From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Asian Ethnicities (5)—Dynamics of Ethnicity (a)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Asian Ethnicities 
A year ago on Round and Square (18 July 2012)—Fieldnotes From History: Provincial Elections (n) 
Two years ago on Round and Square (18 July 2011)—Le Tour de la France: Reaching France
[a] Interacting 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
Multi-Layered Culture 
Imagine a little doll, six inches high and clad in spectacular ornaments, with bright-colored clothing and highly gendered—in almost all cases female—rendering. Next to it stands another small figure, the same height and arrayed in different ornaments and colors. Still female. As your gaze widens, you see more and more dolls, more and more ornaments, and many more colors. You have to take a step back until you can grasp the full range of fifty-six little figurines, each representing a distinctive—yet powerfully linked—place in a complex social world. The close-up will tell you the story of each doll. Only the step-back perspective will tell you how they happen to fit together.
[b] Steppe RF

This is not fiction. The dolls are part of an elaborate construction of ethnicity that is known as the fifty-six ethnic groups of the People’s Republic of China.

They are just a small glimpse into ways that the ethnicity “plays out” in the today’s Asian world, with ethnic groups adjoining and sometimes overlaying one another in what we might think of as a truly cavernous room—like a large reception hall in a government building. The ethnic groups are big, diverse, and truly different. The reception hall contains all of them under its roof. This is the image conveyed if you buy a set of the fifty-six figurines, walk to the fifth floor of the Shanghai Municipal Museum, or watch the annual New Year’s Eve gala produced by CCTV, which has almost half a billion viewers for every late-January or early-February show. The groups—each in dynamic movements and splendid dress—swirl and twirl through almost half of the four-hour television production. You might even remember the Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremonies in 2008. Again, the fifty-six ethnic groups had a prominent place, and far beyond the ten percent of the population that fifty-five of them occupy.
[c] Uzbek RF

And it is fifty-six—not sixty (as the cosmologists might prefer) or seventy. There are fifty-six ethnic groups in today’s People’s Republic of China. These classifications have become a standard that has dominated the discussion of ethnicity in China—and, in profound ways throughout the rest of East Asia—for the last sixty years. Fifty-six discrete ethnic units, like rugs in a vast, open hall.

Think about that. This image of rugs in a great hall works well to clarify our mental picture of the dolls. Asian ethnic groups have all sorts of things that hold them together as independent, self-defined entities—like the swirling, one-of-a-kind designs on a Central Asian rug. First, imagine over a hundred rugs spread neatly through the vast space. Got it? Now, imagine further a rousing event in the big hall. People come and go, assortments shuffle and shift, and great movements shake things up (dancing, festivities, and a few fistfights). At the end of the evening, the rugs have moved, overlapped, folded, and changed their appearances.
[d] Samarkand RF

Now imagine twenty or more centuries of those events in that very same hall.
The rugs don’t look quite so neatly organized anymore, and all sorts of changes have taken place that will alter their configurations. Even the rugs themselves have been “replaced”—updated to fit whatever customs or particular needs of the present are in place. No matter how often the custodians rearrange the rugs, they keep moving, shifting, changing place, running up against other rugs.

Ethnicity is a lot like that.
***  ***
This book presents you with well-researched portraits of each of 150 ethnic groups in Asia. It is a great tribute to the authors that each entry reads with an accuracy and scholarly care that allows readers to grasp both key points about each group and a sense of their history, changing cultures, and social lives. One of the great advantages of encyclopedic works like this one is the manner in which readers can focus on individual elements—like the rugs in our imaginary hall or the individual figurines in the Chinese ethnic doll set—and get a sense of their weave, texture, thickness, color, and shape. Without this, we would only have generalities. This book will give you the specifics, and give you ways of thinking about particular ethnic groups in Asia and the dynamics of their interactions.
[e] Hong Kong RF

This last idea also conveys a hidden challenge. Encyclopedic works also contain within their structures a small disadvantage, because individual entries cannot, in themselves, show the dynamics of large-scale movements, patterned change, and historical upheaval. It cannot, in short, tell how the rugs came to be all heaped into piles upon the floor—in the manner of, say, 3,000 years of intermarriage, movement, travel along all directions of the Silk Road, and seafaring will do.

The individual entries masterfully tell bits of that story from the perspective of each group. That is their job. It is the purpose of this introduction to make explicit some of the larger matters that are difficult to see through the lens of individual ethnic group entries. If the title of this volume is Ethnic Groups of North, Central, and East Asia, let’s think of this introduction as “Ethnicity in North, Central, and East Asia”…or even “Asian Ethnicities.” It is as though we are supplementing the high-powered microscope used to create the individual entries and adding to our research a wide-angle lens camera. This well help readers see how entries as disparate as “Tajik” and “Ainu” can be discussed in a wider framework, and how ethnicity has come to play a powerful role in not only contemporary nationalism throughout Asia, but in a burgeoning tourism industry as well. 

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
[f] Mongolian morning RF


  1. Nice to see this series again - I will totally buy this book when it's out

  2. Thanks, Jack. As it turns out, we're only writing the introduction. We are going to combine on another joint project down the line, though!