- Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China
The first thorough study of the classification of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) minority nationalities (minzu), Mullaney’s extraordinary reconstruction of the PRC ethnic recognition process of the 1950s significantly deciphers why and how the current fifty-five minority nationalities were identified, and by whom and by what the identification of them was determined. Selecting the 1954 recognition project of Yunnan — “the single most complex piece within China’s ethnonational puzzle” (p. 9) — to scrutinize the nationwide classification that resulted in categorizing fifty-five minority nationalities, Mullaney discloses one of the most crucial early PRC state projects: the state efforts to learn about its own population and then to classify it, based on the studies of history, ethnology, and linguistics. In the case of Yunnan, twenty-five nationalities were identified among more than 200 names of people (p. 3).
Mullaney’s comprehensive analysis is broadly based on China’s long history of borderland settlements, its twentieth-century nationalist impulse, cultural guidelines for the identification criteria, participating researchers’ fieldwork methods, and government-academic communications — all have been summarized in his introduction. His conscientious research relies on the firsthand information of five unique sources, which were rarely, if at all, used before him. These are the 1953–1954 population census; hand-written project reports, written by primary project researchers (the Chinese ethnologists and linguists); scholar-by-scholar and article-by-article research; Henry Rodolph Davies’s 1909 ethnological writings, which the Chinese followed as a model; and the face-to-face interviews of the five researchers of the Yunnan classification team. In his review of the century-long Chinese endeavor from both social scientists and government to categorize China’s diverse population, stages of the twentieth century — namely the last years of the Qing, the Republican, and Guomindang periods, and the PRC from its first decade to post-Mao era — are connected to give the ethnic recognition of the 1950s a broad historical context.
Chapter 1 examined the ethnic crisis in each stage of the twentieth century and addressed the critical issue of why the policies toward national minorities could help the Communist Party move “from a revolutionary force to the legitimate government” (p. 18). The complicated process of categorizing people was discussed with details of people’s self-category versus the category given to them, and China’s ethnic plurality versus its political unity.
Following his statement in the introduction that the Chinese ethnologists and linguists, rather than the party and government, “designed the blueprints of ethnic diversity in Yunnan” (p. 11), chapter 2 pays close attention to the “PRC state’s social scientific advisors” (p. 65) and their involvement in the recognition project. This [End Page 225] differentiates his study from the dominant viewpoint in previous studies that has treated the PRC ethnic classification as a completely political move of the Chinese Communist Party and does not explain why and how the party could make the 1950s’ ethnotaxonomy.
Tracing the Guomindang approach to the nationality question and the pre-PRC communication between academics and state, chapter 3 demonstrates the change from the Nationalist singular “Zhonghua minzu” to the Communist “multi-minzu China” (p. 80). It discusses the PRC scholars’ rejection of Stalin’s definition of nationalities and their creation of the ethnic categories based on a concept of ethnic potential, which played a central role in the classification project of the 1950s.
Chapter 4 discusses the fieldwork methods of the Yunnan team, which heavily followed the Mao model of investigation meetings in Yan’an. It addresses the problems that the classification team faced. Complications could come from the reality that after a people self-identified themselves as a minority group, that self-identity was examined by both the academic scholars and the state officials for a determination. Because of state intervention into the academic researchers’ taxonomic recommendations, the eventual classification, Mullaney states, was “the marriage between social scientific and state socialist...