| Accueil Totus |



(157B) -- "Remodeling Broken Images: Manipulation of Identities. Towards and Beyond the Nation, An Asian Perspective", traduit par Karen Turnbull, in Ethnicities and Nations -- Processes of Interethnic Relations in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, edited by Remo Guidieri, Francesco Pellizzi and Stanley J. Tambiah, Houston (Texas), Rothko Chapel, 1988, p. 229-58 (version raccourcie, amputée de sa première partie, de 1 à 3 compris).


Manipulation of Identities.


Towards and Beyond the Nation:


An Asian perspective (II)


by Serge Thion


Go to the second part of the text | 1 | 2 |



The first "Westerners" who landed at Tumbes, a port of the Inca Empire. in 1527, were a Spaniard, Alonso de Molina, and an African, who brought several gifts for the "curaca", the regent of the place, among which figured pigs and fowl, also the first of their kind to touch this area of the New World. The crowd scattered at the appearance of these foreign visitors. They burst out laughing; they felt and touched. William Prescott reported that when the rooster crowed, the people applauded and "asked what it had said."

On the shores of southern Africa, towards the sixteenth century, a rumour circulated. Henry Francis Flynn, the first visitor to the Zulu kingdom, reported that the prevalent belief among the coastal tribes was that white men were "a product of the sea which they had crossed on large shells; they came near the coasts during storms, they fed on elephant tusks which they gathered on the beach if one left them there at their disposal, and in their place they put pearls which they found at the bottom of the sea."

In the Mekong Delta, in 1862, while striving to enlarge their precarious foothold in Saigon, sailors from a French gunboat found on a mountain a placard which was directed to their attention. Paul Mus has cited it several times: "All the inhabitants of the province of Go-công are in agreement with the following declaration... Your country belongs to the Western seas, ours to the Oriental seas. As the horse and the ox differ, so we differ by language, writing, and by customs. Man was created sometime in the past into distinct races. Everywhere man has the same value, but his nature isn't the same. If you persist in carrying to our house the sword and the flame, the fighting between us will be long, but we will act according to the laws of Heaven. Our cause will be triumphant. You have taken our provinces in order to add to the riches of your empire, to add to the luster of your fame. Do you want a grant which would permit you to perform your commerciai transactions? We consent to this. But if you refuse, we will not cease to struggle in order to obey the will of Heaven. We fear your valour, but we fear Heaven more than your power. We swear to fight eternally and relentlessly. When we have no arms, we will take tree branches and make flags out of them, and sticks to arm our soldiers. How then will you be able to live among us?"

Three contacts, three reactions, three starting points of diverging histoires. These places, these moments of contact are indeed crucial in many respects. In the first place, because of what they reveal: revelation of another people historically and socially-- this is the spectacular aspect, the philosophical collision-- and discovery of oneself, the unfolding of a negative attitude in the face of this positive-- the "other" as man-- suddenly rising up. In the face of all the monuments and traces left by these "other" peoples, the Western concern has always been to look for the "contact before the contact, to find the same self underneath the Other." To show that this contact came before the splendor of Angkor, the impressive walls of Zimbabwe, the statutes of Easter Island, the burial mounds of North America or the temples of Mesoamerica, they have looked for some mystery, the secret of an unknown emigration which would have connected Western antiquity to these ignored offshoots.

Much intellectual energy has been expended in the effort to show that the Vikings had discovered America, that the Phoenicians or the Greeks had circumnavigated Africa, that the Peruvians had arrived at Polynesia, that the Romans had touched China, that the Spanish had discovered Hawaii, and so on. The complete list of these alleged mysteries would be long. True or not, these histories have been stripped of the least importance. What makes the contact a decisive event is that the collision engenders a double process: the attempt of the West to assert its dominance, and the simultaneous disintegration of the local political equilibrium.

When Alvaro de Mendana discovered the archipelago of the Marquesas (the Marquesan Islands) in the South Pacific on July 28, 1595, he departed on August 5th, after having left on the shores some crosses and a few hundred native corpses. But real contact was only established two or three centuries later, because in between, nothing occurred. Contact, when it was finally established in the Isles, signified in the space of one or two generations political collapse, decimation through disease, the abandonment of central indigenous institutions, christianization, and the abandonment of the center of the Isles. There wasn't even any need for violence, although the invaders generally didn't deprive themselves of the use of force. The same picture can be painted, in even more somber colors, with regard to the Americas. In Africa and Asia, the local societies were much more capable of withstanding the impact. That is, I suppose, because they were connected little by little with the European world while it was undergoing expansion and because men, things, and ideas had always travelled on the dusty trails which crossed and connected Africa and Eurasia. In these areas there hadn't been, in a strict sense, the isolation which rendered the impact of the meeting so brutal elsewhere.

