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  • Amid the Clouds and Mist: China's Colonization of Guizhou, 1200-1700
  • Kevin Caffrey (bio)
John E. Herman . Amid the Clouds and Mist: China's Colonization of Guizhou, 1200-1700. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. xiii, 344 pp. Hardcover $49.50, ISBN 0-674-02591-1.

At the risk of invoking a well-known Chinese curse/blessing, scholars of Chinese frontier regions are living in interesting times.1 The scholarly understanding of and attention to the interface between China and its neighbors throughout history are growing rapidly; it is a good time to be a scholar of the Chinese frontier. John E. Herman's recent Amid the Clouds and Mist: China's Colonization of Guizhou, 1200-1700 has fueled this dynamism, and the book deserves praise. By narrating the incorporation of Guizhou province in southwest China as a relentless series of violent conflicts, he has been part of the turning of a conceptual "pivot" in the historiographic scholarship of the southern and southwestern frontier. This is not to say that he has accomplished this paradigm shift in a vacuum. Perdue (2005), Millward (2007), and others have been managing something similar in their scholarship on the northern and western frontiers; as have Cohen (1984) and his descendants in general Chinese history. Several more ethnographically "near" colleagues (Hostetler [2001], Atwill [1999], Harrell [1995], and Giersch [2006], et. al.) have also been part of this conceptual shift for southwestern China, in which a new image of agency and history on the Chinese frontiers has for a decade or so been emerging out of the mist of received wisdom.

Herman's is a story of imperial forward deployment and colonial mechanics that gives a detailed picture of how present-day Guizhou province and its Nasu Yi polity came under China's control. The author rigorously challenges the idea, previously argued in Harold Wiens's China's March to the Tropics (1954), that the indigenous peoples of the southwest were straightforwardly overwhelmed by the advanced technology and Confucian civilization that land-hungry central Chinese immigrants brought with them as they moved into the area. Relying on Chinese documents and Nasu Yi sources recently made available, Herman makes two arguments. First, he demonstrates that the incorporation of Guizhou into the imperial Chinese polity was an inescapably violent process with the Yuan, Ming, and Qing states playing major roles in conquering and annexing that territory. Second, he shows that, far from being overawed by the sheer majesty of Chinese civilization, the Nasu Yi had effective technologies and a textual civilization of their own that were never overwhelmed by their northern neighbor.

This book will appeal to readers with an interest in the history and ethnography of southwestern China, those with a more general interest in the late imperial period, and those who are interested in comparative frontiers and cultural interfaces. Grounded in Chinese-language sources, this is also a rare historiographic [End Page 190] work in English that uses source materials in the Nasu Yi language of Guizhou. Except for the Tai of southeastern Yunnan, Yi were the only non-Chinese residents of southwestern China to leave extensive written records. Like Giersch (2006), Herman uses indigenous sources to provide an alternative history to the state-centered perspective of imperial authorities and sinocentric views of Han literati. This work amounts to something of an upgrade and detailing of the local wild histories in the region, and it is exactly this wildness that makes the work a contribution. Most generally, the book centers on two connected historical narratives. One focuses on the late imperial state and its role in the conquest and colonization of southwestern China (Guizhou, Yunnan, and southern Sichuan). The other outlines the development of the Nasu Yi Mu'ege Kingdom (300-1283), in what is now northwestern Guizhou, and illuminates the Yi response to almost five centuries of sustained efforts to colonize their homeland.

The chapters are presented more or less chronologically and incorporate both state-centered and indigenous perspectives, though the dominant viewpoint is that of the state. The first chapter covers the origins of the Mu'ege kingdom and documents how its Yi rulers came to control much of present-day...


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