Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China

By Gillette, Maris | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China


Gillette, Maris, Anthropological Quarterly


BOOK REVIEW

Harrell, Stevan, ed. 2001. Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China. Berkeley: University of California Press 321 p.

Why do most professional anthropologists trained in the Anglo-European academy know something about the Trobriand Islanders (the Nuer, the Tikopia, the Balinese), but nothing about the Yi? What causes some peoples to become part of shared anthropological knowledge while others do not? Part of what brings a particular group into the domain of collective disciplinary knowledge is sustained research and publication by professional anthropologists. Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China presents the Yi as an object of shared anthropological scrutiny for an English-reading audience. To paraphrase editor Stevan Harrell in the volume's introduction, the book begins to establish a field of social and cultural scholarship about the nearly seven million Yi living in southwest China-more Yi, he points out, than there are Danes, Israelis, or Cambodians-of whom most educated people have never even heard.(1)

Harrell's introduction is a useful guide to the volume's achievements. The chapters began as papers at the "First International Conference on Yi Studies" that Harrell convened in Seattle in 1995 (2). This conference initiated a conversation between scholars of the Yi who worked in Chinese, Yi, and English language environments. Harrell wants to encourage scholars of the Yi from diverse educational backgrounds to engage more fully with one another as researchers and thinkers. Limited interactions across the Yi, Chinese, and English spheres of scholarship on the Yi had occurred, but scholars from these language environments had rarely, if ever, seriously discussed the distinctly different scholarly interpretations that they, as members of their separate intellectual circles produced (2-3). The conference and book begin a "truly open transnational dialogue" about the Yi, and ethnicity and ethnic relations in China more generally (5), with the aim of producing a more profound, pluralistic, and integrated cosmopolitan scholarly discourse. Readers who want to learn more about the authors and their backgrounds can refer to the short biographies in the list of contributors at the back of the book.

Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China is divided into four sections: part one on Yi history, part two on the Nuosu of Liangshan (a Yi subgroup of about 2 million), part three on the Yi in Yunnan (where more than four million Yi live), and part four, entitled "The Yi Today," on the PRC government policies toward the Yi and the outcomes of these policies. Almost all of the volume's chapters consider history to some extent, but the explicit focus of the articles by Wu Gu, Wu Jingzhong, Liu Yu, and Margaret Byrne Swain is history. Articles by Lu Hui, Ann Hill and Eric Diehl (co-authors), Ma Erzi, Eric Mueggler, Bamo Ayi, and Qubi Shimei and Ma Erzi (co-authors) focus on Yi social structure and social institutions. Several chapters present aspects of Yi culture: Ma, Qubi and Ma, and Lu discuss Yi aphorisms and language, and Bamo and Li Yongxiang depict Yi ritual and cosmology. Wu Ga, Thomas Heberer, and David Bradley focus on the party-state's policies, looking at the implementation and consequences of the rural economic reforms for women, political representation and the question of ethnic autonomy, and language policy in the post-Mao era, respectively.

Most of the authors provide general portraits of the Yi and/or segments of the Yi. This decision makes sense given that the authors wish to introduce the Yi to a general social studies audience and build Yi studies into a transnational academic project. Readers gain a basic understanding of Yi collective identity, the major regional subgroups of the Yi, Yi social stratification patterns (which at their most complex include four caste strata, patrilineages, patrilineal lineage segments, and divisions by degree of agnatic relatedness, affinity, age, gender, generation, birth order, and hereditary and non-hereditary religious specializations, plus a range of socioeconomic, educational, and rural-urban differences), cosmological beliefs, marriage customs, death rituals, customary law for homicides, naming practices, kinship terminologies, the spoken and written characteristics of the Yi language (divided into six major subgroups that subdivide into numerous variants), modes of production and productive activities, participation in nation-building, and broad historical trajectory.

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