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  • Lesser Dragons: Minority Peoples of China by Michael Dillon
  • Kaitlin Banfill (bio)
Michael Dillon. Lesser Dragons: Minority Peoples of China. London: Reaktion Books, 2019. 254 pp. Hardcover $40.00, ISBN 978-1-78023-911-8.

The diversity of China's 55 "official" ethnic minority groups (shaoshu minzu) has been a topic of much fascination amongst western scholars since the beginning of the reform era in 1978, when social scientists and historians could resume in-depth academic studies in the PRC. However, the social histories of the peoples classified as China's 55 ethnic minorities are by no means monolithic, nor is their relationship to the Chinese state. In Lesser Dragons, Michael Dillon demonstrates how divergent historical contexts, as well as the politics of ethnic classification in the PRC, have come to bear on contemporary ethnic minority identities and relationships with the state.

Much of this complexity is a result of the PRC's project of ethnic classification in the 1950s, during which the notion of ethnic minority groups in China was originally derived from Stalin's categories of nationalities defined in 1913 as "a historically constituted community of people, having a common territory, a common language, a common economic life and a common psychological makeup which expresses itself in a common culture" (Mullaney 2010). While some groups fit this definition, the situation is much more complicated than this, and as anthropologist Stevan Harrell (2001) explains, there are two major additional types of ethnic groups in China. The first type is "ethnic conglomerates" or combinations of a variety of ethnic groups with a large geographic and linguistic range in to one category such as Yi, Naxi, Zhuang, etc. Because of the vast diversity in Southwest China, the state was hesitant to classify each culturally distinct group as a separate ethnic group, thus leading to the practice of lumping various marginally related peoples together. The second type is, "subsumed nations" with histories of unified independent governance, such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians who often have had a troubled relationship with the Chinese state, which continues to treat them as "minorities" despite their histories of self-rule. As Dillon's [End Page 293] book shows, these various sociopolitical contexts have shaped the ways in which different groups interact with the state.

This book is structured into an introduction, twelve chapters, and a conclusion. In the introduction, Dillon describes the Han, the majority ethnic group in the PRC, as "greater dragons," while minorities are "lesser dragons." He begins with debunking the myth that China is a homogenous nation with unchanging borders throughout history. Yet he is clear to point out the political and nationalist attachment towards an unbroken China is part of the motivation to subsume ethnic borderlands such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia.

Chapter 1 provides further background on ethnic classification in the early years of the Chinese republic and the PRC. Dillon points out that ideas of ethnicity are directly linked to racial discourse in the early twentieth century, during which anti-Manchurian sentiment solidified the idea of the Han as a distinct group with common customs and hereditary, effectively otherizing ethnic difference. The PRC has largely continued to uphold this attitude towards ethnic difference, fluctuating between periods of moderate acceptance and harsh intolerance. While the early 1950s saw a flourishing of ethnic language standardization and cultural programs, including the founding of Nationalities Universities, the political turmoil of the 1960s–70s forced conformity to Han norms. The post-1978 reform era resumed emphasis of ethnic unity (minzu tuanjie) and multiculturalism as well as nationalities work (minzu gongzuo) programs designed to benefit minorities such as fiscal subsidies and educational policies. However, as Dillon explains, the goal of ethnic unity often becomes less important during incidents of unrest. Throughout the remainder of the book, Dillon demonstrates these complex state society interactions in the context of various ethnic groups.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Dillon begins his series of case studies on ethnicity in China. Chapter 2 focuses on the case study of multicultural Beijing, showing that multiculturalism is in fact at the heart of the nation's capital. Lama temple, with multilayered Manchu, Mongolia, and Tibetan influences, highlights a tradition of pluralism...


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