- The Lahu Minority in Southwest China: A Response to Ethnic Marginalization on the Frontier by Jianxiong Ma
Migration of mountain people to urban areas in search of work is a ubiquitous, if still startling, fact of life in the remote areas of southwest China. While many of the claims of villages emptying out seem exaggerated, when I visited a rural Nuosu (Yi) community last summer, I was struck by the number of families that have sent out migrants—men, women, couples, children—especially visible where the elderly are minding grandchildren in the absence of parents. In other mountain communities, the patterns and consequences of out-migration are different. In his book about the Lahu minority in Yunnan’s Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, Jianxiong Ma, an anthropologist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, reports that many more women than men leave Lahu communities, often to [End Page 133] marry Han Chinese men. The families left behind, without the mother’s crucial labor and cropland, are economically devastated. Clearly, a wife’s departure also has an emotional impact, although this dimension of the husband-wife relationship is less directly explored by the author. Husbands often sink into profound despair and give up supporting the household. They typically return their wife’s property to her parents, sell their own portion, and then become day laborers or alcoholics or both. Children may be left to fend for themselves. Abandoned men sometimes commit suicide, although they are not the only ones. The high incidence of suicide in the particular communities studied by Ma reflects a larger confluence of historical factors over the course of the twentieth century, and even earlier, that have undermined Lahu culture and livelihood.
Conflicts with the Qing (Manchu) government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in the destruction of important Lahu religious and political institutions. The Han (Chinese) settlement in the area studied by Ma, roughly the land around the Black River valley in Lancang County, began in the 1920s with the arrival of soldier-farmers, an institution with deep roots in the frontier practices of imperial China. For the Lahu, the good news was that the arrival of the Han soldiers ended the headhunting raids of the neighboring Wa, and the introduction of opium as a cash crop provided a measure of prosperity for several decades that the Lahu still remember. However, over these same decades, certain Han migrant families transformed themselves into local hegemons, simultaneously protecting and exploiting the Lahu, the latter through relentless taxes and usurious loans. After the Communist victory in 1949 and the imposition of agricultural cooperatives in 1958, Han and Lahu alike in the Black River valley communities experienced food shortages and intermittent persecution at the hands of local government and Community Party cadres. Many from both ethnic groups fled to Burma and Thailand. As the market reforms of the 1980s took root in Lancang County, the Han, including newcomers such as shopkeepers, teachers, and cadres, resumed their hegemonic status in local government and the economy, essentially denying the Lahu access to political power and the burgeoning market.
Ma’s main argument is that the Lahu he has known have been systematically impoverished and denigrated by state policies, enacted at the local level by officials who perpetuate a virulent discourse demeaning the Lahu as hopelessly backward and unfit for the modernization programs called for by the central government. Especially in the last thirty years, local discourses, as well as resources from poverty alleviation policies that are diverted to the elites, have engendered a profound pessimism among Lahu villagers. The author, in effect, walks the reader through his argument for understanding the suicides as an indictment of state policies that have failed the Lahu, making escape from village life one way or another the logical outcome.
Although I cannot do justice to the wealth of detail and the complexity of Ma’s analysis, it is crucial to the author’s argument to...