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Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Model of Interethnic Harmony: Dogmeat Among the Yao

Ages ago, Uncle Cephas once had the honor of serving in Uncle Sam's "striped pants brigade"--even if the only stripes he had on his pants were on the boxers underneath the dress trousers.  This service to his country led me to the city of Guangzhou, the vibrant hub of the Ling Nan region of China, which consists of the provinces of Guangdong and Hainan, plus the Guangxi Zhuang Auntonomous Region.

While some of my recollections are safely tucked away with various levels of classification in the archives of the State Department, returning to the teaching profession and encountering some of the attitudes prevalent among my colleagues, including those who write the curricula with which I must sometimes swindle my charges and their families, I've decided to dust off memory and re-tell some of my experiences, only stripped of information which might harm others.

Since I teach ESOL,among other things, I have sat through certification seminars on various aspects of linguistics and language policies.  In the latter, I have heard the People's Republic of China praised as a model of accommodation of ethnic and linguistic minorities.  After all, 56 diffferent people groups are recognized as official national minorities, and the development of their languages and cultures are supposedly encouraged.  However, the real story is that, as with every other society, much of what is done in and by the Chinese Communist government is actually for ease of administration rather than to accommodate and care for segments of the population. 

For example, are the Lakkja of Guangxi really Yao, when the languages usually classed as Yao are of the Hmong-Mien family (constituting the Mien part of the group), when Lakkia turns out to be Thai-Kadai?  Apparently, the Lakkja were, in ages past, subject to Yao chieftains, hence they belong to the Yao "nationality".  But, shouldn't a revolutionary socialist regime pay scant regard to tribal or "feudal" (after all, China's historical narrative had to be battered into conformity with what Marx said had to be the case) ties forged in a benighted past?  Or, why are Manzhou and Xibe classed as separate peoples, when their languages are mostly mutually intelligible (at least, the half-dozen or so surviing speakers of Manzhou are reported to be able to follow speakers of Xibe)?
I can understand why mutually unintelligible languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, Minnan, Wu, Mindong, and Hakka are called "dialects", when they vary as much as French and Rumanian, since their speakers are all from the ancient Hua-Xia ethnoc and culture, a little bit like Western Europe never letting go of the imperial Roman identity, and reducing French, Galician, Italian, and Castillian to "dialects" of something they would insist on calling "Latin".

But I've digressed too far, when my real purpose is to set the record strait on China and its minorities.

Occasionally, junior officers would be called on to carry briefcases, take notes, and write up cables on the journeys of their superiors to meet with the Chinese movers and shakers of the consular district.  One such trip was to an autonomous county inhabited by the Yao, a "colorful" highland people whom I had encountered before among the hill tribes of Thailand's Golden Triangle and among refugees from Communist Laos. Come to think of it, thanks to many of them having fought on the wrong side of the long Lao Civil War (like their distant Hmong cousins), there are now Yao living in the USA, too.

The first sight of the Yao was along one of the roads leading into the Autonomous County.  Three heavily burdened Yao--two women and one man--shuffled along under enormous loads of firewood carried on tumplines.  They were short, brown, very weathebeaten-looking and clad in traditional homespun, including the dirty red turban and sash of the man.  This was in marked contrast to the Yao of northern Thailand, who, in their jeans and t-shirts, couldn't be picked out from any other ethnos frequenting the Chiengmai night market, unless one was with a linguist who could eavesdrop on snatches of their conversation. While one might praise the Yao of upland Ling Nan for their "authenticity", conversations with various persons soon revealed that the real reason for their maintenance of traditional garb was that a child's simple store-bought dress might put a Yao peasant family back several months' earnings.  Hence, the traditional homespun remained in fashion.

But, there was another angle.  In northern Thailand, I had discovered that classical Chinese was a sort of liturgical language to the local Yao, whose religion was actually a mix of Daoism and Mahayana Buddhism not too different from that of the various Han groups of Ling Nan such as the Cantonese and Hakka.  Hence, I was able to read a booklet about the ancestral deity Pan Hu, a talking dog.  The occasional piece of anthropological literature I'd seen also made mention of a cult of a dog ancestor.