It can even be said that the contact in Asia hadn't been a shock. The first Western travellers to arrive in India, then in China and in Southeast Asia, were unknown merchants, some modest priests who came by land after the Crusades. They used the local means of transport and didn't have any lag.e scale plans. They were sorry figures before the magnificence of the courts where they were received as uncivilized curiosities who amused the women and gave the poets opportunity to make clever remarks and witticisms. The Chinese capital was always fond of exoticism and the tributes which arrived from the South Seas often concealed amusing surprises. For these Westerners had reached a world where the level of international commerce was incomparably higher than in their own. For at least two thousand years, the mechanism of the monsoons had permitted regular exchanges between India and China through the intervention of great trading agencies which established themselves at a midpoint, according to the occasion, on the Malaysian isthmus, the shores of Sumatra, or the Indochinese riverbanks. The cooperative trading agencies transferred the merchandise from boats coming from China on to those coming from India and vice versa. But the pivot of these exchanges was India which also transacted business with the Near East by land and by sea. And the Islamic impulse furthered trade because soon the Muslim merchants established themselves in the straits of the Sound, and it wasn't long before they arrived at Canton. In the period when Rome was still a fetid village and the Pope a minor chief of war, Canton was already an enormous commercial area, with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, half of whom were foreigners, particularly Muslims. All the Asian languages were spoken there, all religions were tolerated, and commerce was lucrative and strictly controlled by the government. Once again the Westerners, in this maritime Babel, must have past unnoticed. The naval power of the Portuguese was necessary before the Europeans could obtain rank among the powerful merchants having importance, and they were not the first.

This situation really only changed in the nineteenth century, with the advent of steamships and modern artillery, that is the strategic falling of the beginning of industrialization. Up until then, on the whole, the Europeans had exhibited , in the eyes of the Asiatics, traits which one would normally attribute to barbarians: absolutely devoid of manners, violent behavior, greed, bizarre appearance and dress, bordering on the animalistic and underlined further by an excessive hairiness and nauseating smell.

One shouldn't think that this perception has totally disappeared. The physical repugnance inspired by the Westerners still exists throughout a large part of Asia. I recall this elderly Chinese gentleman from Padang, in Sumatra, a man well versed in several languages and steeped in European culture who, having befriended me, one day asked me in confidence: "Please explain to me why all the Western travellers, who undoubtedly don't have much money, but who surely don't have less money than us, are so dirty, so ragged, and so obscene? Are they also like that back at home?"

On their part, the Europeans spend a good deal of time trying to understand-- just a little-- the people with whom they have business. Generally speaking, using the accounts of travellers as evidence, they are satisfied with convenient clichés. Their lack of understanding and their insensitivity is all lumped together under the heading of the "mysteries of the Asiatic soul." The depth and especially the continuity of historical processes in Asia has created a colorful cultural diversity, which renders the peoples of Asia quite alien to one another. It is not possible, without writing volumes, to describe the multiplicity of social and cultural identitities in Asia or even in the more limited sector of Indochina. If I call "people" a group of men who share the same language, a common past, the same customs and economy, and who are aware of the fact that they share these things in common, I could perhaps identify two or three hundred "peoples" in Indochina alone, certain of which could be reclassified into groups of tens and others tens of thousands. Evidently, I will never be able to fully resolve the theoretical question of the definition of these peoples.

This question arises elsewhere in the practice of administrations, particularly in communist states which recognize in their midst the existence of diverse "nationalities", minorities who have a right to special statutes designed in principle to respect such and such a social, cultural or even economic regional particularity (but not, evidently, a political particularity). Thus Viet Nam, after its reunifaction, wanted to undertake a census of its "national minorities" (I prefer the term people). Ethnologists were therefore required, they were immediately confronted with insoluble problems of taxonomy, finding no definition broad enough to encompass groups of people whose ways of life were so varied. In addition, there was little known about certain groups. It was therefore necessary to examine them, describe them and classify them. This undertaking, whose scientific interest, however secondary it was at the start, was nonetheless of considerable importance, could only end in Kafkaesque absurdities, because this classification held a practical importance for the peoples concerned, since the government guaranteed them various economic privileges. The claims grew so readily that the ethnologists, caught between the recording of the regionalisms of various peoples on the spot and the lack of eagerness on the part of the government to recognize new statutes, became responsible for evaluating them.

