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Ethnicity Along China's Southwestern Frontier

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image of Journal of East Asian Archaeology

In China, a multi-ethnic nation-state whose national policy regarding ethnic groups is still in flux, ethnicity is a subject worthy of serious analysis. China plays lip service to cultural diversity within the nation-state, but it is a diversity that must fit within the boundaries drawn by the government. The officially recognized ethnic groups are discriminated against while receiving economic benefits.

As far back as the second and first millennia bc, ethnic diversity has been recognized and recorded in China. Archaeologists and ethnohistorians today cite these earlier textual sources in their research and frequently associate them with archaeological material. These archaeological remains are then often directly connected with ethnic groups living in the same region today. In doing so, the archaeologists are linking today’s groups firmly within the framework of Chinese history, but they fail to address certain questions: what is the meaning of ethnicity itself ? How was ethnicity perceived in the past? Is it the same as today? And can we in fact link those people living in the past with the groups living in China today? In asking these questions, this paper investigates the diverse ethnic groups living in southwestern China during the latter half of the first millennium bc, and draws not only upon archaeological and historical data, but also uses ethnographic data collected from the author’s fieldwork carried out among the Tai Lue in southern Yunnan Province during 1988-89.

Affiliations: 1: Office of the Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific UNESCO Bangkok Building 5th Floor, Darakham Building 920 Sukhumvit Road Bangkok 10110 Thailand, Email:


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