Issue 13.2, May 1998

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Essay Excerpt

If nationalism entails the imagining of a collective historical subject (Anderson 1991;Duara 1994), then post-Mao China has been a conflicted subject,1 where public and private debates have raged over the meanings of the nation. Recent work on post-Mao nationalist discourse has underscored the conflicted nature of this national subject, focusing in particular on the relationship of urban intellectuals (zhishifenzi) to the Chinese state. Wang Jing, for example, has written of the 1980s in China as a period of utopian vision and emergent crises, in which the urban cultural elite (typically associated with the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, various research centers and think tanks, and college campuses and semiofficial journals) maintained a contradictory relationship with Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and with the notion of Chinese socialism as an alternative to Western liberalism (Wang Jing 1996:2-3; see also Bodman and Wan 1991;Chicago Cultural Studies Group 1992;Nonini 1991; Zhang Xudong 1994). Others have pointed to how the reform-era intellectual elite has "pitted itself, a reconstructed, colonized subject, against a despised Communist Party system" (Barlow 1991:218). The Cultural Revolution is afforded a privileged position in much of this scholarship,2 portrayed as a misguided political experiment or as a ghostly other haunting the nation with memories of violence, prison, and blood (see, for example,Watson 1994a). And who can forget the tragic events on Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989? Scholars are only now beginning to assess the historical significance of Tiananmen and the "deep cultural crisis" that has ensued with the post-Tiananmen expansion of a consumer society and the diminished position and influence of the intellectual among the populace (Lu 1996:140). In short, with these "traumas of modernity," as Rey Chow has termed them, it is no longer clear who speaks for the Chinese nation and how intellectuals are to reproduce a national culture now seen as irrevocably in ruins (1991:191).3

This article shifts the focus of many of these discussions away from the predicaments of Han Chinese intellectuals toward the work of the ethnic-minority elite. These elite have been actively involved in the debates on the meaning of the Chinese nation in the aftermath of Mao Zedong's political visions, campaigns, and catastrophes. How, given the complex history of China's socialist experiment, was the post-Mao nation to be imagined? This article argues that questions of minority empowerment and national belonging have been central to minority discourse in post-Mao China (for examples in other contexts, see Radhakrishnan 1996 and Rosaldo 1989a). I will be focusing on practices of cultural representation among members of the Yao nationality in the late 1980s and early 1990s.4 Many of the Yao I came to know in the course of my fieldwork (Yao scholars,5 Communist Party officials, and religious specialists) were recruited in their home villages in the 1950s and subsequently brought to Beijing to be trained as ethnologists, historians, or linguists. With hopes of gaining membership in the Communist Party and one day returning to their villages as agents of the revolutionary state, they immersed themselves in the study of Marxist-Leninist theory and Mao Zedong thought. During the Maoist "rustication"campaigns in the early 1960s, many became "sent-down youth" and ended up living for a decade or more in villages throughout the country.6 Some spoke to me of their enthusiastic participation in these political campaigns, while others would invoke images of a ruthless state system that repeatedly misrepresented and misunderstood local realities. Almost every Yao intellectual I encountered lamented the loss of academic positions and years of wasted research in the 1960s and 1970s, though many also relished the knowledge they had acquired living in and traveling to different parts of the country.Over the course of three or four decades, then, these Yao elite experienced different degrees of physical displacement within China, and they developed complex identifications with different political visions and ethnic communities. 

The late 1970s brought another shift in their careers as political activists and scholars, as the official rehabilitation of ethnology (labeled a "capitalist class discipline" during the Cultural Revolution) and other social sciences enabled them to once again teach their academic specialties. The late 1970s and early 1980s were mostly years of political caution, however, as many felt that ethnic-minority research would not survive the political thawing occurring within other social science disciplines such as sociology and history.7 Real change occurred only in the mid-1980s. Guided by Deng Xiaoping's call to "seek truth from facts,"Yao scholars were encouraged by their research institutions to return to the countryside and carry out research into the correct relationship between "traditional culture" and "socialist modernization."8 These research projects were sometimes organized in conjunction with foreign anthropologists, who often arrived on the scene with fat research grants and promises of an exchange visit to an American or European university. While many Yao scholars were understandably attracted to these new transnational affiliations, they also emphasized the necessity to rectify the interpretive mistakes of the Maoist radicals. As I traveled around China with some of these scholars, and as I subsequently sat down to read through the many published and unpublished texts on Yao culture and history produced in the 1980s, it became clear to me that the reforms were providing these scholars with new institutional and cultural spaces to reclaim Yao culture, to wrestle it back from its previous symbolic impoverishment as nothing more than a signifier of "backwardness" (luohou) and"feudal superstition"(fengjianmixin).9 How was Yao culture being recovered from its marginalization under the political practices of previous regimes? What was restored in these practices of ethnic recovery? What was elided? And what does this tell us about the making (or perhaps unmaking) of a multiethnic and culturally plural Chinese nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s?? 10 

Litzinger, Ralph A. Memory Work: Reconstituting the Ethnic in Post-Mao China. Cultural Anthropology Vol. 13 no. 2 (1998): 224-255