Construction of National Identity and Origins in East Asia: A Comparative Perspective

By Ikawa-Smith, Fumiko | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Construction of National Identity and Origins in East Asia: A Comparative Perspective


Ikawa-Smith, Fumiko, Antiquity


Archaeology in East Asia

Many authors have remarked that archaeology in East Asia is part of the discipline of history (Chang 1981: 148; Ikawa-Smith 1975: 15; Nelson 1995: 218; Olsen 1987: 282-3; von Falkenhausen 1993). Furthermore, it is more 'locally focussed' (Barnes 1993: 40), with most of the practising archaeologists investigating archaeological remains within their own national boundaries. To paraphrase the famous statement by North American archaeologists, 'American archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing' (Willey & Phillips 1957: 2), into 'East Asian archaeology is national history or it is nothing' would be an overstatement, but it is not too far from the reality. The major goal of archaeology in East Asia is to enhance understanding of a nation's past, by increasing its temporal depth. In other words, construction of national identity is the prime business of archaeology in East Asia.

The unit in the 'national' identity

Residing in a part of the world where debates continue with nationalistic fervour, over who are the Quebecois and whether they constitute a nation, a people (le peuple), a county (le pays) or simply a portion of a state, and writing at a time when a great deal of pain is inflicted upon human beings in the name of ethnic nationalism, I am relieved, but somewhat disappointed, to find that the 'national' units of the authors here are the sovereign states as they exist today. The papers are about the uses made of archaeology by the state in advocating its glorious past for internal and external consumption, promoting the sense of national pride and asserting its legitimacy as a political entity. The strategy here is inclusion, glossing over the little matter of ethnic minorities. Thus, Glover (this volume) tells us how, after the 1975 unification of Viet Nam, and particularly since about 1990, the Cham civilization, once thought by the French to be an intrusive culture of alien origin, has been incorporated into a greater Vietnamese tradition with local roots. Liu (this volume) demonstrates the fascinating process by which the legendary Yellow Emperor is transformed from the ancestor of the Han Chinese to the ancestor of all the peoples living in modern China as well as overseas Chinese. Similarly, Pak (this volume) notes that the archaeological remains in northeast China, attributed to the early stages of the Koguryo and Puyo polities, are seen by the Chinese as the cultural heritage of their own 'ethnic minorities' who have long been assimilated by the Han majority.

We do not know much about the use of archaeology for asserting ethnic identities by these 'national minorities'. For China, von Falkenhausen (1995: 214) observes that even though tracing the origins of local ethnic groups is increasingly popular under 'the regionalist paradigm', what suits local political agendas in the financially decentralized China today is the promotion of the relative importance of the regions within the greater Chinese tradition. In Japan, there is a large number of studies devoted to the archaeology of the Ryukyu Islands, and even 'the archaeology of the Ainu' as a sub-field is being cautiously proposed (e.g. Utagawa 1989). While these studies serve to counter-balance the prevailing ideology of a homogeneous Japan (Ikawa-Smith 1990), they have not yet been formulated into a political rhetoric for a multi-ethnic Japan, although, with the passage in 1997 of a new law, which, for the first time, recognized the Ainu as 'indigenous people', the situation may change in the future.

Tracing the origins of Japanese culture to the Jomon Period (c. 10,000-300 BC) follows the inclusive pattern in national identify construction, as seen in China and Viet Nam. While the rice-growing, metal-using Yayoi people (c. 300 BC-AD 300) are certainly more recognizably Japanese, equating Japaneseness with the Yayoi would exclude the Ainu of the north, and places the Ryukyuans in the south in a rather precarious position. …

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