Monday, September 05, 2011

Zomia and the Hmong

I've read passing references to "Zomia," but had not known about the source of its current popularity until reading interesting review in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "The Battle Over Zomia," by Ruth Hammond. It discusses James C. Scott's book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009). 

According to the article, his thesis is that the ethnic groups in the highlands of Southeast Asia are  "barbarians by design, using their culture, farming practices, egalitarian political structures, prophet-led rebellions, and even their lack of writing systems to put distance between themselves and the states that wished to engulf them."

Since I haven't read the book, I can't comment in detail, but there are a few interesting points worth drawing out. (Also, the Hmong feature prominently in the book and two leaders in Hmong Studies comment in the review.)

One point that stands out is the discussion of ethnicity. Based on the review, it sounds like Scott is looking critically at ethnic identity in the context of politics. One critic in the piece suggests that this reduces the meaning of ethnicity for people within the group. The article continues:

Scott counters that what he has done in dissecting the hill peoples' identities "has been done for almost every other ethnic group, in terms of deconstructing their history and showing that ethnicity is a kind of positioning and a performance.
"It's usually a mistake," he says, "to imagine that there is a great deal of genetic and genealogical continuity."
His book, he insists, does nothing to diminish those groups' claims to autonomy, land rights, and recognition: "I think that every identity is historically constructed, and, in fact, you can argue that that is in a sense even more noble and worthy of recognition: the self-creation of an ethnic group."
The idea of the "self-creation of an ethnic group" puts me in mind of Siu-Woo Cheung's article "“Miao Identity in Western Guizhou: Indigenism and the Politics of Appropriation in Southwest China during the Republican Period" from Hmong/Miao in Asia, in which he discusses how the modern Miao nationality was borne out of political necessity. The creation of the Hmong and Miao ethnicities continues today and can be seen in media (movies, music, etc.), scholarship, and of course through communication on the Internet. 
On a personal level, our ethnicity can provide a sense of rootedness--an inherited link to the past. Yet, as Scott points out, the genetic thread is a weak one and examples of non-Hmong people becoming Hmong by joining the community (through marriage or otherwise) can be found throughout history, as well as today. Culture is mutable, as is language. When viewed in this light, the frailty of ethnicity as a concept is apparent. 
Jean Michaud is quoted in the article as is Mai Na Lee, and both scholars provide several examples from Hmong history that counter Scott's claim about the political origins of ethnicity. This includes the idea that hilltribe people gave up written language to preserve political autonomy. (As Dr. Lee documents, written language has been something of an obsession for many Hmong people throughout history--certainly not something that was given up willingly.) At the same time, it sounds like most of his work was done in Myanmar, so examples from Hmong culture are not the best to prove his points. Certainly, the Hmong of Southeast Asia have always maintained an independent identity, even when integrating themselves into state power systems.
The article is though-provoking and I look forward to tracking down some leads to learn more about the idea of Zomia and how it relates to Hmong studies.