Chinese anthropology: Malinowski to Mao to Modernity

Louis R Godena louisgodena at
Tue Oct 1 09:04:00 MDT 1996

Anthropology,  unsurprisingly,  came to China in the garb of
multinationalism.    It was first embedded in the theoretical discourse of
the Frenchman Mauss,  the German Schmidt,  the Amercan Boas,   the Britons
Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown and the Russian Shirokogoroff.    Their local
epigones and practitioners crudely established the institutions of
four-fields anthropology:  linguistics,   archaeology (material history),
paleo-anthropology (the fossil history of hominids) and ethnology (the
geneology and comparison of ethnic groups) in the years preceding the Second
World War.    All sought to answer in one form or another the salient
question of the period:  what,  exactly,  constitutes a sinicized anthropology?

It remained for the Communist revolution to answer decisively this vexing
riddle.    It did so by posing a new problem.   The character *min*,  which,
with varying additions,  translates "ethnology" and "racial anthropology"
into its core meaning of "people" as in history,  or "folk" as in folklore
became the basis for an ancillory official discipline.    The new regime saw
to it that much of what we in the west call social and cultural anthropology
was conducted in China as "folklore studies"--the recording of popular
tales,  songs,  dialect,  language and custom.    This became especially
true after 1955, when anthropology and sociology were denounced as
imperialist capitalist disciplines.     Folklore studies could continue
unmolested because they were patriotic.

*Patriotic* anthropology became the *sinicized* anthropology of the
Communist era.

In the years immediately following the establishment of the Marxist
orthodoxy,  a state-sponsored anti-imperialism superceded much of the
earlier work on ethnic minorities.   Even before Khruschchev denounced
Stalin and the Sino-Soviet split had the pardoxical effect of making
Stalinism Maoist,  Chinese anthropologists concentrated in one of three
areas.    One was to adapt (with, as it turned out,  considerable
flexibility) Stalin's criteria of what constitutes a nation to investigate
and tell which of China's ethnic minorities should be recognized as a
nationality.    Another was to establish their "stage" in the evolution of
property,  according to the Stalinist version of Engels on Lewis H.Morgan,
in order to determine policy on land reform and collectivization.    A third
was academic,  to establish the evolutionary history of the Chinese people.

The patriotic anthropology of the Cultural Revolution performed the
ancillory duties of census taking and political unification.    Prior to
1966,  the discipline had begun to provide an ethnographic record for the
evolutionary study of the dominant ethnicity among a region's populations:
standardizing the other language groups and ethnicities within its
boundaries.    An important feature--especially in the years immediately
following the start of the Cultural Revolution--was training members of the
nationalities themselves to be their own ethnographers.    This focus
narrowed somewhat with the emphasis on class struggle and the obliteration
of everything that was old in the later campaigns of that period,  and a
chauvinist patriotism of the progressive present and its teleological past
submerged minorities into one project.

But the beginnings of modern Chinese anthropology can be found even here as
students were sent deep into the countryside to form collectives,  gather
data,  and compile in each county agricultural data and statistics.    This
foreshadowed the massive compilation of history and folklore that marked the
huge ethnographic enterprises of the 1980s.    It also marked the beginnings
of the multi-disciplinary teamwork that has marked established anthropology
in China,  as opposed to the more individualistic investigations of western

Tellingly,  much of Chinese anthropology is conducted from departments of
history;  Chinese anthropologists themselves stress the importance of
history in their visions of anthropology ,  but history is also important in
their version of anthropology.    The scale and longevity of the
historiographical project is imposing.    Even in the contemporary era,
when many younger scholars are making their own,  partially commercial
choices and translating postmodernist texts,  reflecting a multitude of
theoretical interests,   the problem begs to be posed.

Can a *patriotic* anthropology/history be postmodern and go on to question
the continuity and unity of its subject?

Louis Godena

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