Well, in the Autonomous County, I hit it off well with the Han deputy magistrate (the magistrate, or xian zhang [县长] was a Yao, but didn't seem to say much).  After all, I had a smattering of Hakka dialect from my years in Taoyuan and Hsinchu counties in Taiwan as well as Putonghua, and the deputy magistrate happened to be Hakka.  I asked the deputy magistrate whether the local Yao observed the dog ancestor cult.  Apparently, something went amiss in either transmission or reception, and, in reply, I received a lecture how in the dark days before Liberation, the Han had despised the Yao, wrote the Hanzi for the Yao with the dog radical, but with the glorious advent of the People's Republic, that had all changed, all were equal,and the Yao ethnonym was now written with the human radical. 

Passing a row of newish, albeit Spartan, rural housing, the deputy magistrate conspiratorially whispered that the Yao peasants still lived with their livestock.  "Very backwards! 好落后吧"  However, I maintained my diplomatic presence of mind and refrained from observing that the Hanzi for "home" or "family" in Chinese--Jia 家--represents a pig under a roof.  Perhaps it was that I had already uttered one gaffe, and did not wish to add another; perhaps it was because I didn't have the heart to go on and explain as well how many white Americans claimed descent from what my mother called "pig-in-the-parlor Irish".

Well, things generally went well.  My senior colleague was fairly certain he'd name the deputy magistrate as someone to go on an exchange visit to the States. There was an official banquet back at the Xian government offices.  It featured a lot of free-flowing mao tai, braised palm civet, and a number of other delicacies.  But, we had hit it off so well with the deputy magistrate that he insisted on treating us to the sort of hospitality he liked; an informal late night snack at a local place run by a bunch of other Hakka-speaking Han folk in the area.

My senior colleague, who was manfully fighting back the effects of an already sufficient dose of mao tai, turned vaguely green as we approached the open eatery.  On a slab of concrete, a woman squatted over the freshly killed corpse of a smallish dog, busily removing the hair from its skin.  The Hanzi on the shop clearly indicated that the specialty of the house was dog braised with turnip; and the deputy magistrate, our congenial host, praised the dish to the skies. In fact, it was an excellent dish.  While Uncle Cephas prefers beef, pork, or mutton braised with turnips, the dog meat tasted a bit like something between pork and mutton, although a little more intense than either.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm an animal lover.  I raised cats when I was a boy, and I've always liked dogs, albeit as long as they were somebody else's responsibility.  But, one of the "things" about diplomatic life is that you don't insult your hosts by shouting "eeeeeuw" like an eight-year-old girl at a well-intentioned dinner. And it just so happens that for almost all of the Han groups of southernmost China--Cantonese, Hakka, Teochiu, Hoklo, Hokkien, whatever--whether on the Mainland, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, dog is a delicacy.

And it was during the repast, with the mao tai flowing freely, that Uncle Cephas inadvertently got his answer to the status of the dog ancestor cult among the Yao of Ling Nan.

The deputy magistrate's driver and security chief were both local Yao.  While the Hua-Xia and Western cultures exchanged jokes and toasts, these two men sat motionless and silent, their hands at their sides, their heads bowed, and their down-turned lips looking as if--in the words of Mrs. Cephas' Hakka-speaking Taiwanese folk--three catties of pork were suspended from them.  I honestly and truly felt bad that I was enjoying myself when these two hard-working men, whom I, by my very presence in their bailiwick, had kept from going home to their families, were probably feeling as if I were urinating on their ancestral graves. Indeed, I felt bad about the sadness of my fellow human beings (even though I am an Evangelical Christian, and the Yao driver and security man were clearly "heathens") throughout the following day all throughout the drive back to the Consulate.

So, I suppose, even among dialectical materialist Communist Party members, the cult of the dog ancestor remains alive and well among the Yao of Ling Nan.  And  I guess that the Party's manuals for cadre among national minorities do not explain how to show proper respect to traditional, "pre-scientific" beliefs.

I wonder.  Do the Yao think that the modern Communist's totem animal is the ape?

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