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China

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Minority Rules

The Miao and the Feminine in China's Cultural Politics

By Louisa Schein

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9731-1



In one area, I visited every family. On leaving, I put needle and thread into my hostess' hand, and she would invariably rush to find a piece of embroidery and ask us to take it to Chairman Mao, "for he loves our embroidery." At one enjoyable gathering, Miao women surrounded our girl comrades who were singing and playing, and tied pieces of embroidery on them, practically covering them. These are the women's dearest tokens, usually given only to their lovers.... — Fei Hsiao-t'ung, Account of the Central Greeting Delegation, 1951

When I first read this vignette, penned by China's premier anthropologist after he visited the Miao minority in Guizhou province on behalf of the Communist Party, it took some time for me to understand why I was so captivated by it. As I have pondered its import, I have come to see that it condenses, in a few sentences, many of the themes of this book. It was written at the moment of the inception of minzu, the official units that came to designate non-Han peoples and granted them their social existence. How, I wondered, did the encounter play out? Had Communist Party cadres actually given needles and thread to Miao women? And had the women routinely offered up their embroidered handiwork in return, believing it would be put into Chairman Mao's admiring hands? Did Mao Zedong cherish Miao handicraft, and what was the nature of his pleasure in it? Can the offering of needle and thread be seen as an interpellating call toward which Miao women turned by presenting their quintessential cultural selves? How can we understand this highly gendered interchange in which Miao peasant women lavished their embroidered attentions on China's highest leader, substituting him for their lovers? And what of the assailing of the female cadres with handworked gifts: was it Miao women solicitously enjoining the Communist delgatesto go native? What is the rhetorical effect of a Han Chinese expert telling this story of almost cloyingly affectionate gifting at the historical juncture of Communist Liberation?

Minority Rules is about cultural politics in a complex, multiethnic state. It is about the production of discourses—of Ethnicity, of gender, and of Modernity—and the maneuverings of people within and around these axes of difference. Through an ethnographic account, I show the ways that culture matters in the establishment and maintenance of hierarchized orders that entail forms of exclusion andMinoritization. The very presence of exclusions and margins generated a complex field of practice in which variously situated cultural actors negotiated their positionings. In the process, the social order, with its intricate structures of inequality, was not only reproduced, but also sometimes destabilized.

This book is about China as much as it is about the Miao minority people upon whom the ethnography is focused. It spans the 1980s and 1990s, when China embarked on a program of social reforms that can be called postsocialist. As China poised itself to take a new role in the global economy, it transformed its internal social and economic life with sharp ramifications even for those who were little involved with its burgeoning transnationality. The intersection of ethnic and gender politics was a site where the less-reported effects of post-Maoism were being energetically worked out. A society organized around notions of modernity and backwardness, of openness, connectedness, and remoteness, was being elaborated, and there were high material stakes. One way that exclusions from new prosperities and modernities were ratified was through the conjoining in discourse and practice of the ethnic with the Feminine, the interior, and the agricultural.

The period of my fieldwork was the 1980s and early 1990s when the so-called new prosperities and modernities were to have emerged like a huge watershed after Maoism. But the processes that I chart have deeper histories in the socialist era (1949 to 1979), in the first half of the twentieth century, and even much earlier. Continuities were drawn upon and sustained in the Cultural production of the post-Mao period. It is crucial, with the reworking of cold war scholarship entailed by the postsocialist transition, that China's recent cultural politics be understood with reference to a longer history than that of the era shaped by Communist leadership.

In the West, China is still largely thought of as homogeneous, a singular, ancient, and continuous civilization. Indeed, this characterization has been a leitmotif in Western representations of China's Difference. My account undermines this image by suggesting that China's Identity has had to be continually crafted out of heterogeneity and that cultural others have played a variety of parts in this productive endeavor. Furthermore, the Chinese people have been pictured as homogeneous in their relation to Power. Images of Oriental despotism and Maoist totalitarianism have predominated, even into the post-Mao era, fueling a vision of undifferentiated masses in a uniform dyadic relation with a political center. I question this paradigm, not by offering straightforward accounts of resistance, but by presenting cross-cutting instances of power that only sometimes coincide with official structures. An understanding of domination and hierarchy in China must go well beyond a critique of the state and must venture into the murky and shifting currents of popular practice.

Even as I propound heterogeneity to counter stereotypes of China's uniformity, I also interrogate the foundations of just this difference. Much of the heterogeneity that one encounters on the ground and that constitutes the basis of hierarchy is itself produced. This is not to negate difference, or to say that it is not there. Rather, it is to focus attention on the mechanisms by which the limitless raw material of heterogeneity comes to be socially marked, or politically charged, creating the conditions for the stabilization of particular differences —of ethnicity, gender, class, status —in the constitution of the social order. Instead of asking how the mass cultures of either capitalism or socialism create sameness, my emphasis is on the modes by which such systems also foster and organize distinctions.

