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  • Incidental Ethnographers: French Catholic Missions on the Tonkin-Yunnan Frontier, 1880 - 1930
  • Krystyna Sieciechowicz (bio)
Jean Michaud . Incidental Ethnographers: French Catholic Missions on the Tonkin-Yunnan Frontier, 1880 - 1930. Brill. 2007. xviii, 280. US$154.00

Incidental Ethnographers is a very thoroughly considered book, clearly with specialists in mind. Just the same, the generalist with a passing interest in either the history of the Tonkin-Yunnan region of Vietnam or in the intellectual work of missionaries will find this book quite satisfying, as the author dedicates a few sections to theorizing in a general way the subject of missionary ethnographies. These more theoretical sections come at the beginning and conclusion of the book. Michaud's argument is succinct and compelling. Obviously with a subject such as missionary ethnographies, which to some may seem to be an oxymoron, for Michaud it is a challenge. Michaud argues that missionary ethnographies can be useful to contemporary anthropologists and ethnohistorians, if carefully used in special circumstances. More specifically, the Tonkin-Yunnan upland region peoples are so little known that the few 'hidden' missionary works on the region inform us of the groups' composition, lifestyles, rites, and customs. The legitimacy of these writings is at the forefront of his approach, and here he establishes three kinds of writings. First were those that were engaging and written in a lighter style for popular consumption in France, emphasizing the unusualness of their hosts, and related curiosities, adventures, and the exotic. Second were functional writings that focused on language and quotidian practicalities useful in the training of other missionaries. The third group of writings were more correctly in the category of ethnography, and these Michaud calls studious works. They reveal a greater intellectual interest in the subject. Moreover, the author notes these works had limited value to missionaries and could be characterized as 'detached from the missionary society's needs.'

In developing his argument about the overall utility of 'hidden' writings, Michaud digresses to discuss missionary ethnographies in seventeenth-century New France. This very useful digression affords Michaud a comparison and a basis for making observations about the quality of the Tonkin-Yunnan missionary writings. The Jesuits were a well-educated, elite core who, for the most part, determined what was of value to record. They published works on the Huron of New France and a yearly journal known as the Jesuit Relations. Their writings, despite their innovations, were nevertheless a product of the time - 'at the dawn of colonisation' - and they lacked objectivity. Michaud notes that in the 1600s 'European culture had not yet started observing itself in a systematic way.'

Two centuries later a different missionary group, the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP), began missionizing the highlands of north Vietnam with a different kind of missionary - one who came from humble peasant origins. Significantly less well-educated, schooled [End Page 362] in the martyr tradition and in conservative Catholicism, the MEP generations of missionaries were at a distinct disadvantage in ethnographic writing. The three missionaries that Michaud focuses on - Lietard, Vial, and Savina - are exemplars of a minority who worked against socioeconomic and religious constraints imposed on them to produce rich ethnographies of the Lo-lo (Lietard and Vial) and Miao (Savina). Michaud is thus intrigued with these three 'subversives' and sees them as worthy of studying precisely because they wrote ethnography 'to counteract excessive exploitation . . . and to delay assimilation as much as possible.' This book reveals the complexity of missionary ethnographies and is a wonderful window into the use and place of peasant missionaries in the colonial project of nineteenth-century France.

Krystyna Sieciechowicz

Krystyna Sieciechowicz, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto



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