The Hmong of China: Context, Agency, and the Imaginary by Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology Nicholas Tapp

By Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology Nicholas Tapp

This ethnography of the Hmong in China relies on Nicholas Tapp's wide fieldwork in a Hmong village in Sichuan. Basing his research at the innovations of context and organization, Tapp discusses the paradoxical ambivalence on the center of Hmong tradition.

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The material improvements which have taken place are largely due to unaided Hmong efforts. An effective exclusion of the Hmong from full participation in the Thai state, particularly through the denial of citizenship and land tenure rights, has resulted in a high degree of cultural autonomy. Cultural Problems What most struck me about the Hmong in Thailand, was the extent to which the Hmong there still lived in a romantic 'world of their own'-a world seemingly far removed from the noise and turmoil of the modem towns of the Thai nation-state, and the enigmatic corruption of the Thai civil service?

As Hmong cultural traditions were constantly excused to me as a degenerate version of their pristine condition in China, so too the cultural identity of Hmong was constantly phrased in terms of contrasts of a binary kind with that of the Han Chinese (the suav). At the same time it appeared that many Hmong cultural traditions were shared with the Han Chinese, or represented versions of Han Chinese cultural forms which had been lost by the Han. China formed an originary 'context' to which Hmong cultural traditions were constantly referred, and the nostalgic longing for the authentic, uncontestable version of a Hmong cultural identity displayed not only by many Hmong cultural forms but also by Hmong individuals, CONTEXTUALISING THE HMONG 17 and often redoubled among the refugees from South East Asia now overseas, was picked up by the researcher working with them.

Specialists confidently speak of 'China' as a single entity, when they are really generalising from only a very limited experience of one part of it. More so than in many other societies, the 'conscious models' of the way things are, on which outsiders rely for their knowledge of 'things Chinese', are often designed to accomplish certain effects in the mind of the recipient rather than to truly convey the character of an event or institution, a form of conduct or particular attitude. Chinese anthropologists themselves have maintained since early in this century that it is impossible for any outsider to arrive at any real understanding of Chinese society; Leach (1982), with typical perversity, maintained that it might be even more difficult for a Chinese anthropologist to study his own society.

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