The Art of Keeping Appropriate Distance: Practicing “Ethnicity” of the “Dan”(蜑) on the Margins Through Time

Apr 3, 2019 | 12:00 PM

Huang Xiangchun (Associate Professor of Anthropology, Xiamen University; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2018-19)
Chair/discussant: Robert Weller (Professor, Department of Anthropology, Boston University)

Co-sponsored with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

What does “ethnicity” mean in late imperial and modern China? How is it practiced in local society and to what extent does it shape local society and culture? This talk reflects on and responds to these questions by interpreting stories of the “Dan” (蜑, boat people) from Fuzhou. In the local society and culture of Fuzhou and its water-land ecosystems, the Dan were a historical “ethnic group” and a “base and marginalized community.” But “Dan” also represented a lifestyle, a field of social action, a status discourse, and a cultural identifying label. The Dan played a number of roles that broke classificatory boundaries, including fishing people, taxpayer, pirate, smuggler, tenant, stowaway, as well as people of base status (贱民) and barbarian. These roles reflect the fact that the existence of the Dan as an “ethnic” group was a product of deliberate strategy: keeping “appropriate distance” from the state and “decent” society. In this sense, the Dan occupied a marginal position between “not being governed” and “being governed”. The example of the Dan demonstrates that local society and culture and “ethnicity” were, to a large extent, a social-cultural consequence of this historical process of institutionalization. Moreover, the internalization (or conventionalization) of institutional languages and the appropriation of local symbols (gods and rituals) explains how local Chinese communities could maintain their diversity while sharing in “Chineseness”.

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