- A Native Chieftaincy in Southwest China: Franchising a Tai Chieftaincy under the Tusi System of Late Imperial China
Jennifer Took has provided us with a valuable microhistory of China’s tusi offices in Guangxi Province during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1636–1912) dynasties. It is valuable not only because it focuses on a specific Tai tusi in a remote southwestern corner of Guangxi, the Anping tusi of Daxin County, but because it addresses the historical processes associated with China’s expansion southward. Took’s study is an important addition to the emerging literature on China’s southwest, both historical and anthropological, and future scholars will need to take account of Took’s work as they fill in the historical picture that is China’s southwest.
Took relies extensively on the seven-volume diaocha, or field research, conducted by Chinese scholars on the Zhuang peoples in Guangxi during the 1950s and 1960s, and published in revised form under the title Guangxi Zhuangzu shehui lishi diaocha. The field studies, as Took refers to this work, contain a wealth of detailed information on the social history and political institutions of the Zhuang peoples of Guangxi. As is the case with most field studies conducted by teams of Chinese scholars in the southwest during the 1950s and 1960s, this one focused on Zhuang political institutions, their social relations to production (class structure), [End Page 243] and Zhuang land tenure practices. Took’s study follows this general diaocha outline and deviates only at the beginning with a short discussion of the history of Chinese expansion into the southwest, and by extension the origins of tusi offices in the Ming, and at the end when she describes how the Chinese state consolidated its control over the indigenes (the Anping tusi in this case) by applying the gaitu guiliu (eliminate hereditary tusi rule with appointed civilian officials) policy during the Qing.
To Took’s credit, this is an enormously complicated undertaking, and the only real anchor she might employ to discuss her work is the diaocha; however, on far too many occasions her study reads as if it is either a polished translation of the diaocha or an uncritical reading of secondary Chinese literature on tusi offices. For example, in chapter 4 we are presented with ten pages of short biographic descriptions of the various tusi officials of Anping subprefecture from 1368 to 1906, and there is little attempt to integrate these short biographic descriptions into the overall historical narrative. The same can be said about the descriptions of the “civilizing districts” and administrative organizations of villages found in chapter 6. The information is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but the presentation of information lacked the creative investment one would hope to see in this type of study. Finally, the language Took employs to describe Chinese state–indigenous society interaction betrays an acceptance of the Chinese perspective, the imperialist perspective, found in both the field studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s and the neotraditional literature of the 1980s and 1990s.
These concerns aside, I do believe Jennifer Took has given us a valuable benchmark from which we can begin to evaluate future studies on Chinese expansion into the southwest. We now possess a microhistory of a non-Han Chinese people in Guangxi who deftly negotiated with an expanding Chinese state/society in order to survive, and one aspect of this negotiation, at least for the indigenous elite, was acceptance of the tusi office. How acceptance of a tusi office changed the internal political dynamics of indigene society remains an open question future research will certainly address. For now, though, we have at hand a detailed description of “a native chieftaincy in southwest China,” and Jennifer Took’s study will remain required reading for years to come.
John Herman is an associate professor of History and Director of VCU–China Relations at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Amid...