The Lahu Minority in Southwest China A Response to Ethnic Marginalization on the Frontier


As an ethnographic investigation, this book is based on long-term anthropological field work in the Black River valley since 1995. After some concise explanations, in the introduction, about the historical construction of the Southwest frontier in China in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), in chapter two the author explores the social changes in the Black River valley society since the 1920s. Some elements, including the geographic, demographic and historical conditions, should be considered as the set the social and ecological conditions of the Lahu here. After the Lahu political system, which was based on religious movement, was destroyed by the late Qing and the early Republic governments, the coming of the Han businessmen in the valley formatted the local ethnic relations between the Han settlers and the Lahu indigenous. These relations are based on the different economic and cultural strategies of local communities.

Chapter three describes the supernatural world of the Ban villagers, which linked everyday life with the religious belief and values of gender ideal. This structure sets the family, kinship, communal and ethnic relationships dynamically into a cultural framework, hence social conflicts and psychological pressures about family relationships and identities develop in this cultural environmental sphere, as well as a system of symbolic interpretation. Based on my understanding of their belief system, in chapter four the author explains the relationship between the two worlds in their belief system. The kinship system is based on the parallel importance of a married couple’s relatives, which sets the social organization mechanism of labor sharing and ritual participants, as well as communal egalitarianism. Due to gender equality ideals, all couples are equal to each other in communal affairs, so the egalitarian kinship system should rely on a religious authority for communal organization and political mobilization. In this case, a social system based on bilateral and non-hierarchical kinship established its authority through religious movements in history, but the collapse of authority also created a problem regarding communal authority over the equal couples, especially when the traditional elections for village heads were abolished.

In chapter five, the author discusses the one-way marriage migration between Lahu and nearby minority communities and rural areas in Henan, Shandong and other provinces which has rapidly developed since the 1980s. This marriage migration enhanced the discourse about the Lahu and the Han as two categories in the local power structure, which has created an atmosphere for Lahu women of “leaving is better”. In some cases, the relationship between husbands and wives are seriously bound with their shares of farming land in the marriage. Cultural interpretation about gender, between the Han Chinese and the Lahu, sets another condition for the middlepersons network, but the administrative institutions become barriers in the shaping of channels for the resettlement of women. In this way, ‘escape from a Lahu identity’ developed under the name of modernization and the discourses of the advanced Han and the backward Lahu.

Chapter six focuses on issues about the policy of poverty reduction and education. They are two separate shaping powers in villagers’ daily life. ‘Poverty reduction’ has been the main task of local county and township governments, and the revenue of local governments could only cover a small portion of their expense. Therefore, various kinds of poverty-reduction funding from higher level governments have become the fundamental resource to maintain the whole administrative system. Also, local residents are required to match this project in labor and/or resources. In this way, villagers are forced to cooperate with the cadres or teachers in both poverty reduction projects and education, and to perform for endless inspections. These everyday practices become a performance or demonstration of the dualism ethnicity between the advance Han and the backward and ignorance Lahu. The unusually high rate of suicide of the Lahu in the Black River valley and nearby areas is a most important social consequence of ethnic marginalization; it is a part of the cultural response toward and unusual threat. In chapter seven, the author explores the fact that the Lahu system is based on a social structure of couple equality and equal property rights between men and women. But some economic problems, indirectly caused by the poverty reduction projects and the runaway women of the community, highlight the penetration of state power and the corruption of the grass-root governing bodies. After 2005, more than 10 cases of suicide occurred in Ban village in the following years. Some cases related to pressure or living difficulties, but the collapse of family life set the condition of a collective illusion of another world and the society began to accept suicide as a way of escape. Collective imagination about the world of the dead spread with the contagion of alcoholism, women’s resettlement and suicide. It has become a cultural response and social mechanism to ethnic marginalization.

In general, social changes in the last several decades have seriously reshaped frontier society. The hierarchy between the Lahu and the Han settlers has been constructed through history. The internal social tensions and pressures of Lahu communities gradually developed and religious belief provided an interpretation framework for the social tension among Lahu villagers, and for the anxiety and pressure that was linked with the Han Other and the state. Meanwhile, family and kinship are interpreted with cropland property rights, descent, and religious beliefs about two worlds. But since the 1950s, communal authority has collapsed and been replaced by the state appointed cadres. Under the environment of the marriage squeeze, cultural encounters between the Lahu and the Han have provided a channel for Lahu women to be resettled in other provinces, to become wives of the Han. This resettlement could be understood as a response to their identity burden, but is practiced only by the native Lahu women. However, local officials and teachers serve as local agents of state power to push Lahu villagers to participate in the endless projects to confirm a self-denial image of a backward, poor, and ignorant Lahu. Under the stress of being Lahu, some people want to resettle themselves away from the world of living and into the world of the dead, through committing suicide. The type of response the Lahu makes, in the frontier situation, to ethnic marginalization could be understood as a response to their lack of representatives in the ethnic politics of China, or in other words, the native Han people have replaced or hijacked the political opportunities and economic resources of the Lahu people and the administrative hierarchy of local affairs is being run by a group of educated Han elite.

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