One thus sees reproduced, with some variations, the following scene: a village, in a valley, claims a separate identity in light of its distinct customs, its dialectical variation, a privilege alleged to be recognized from the time of the emperors, and so on. If they successfully plead their cause, their statute of "minority" will enable them to escape a particular tax, or will give them the right to slaughter their animals without having to ask for official authorization. The ethnologist is obliged to state the right, but the administration decides as a last resort.

A number approaching one hundred and fifty national "minorities" has been attained thus far, but this number appears to be diminishing, since numerous cases have been submitted for revision. There really isn't any method capable of resolving such a theoretical problem. But even if it terminates in administrative absurdities, it confirms a substantial, indisputable fact: in Viet Nam, as in the other states of this region, the dominant people, the proprietors of the institutions and religions of the State, occupy only a relatively small part of the actual space. Throughout the rest of the country, different peoples, sometimes cousins, sometimes totally foreign to one another, lead dissimilar existences. So many identities are more or less known to us through coincidental contact, from eyewitnesses, and from studies conducted for reasons which haven't always been innocent. A certain ethnography has lost its soul there.

In the pages which follow, I intend only to reflect on a few aspects of contact and conflict which have arisen between some of these peoples, and at the same time between them and the West with its modernity. A multiple play, in which the roles are exchanged, and where the rules vary-- such a play is difficult for men whose attitudes differ so markedly.

I will draw few conclusions because the play is still in progress. But before entering into this discussion, some preliminary observations seem necessary to me, as a means of introduction.


Today Western culture dominates the world and this domination never stops expanding and growing deeper. It would not be easy to define exactly what is meant by "Western culture". In the firstplace, it signifies a material and urban mode of life, with a short cycle of economic production-consumption. Humanly, it is the unlimited extension of the wage-earning system and the destruction of non-economic interdependencies, of the individuality of the person. But all this is only the outer wrapping; its cultural contents, its central propelling motivation is quite difficult to grasp. It is habitually stated that rationalism and the Enlightenment are the mainstays of Western culture. This is what is emphasized in a history of civilization that unites masterpieces and intellectual peaks in an arrangement which devotes all attention to ideological limitations and hardly anything to the recordings of the commonplace, of daily life, and of actual experience. This rationalisation, the supreme value and final goal of all this economic, political and religious reshuffling, as revealed to us in this kind of work, gives birth to strange Siamese twins-- modernism and capitalism. Thanks is to be given to the illustrious sociologists who have followed its trace and reconstructed its austere visage. But strength and power are needed to uphold what is largely a question of an illusion. In our eyes, rationality is spectacular because it is incorporated in objects and machines, and in customary practice and instructions for their use, all of which pass for philosophy or politics. The rational is above all real-- relating to things, products of the assembly line, Sachen und Saetze, objects as discursive sequences, the second ones packaging the first ones.

Underneath these great layers of linked material, one finds other rationalities, small, individual ones, with a small sphere of influence which, buried here, are no longer the apanage of a West which raises itself up by the collar. But the average individual in society, swept along by the cheerless waves of modern life, encircled by his constraints and garbled perceptions, exhibits neither more nor less of a profound rationality than the Tibetan serf, the fisherman from the Maldive Islands, or the Somalian camel-driver. His knowledge is more fragmented, even more incoherent; his social and emotional relationships are more imprecise, and his helplessness in the face of uncertainties in his environment is more marked. For the man who is pre-modern, or at the perimeter of modernity, tradition is the gudie, representing assured knowledge, possessing many functions, and having proven effectiveness. It is also entirely hidden to rational investigation which doesn't recognize the signs which give meaning to it. In order to uproot men steeped in tradition, one must first force them to disclaim tradition. Of course, nothing is unshakeable or completely rigid even in tradition. Societies without history and without change do not exist and have never existed but in the ignorant minds of those who have buried their heads in the sand.

