Commentary RESEARCH

History furthers regional studies in Chinese anthropology

Aria

2022-04-25 12:00

Wu Tingting
Chinese Social Sciences Today

History is not only a tool for anthropologists to interpret change-related topics, but is also conducive to overcoming narrow research vision as a result of timelessness. In China, history has helped anthropologists understand national integration in the contemporary age through diachronic analysis, leading to the bourgeoning development of historical anthropology. 

 

Regional studies tradition

Regional studies can be considered as one of anthropology’s traditions. As a discipline, regional studies originated in post-WWII America, but modern anthropology, which emerged from empirical observation of minor localities, has shared salient features with regional studies since the very beginning. From Oceania and Africa to South Asia and Southeast Asia, even to China, these non-Western regions were all studied in contrast to the West. 

 

In the 1970s and 1980s, regional studies in anthropology declined temporally, yet academia soon decided to refocus on regionalizing anthropological research once more. In the case of China, whether conducting anthropological practices in the 1930s and 1940s, studies of the Han ethnic group centering on kinship groups and folk religions after the 1950s, or research on the ethnicity of ethnic groups following the 1980s, these far-reaching academic resources can all be counted as regional studies with distinctive local characteristics. 

 

Since the 1980s, with the rise of regional history studies, the Chinese humanities and social sciences community has emphasized and elaborated upon the significance of anthropological theories and methodologies for updating historical research paradigms. In comparison, history’s value to anthropology was discussed with less frequency. 

 

Knowledge sharing between history and anthropology gradually unfolded after 1961, when British social anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard expounded on the relationship between the two disciplines as well as the importance of historical records and history to anthropology. Historical anthropology is a product of this interdisciplinary collaboration. 

 

On this basis, this article will shed light on the contributions to Chinese anthropology made by the South China School [primarily based in Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and centered on Guangdong and Fujian provinces and their surrounding areas to loosely construct the geographic concept of “south China”], as the school’s research scope extends from southeast China to the southwest part of the country.   

 

Necessity of research extension

In the early 1990s, scholars from the South China School spearheaded interdisciplinary collaboration between history and anthropology in social history studies of the Pearl River Delta. They used research methodologies from contemporary social sciences to examine the long history of interactions between the state and regional societies by zooming in on communities, which are microcosms of society, in efforts to make sense of traditional Chinese society. 

 

To this end, researchers had to enter specific historical areas to acquire concrete knowledge of the process and mechanisms for the structural development of regional societies. Historical research on social structuration, and even re-structuration, was similar to studies of integrative history, as all historical facts occurring in regional societies were regarded as results from the checks and balances between various internal and external factors. In other words, the history of regional societies is a sum of relations between different historical elements. 

 

Wen Chunlai, a professor of ancient Chinese history at Sun Yat-sen University, noted that the real difference between regional history and local history lies in whether the consciousness of problems in the history community is reflected throughout research, and whether research objects are placed into the context of grand history. That is, regional history aims beyond understanding local characteristics. Its objective is to understand the traits of all of China from local perspectives, and to understand how China was integrated effectively and for a long term with its distinctive regional differences. 

 

When it comes to the integration of traditional Chinese society, academic discussions at home and abroad adhered to the theory of top-down jiaohua, or transformation of the self and others through teaching, contending that Chinese society was united by the penetration of Confucianism, as well as state systems and codes, into primary-level societies. Jiaohua highlighted the importance of the imperial court and the gentry—agents of the court—to social integration. 

 

However, the resultant one-dimensional evolutionary history of Chinese civilization silenced local societies intentionally or unintentionally. One of the South China School’s endeavors was to rectify the paradigm of centering on a certain culture, represented by the jiaohua proposition. They refused to consider local societies passive forces which simply admired and embraced jiaohua, striving to explore the initiative of local societies in response to state expansion. To put it another way, researchers started to view social integration in regional societies from the bottom up, untangling strategic interactions between state forces and local societies when the state intervened in local networks. 

 

Based on the above analysis, research of kinship-based societies in south China reveals that clans in the region grew with the expansion of state power to local areas since the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and that these clans were the cultural products of local societies’ adaptation to historic situations in and after the dynasty. 

 

Meanwhile, the joint imposition of etiquette upon the commoners by the state and scholar-officials since the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) forced local societies to continuously reform their originally aristocratic clan system, so as to serve the needs of the upper class. 

