- Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China
This volume’s editors have recruited highly qualified academics in Chinese history, anthropology, sociology, and literature as contributors. Each of the ten chapters examines a particular portion of the Ming and the Qing imperial population under a specific ethnic label. The editors claim the volume as the “historical studies of ethnicity in early modern Chinese history” (p. 2). They argue that in the major frontier regions in the vast Qing empire people’s modern identities became crystallized (which means people gained their modern ethnic names) through rapid political, social, cultural, economic, and administrative changes, especially from 1600 to 1800. The volume serves as a conclusion to the U.S. scholarly movement in the study of modern China over the past two decades, during which the ethnographic studies of minority histories, cultures, and societies in frontier regions have been accomplished more than ever before. A number of eminent authors in this scholarly movement are recruited as the volume contributors. Moving beyond the previous achievements, the volume broadens the study of the ethnicity issues by including ten different groups under discussion, whereas the previous studies are mostly one topic oriented, single group focused, or regionally centered. The frontier experiences of these ten groups—the population in the eight banners originated in Manchuria, the Mongols, the Han-Muslims, the non-Han Muslims, the population in the Southwestern Tusi system, the Yao, the Miao, the Li, the She, and the Dan—varied a great deal and each one’s history was extremely intricate in unique ways. It is the editors’ ambition to draw a new conclusion to the early history of modern China with a higher level of comprehension [End Page 73] based on such diverse frontier experiences and ethnic histories. The volume thus leads to future research, teaching, and graduate training in the field.
The introduction presents several notable efforts for success in comprehending a diverse China. First, the use of primary resources is a combination of imperial, local, and various native narratives. Preference is given to local gazetteers, sources with native voices, records with opinions from event participants, writings from individuals or groups representing ethnic communities, and the genealogies of families and lineages. Based on these sources, the effect (or not) of imperial policies is discussed in their interplay with local officials and group agents. The goal of the source analysis is to find the weight of “subject-object language” (p. 16), to review perspectives both inner and outer, to look at the dynamic interaction and interdependence “between informants and those informed” (p. 13), and to move the conceptions of present understanding into historical and native implications. To best interpret the sources in various forms, the volume advocates cross-disciplinary approaches, mainly between historians, who work on written documentation, and anthropologists, who are able to “fill in the gaps in the historical records” (p. 3).
Placing “ethnicity” as the focal point in a study of human experiences, the editors state that culture, ideology, history, society, and people’s actions in forms of “dominance, submission, resistance, conversion, or subversion” (p. 1) are all rooted in ethnicity. Apart from social, cultural, economic, and political approaches, this volume marks, probably stronger than any previous publications in the field, an ethnic approach to human history, in which all the social, cultural, economic, and political forces have worked to shape people’s ethnic identities in historical process. With such an approach, the 1600–1800 Ming and Qing societies represent some “major political breaks” (p. 7) in Chinese history, owing to the emergence of new ways of understanding how various portions of the imperial population were marked, enforced, suppressed, or invented. Accordingly, language, religion, economic activities, and family organizations are ethnic institutions. The state, communities, and individuals are no different: ethnic consciousness laid the dynamic for people to envision Self and Other as well as center and periphery. Larger issues that...