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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Asian Ethnicities (7)—Dynamics of Ethnicity (c)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Asian Ethnicities
A year ago on Round and Square (20 July 2012)—Fieldnotes From History: Provincial Elections (p)
Two years ago on Round and Square (20 July 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: Motor Oil
[a] Gobi 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
Northern and Central Asia (a)
The three large bioenvironmental zones of central and northeastern Asia are the tundra, the taiga, and the steppe. These constitute a large portion of the region, with the mountainous areas and strings of desert-oases making up a much smaller—although culturally more important—portion of central and northeastern Asia. The region is heavily landlocked, and even the coastal regions do not have ready access to the outside world. Scarcity—of resources, opportunities, and even people—is a determinate common factor throughout the region. Peoples settling here faced great difficulties if they wished to survive, and archaeological research tells us that a number of them, beyond the more than 120 distinct ethnie surviving to this day, did not meet this challenge. They needed great inventiveness and readiness to adapt to their material circumstances. An entirely unique (one might say revolutionary) lifestyle, that of pastoral nomadism, is perhaps the best example of such widespread and historically successful innovation.
[b] Open RF

What we can learn from this is that potentially nation-creating ethnic identity in central and northeastern Asia was based less on shared language and common history (often one of the most frequently cited factors of ethnicity), and more on circumstances and things tied to basic survival. On one level, this can be narrowed down to a few items provided by nature.

For most of the inland regions, the crucial enablers in the struggle to survive were the horse and the various livestock (primarily camel and sheep) that provided livelihood for their cultivators. In the coastal or riverine areas, fish or sea mammals are similarly requisite sources of survival. In this sense, our search for primary distinction (“identity”) may justifiably lead us to refer to “fish people” along the maritime coasts, “horse people” on the vast grasslands, and “reindeer people” on the tundra. It may be tempting to say, therefore, that development of ethnic identity in Central and North-Eastern Asia was primarily based on environmental factors that determine lifestyle. After all, we know that Chinggis Khan claimed to rule not merely over the Mongols or the various Mongol ethnie, but rather “all of the people living under the felt tent.
[c] Flow RF

Nonmaterial aspects of traditional life in central and northeastern Asia exhibit similar broadly applicable elements. Nature’s power, in all of its manifestations, was ever-present and ever-felt. The incessant struggle for survival provided little opportunity for peoples of the region to indulge in contemplation about this harsh reality. Superhuman forces—wind, cold, rain, thunder, and frost—had to be feared, respected, and pacified. Their aid had to be sought and purchased for every undertaking. At the very least, every effort had to be made to avoid the supernatural “anger.” This is something that histories of more temperate climates do not usually consider—at least in their life-taking ferocity. It is one of the key differences between the worlds of central and northern Asia, on the one hand, and the more southerly climates that prevailed in much of China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and southern stretches in Korea. For guidance, one had to turn to the world beyond the living, the spirit-world. Gifted and practiced men and women, the shaman, performed the crucial tasks of guiding and mediating the communication with this other world—the world that could bring great benefits or utter disaster. Rituals and practices aimed at achieving the requisite state of ecstasy bear considerable similarity among the region’s peoples.
[d] Common RF

In looking for the roots of ethnic identity in central and northeastern Asia, we must turn to kinship, lineage, and, in the end, the notion of belonging. A common utterance that speaks to both kinship, fictive kinship, and identification with locality addresses this.

     Me against my brother; me 
     and my brother against the 
     neighbor; me and my brother 
     and our neighbor against the 
     next village; me and my brother 
     and our neighboring villages 
     against outsiders.

The daily task of survival—from landing a sea mammal to tending a large flock of sheep—called for coordinated group effort. It was natural for every member of a family to participate, but greater tasks called for larger teams. This resulted in blood ties being extended through fictive kinship networks to work-and habitat-related connections, with eventual development of shared habits, customs, and language. The formation of clans and tribes was formalized by the (self-) naming and (self-) identification of these human communities—a major cultural development that would influence the history of Asia in profound ways.
[e] Organized RF

Small groups tended to organize themselves along the lines of extended families. However, clans and tribes needed to be controlled, organized, and administered in new ways. Rulership in central and northeastern Asia tended to reflect the inhabitants’ views of transcendental authority. Although there existed a concept of a supreme divinity (e.g. the sky-god Tengri), a number of other divine forces were also recognized and celebrated. Similarly, earthly rulership often included a modicum of specialization. A military leader was tasked with bringing success in wars, while another leader was often empowered with the administration of daily life in peacetime—with perhaps another to provide spiritual guidance.

Although this particular configuration of rulership was eliminated by the power gained by monotheist Islamic rulers after the sixteenth century, it is still indicative of the multi-dimensional nature of central and northeastern Asian rule during much of the last three thousand years. It would parallel the history of Chinese civilization (which it bordered—from the central and northeastern perspective—to the east and the south) in some ways and diverge profoundly from it in others. Yet one stark reality should be noted. In the last thousand years of Chinese history, northern groups from outside of China “proper” have ruled large swaths of the Middle Kingdom for more than half of that time. In short, it is not an option to pretend that Chinese civilization can be viewed in isolation from its northern and central neighbors, no matter how often popular textbooks seem to imply that very notion.

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