Category: Culture

Culture Dicussion

Tai O

I’ve mostly finished reading through James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. Like so much of his work, I simply find it brilliant. He animates the worlds he writes about more than any other author I know. There is no linear progress for Scott, but instead endless actions and reactions by groups with varying degrees and types of power over each other. Rather than the world being composed of the powerful and the powerless, there are the various forms of states and people with differing degrees of autonomy from the state.

I think much of what Scott writes about applies to Hong Kong. Let’s start way back, with the “Hundred Yue.” Originally “Yue” was a description of the people living near the Yangtze when that was still the periphery of Han civilization. It evolved into a term for people of south and southeast China, pushing further and further south until ‘Yue language’ became another term for Cantonese. Vietnam translates directly into ‘South Yue.’

It looks a lot like the dynamics Scott describes, with “Yue” being a state term for a very diverse glob of stateless people that don’t really constitute a ‘group’ in any meaningful sense. The term was eventually adopted by different groups in very different contexts to its original meanings. It was an exonym-cum-endonym, an outside term eventually being appropriated as local by those still on the periphery of Chinese state power.

It also serves as a useful point of departure in thinking that this area was ‘always’ Chinese. Instead, there’s good reason to think that everyone from the Austronesians (Filipinos, Indonesians, Malaysians, Malagasy in Madagascar[!]) to the ethnic minority groups of Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan are likely refugees of the Han push southward. What are today Filipinos and the Hmong were probably then the ‘Yue.’ As Scott points out, it’s not that group X left as Group Y came in. Some stayed, some left, and everyone reinvented their identities and histories.

This is to say there is no biological or foundation to what it means to be “Han Chinese,” nor are their essentialist characteristics of what it means to not be Han. The Han are simply those people who, for historical and political reasons, were either captured by Han empires or chose to integrate. This Han civilization was further broken up by a cellular structure (Skinner, 1971),

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