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Reviewed by:
  • Frontier People: Han Settlers in Minority Areas of China
  • Chia Ning (bio)
Mette Halskov Hansen. Frontier People: Han Settlers in Minority Areas of China. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005. ix, 267 pp. Hardcover $85.00, ISBN 0–7748–1178–1. Paperback (2006) $29.95, ISBN 0–7748–1179–X.

Mette Halskov Hansen’s book is a noteworthy initiation to the study of the Han migrants in China’s two important minority areas: Xiahe in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu province and Sipsong Panna in the Tai Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan province. In a field with a “striking lack of fieldwork,” Hansen’s research significantly promotes the “new histories of cultural encounters in the frontiers” (p. 9). Based on her extraordinary efforts in the intensive interviews together with her use of local reports, participants’ memoirs, the latest publications, and media resources, Hansen makes a valuable contribution to the study of the Han migration in the People’s Republic of China. The thoughtful selection of the two research sites, one in the northwest and the other in the southwest, sets up good case comparisons, which, states Hansen, “definitely shed light on the consequences of large-scale migration to other western areas within the PRC” (p. 3). In Xiahe, the Han immigrants met the predominantly nomadic Tibetan population living on grassland as well as the Hui living in towns with Han migrants. In Sipsong Panna, the Han met the agricultural Tai together with a number of ethnic groups [End Page 122] smaller population. During the reform decades of the post-Mao era, Panna has experienced a fast economic development, but Xiahe remains much behind.

By overcoming the sensitive political complications and controversies over the Han settlement in the non-Han societies, Hansen tries, as she states in chapter 1 (the introduction), to correct two trends in the study of Han people and the migration history in China. The first is that the academic works outside China usually treat the Han Chinese “as a largely homogeneous group” who “support the central government’s goal of achieving cultural and political homogeneity” (pp. 4–5). Second, recent studies of China’s minority regions almost entirely focus on the non-Han groups and “ignore Han immigrants as agents” (p. 4). From the Han settlers’ expressions and interpretations of their life experiences, Hansen elicits a convincing conclusion that only with the “abstract understanding of a ‘Han majority’” a homogenous cultural and social population body is possibly assumed (p. 241). In people’s daily lives, however, the Han migrants are always divided according to their social classes and status, differences of home places, distinct associations to state projects, and various ways they relate themselves to minority groups. Through the Han settlers’ personal histories and their own ways of telling their life experiences, Hansen successfully illustrates how the Han people have functioned as significant agents of various kinds in minority areas.

All of the book’s chapters well support the framework laid out in chapter 1 in unfolding the history of the Han migration in the two research sites in the time of the PRC. The first PRC migrants saw the descendents of the pre-1950 Han settlers as a small percentage of the local population in both Xiahe and Panna. The Han, however, outnumbered the minorities rapidly through two PRC migration stages. The first stage, during the 1950s through the 1970s, promoted Han migration through state-organized projects. The second stage, since the 1980s, on the contrary, has seen individuals voluntarily migrating. In no stage were the Han homogenous; they were divided into different groups. The elite group of cadres and educated people who came in the earlier stage understood their resettlement with a strong sense of idealistic mission in line with the government. They shared a feeling of incredible self-sacrifice for the development of the minority area or even the whole of China. Along with their arrival, majority settlers were recruited from poor Han rural areas. They came to become state farm workers in order to escape the extreme poverty in their home villages. With no or a very low level of political consciousness, they hardly related their migration to the...