On a large scale, the observable phenomena whereby modernism establishes itself doesn't so much signify the retreat of Tradition as it does the removal of men from the domain which Tradition had dominated. Because, in the final analysis, however it is ultimately transformed, the world, at the moment of contact with the European invader, first appears as traditional. But this West in expansion isn't any less traditional. Recently a semiologist who was misled in the history of the discovery of the New World was astonished and found it scandalous to see in Christopher Columbus a spirit of the Middle Ages. The discovery of America is the beginning of the modern world, ergo the discoverers of America have to be modern. Therein lies a series of errors. The periodization which makes of this end of the century a meeting-point is clearly an ideological view, specifically that of modernism.

The Middle Ages, moreover, were a period of intense change, of economic progress (slow and irregular to be sure), of technical innovations, and of intellectual and philosophical flowering. The origin of modernity lies here, if one is intent on searching for its beginning. Those who landed in Cuba in 1492 were clearly men of the Middle Ages and, among them, Columbus was certainly one of the most remarkably liberated and enlightened spirits. He was clearly rooted in a tradition, but he was also proof of a capacity for adaptation and observation that one finds rarely in the generations of conquerors who followed in his way, looking for El Dorado while ruthlessly slaughtering and plundering. These Spaniards emanated from a society which was markedly rigidified by the Crusades against Spanish Islam and the sublime grandeur of the Andalousian civilization. 1492 signifies the fall of Granada and the conquest of America joined in a direct continuity with the vandalism of the rough, fanatical soldiers who fought in the name of the Cross. They were the Nazis of the era, if one likes (although this comparison, upon reflection, does an injustice to the Nazis) and it was Las Casas, this spirit so fraternal, who so readily took up the defense, unyieldingly, of the tortured, massacred and burned Indians, who saw clearly that colonization was needed, that a work-force was required. He was among the first to suggest looking for it in Africa.

If colonization is undeniably the most monstrous scar that the face of humanity has ever worn, it is even more so because it was conveyed by rationalism which organized its aims and its methods. In practice it revealed itself to be the most formidable denier of humanity in man. But if one examines it on this level, it can be seen that these ravages were first practiced at home, in the fields of the rural societies of Europe, and that they ended the life of a venture begun five or six thousand years earlier, with the introduction of agriculture. The standardization, essentially bourgeois in nature, of the peoples of Europe was developed in bloodshed and misery. The expropriation of the peasants, the urban framework and the compulsory conversion of the workers to wage-earners caught up quickly even with the fugitives who had crossed the Atlantic to escape its domination, and foreshadowed the fate which, much later, was going to befall the rest of the planet. Nobody will escape from it.

The force of modernism (by which I mean the cultural lubricant which makes possible the operation of economic and social modernization) is certainly its remarkable cultural poverty. One will find out more from examining the creative capacity and the æsthetic and cultural development in the first African or Hindu village than in a quarter of Paris, London or New York, where all the same activities exist, certainly, but are carried out in a separate, disjointed manner--objects at the same time of specialization for their producers and indifference for their consumers. Here it is no longer a question of individuals considered as human beings interacting with one another, but impersonal networks entangling them. Modern culture, industrially produced, comprises all the aspects of the thing--industrial, standardized, with programmed functions, composed of replaceable components wrapped in one designed form. Elsewhere I have already spoken of the ready-to-think; I will add the ready-to-use. It is the absence of substance in this culture, due to specialization, which renders it consumable in nearly every circumstance and in nearly all countries.

It is often said that this is American culture because modern culture is to a great extent produced in the U.S.A. But this is an illusion, like that which insists upon saying that photography is Japanese because the Japanese produced the basic apparatus which makes photography possible. Outside of the fact that its manufactures in the U.S. drain specialists from all parts of the world, this culture can be reproduced wherever production factors are concentrated. Paris, Berlin and Tokyo bear witness to the steady growth of foundries of cultural manufacture and testify to the similarity of their products with those which have just come from California or the New York megalopolis. A cultural soup destined to be excreted as soon as it is swallowed scarcely leaves any traces. That is why it is consumable by the worker from Detroit as well as by the Peuhl shepherd or the Javanese coolie. Or else, if not by them, in any case by their sons.

"American" culture doesn't replace the other ones; it would be incapable of doing 80. The others disappear, as they have disappeared among us: because the people who adhere to them emigrate and it follows that they no longer have the time, consumed as they are by work and the obligation to consume the meager fruits of their efforts.

