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The Ethnography of China

The Ethnography of China

Martin Lavicka28 Nov 2014Leave a comment


Written by Dušan Lužný

Šíndelář Pavel, Etnografie Číny. Brno: Masaryk University, 2014. (open access download)

This work represents a study text, the aim of which is to provide a further understanding of China and its people, or rather an understanding of the diversity of the groups that make up the ethnic and cultural mosaic of the Chinese population. Chinese society is a vastly varied one, be it geographically, naturally, anthropologically, ideationally, culturally and historically, religiously, class-wise, linguistically, gastronomically and so forth. One of the main features of said diversity is its ethnic plasticity, even though the laws of the current People´s Republic of China (PRC) recognize only fifty-six different nationalities within the country. There exists a rather large number of communities that feel themselves to be ethnically different, and would like to make use of the opportunities that come with the recognition of ethnic singularity. The state of China, however, tends to overlook this particular issue. Some ethnic groups, therefore, remain unrecognized, or rather unacknowledged, and are included in other, broader ethnic groups, in this manner losing their particularity.

This monograph is designed for students and Chinese studies enthusiasts. It provides a useful point of view on the issue of Chinese society for those who are interested in it, yet have the background of different fields of social sciences. It may be used as a study resource in the fields of ethnology, social and cultural anthropology, and also in geography, demography or politology.

The main core of this monograph consists of an overview of the fifty-six ethnic groups that are officially approved by the state. The author of this work himself admits that the classification that he uses is the same system – and a very problematic one at that – which is used by many Chinese scientists, as well as by the state administration of the PRC (this classification is the basis of the Chinese ethnic policy). Every classification system usually simplifies and structures reality in a certain manner. And if a certain classification system is combined with political power (i.e. if the political power adopts the classification and utilizes it in practice), then this classification becomes a tool for political manipulation and state repression. What usually follows is a status quo, which is felt by many ethnic groups to be degrading and unjust, particularly so if these groups are overlooked. On the other hand, different ethnic groups (minorities) are quite happy with such a classification, being able to use it in their favour and reap the various advantages that stem from it, such as a more liberal population policy, educational quota, social system quota and many others.

A classification system as a tool for the structuring (as well as construction) of reality is not the only problematic issue here. The very concept of ethnicity is debatable as well. The author of this monograph points this fact out and discusses it in several parts of the book. A good example is the Luobas (Luòbā zú), who represent the least numerous ethnic group (officially acknowledged) within the PRC, and yet are an artificially formed group – the individual members do not see themselves as belonging to a unified ethnic group, and also talk in several different languages. Another example is represented, on the other side of the spectrum, by the Han (Hàn zú), who make up 92% of the total population of the PRC (rising up to 98% of the population on Taiwan). This group is also a social (historical, political, ideational) construct that is, nevertheless, so successful that it is perceived by many members of the Han group as an unquestionable basis for their individual as well as collective identity. Were we to examine the everyday manners, customs and traditions of this group, a group that has approximately 1.3 billion members, we would perceive a vast diversity that casts significant doubts as to its supposed monolithic character and integrity.

Pavel Šindelář (as well as his text) points out the fact that seemingly unbiased and objective scientific concepts, and also classification systems (typologies) that stem from them, can transform easily – from tools that help to understand reality and analyse the lives of people into tools that enforce political interests, tools that control, restrict and repress. To quote the author: “…it is an issue that is topical particularly in the Chinese political environment – a substantial portion of the legitimacy of power and government stands upon the foundations of an ideology built around an ethnicity classification system”.

Within the contexts of Czech ethnology and Chinese studies, this monograph is one of the very first studies that deal with ethnicity, a feat that has to be acknowledged. And yet one feels that this particular work could greatly benefit from the utilization of a larger portion of analytical sections.

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