The History of Ethnography in Lingnan

ANU China Seminar Series

The History of Ethnography in Lingnan

Catherine Churchman

4:00pm – 5:30pm, Thursday, 2 Feb 2017
Seminar Room A, China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU

Research on the history of the Tai-speaking peoples of Lingnan has tended to concentrate on historical justifications for the classifications of minority nationalities by the PRC in the 1950s. Little research has been done into why ethnographic writings from preceding centuries often contradicted these later classifications. Ming, Qing, and Republican writers used names such as “Zhuang”, “Lang”, and “Lao” to refer to various groups of people in the Lingnan region, but their use of such terms bears little relationship to the PRC classification of minority minzu. A commonly-held belief is that pre-modern writers simply did not have the ability to research local conditions or were careless in applying ethnonyms correctly. Instead, this paper argues that the background reason for the discrepancy between PRC and pre-modern naming conventions lies in a fundamental difference between two systems of knowledge. Unlike the modern use of names for non-Sinitic people, pre-modern descriptions were often based not on personally-observed differences between definable ethnic groupings, but on their authors’ background reading and employment of long-standing literary tropes. By tracing the genealogy of names and descriptions of these non-Sinitic people from the mid-Ming dynasty to the 1930s, both inside and outside the textual tradition, the paper will demonstrate how changes in the representation of these peoples, and in theories of their history and descent, have reflected the cultural preoccupations and political concerns of successive generations of writers.

Catherine Churchman is a lecturer in Asian Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her recent book The People between the Rivers (2016) explored the bronze drum cultures of the Lingnan region from the third to seventh centuries CE.