An Elusive Object

The people that were placed in the Miao category after 1949 were counted as members of China's fifth-largest minority group. This aggregate has significant numbers—7.39 million in 1990—measurable political recognition, and high visibility in popular culture. But who are these Miao who appear as a fixed entity in public representation? Attempts to secure them with objective markers are frustrating at best. Scattered over more than seven provinces, with densest concentrations in Guizhou, Yunnan, and Hunan, the so-called Miao are speakers of several mutually unintelligible dialects and have little contact between regions (see map facing page 1). Primarily agriculturalists, they grow either wet or dry rice, maize, potatoes, buckwheat, or other grains, depending on the region they inhabit. Some of them have long settled in riverine valleys, while others are seminomadic, using swidden farming on mountain slopes.

Beyond China's borders, they have migrated into Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma (now Myanmar). There, they refer to themselves as Hmong, one of the many ethnonyms in use among the Miao in China. During the Vietnam War, highland Hmong were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to wage a secret anticommunist war in Laos. As a consequence, many became refugees upon U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in 1975. Thus began a global diaspora that has scattered Hmong to the United States, France, Australia, Canada, French Guyana, and other Western countries. Dispersal, for most, has meant the end of subsistence farming and entry into a new form of minoritization structured by wage labor and social welfare.

From this sketch, it should be clear that who the Miao are has been contingent on their location within particular states. In this spirit, this book does not presume to present the Miao separate from their relational positioning within the Chinese polity. But while I deliver no pristine, independent Miao, I take very seriously Miao efforts to define themselves, both in their unity and in their contrast from other ethnic groups within and beyond China. While attributing significant agency to Miao persons, my account avoids presenting "the Miao" as a unitary agent. To the extent that the Miao appear as unitary, it is as a social category produced and reified in the myriad operations of the cultural arena. Consequently, I tack back and forth between Miao practices and the larger contexts that both inform them and naturalize their putative difference, from categorical definitions of the Miao to contrastive definitions of the Chinese, from the dominant fascination with quaint local customs to the Miao commitment to a vigorous modernity.

The Global and the Remote: Geopolitics and National Economics

The Miao and many other minorities—the peasants and herders of China's "interior" — have been conventionally known for their "remotness." Portrayed as isolated in inaccessible and forbidding territory, they have been seen as culturally incompatible with and marginal to the pulse of life not only in China's metropolitan hubs, but even in its fertile and productive valley Agriculture. As Ralph Litzinger (1994) has pointed out, the notion of the remote (pianpi) has a double significance in the Chinese imagination. On the one hand, it signifies geographic distance and the romance of a pristine landscape enshrouded in mystical beauty, but, on the other hand, it is a moral construction of the stigmatized margin, a "site of lack, of uncivilized vulgarity, a land of economic and social malaise, of dispossessed people living in deep Poverty, scratching out a living in the most infertile of China's hill country" (1994:206). These attributes, I would add, are figured as the Feminine counterparts to forward-moving, dynamic centers that are gendered masculine.

Deep into the history of the Chinese imperium, the territory of the southwest has been a ground of political struggle and competition for resources. Over the course of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), an influx of migrants (Lee 1982) doubled the population of the region, increasing its heterogeneity. Inhabited by a multitude of different ethnic groups—some of whom were settlers from more northerly locations that were experiencing land pressure—the region always contained a variegated mix of cultures, languages, and forms of rule. Hence, remoteness may be an apt characterization for the topography of the terrain, for its historical isolation from traffic and trade, and for what appears to be the cultural insularity of its inhabitants, but this definition obscures the way in which the Miao and their regions have for centuries been implicated in China's relations with the outside —in China's global positioning. Both territorial and discursive elements have shaped this process.

The southwest was the frontier, an unevenly governed area that marked the outer reaches of empire, a place where borders, taxes, and subjection were regularly contested. While the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) was to double the lands under imperial rule, the southwest, having already been secured as provinces, was undergoing what Millward (1996) calls a frontier process, a conflictual internal colonization (Spencer 1940) peppered by resistance. In the transition from the Han-ruled Ming dynasty to the Manchu-ruled Qing in the mid-seventeenth century, for instance, it had been a stronghold and a battleground. Meanwhile, foreign trade and defense gave the territory particular strategic importance. Tributary missions from Laos and Burma traversed Yunnan, trade in tea and silk with Southeast Asia flourished, and occasionally the region served as a base for military campaigns into Burma and Tibet (Naquin and Rawski 1987:199). In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, minority areas in the south were also implicated in Chinese struggles with the British and French based in Southeast Asia (Moseley 1973:25–26).