It nevertheless remains true that millions of individuals, in the villages and suburbs of the third world, still haven't the means to consume the mass-produced goods of the cultural industry. Often situated on the fringes of traditional societies and provoked by the economic alteration, they remain at the edges of a bourgeois society, integrated, dependant. The memory endures-- the memory of time and of old heroic deeds, of founding speeches and of saving recourse. This memory is active; it surreptiously reintroduces the humanity of tradition in order to repatriate the exiles, reconstruct families, and reorganize beliefs. But like nearly all the phenomena which seem to characterize what is called the third world, this one also manifests itself, discreetly camouflaged, in the very hearts of industrial metropolises. The enormous gaps, in terms of human need, which the illusory pomp of modernism leaves wide open, are just so many niches in which scattered fragments of tradition, sometimes borrowed, sometimes inherited, and almost always coming from afar, can be lodged. These scraps of knowledge, these aspirations to an oneiric unity of life, these forgotten savages, are like the yin, anatagonistic and complementary, through necessity, to a yang of the cultural claim, of the rationalist assertion, of the supremacy of an administrative and managerial logos which constantly rearranges society in order to adapt it to economic ends which it has never had. One thus sees physicists pouring into mystical theology, bankers creating alchemy, and administrators consulting clairvoyants. The rational creates the occult; the modern recreates Tradition. Tradition is broken into small pieces and dispersed like the stones of Tom Thumb.


The history of nationalism is one of great diversity and each case is truly unique. Nationalism is one of the ideologies which is at the disposal of modern states in their quest for legitimacy. It is not the only one, but it responds particularly well to the wishes of the upwardly mobile petit bourgeoisie who want to appropriate the apparatus and revenue of the State for their own use. In general what is not so readily apparent is the artificial, non-spontaneous aspect of nationalism, and the enormous efforts which its propagation implies: in the first place, it requires the employment of a large number of intellectuals to rewrite history-- adapting the fundamental myths, and the myths of the founders-- to the local context, and to reshuffle cultural genealogies. In short, it is necessary to depart from social realities, to falsify and retouch a cultural portrait which is then sanctified by the State and its political liturgy. At present, we see how the Rumanian Ceaucescu plays around with the history of the Daces in order to fabricate the origins of a "nation"; how the son of a putschist colonel, Reza, just about appropriated to himself the old name of Pahlevi, dating back to the time of Darius; how the regime of Ataturk was tempted to annex the Hittite past; how the regime of Damascus one time stopped the excavations of the remarkable site of Elba, fearing to see the Israelis profiting from the discovery of archives on tablets they could use to lay claim to the Syrian territories, a fear in other respects perfectly justified by the historical manipulation to which the Israelis gave themselves over to daily.

These examples (I could give a thousand of them) may make one smile, but they serve as a backdrop to all the modern butchery which has taken place, and one must keep in mind the spirit of the fable about the straw and the beam. National history, such as it is taught today in industrial countries, is an intellectual disgrace. And the international commissions which meet in an effort to "co-ordinate" programs of instruction and manuals, serve only to square off the beams equally. Instruction which would truly liberate the spirit would begin by suppressing national history which is, after all, only a naive adaptation of ancient theology.

Created with an intellectual cynicism which hasn't without any doubt its equal in any other domain of the spirit, nationalism is set in motion by the political world. The least decree, the smallest scheme, the latest ministerial whim, always has as its ultima ratio the "need" of the nation, its "destiny", its "desire" or its "welfare", whose interchangeable players are divinely invested with a steadfast and everyday false demonstration of devotion. The confiscation of power to the profit of a more or less camouflaged elite is thus excused in each instance by taking recourse in a mythical being who is supposed to subsume us all-- the nation, which is always at the edge of peril and in the defense of which we are asked to do this, to do that, and especially to lay back and give a free hand to those who are granted the right to act by political mandate. "Nation" is the public and certified appellation given to something which is in reality much more concrete, but which is given its true name only on rare occasions: the "reason" of the modern State.

A nation departs from its purely virtual existence on only two occasions: one rare and atrocious, war, the other frequent and comic, sport. All sporting events use the same words, adapted from those of war, thus permitting week after week, sport after sport, tens of thousands to stay at home, fill themselves up on beer, and merge themselves into a mock-heroic "brotherhood" which is always aggressive and always self-gratifying. A game always has the same result: either we have won or we should have, or we will win the next time. This is the glorious conviction of sport, repeated with each televised rumbling. And I am not sure that the Israelis didn't choose to coincide their invasion of Lebanon with the start of the soccer World Cup, which they could be assured would be the main attraction, regardless of what else was happening throughout the world.

