- The Art of Ethnography: A Chinese "Miao Album."
For at least two thousand years, the Chinese state has consisted of a political bond—sometimes voluntary, more typically created through military conquest—between people whose language, customs, and physical appearance have been distinctly different from each other. Keenly aware of the diversity of their subjects, Chinese rulers sometimes minimized its importance by stressing the universality of Confucian ethics; at other times they emphasized the inevitability of their economic and military hegemony as a consequence of supposed cultural superiority. What makes this picture more complex, of course, is that for much of the past millennium China has been ruled by people we do not normally think of as ethnically "Chinese." Despite their numerical majority (they today compose more than 90 percent of the People's Republic), Han Chinese, along with less numerous ethnic groups like the Hakka or Hui, were forced to accommodate invading nations like Mongols and Manchus, who collectively ruled much of the empire for some five centuries. Indeed, it took almost half a century for the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) to overcome the legacy of a bloody military conquest fully and forge an alliance with Han elites. Together, Manchu, Han, and members of other ethnic groups ruled a vast, multi-ethnic empire for almost three hundred years until the Republican Revolution. Does this make the Qing state a colonial one, however? And what was the significance of ethnicity, nationality, race—the Chinese terms are of relatively recent invention—in helping this empire function?
Laura Hostetler's first monograph, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (2001), argued that the Qing state was colonial, settling nonindigenous people (primarily Han) to help pacify frontier regions. (Not coincidentally, the People's Republic encourages Han Chinese to settle in Xinjiang and Tibet.) Hostetler used the term "colonialism," furthermore, "to highlight the similarities between the methods, technologies, and ideologies that [End Page 243] the Qing employed in extending its geographical reach, and those used by European colonial powers during the same period" (Hostetler 2001, p. 30). In other words, the Qing state counts as a colonial power in part because its maps and ethnographic studies of indigenous peoples are analogous to those used by Western colonial powers. By extension, Hostetler argued, China's ethnographic and geographic studies are evidence of active contributions to many of the trends that we consider "early modern." Hostetler was bringing China into a discussion, sparked by Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), of how knowledge practices contributed to the colonial power of Western nations. Indeed, Hostetler portrayed the Qing as not simply an object of imperialist aggression (as do many accounts, focusing on the legacy of the post–Opium War unequal treaties), but as a founding member, as it were, of the colonial club.
Thus in her earlier work Hostetler placed China within the context of colonialisms worldwide, colonialisms that are aided by discursive projections of otherness, whether geographical, physical, or cultural. Although The Art of Ethnography was initiated by the late David Deal, the new book seems very much Hostetler's project, not least because it provides pictorial evidence for the Qing colonial enterprise. The work in question reproduces an anonymous and untitled Miao album (both a generic and a literal description), which consists of hand-painted images and poem descriptions of some eighty distinct minority groups. These groups are collectively called Miao by Han Chinese (Hmong in this country) and are clustered in the mountainous regions of Guizhou Province in China's southwest. Alongside the eighty plates taken from the album, Hostetler adds a lengthy introduction that discusses the genre and Qing ethnographic practices more generally, while also offering a comparison to other non-Western, pictorial ethnographic traditions, namely those of the Tokugawa and Ottoman rulers. The brilliant color plates in the introduction—Chinese, Japanese, and Turkish—are show-stoppers.
Based on the place-names given by the text, Hostetler dates this Miao album to "sometime after 1797." Although she leaves unclear...