Uncle Cephas now revisits a memoir of his short and inglorious diplomatic career.
Ages ago, your host 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.
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)?
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.
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 back in those days before the Far East's new prosperity had penetrated too far inland into Mainland China, a child's simple store-bought dress might
put a Yao peasant family back several months' earnings. Hence, the
traditional homespun remained in fashion.
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
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. Looking for items of ethnographic interest, I got simply the ritualized official "line".
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".
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.
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.
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
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
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?
In our world of flux various cultures rise, flourish, decline, and disappear. Those that flourish best are those whose members value them enough to preserve and celebrate them even in a rising sea of a more dominant culture. Probably, the use of government bureaucracy and subsidy to preserve them will result in nothing more than keeping various tribes living museum pieces in the care of well-meaning government functionaries who will remain outsiders and may or may not possess sufficient anthropological sensitivity--but for whom the ease of administration will surely trump all other considerations.