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Friday, July 19, 2013

Asian Ethnicities (6)—Dynamics of Ethnicity (b)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Asian Ethnicities
A year ago on Round and Square (19 July 2012)—Fieldnotes From History: Provincial Elections (o)
Two years ago on Round and Square (19 July 2011)—Middles: Utopia
[a] Serpentine water creature RF
In the next dozen entries, I will be posting an initial draft of a book introduction on Asian ethnic groups. It is meant for the blog, and does not represent anything like what will eventually be published. I do so especially because this represents a compilation of my thoughts after a full year of intensive teaching and research on Asian ethnicity. The introduction to this series shows some of my thoughts from last year—before I taught my advanced seminar by the same title as this series. This is something of a culmination of the process, even though I will be now moving in many new directions in the teaching and study of Asian ethnic groups.
Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
Defining Terms
Asian Ethnic Groups
Let us begin with three key words from our title—Asian, Ethnic, and Group. The basic terms are surprisingly challenging, and even the modifiers (North, Central, and East) are more complicated than they might seem at first glance. Let’s spend a little bit of time unpacking them and see how they might fit together to make reading of the individual entries both more accessible and more useful. “Asian Ethnic Groups” is a powerful combination of words, and they will sustain us through all of the discussions in this book.
[b] Intersected RF

First, what do we mean by “Asia?” Europe and Asia blend together in complex ways, and the history of each has intersected at several points over the past three thousand years. “Asia” is a considerable landmass, and has no obvious borders. It is not like Africa, North America, or South America that way. In our cartographic experiences from school we can “picture” those, even if we must add on the linkages and appendages (such as Madagascar or the Falkland Islands) that complicate our mental sketches.

As any thirteenth century Mongol schoolchild could tell us, Asia blends fairly seamlessly into Europe, and at least one conquering force—those very same Mongols—negotiated the land far better than they did when trying to put out to sea. While it is easy enough to picture “East Asia” and “Western Europe,” there is a great deal of blending in-between, and the histories of empires, nation-states, and ethnic groups in what is sometimes called “Eastern Europe” and “Western Asia” (or even the Near East, in an earlier idiom) are uncertain.
[c] Complicated RF

That very uncertainty is what makes the topic both perplexing and fascinating. Asia, in short, is a large span of landmass; “Eurasia” is even bigger, and much more confusing (even the word—a portmanteau—speaks to uncertainty). The beauty of this volume is that it does not try to cut things too finely into pieces. To be manageable, of course, each encyclopedia in the series has had to define a part of the world. These are large, and span many historical and cultural patterns, however. This volume, covering north, central, and eastern Asia, has the enormous advantage of bringing central and northern Asia fully into a picture that has been dominated too much by the powerful (and often overpowering) cultural influence of Chinese civilization. By widening the picture—and even going beyond the fifty-six ethnic groups officially recognized by the People’s Republic of China—this volume “complicates” the picture of Asian ethnicity in a way that will help every reader understand it more deeply.

The term “Asia” seems complicated, but “ethnic” is even more so. The greatest challenge in studying ethnicity lies in the very orientation of this volume. It is impossible to understand the units that make it up without careful study of individual groups. We cannot study “themes” and adequately understand what makes the groups sense their togetherness, their history, and the possibility of a shared future. On the other hand, no understanding of individual groups can provide us with the larger questions that make up this introduction.
What we have all over the world, really, is bundles of overlapping ethnicities. I first confronted this problem in naming my own college course on the subject. Although it was tempting to use the title “Asian Ethnicity,” I was troubled by how unproblematic the phrase seemed. It sounded just a little too neat, well defined, and even “objective.” I knew well that the study of ethnicity is messy (like the mangled rugs in our example, above). Yes, it is an endlessly fascinating “messiness,” but it is patched and prodded in ways that a “clean” term like “Asian Ethnicity” can never convey. It makes it sound as though ethnicity is a thing—one thing.

Instead, I chose “Asian Ethnicities” for the course title. It acknowledges that there is more to our studies than analyzing the functioning of individual engine parts—smooth, separable systems working together in a powerful machine. This latter image is precisely what the People’s Republic of China is trying to convey in its own presentation of ethnicity, and it is a powerful message (and by no means “untrue”). The problem is that ethnicity only seems to be clear and separable. To the extent that we perpetuate the “parts of the whole” rhetoric, we fail to underline just how much merging and assimilating and, frankly, fighting has gone into every aspect of ethnic discussion in Asia—and beyond.
This leads to our next problematic definition, “group."

Let’s use a quick example. Even delineating an ethnic group in a few short lines can be highly problematic. The following line is paraphrased from a widely circulated Chinese tourism text. Just the single sentence below presents several challenges.

     …the Bai people live near Lake Er in Yunnan 
     Province, wear colorful clothing, and make 
     toys of bamboo…”

Although it may seem innocuous, it is actually quite ideological and pointed. While none of the information is wrong, it creates a picture that “essentializes” (carves into an “essence”) the Bai people. It just sounds more “objective” than it is, and creates a picture of Bai people as “like” these characterizations. Part of the problem with the sentence is the combination of “happy” images that seem to convey a life different from the toil and tussle in busy, haggling, urban centers. That is a side of it, but I take a more sympathetic tone. This happens in almost every characterization we can make when describing “groups.” Even in the best writing about individual ethnic groupings, it is hard to convey dynamism and change, so we are left with the implication that such groups are “like” this or “like” that. Yet if we study the dynamism and change, we often learn only fragments of information about the groups themselves. We learn what makes them interact, but not as much about what makes them cohere.
There is no solution to this problem other than to turn one’s gaze “smaller” and “larger” in sequence—to remember large themes that link the histories of groups, and to study the particulars of individual groups (and individuals within them) as well. In short, the very idea of “ethnic groupings” creates a profoundly mixed-up jumble of “subjectivities” that are not told well if they seem too clear and clean—like the minority group dolls in native dress that can be purchased in department stores all over China.

I want to think of this introduction and this volume as a variation on those paper dolls, in which the very same clearly articulated and perfectly dressed figures start blending together, fighting, resolving disputes, coming to power, losing, and intermarrying…over three thousand years of history. Imagine the ethnic dolls with children and grandchildren of their own, living in cities of many millions, trying to get top-rate educations, worrying about global market forces, and concerned about health care in their old age. Now imagine many generations of intermarrying, moving, worrying, and change. That is Asia today. Ethnicity—it is supposed to be complicated, and the best way to read this volume is to move back-and-forth between the entries themselves, this introduction, and then other entries that complicate and “further” our picture of Asian ethnic groups.

Let’s turn now to some of the themes and patterns that link large swaths of Asia throughout its history, and especially in the dynamics of the present day. Northern and Central Asia are related in challenging ways to a resurgent China and the rest of the East Asian world.

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
[g] Patterns RF

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