Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
Man and Man: Social Identification and Categorization

When sharing, distributing, and competing for resources, people tend to form groups in which members identify with each other and believe that they share the same blood, in order to create and protect an exclusive ecosystem that only members can share. There are many types of such in-groups, ranging from families, clans, and villages, to entire ethnic groups. Within larger ethnic groups, smaller groups are formed according to gender, class, geographical location, and secondary blood relationships. Not only are there divisions between groups, there are also divides among the various sub-groups within groups. In China’s southwest regions, due to the versatility and diversity of both the natural and human environments, there are also extreme examples of social identification and categorization. For example, in the first half of the twentieth century, residents of a village with less than twenty households by the upper stream of the Min River considered themselves one ethnic group. In the eyes of these people, all the villagers residing in the upper-stream region were manzi, and those living by the lower stream were Han.

Clothing, the Body, and Identification
In such an identification and categorization system, groups often express their “in-group identity” and differentiate between in-group and out-group through imagining the body. Physical characteristics, such as skin, hair, and eye color, are often used to categorize ethnic groups. In the case of groups with no noticeable physical differences, the so-called “physical characteristics” also include deliberate changes done to the body, such as tattoos, teeth removal, nose piercing, and stretching of the earlobes, etc. In human society, a more common way of expressing the identification and categorization of groups is through clothing and decoration, treating them as extensions of the body.

There are very little or no apparent physical differences between the various groups of people who reside in China’s southwest region. Therefore, they often view clothing and accessories as markers for group identification and categorization. The Han noticed this and followed suit, categorizing the southwest aboriginal tribes based on the clothing and ornaments that they wear. In a document owned by the Institute of History and Philology, the Book of Qian Miao Illustrations, there are records of the Dog Ears Long clan, Stirrup Long clan, Big Head Long clan, jiantou Gelao, and Pot Ring Gelao, etc., all named after the signature hairstyles of each tribe. In the past, the Han people living in Guizhou differentiated ethnic groups by their traditional clothes, calling them Red Velvet Miao, Flower Miao, and Blue Miao, etc.

Ethnicity Groups and Clothing
The Ming dynasty document Da Ming Yi Tong Zhi (Comprehensive gazetteer of the Ming empire) claims that there are 13 types of Miao, while the Qing dynasty’s Qian Shu (Book of Qian) claims that there are 29, and the Guizhou Tong Zhi (Comprehensive Gazetteer of Guizhou) records as many as 80. These categorizations are more or less based on clothing. In the twentieth century, scholars conducted further research on the traditional garments and ornaments of the Miao, and concluded that there are at least 100 different types of Miao. This shows that the more we know about traditional Miao clothing, the more obvious its group segregation becomes. People often express their identification with their in-group and separation from their out-group through the clothes and accessories that they wear. However, this “in-group” might not necessarily be an “ethnic group” or a narrowly defined “group,” but a system of recognition that is built up from the inside to the outside by the local people, layer by layer. Therefore, in these regions, “clothing” is not the “ethnic tradition” that stresses the similarities within a certain group, but the “local tradition” that sets aside a local group from its neighbors.

Gender and Clothing
In China’s southwest regions, usually only the women of the ethnic villages dress in traditional costumes, and the men dress in clothes no different than those worn by the Han. This has been a common practice since the Qing dynasty in many areas. This is because men are usually the ones in contact with the outside world, and by dressing like the Han, they can avoid overemphasizing their tribal identity and arousing resentment from other tribes, and also avoid being seen as backward “barbarians” by the Han. Despite all this, it is still very important to the village residents to be able to discriminate between other tribes in the same region. The result of these two conflicting issues is that the men will often require the women to don the “local dress.” The women themselves are also very attentive to these details, constantly making sure that their clothing and decorations are different from what women from other villages wear.

Clothing and the Process of Socialization
The process of socialization is defined as the process during which a person gradually takes on different positions and roles in the society that he or she belongs to. Clothing also plays a role in this process. For example, in this picture there are three girls from the Qiang tribe, standing in a row. The youngest girl, about six or seven years old, is wearing ordinary store-bought clothes. The girl who looks about ten years old is wearing a mix-and-match of ethnic costumes, which is still different from what women from local or nearby villages are expected to wear. The oldest girl, aged thirteen or fourteen, is dressed like a typical local unmarried girl. From this picture, we can see how the society gradually regulates one’s behavior as she grows up, shaping one’s social identity and drawing the line between one’s in-group and out-group. In this society, the elderly have their dress code, and the middle-aged have theirs. Criticism resulting from inappropriate dress is a type of social restriction what reminds one of the role that he or she is supposed to play in that society.

Social Hierarchy and Clothing
Throughout history, many ethnic groups in China's southwest region have lived in hierarchical societies. Moreover, the chieftain system implemented since the Yuan dynasty increased upper-level officials' exploitation of commoners. The Qing government to a certain extent eliminated the chieftain system and assigned officials from the central government to rule the various areas, one of the reasons being, as stated: “The Miao are suffering under the rule of their own chieftains, and they seem to be treated more like slaves than subjects.”

In part, the class, or at least wealth, distinctions in such hierarchic societies can be sharply observed through dress codes. The rich tend to wear the most luxurious of items, while the poor are far more constricted in their choices. In the first half of the twentieth century, the remaining chieftains in southwestern China often wore Han clothing to show their high status; these were, for example, the long robes worn by traditional scholar-officials or the zhongshan outfit worn by Chinese local representatives. Han-clad chieftains would also claim that their ancestors came from places like Nanjing, Hunan, or Guangzhou, in order to appear different from their fellow tribesmen.

The Process of Sinicizing
In The Survey Report on Culture Practices in Sichuan and Xikang, Li Guang-Ming mentions a conversation between the members of a chieftain’s household:

Throughout the conversation, they kept making references to “those aboriginals” and “we the Suo family,” clearly implying that the “Suo family” was not the same as the aboriginals. He lay by the opium burner, telling us about “the old ways of them aboriginals.”

In Ming and Qing dynasty documents containing references to “raw barbarians” and “cultured barbarians,” we can see a Sinicizing process that was drawing the line between the Han and non-Han people. Here, the “cultured barbarians” refer to those who would imitate the Han in many aspects of their daily lives and discriminate against the “raw barbarians.” The ruling families among the “cultured barbarians” consider themselves to be the descendants of the “Heavenly Han,” and look down on their own subjects. Discrimination against fellow tribe members and kowtowing to the Han are important mechanisms of Sinicization. This example rebuts the incorrect saying that Sinicization is a result of “the barbarians becoming accustomed to living the lifestyle of the Han, and eventually becoming Han themselves.”

Ethnic group identification, especially the kind seen in modern times, often clouds many problems within the society. While people identify with members of their in-group, they at the same time overlook the structurally imbalanced relationship between people within the in-group, such as those belonging to different generations, social classes, or of different genders and varied “degrees of civilization.”
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