Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
Investigation of Ethnic Groups in Southwest China

The southwestern and southern regions of China have long comprised a vague “national periphery” in need of more clarification, especially when trying to construct a clearly defined Chinese ethnic identity. Noting this, many Chinese ethnologists in the early days focused their field research there. Among such expeditions and investigations, those conducted by the Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology boasted the widest range, largest scale, and longest duration.

In 1928, the year the Institute of History and Philology was in its preparation stage, it was temporarily located on the campus of National Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. It was decided that Sergei M. Shirokogoroff, a Russian ethnologist hired conjunctively by the Institute’s planning committee and Sun Yat-Sen University, would lead a team of several people (including Sun Yat-sen University research assistant Yang Cheng-Zhi and Academia Sinica special editor Rong Zhao-Zu) into Yunnan to do ethnological, folk, and anthropometric researches. On this expedition, Shirokogoroff and his team encountered bandits and terrible road conditions, and in the end only Yang Cheng-Zhi made it into the “Independent Lulu (an ancient name for the Yi)” region on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan. In over a year, he traveled more than four hundred kilometers and passed through over two hundred villages, investigating the language, society, and culture of the Yi people. Afterwards, Yang studied in France, and upon returning to China took up a teaching position at Sun Yat-Sen University, setting the foundation for anthropological research in China’s southeastern regions.

Field investigations done independently by the members of the Institute of History and Philology began with assistant researcher Li Guang-Ming’s trip to the Sichuan-Xikang border. Li studied at Southeast University, but later was expelled by the school for joining the Kuomintang and participating in student movements. The Institute of History and Philology was officially established in July, 1928. That same month, Shirokogoroff and company set out on their expedition from Guangzhou, and the following month, Li Guang-Ming set out on his trip from Shanghai.

As you can see, the Institute of History and Philology began its exploration of China’s border regions almost as soon as it was established. Li and his friends, Wang Yuan-Hui et al, started out on an expedition from Chengdu to the then Sichuan-Xikang border, located at the upper-stream of the Min River. During their six-month research trip, they trekked through places including Wen River, Mao County, Songpan , Huangshengguan , and Zhangla. The Sichuan and Xikang Folklore Survey Report that they later provided contains vivid descriptions of the daily lives and religious customs of the indigenous Qiang, Tu, Boguozi, and Xifan tribes. Soon after Li returned from this expedition, he left the Institute.

After Ling Chun-Sheng, Rui Yi-Fu, Tao Yun-Kui, and Ma Xue-Liang joined in, the Institute’s field investigations of the southwestern ethnic groups began to develop on a large scale and in a more organized fashion. In 1933, Ling Chun-Sheng, Rui Yi-Fu, and Yong Shi-Heng went to Hunan’s Qiancheng , Fonghuang , and Yongsui to investigate the local Miao people. The following year, they arrived at Baimen, Lishui , and Qingtien in Zhejiang province to investigate the She people.

In 1934, The Institute of History and Philology conducted a survey of the ethnic groups in Yunnan Province in collaboration with the Yunnan Provincial government. Ling Chun-Sheng, Tao Yun-Kui, and Yong Shi-Heng headed to Yunnan first, with Rui Yi-Fu joining the following year. The men split into two groups to conduct the investigations, with Ling and Tao leading each group. Between 1934 and 1937, the Institute’s scientists covered Yunnan’s Dali, Baoshan, Tengchong , Gengma, Banhong, Menglien, and Mengzi. The more than thirty ethnic groups that they reached include the Shan, Mexie, Lolo, Lisu, Kala, Kawa, Lahu, Huhan, and Guzong peoples, etc. During this period, the Institute’s scientists were also asked by the Department of Diplomacy to assist with the Chinese and British governments’ survey of the Yunnan-Burma border, due to their familiarity with China’s borders.

Between 1939 and 1940, Rui Yi-Fu went on yet another expedition, this time to Guizhou Province’s Dading, Huaxi, Qingyan, Guiyang, Guiding, Anshun, and Zhenning to investigate the local Miao people. In 1941, Rui and Ling visited western Sichuan to investigate the Xifan and Qiang peoples. From 1942 to 1943, Rui once again set out to study the Miao people, this time in southern Sichuan’s Weixin and Xuyong areas. During this trip, the researchers successfully reached places where not even the government was able to reach at the time. During that period, these areas were notorious for the growing and trading of opium, as well as constant conflicts between various military leaders, bandits, gangsters, and drug dealers. On top of that, the roads themselves were treacherous, being crafted from steep mountains and deep valleys, and were often blocked from landslides. The researchers traveled on horseback or by boat when circumstances called for it. Despite the fact that the researchers received some protection on the road from government and military personnel, the hardship and danger that these men had to endure were enormous.

Although the research performed during this period produced no particularly impressive results, it can be understood from correspondence between Fu Ssu-Nien, Li Guang-Ming, Rong Zhao-Zu, and Rui Yi-Fu that the goal of the Institute at the time was to focus on gathering data and material, rather than synthetic overviews. This also explains why their researchers went far and wide but never spent too much time in one area. Another point to note is that the various types of scientific equipment used by the institute at the time were the best in the world. This shows how much emphasis the government placed on ethnological research, and the faith and anticipation that scholars placed in a “scientific” form of humanities studies, despite the fact that academic research was just budding, and that it was also a time of war and difficulties.

After over twenty years of investigating the ethnic minorities residing on China’s southwestern border, the researchers of the Institute of History and Philology had collected a total of 1,100 ethnic artifacts, over 800 items of documentation on each ethnic minority group, about 8,000 field photographs, and abundant data on languages, cultural practices, and anthropometry.
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