Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
Historical Background

A group of people identifying themselves as huaxia, or Chinese, first emerged from the Yellow River region during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, namely, roughly 750-220 BCE. These people were aristocrats who believed themselves to share one bloodline with the descendants of the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huang Di), while at the same time marginalizing the Yi, Rong, Man, and Di, the four tribes residing respectively in the four corners of the Chinese territory at the time. Over the course of this long period, and also that of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), all of the aristocrats who controlled border states—namely the states Wu, Yue, Chu, Qin, Ba, and Shu—had become “descendants of the Yellow Emperor,” and the indigenous residents of those regions had also been taught to become “civilized” huaxia, or Chinese, people. The “Chinese border” thus expanded outwards.

Starting from the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 CE), and developing in the Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE) and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 CE), many leaders of the “five Hus” and southwestern “barbarian” tribes, as well as their families and followers, began to call themselves the children of the Yan Emperor and the Yellow Emperor , two mythical founders of Chinese civilization. The “Chinese border” again partially expanded due to this reason. Simultaneously, starting from the Han Dynasty more and more people living inside and outside of the Chinese territory were directly or indirectly being referred to as “children of the Yan Emperor and Yellow Emperor” in family lineage records.

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, this historical process finally produced many vague ideas of “Chinese borders,” which were also entangled with group identities, political belonging, and historical memories. In the marginalized region of southwestern China, local chiefs often claimed that their own ancestors were Han people, while calling their subjects manzi, or “barbarians.” Village residents would call themselves Han, while regarding people from other clans and villages as manzi. On top of this, men often worried that brides from other communities carried manzi blood. In such a way, the shifting and transformation of China’s borders were propelled by this series of exploration, construction, imitation, and debate occurring across social hierarchies, geographic regions, and genders.

With nationalism and social Darwinism on the rise in nineteenth century Asia, the competition for resources and profit between American and European colonial empires grew more and more heated. During this time, China and its marginalized regions also became highly sought-after by these colonial empires. Chinese scholars at the time were amazed not only by the powerful weapons and vessels the Western countries possessed, but also by how nationalism united the people of these countries. As a result, some Chinese scholars planned to build a nation-state as part of their attempt to invoke shared patriotism from their fellow countrymen and save their waning country. Under the concept of a nation-state, the vague idea of peripheries is replaced by boundaries, and therefore China was forced to choose between surrendering its “peripheries” to the British, the Russians, and the French, and incorporating the country’s peripheries into its boundaries. After a series of debates, China decided to unify the “Han” and the “remote ethnic minority groups” to become a larger “Chinese nation” (zhonghua minzu). It was also from this period on that the Yan Emperor and Yellow Emperor became recognized as the shared ancestors of all Chinese.

This process of modernization—in other words, the process of renaming the traditionally so-called “barbarians” “ethnic minorities”—was determined not only by the aforementioned political factors, but also by the exploration, construction, learning, and debating that people have been doing with regards to history and culture under the name of academic research.
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