Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
Before and After Nationalization

The aboriginals of China’s southwest region are categorized into twenty-five ethnic minority groups by the central government based on research done since the late Qing dynasty and physical, philological, and cultural data collected since the early twentieth century. This is what we call the nationalization of these ethnic minority groups. Today’s Yi tribe was listed under various names in older survey reports, including Gelao, Muji, Shansu, Pula, etc., indicating that the Yi tribe is actually made up of many ethnic groups. However, this does not mean that the aboriginals had divided themselves into these ethnic groups according to self-identification.

How many ethnic groups can there be in a nation? Objective cultural characteristics, such as the way people dress, cannot help us recognize and categorize which are the characteristics of the nation, which are the characteristics of the ethnic groups, and which are indigenous, and so on. This concerns how the wearer him(her)self and other people subjectively regard the issue of categorization. Even if “subjective identification” is assigned to be an indicator of an ethnic group, it is still impossible to find out how many ethnic groups there are in a nation. This is because before there was “nationalization,” even people living in the same village had different definitions for their own in-group. Therefore, there is no right or wrong in these matters, and it is even more difficult to replace categorizing “ethnic groups” with categorizing “nations.”

Perhaps we can say that the nationalization of modern ethnic minority groups in China is a process that is also a part of the long-term interaction between “China” and the “people on the borders.” Under this modern nationalization process, national identity as well as national policies and the promotion of national knowledge thoroughly changed the conventional mentality of “China” as Han, and everyone else as on the periphery—in other words, barbarians. The image of the “body” was an important factor that contributed to this change.

Documents and artwork such as the Qing dynasty’s “Pictures of A Hundred Savages” often depicted the so-called savages or barbarians as fierce-looking, muscular males. However, contemporary works on “ethnic minority groups” more often than not show images of beautiful ethnic minority females. This is because the Han associate the term “savage” (manyi) with invasive “others” who are characterized by beast-like appearances and aggressive masculinity. On the contrary, “ethnic minority groups” are considered fellow countrymen by the Han, but since they are the “minority,” depictions often feature females, particularly attractive ones. These depictions of “others” are the products of the dominant Han culture, and show how it transformed them from “barbarians” to “ethnic minority groups.” Under the surface, there often exists a “social reality,” which is discrimination launched against “others” in a mainstream society or culture, and the post-nationalization transformation of “others.”

Collaboration and Progression under Nationalism
Ethnic minorities clothed in traditional costumes are often the subject of Chinese art and literature, and publicized through various media, and during important national events, representatives of ethnic groups dressed in traditional clothing often attract a great amount of attention. The Han have a traditional costume as well, but they rarely wear it. Highly-educated ethnic minorities or those living in larger towns or cities do not usually wear their traditional clothing, and sometimes neither do men living in ethnic minority villages. This is partly due to the fact that under the concept of nationalism, “tradition” possesses dual meanings—on the one hand it represents a “shared past” that strengthens one’s identity, but on the other hand, it implies conservativeness and backwardness. Therefore, the Han encourage ethnic minorities in China to wear traditional clothing, while donning modern clothing themselves; the ethnic minorities living in towns and cities encourage those living in the countryside to wear traditional clothing, but wear modern clothes themselves. On top of that, men of ethnic minority tribes living in the countryside pride themselves with the fact that their villages still follow the traditional dress code, but they themselves are not willing to wear traditional clothing. The village women, however, are still enthusiastic wearers of traditional clothing and accessories that vividly express the uniqueness of their culture.

Distinctive Ethnic Costumes
The Qiang people of western Sichuan were already quite Sinicized by the first half of the twentieth century. At the time, researchers thought that the Qiang did not have any special form of traditional clothing, so one could not tell a Qiang by looking at his or her clothing. However, after the tribe was “nationalized,” people enthusiastic about Qiang culture began searching for, creating, and promoting a form of traditional clothing unique to the Qiang tribe. Since reforms started in the 1980s, identification of ethnic minority groups has been encouraged and approved of, along with the increasing autonomy of non-Han regions and the implementation of minority-friendly policies. In order to express their own tribal culture, and also to increase tourism, each ethnic group has been making their traditional costumes more and more distinctive and identifiable.
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