Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
Man and Earth: Environmental Resources and Human Habitats

China’s southwestern region is known for its complicated landscape and diverse habitats. The people who live here are separated into many “ethnic groups” that share and monopolize the resources of each area. In each habitat, people employ all kinds of tactics to obtain the resources that they need for survival, and trade with the outside world via a variety of market functions. Therefore, each ethnic group’s relationship with others involves collaboration and competition.

In terms of economics, the majority of ethnic groups living in China’s southwestern region rely on agriculture. Fishing, hunting, and livestock-raising are considered secondary activities. Agriculture in this region operates in various forms due to the landscape: rice is planted in the lower and flatter areas, as well as terraced rice paddies on the hills; wheat is grown on higher flatland, and corn and potatoes are grown in the mountains; barley and buckwheat are raised in even higher, mountainous areas. Among domestic animals, goats are most common. Mountainous areas play an important role in the economy of many southwestern ethnic tribes. Local residents let their goats graze in the hills and forests where they gather mushrooms and herbs, hunt, and collect wood for fuel and building purposes. During the three-year famine in the 1960s, many ethnic minority groups living in the mountains had an easier time surviving than their neighboring the Han farmers. At the beginning of the Chinese government’s reforms during the 1980s, many ethnic minority families were able to earn profits by utilizing mountain and forest products.

In many exhibitions of primitive tribes or ethnic minorities, fishing and hunting tools are often the center of the display, despite the fact that agriculture is these people’s main means of survival. This is because the collectors and the curators of the exhibitions ignore the farming tools that they find and follow their misleading stereotypes. This was also the case in the early stages of the Institute of History and Philology, and as a result most of the tools that the Institute owns are hunting and fishing tools. In many survey reports on the southwest ethnic groups written in the first half of the twentieth century, we find that the researchers had set out so intent on discovering things that were non-Han, exotic, mysterious, and primitive that they completely ignored important elements.

Human beings tend to live in groups, regardless of their geographical location or economic activities. In China’s southwest margins, due to the diversity of geographical environment and economic activities, there are different types of villages and communities. In the densely-populated highlands, there may be as many as a thousand households in a village. In the mountainous areas, villages with just three to five households are not uncommon. In the deep valleys where resources are scarce, settlements are often constructed mid-slope or on the peak, where it is easier to defend against attacks, and the houses are built closely together. This type of village is referred to as zhaizi by the Han Chinese.

The altitudes at which hill villages are located are often slightly lower than the mountain villages. For example, Wa villages in Yunnan are mostly located in mountainous areas with altitudes of 1,000 to 1,500 meters. In the past, head-hunting practices forced the Wa people to barricade their villages with layers of thorns and wide gutters. The Miao people in southern Hunan like to build their villages along the many rivers and streams that flow through the area. Ancient Chinese texts have referred to them as ximan, or “creek barbarians.” On the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, the wide basins situated between mountains are called bazi in Mandarin. Those who manage to occupy the bazi are the more powerful groups, such as the Dai, or the more Sinicized groups, such as the Bai tribe. The location of the villages is crucial to the lives of ethnic minority groups in southwest China. A Yi tribe lyrical poem called Le e te i describes the ideal location to construct a village as one that has “slopes behind it for animals to graze on, bazi in front for planting crops, enough space within for horse racing, and wetland nearby for pig raising.”

China’s southwest ethnic groups are not isolated from each other within their own villages and communities. People from all trades exchange products or information in their local “jiezi,” or bazaar. Some jiezi are periodical, and some permanent. In a region as ethnically complex as China’s southwest, jiezi serve as a place for different ethnic groups to come together and trade or socialize. One can easily tell where certain people come from, which ethnic group they belong to, and what goods they have to offer by simply looking at how the women dress. People living in the mountains produce different goods than those living on low flatlands. Some tribes are good at making knives, and some are known for their bambooware and lacquered goods. The people of the Big and Little Liang Mountains are famous for breeding hunting dogs. Many of the daily utensils that people use in the southwest are made of bamboo, because the local climate is suitable for bamboo plants. In the case of many tribes, practically everything used inside and outside of the house is made of bamboo, from a newborn baby’s crib to the flag-like decorations used at a funeral.

A town is an area’s administrative, commercial, and cultural center, as well as a door to the outside world for the village residents. However, in the past, few non-Han people (or manzi, as the Han called them) lived in the towns, and most ethnic minority villagers did not go into town unless it was necessary, to avoid being humiliated by the Han. Nowadays, although Han people still make up the majority of the population in many southwest region towns, under new policies of autonomy the towns have become the administrative and cultural center for ethnic minority groups, and points of pride for both Han and non-Han alike.
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