Perhaps the most remarkable attribute of nationalism is that it takes hold. The artifice which consists of declaring a solidarity among the inhabitants of a territory carved out purely by the chance of history and geography becomes, in time, a dimension of individual consciousness, a principle of identity, entirely comparable in its extension with religious consciousness. Elsewhere these two areas maintain an ambiguous relationship and are partially coincidental. But finally force sees to it that this fusion functions with great effectiveness. National liberation movements, which always emanate from groups which derive their sense of dedication from the locally dominant bourgeoisie, often succeed, although slowly and in an incomplete manner, in mobilizing the colonial peasantry and persuading them to join in the building of a future nation. This is made possible by the fact that the peasantry generally have a thousand reasons for wanting to change the established order.

The disillusionment which ordinarily follows independence acquired through struggle, and which is so remarkably described in the novels of the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo, is only the belated recognition that the nation is above all a new instrument of domination, whose possession and benefits belong to a few groups who share them, more or less voluntarily.

World order, as it has been progressively established since the second World War, in thus following a profound agreement between the East and the West, has created a multitude of states carved out of the flesh of ancient peoples, according to the precise and pressing desires of the colonial interests. The map of present-day independent Africa was drawn, in exact detail, at the Congress of Berlin in 1885 when it was precisely partitioned among various countries. Similarly, Latin America is the offspring of the Spanish administration. The new nation-states, endowed with an adequate judicial and administrative kit, have a double role: in the first place, to facilitate and organize the economic exploitation of physical and human resources for the benefit of the industrial countries, and then to foster the birth of a nationalism which permits the local bourgeoisie (national according to the Communists) to seat itself in power and thus to benefit at the same time from the exploitation that it exercises or permits to be carried out and from a just compensation for past services granted by the mother countries and the multinationals.

Its long-term survival is only assured through an expansion of nationalism which assures the docility of the various peoples. This entails an economic integration and especially a political and ideological manipulation of the traditionai frameworks of the consciousrness and cultural and political identities of the peoples.

The progress-report, at the end of this century, is quite moderate. It takes a long time before the bourgeoisie accumulates enough experience to allow it to penetrate and manipulate effectively the delicate social mechanisms which regulate the life of the country. Elsewhere, danger lies rather from the competition of certain groups which only have a marginal place in the State system and who want to assure themselves of exclusive control. This competition leads to a nationalist escalation which doesn't work since consciousness has not yet been transformed. The recourse to ethnic, existing, and actual identities, and the escalation of conflicts, ends by putting in jeopardy the very existence of the goose that lays the golden eggs, the sacrosanct State, granted to the good inhabitants by a beneficent mother country.

The spectacle of an Africa and Asia being carefully balkanized, tyrannized by military cliques and emptied of their wealth by a more and more exhaustive drainage of their resources, indicates a high rate of failure. The industrial countries have "magnanimously" launched vast programs of aid; national integration only progresses with extreme slowness. In Asia, the historical permanence of large states made the transition towards modern nationalism easier. But the traditional states never proposed the type of total control of populations and space which is required by the modern nation-state. They therefore have on their fringes some areas and some peoples who are more difficult to nationalize, as they have traditionally antagonistic relations with these very historic states.


To be Vietnamese is to be kinh. Designating the Court, the town, the center of power, this term has neither ethnic nor geographical connotation. Civis rather than homo, it is an acknowledgment of political subjection; or rather, since more than in other places, here the political includes all of life, of cultural subjection. In a world whose center is China, Vietnam is the part which is situated in the south-- nan in Chinese, nam in Vietnamese. To shed light on the formation of Vietnamese unity, one must look at this characteristic of Chinese culture, which perhaps sums up its lasting significance--its "civilizing" project of expansion.

