Song & Silence: Ethnic Revival on China's Southwest Borders
Sara L.M. Davis discusses her new book.
On February 10, 2006, in a talk sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the Center for Chinese Studies, and the Department of Anthropology, Sara L. M. Davis spoke about her book Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China’s Southwest Borders (Columbia University Press, 2005), which analyzes how the Chinese state has actively built a ethnic identity for the Tai Lüe (or Dai) people of southwest China, but also how, in a nonconfrontational way, the Tai Lüe have resisted the cultural status assigned to them by the majority Han population and the state.
The Setting: Sipsonpanna (Xishuangbanna)
The southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, in which most Tai live and where Dr. Davis did most of her fieldwork, is a remarkably diverse place. In topography, it ranges from towering mountains in the west (the highest peak is over 21,000 feet), to lowland valleys in the south and east. In climate, it encompasses everything from alpine (with vast glaciers) to steamy tropical. And in population, it is also diverse: the province is home to twenty-six officially recognized ethnic groups, by the far the largest number of any province of China.
The efflorescence of Tai culture is not limited to reviving tradition. The Tai people are also "intent on creating a modern Tai culture." Thus, once finds for instance, Tai monks who write pop songs in Tai, a remarkable development since in the PRC before the 1990s "all pop culture was Han Chinese pop culture." The very composition and distribution of these songs -- via cassette tapes in the 1990s -- is in a way political and subversive: it shows the Tai are a modern, not primitive, people. Furthermore, the lyrics of some of them, especially those performed by Sai Mao ("the Mike Jagger of the Shan State [in Burma]"), celebrate pan-Tai pride and can be overtly political.
The Limits of Ethnic Independence
Why is that the Chinese state brutally cracks down on Uyghur and Tibetan ethnic activists, but is relatively tolerant of Tai Lües? Dr. Davis attributes this to two main factors. First, the Tai are "skilled at not challenging the state." They "learned to present themselves in ways that the Chinese officials would find appealing and acceptable. . . . This has been reinforced and capitalized through the economic development of tourism, which has created ethnic theme parks, dance halls, and hotels, patronized by Chinese tourists. Thus tourism has also help to incorporate Yunnan more fully into the Chinese nation."
Second, the Tai Lüe "have avoided explicit talk of separatism." In fact, the pan-Tai revival that Dr. Davis encountered "is fractured, localized, and decentralized. It is certainly not a nationalist movement imagining a single capital of a future, unified nation-state." Perhaps, Davis speculated, this is partly because "of the history of the region, which has long had multiple small centers and never had as single capital or one shared script." Perhaps it is also because the Chinese state has not followed draconian policies of suppressing independent manifestations of Tai culture. "A brutal crackdown by China . . . would radicalize many minorities, especially those that have already been cut adrift by the region’s economic destabilization." Finally, Davis suggested, it is perhaps also because of a cultural prediction of the Tai to find ways to publicly accommodate the demands of the state but privately to protect and cherish their culture.
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Sara (Meg) Davis earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania in East Asian Studies and in Folklore and Folklife. She conducted field research in Xishuangbanna in 1997–98, and has returned several times since then. She has been affiliated with Yale University, and UCLA, where she was a visiting scholar, and was formerly a researcher for Human Rights Watch on China. Davis has written for several publications including Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and Modern China. She currently lives in New York
Published: Tuesday, February 21, 2006