 

Would south China’s historical experience repeat itself in other regions? Only by answering this question can regional history studies, starting from south China, expand from “narrow” interpretations of local history, and can the fundamental question of how Chinse society was integrated be explained. As such, reaching out to other regions became an inevitable choice for the South China School. Thus, the regional history of southwest China, such as in Hunan, Guizhou, and Yunnan provinces, was progressively studied. 

 

Currently, scholars of southwest China’s regional history have made great achievements. First, researchers pinpointed how crucial the operational history of systems is to understanding the orientation of societies in southwest China towards the primary level. While political, military, economic, and cultural systems enacted in southwestern areas since the Ming Dynasty exerted profound influences on local societies, the establishment and operation of systems interplayed with original social traditions in the region. Therefore, southwestern society’s integration is a history of the interactions and merging of central and local institutions, which is consistent with what’s seen in southeast China. 

 

Second, scholars elucidated the historical and cultural mentalities of local societies amid the interactions. By creating myths, blending ceremonial and sacrificial spaces, and retaining historical memories, ethnic groups in southwest China skillfully grafted their own political legitimacy onto the orthodox order of the dynasty, all while entrenching their political authority based on local traditions. 

 

Xie Xiaohui, an associate professor from the Department of History at Sun Yat-sen University, further observed that in its westward interventions, the imperial court saw that people in southwest China stuck to their heterogeneity, and willingly marginalized themselves. Moreover, the two sides leveraged the situation to maximize mutual benefits. Her explanation can help clarify not only the regional history of southwest China, but also the symbiosis of unity and diversity in the region today. 

 

Understanding national integration 

Since the Republic of China Era (1912–1949), anthropological studies of south and southwest China have achieved rich academic results. At the same time, however, studies of the two regions are separate and lack communication. This undesirable situation is related to different Western traditions of anthropological research on China, and to the development trajectory of Chinese anthropology as a discipline. 

 

Wang Mingming, a professor of anthropology at Peking University, noted that as two classical regions in anthropological research on China, southeast and southwest China have much in common intrinsically. The most notable commonality is that societies in the two regional societies have both been mixed within, and open to the outside, since antiquity. 

 

In this light, Wang believes we must avoid treating south China as a Han ethnic group society and southwest China as one of ethnic minorities, calling for efforts to study the two regions under the premise that both societies have been mixed yet open throughout history. To some degree, studies of south and southwest China are probably the best point of departure from which to understand how China was integrated, or how the nation’s unity in diversity took shape. 

 

It is in this sense that historical studies of south and southwest China are capable of supporting anthropological research on China. As regional societies have different characteristics, historical studies of south or southwest China reveal how they, in the long history of state-society interactions, passively or actively achieved social integration based on their respective local experiences. While highlighting different local features, regional history was examined within the holistic scope of Chinese history. As mentioned above, this is where regional history distinguishes itself from traditional local history. 

 

In this vein, if regional studies in Chinese anthropology aim to interpret the construction of China as a whole, then it is likewise vital to adhere to the vision of integrative history built upon a comprehensive understanding of regional characteristics. A holistic sense of history is conducive to weakening the “regional centrism” of regional studies in Chinese anthropology, thus avoiding excessive localization of such studies. 

 

Regional history studies of southwest China have shown that China’s integration involved ancient royal society, which founded regional regimes. The southwestern society is singular in that the region gradually fostered and consolidated its identification with China amid long-term political, trade, and cultural interactions with surrounding Southeast Asia and South Asia. 

 

In this regard, Ruizhi Lian, a professor of history from China’s Taiwan, has noticed how serial factors, such as growing maritime trade and the rise of silver as a currency since the mid-16th century, impacted the interactions and relationships between the Ming court and the society of southwest China. 

 

This research approach in southwest China’s regional history studies implies that if Chinese anthropology continues to start from regions to understand national integration, it is necessary to guard against simple center-periphery perspectives, or to reflect upon cross-border studies against this backdrop and analyze the complicated relational structure between regions and the external world alongside intricate internal mechanisms. Discussions on the shaping of an integrated China will be even more meaningful on this basis. 

 

Wu Tingting is from the School of History at Renmin University of China. 

 

 

 


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