The region's mineral resources were crucial in garnering the state's attention. In the eighteenth century the need to keep pace with rising imports of silver from abroad intensified the exploitation of copper mines. Under Qing government sponsorship, copper mining increased tenfold, and from 1700 until 1850 the region's copper output accounted for a full one-fifth of the world's production. Meanwhile, the mining boom attracted more migrants, swelling the area's population fourfold during the same 150 years. Migrants from the north and east developed a metropolitan culture that remained far removed from that of the rural agriculturalists, many of whom were non-Han (Naquin and Rawski 1987:199–202).

The other key product that linked Miao to larger systems was opium. Opium was not widely used among the Miao, and it plays no central cultural or ritual role. However, it was used for some medicinal purposes. Miao cultivation of the opium poppy, by contrast, for three related reasons became widespread in China during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Once the British had introduced Indian opium as a trade item to the Chinese populace, demand for an indigenously produced variety steadily rose with increased addiction and, especially, in response to Chinese efforts to curtail British imports. Chinese attempts to ban domestic production only encouraged its cultivation in the mountainous minority regions least subject to policing. Finally, Miao swiddeners found the crop uniquely suitable to a mobile existence in which interruptions in agriculture required a portable trade item that could be exchanged for cash to purchase rice and other essentials.

Non-Han had been governed since the Yuan dynasty under what was called the tusi system (Jenks 1994:30-41; Miaozu Jianshi 1985:73–105; Sutton n.d.). A variant of the ancient technique of "using barbarians to rule barbarians" (yiyi zhiyi), this system, essentially, was one of indirect rule in which natives were recruited to serve in hereditary, rank-ordered offices and to extract taxes and tribute from those whom they governed. During the Qing, regulations concerning tusi succession to office and mandatory schooling of tusi in Chinese ritual and culture were made more stringent. Later, under the Yongzheng reign (1723–1735), the policy of gaitu guiliu (replacing native chieftains with regular officials) was implemented with the ultimate aim of eliminating native rule altogether. The move sparked a series of rebellions, especially one among the Miao in the 1720s.

The extent to which Miao had submitted to bureaucratic control was indexed by a widely circulated pejorative taxonomy of "raw" (sheng) and "cooked" (shu). Shu Miao referred to those who lived closer to Han settlements in sedentary communities where they were under some kind of governance, paid taxes, did corvee labor, and manifested a modicum of Chinese cultural influence. The sheng Miao were by definition unruled, paid no taxes or service, and lived in terrain that, from the Han point of view, was more rugged and isolated. As late as the 1940s, German ethnologist Inez deBeauclair (1960) noted "sheng" Miao in the vicinity of Leigong Mountain in Southeast Guizhou, the region where I was to do fieldwork four decades later.

To take sheng and shu as two distinct modes of contact, however, is to oversimplify the social reality in which all manner of dealings, accommodations, resistances, and conflicts characterized Miao-Han relations. In the early nineteenth century, for instance, a famous Hunan scholar wrote derogating the Miao for their acephalous social organization. Although his narrative purports to describe the savagery and unruliness of the sheng Miao, at the same time it gives testimony to Miao relations with the Chinese and their impact on Miao society:

The raw Miao are all separated into settlements ... the terrain interlocks like the teeth of a dog. There are tribes, but no chiefs. They ordinarily do not value human life. In a stockade, a dozen or even several dozen fathers and sons, elder and younger brothers, vie for supremacy. If someone is able to speak to the officials in Chinese, then everyone in the stockade stands in awe of him and selects him as head of the stockade, (in Jenks 1994:34)

What this book argues for the late twentieth century, this passage suggests for much earlier—that Miao prestige systems were hardly autonomous from those that surrounded them (Tapp 1989:177). Nonetheless, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw vigorous cultural production of images of the Miao as intransigent cultural others, curiosities to be exoticized and, in times of strife, to be reckoned with. The so-called "Miao albums" are the best known example of the genre of representation that framed the Miao in idioms of strangeness and uncivility. Created between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, the albums consisted of paintings cataloguing varieties of Miao and other peoples by ascribed group names, sometimes with descriptive text in classical Chinese. According to Hostetler (1995), these descriptions were part of a Qing dynasty effort to better secure control over non-Han peoples through the compilation of "scientific knowledge" about them. Yet what was produced were stereotyped caricatures, "visual tropes," that reduced each group to an emblematic feature such as hunting, courting, or fighting (Hosteder 1995:44). On the whole, they stressed two irregularities from the Chinese perspective: the absence of an extended community or lineage, and the presence of gender role reversal and sexual transgression (Diamond 1995:103). The result was a portrayal of wildness, couched in the format of cultural miscellany.


Excerpted from Minority Rules by Louisa Schein. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Louisa Schein is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University.

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