Beyond Zomia: Merchants, Migrants, and States in the Highlands of Southwest China, 1600–1900

AHA Session 134
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Crystal Ballroom A (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
James Brooks, University of California, Santa Barbara
James Brooks, University of California, Santa Barbara

Session Abstract

In his influential book, The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), James C. Scott popularized the notion of “Zomia,” referring to the highlands of Southwest China and Mainland Southeast Asia.  Scott portrays the highlands as a refuge for people fleeing state-making projects in the valleys surrounding Zomia.  In Scott’s work, the Ming and Qing empires in China serve as the quintessential lowland states.  The four papers in this panel reconsider Scott’s theories through studies of the southwestern Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan, and Sichuan.

In different ways, the four papers call into question Scott’s assertion that the pattern he describes endured until after the mid-twentieth century, when large-scale transfers of lowland populations into Zomia occurred.  All four presenters find important historical transformations in the period 1600-1900, particularly the projection of state power into Zomia.  Fei describes a transformation of the political landscape in Guizhou and Sichuan resulting from the Ming campaign against Bozhou at turn of seventeenth century and the elimination of this native chieftaincy.  Focusing on southern Guizhou, Herman perceives a state-sponsored “enclosure movement” transforming Miao Territory into Qing Chinese administrative units in the eighteenth century.  Huang also highlights eighteenth-century changes, as the Qing state eliminated native chieftaincies and established government centers on plains within the highlands of Yunnan, followed by an influx of Chinese migrants.  Likewise, Giersch sees the Qing as a period of transformative change in which state and merchants extended institutions of governance and commerce into the highlands of western Sichuan and southern Yunnan.

At the same time, the four papers further develop some important ideas that Scott puts forward in his book.  Fei takes a closer look at transborder migration and trafficking among competing states in “Zomia,” and finds that female sexuality was a common trope of cross-border captivity.  Inspired by Scott’s notion of “shatter zones,” Herman explores how people in the Miao Territory before the turn of the eighteenth century developed strategies to keep the Qing state and Chinese society at a distance.  Huang takes one of Scott’s central ideas, that concentrating manpower in valleys was necessary for success of state-building projects, and applies it to valleys lying within the highlands of “Zomia.”  Finally, Giersch focuses on the roles that highland peoples played in extracting raw materials for global trade, and in the process suggests that these people could play a central role in connecting “Zomia” to outside markets and states.

The publication of Scott’s book has coincided with the appearance, during the past decade, of a number of important studies of China’s Southwest.  One aim of this panel is to take stock of this new scholarship, which not only contributes to the field of late imperial China and offers new perspectives on the notion of “Zomia,” but also opens up new possibilities for the comparative study of borderlands.  To this end, we have invited James F. Brooks, an expert on the North American Southwest borderlands in particular and more broadly in the comparative study of borderlands, to serve as discussant.

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