Memory Work: Reconstituting the Ethnic in Post-Mao China

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

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 cul- tural 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 oss 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. (Litzinger, 225)

About the Author

Litzinger is a Professor at the University of Michigan. 

"I received my doctorate in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Washington in Seattle. My early research focused on the culture and politics of the ethnic borders in China. I have published on Marxist nationality theory in China, on ethnic and indigenous revitalization in the post-Cold War global order, on gender and ethnic representation, and on ethnographic film, photography, and popular culture in China and elsewhere. Other Chinas: the Yao and the Politics of National Belonging (Duke University Press, 2000) was the first major ethnographic study to examine the role of minority intellectuals in the critique of socialism and their role in the imagining of post-socialist futures. My current research is engaged with questions of border ecologies, bio-politics, activism and advocacy in labor, education rights, and the environment. In relationship to this research, I have published key essays on the transnational and media dimensions of anti-dam protest in southwest China. I am also working with migrants in China, looking at non-official education projects for migrant kids, the political role of non-governmental organizations and corporate social responsibility projects in these experimental ventures. More recently, I have been tracking Apple's environment, labor, and occupational health record in China, and am very interested in transnational activism directed at Apple and the companies that source its supply chain, as well as the general middle-class obsession for all things Apple in China. In all of my research, teaching, and thinking, I am committed to forging an anthropology of critical advocacy and activism, one which addresses structures of domination, exploitation, and inequality and the struggle to make the world a better place."

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