Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 221-224
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In Other Chinas, Ralph Litzinger tells of watching a Yao scholar of Yao history page through a volume of photographs of Yao he had helped compile: brilliant images of costumed peasant women, Taoist priests, and youths being initiated into the ritual realm. Litzinger asked: why are there so many portraits of people in traditional costumes when so few Yao now dress this way? This, the scholar replied, is what Yao would look like "if history never happened" (p.249)
Other Chinas charts the swirl of scholarly and popular discourses that obscure and illuminate the histories of these costumed figures. Yao are descendants of a "contingent and transient collectivity of disparate groups who occasionally mobilized themselves to resist the encroachments of bandits, tax collectors, and imperial officials spreading the glories of Chinese culture," now scattered through the mountains of Southwest China, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos. They have drawn attention from ethnographers for their esoteric forms of Taoist ritual and history of resistance to Chinese regimes. Other Chinas is an ethnography of the Yao elite in China: intellectuals, officials, cadres, and tour guides who claim to speak for the masses of Yao. Litzinger traces the struggles of this elite to define a new place for their marginalized ethnicity in the conflicted political landscape of reform-era China. He shows how peasant Yao, costumed as though "history had never happened," lay at the center of this [End Page 221] elite's efforts to write Yao into the history of the nation, recuperate suppressed Yao "traditions," and create new modes of local governance in Yao communities. At once an ethnohistory of a marginalized people, a sophisticated study of the politics of ethnological scholarship in China, and a nuanced meditation on marginality and national belonging, this book is a unique contribution to scholarship on ethnicity, nationalism, and cultural politics.
Litzinger's first chapter traces exchanges between Euro-American and Chinese scholarship on Yao history. Ethnohistories of Yao written by European and American scholars were orientalist: they imagined contained worlds in which intricate Taoist ritual practices functioned to reproduce local communities, create resilient ethnicities, and sustain resistance to imperialist regimes. By contrast, early attempts by Chinese scholars to create histories for Yao, in the 1950s, were about overcoming class oppression and "feudal" practices. By the 1980s, however, ethnically Yao scholars began to borrow Euro-American orientalist forms of representation to write against Maoist histories of class struggle. At the same time, these scholars wrote Yao into a narrative of national development: Yao were subaltern subjects, struggling through the centuries against various forms of oppression, eventually contributing to the revolutionary creation of the Chinese nation. Yet even as they gave Yao a place in the nation denied them by Maoist historiography, these scholars manufactured other silences, especially about the post-revolutionary period.
Two further chapters elaborate this story with lively evocations of scholarship by Yao and Han intellectuals. Litzinger was attracted to his field site of Jinxiu County, Guangxi Province in part because the eminent Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong did fieldwork there in the 1930s and maintained a close interest in the place for the rest of the century. In Chapter 2, Litzinger reviews Fei Xiaotong's career in order to follow the politics of ethnological writing through the Maoist period into the reform era. He shows how Fei's engagement with Jinxiu raised the question: What is the place of the local in the concept of society that sustains both the nation and the socialist regime? Litzinger pursues this question further in the next chapter by delving into scholarship on the revolution in Jinxiu and its environs. This is Litzinger's most substantial engagement with Yao history. He traces scholarship on class and social structure, including, most interestingly, the indigenous shipai (stone tablet) system of local governance; he reviews arguments about Yao rebellions in the late Imperial and Republican regimes; he describes the underground Party movement in the area...