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  • Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China
  • Jeff Kyong-McClain
Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China. By Thomas S. Mullaney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 256 pp. $60.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper and e-book).

In recent years, scholars of modern Chinese history have increasingly turned their attention to various facets of the question of how it was that much of the territory occupied by the multi-ethnic, Manchu-led (i.e., non-Chinese) Qing Empire was transformed into the modern Chinese nation-state. In his contribution to the discussion, Thomas Mullaney explains the ideological background and the workings of the Ethnic Classification Project (minzu shibie; ECP), a state-making and nation-building project in early 1950s People's Republic of China (PRC) that succeeded in reducing hundreds upon hundreds of disparate ethnonyms, found in late-Qing gazetteers and/or through the self-identification of putative members of the ethnic groups in an early PRC census, into just fifty-six such names (fifty-five "ethnic minorities" plus the majority Han [Chinese]). Mullaney contends that the state-sponsored, social scientific project was "an attempt to reestablish territorial integrity and to legitimate a state in which a predominantly Han Chinese regime would govern a highly diverse polity encompassing peoples of strikingly different linguistic, cultural, religious, and social backgrounds" (p. 10). Although Mullaney takes pains to point out that the project did not produce the fifty-six ethnic groups/"nationalities" (minzu) ex nihilo, still he spurns any discussion over whether or not the project's results were accurate as missing the point. Rather, Mullaney contends, the ECP is a prime example of "an unabashedly ethnogenetic taxonomic enterprise," in which the state was interested in the "plausibility of certain categorical groupings rather than their fidelity to ethnic realities," as their ultimate aim was effective governance of a multiethnic nation-state (pp. 90-91). In order to investigate this massive operation, which sent teams of party members and ethnographers to far corners of the country, Mullaney focuses his research on the ECP as it unfolded in one single province, the hothouse of ethnic diversity in China, Yunnan Province, where nearly two hundred different names were compressed into just about twenty in about a year's time. To explore the ECP, Mullaney consults a wide array of primary sources, including anthropological periodicals, census material, the recently declassified original reports from the project, and extended oral interviews with living project team members.

After an introductory chapter aptly describing the difficulties Chinese nationalists faced when trying to re-incorporate Yunnan into the [End Page 475] Chinese national body, Mullaney proceeds to uncover a little-known case of imperialist social-scientific knowledge transmission: that the Chinese Communist Party-led ECP borrowed heavily from British imperial language-based ethnography. A technique that classifies people groups by language rather than other ethnic markers, originally meant to help the British govern India, was, in the early 1950s, deployed by the Chinese state to govern Yunnan. Borrowing on nineteenth-century trends in Western social sciences, British military officer Henry Rodolph Davies, on his turn-of-the-century reconnaissance mission from India to Yunnan and in his subsequent 1909 ethnographic report on the region, was the first to group the peoples of Yunnan Province based on what he saw as common languages. Republican-era (1912-1949) Chinese anthropologists generally accepted Davies's classifications as true, with just minor qualifications, and in the post-1949 PRC world, while Davies was labeled a "capitalist" and "imperialist spy" in public, in practice, the ECP followed him even closer than had the Republican scholars (many of the scholars' careers spanned the 1949 divide, in any case). Mullaney thus shows that there was no major disruption regarding how to classify ethnic difference between the Republic and the People's Republic, and, more importantly, that key to the PRC ethnic classification was a methodology borrowed from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Western imperialism and its social science. This is a point that both Western and Chinese academics and people interested in contemporary ethnic relations would do well to ruminate on.

Chapters 3 and 4 explore in detail...


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pp. 475-478
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