As far back as one can see into the past of this continental mass, China (before present-day China) appears as a mosaic of peoples, tribes, and clans, fragmented and heterogeneous in terms of language and customs. These differences, traces of which can still be seen, are, however, scarcely visible in the material and technical life of these groups, and there is no evidence that China was built on an advanced material foundation. Moreover, increasingly one sees that the periphery of China--or what its "culturocentrism" leads us to perceive as being its periphery-- has undergone an evolution of its own. The most ancient potteries known to date are Japanese. Pottery, agriculture, and metallurgy all appear in Southeastern Asia at the same time and no doubt much earlier than in the Chinese world. A cultural flow moves toward the North, from Nanyang or the South seas, carrying with it, in particular, rice. That is why the concept of the barbarian, man, invented very early by a China in formation, must be understood in a very narrow sense: that is, of people not within the trajectory of the kingdom, and later the Empire-- an Empire which called itself the "Land of the Middle," zhung guo, center of the square in which the earth itself was entered. It is this trajectory which is implied by kinh, when it was attributed to the throne of the Emperor of the South. But this regime had the highest conception of itself: it considered itself to be a civilizing agent, or in more conventional terms, to be humanizing. The nature/culture dialectic did not have to wait until the Enlightenment: it occurred well before the unification of the second century B.C., even before Confucius, who imparted his literary luster to it. No one is quite as human as the Chinese, this particular synthesis of cultures of the alluvial plains of the North, rich with their harvests of millet. Attitudes, dress, prayers, æsthetic forms, language, writing, administration, the tilling of the soil, and classification of men: these are what define the Chinese, and they were acquired through territorial advance, or by wanderers who came as mercenaries or invaders. This is also what later will define the Vietnamese, by their own reckoning. There is thus a long and profound work of acculturation and assimilation, in the most etymological sense, which China must devote itself to in its vast south or, as one might be tempted to say, its "far-south." In a sense, military conquest is only the first step; it loses its rationale in proportion to the sinicization of the indigenous peoples. We know that, toward the Christian era, this venture had spread to Southern China and crossed over onto the plain of Tonkin. It should be remembered here that China first developed on the plains. The mountains, which could not be subjected to the regularity required by the rice fields, were outside ordinary methods or administration. They were the refuge of hermits, outlaws, and savages with whom one traded in order to receive the forest products which were essential to civilized living. The sinicizing advance passed by and hence included the moving frontiers, through interior marches that established the pattern of relations in the ever-shifting frontiers pushing toward the South. Moreover, it stopped at the bottleneck created by the narrowing of the Tonkin, between the sea and the Annamite Cordillera. The mountain passes were held by the formidable Chams, Hinduized Malay seafarers, who were nationalistic and believers in Vedism. Over the centuries an indecisive struggle for control followed.

It was here, in this scaled-down Tonkin area, that Vietnamese identity was slowly formed. When soldiers, administrators, and Chinese colonists installed themselves there, at the dawn of the Christian era, these scanty, shifting plains, fissured by rivers, and penetrated by sharp, serrated rocks from the massive mountains, had already had a long history of human contact that has been represented poorly to us. In fact, one of the most brilliant bronze techniques flourished there, as did the famous drums of Dong Son which are found throughout Southeast Asia. Rice cultivation, fortified towns, and maritime commerce are evidence that the Chinese had not come to the land of "savages," but rather, using their annals as testimony, to the land of "barbarians." Precisely because of these preconceptions of the Chinese chronicler, the cultural aspect is not very clear.

The Chinese had to subdue the local chiefs, who were probably descendants of clans which had ruled over the "tribes," and whose revolts were numerous. Matrimonial alliances and the politics of assimilation created, little by little, a layer of what Edward Schafer rightly calls creoles, Sino-barbarian metis by blood, but culturally more and more sinicized. The old common cultural bases of the ancient peoples of Indochina and Southern China, often Mon-Khmer or Thai-Kadai speaking, were becoming submerged. The barbarians, "naked and tattooed," chewers of betel, learned good manners and in turn imposed them on their rustic country serfs. It is from this creole elite that, later, the partisans of secession and independence broke away. Invested with traditional power through their local kinship ties, they felt they were as legitimately Chinese as the administrators who continued to urge the throne to control their distant provinces. The violent tremors and the weakness of the Tang culminated in the secession of the tenth century and independence.

From that time, and until the end of the nineteenth century, Vietnamese identity revolved around one axis: conformity to the Chinese model, standard of perfect humanity, and distrust, if not hostility, toward a China always suspected (not without good reason) of refusing to admit that such a perfect emulation of her civilization could remain outside of her direct control. Tribute-- both symbolic and commercial-- was sent by the Vietnamese court to a suzerain who was recognized as such only to the extent to which he graciously refrained from exercising any trace of hegemony. The earth has but one center and the sky but one axis: it is to this that the Vietnamese emperor paid homage, he who resided in the south, in the warm seas and pestilential climates which could make no claim to centrality. He therefore had to show his independence in relation to the Chinese, but the best way to do this must also be the most Chinese. In order to survive, the old Austroasiatic bases of beliefs, tastes, and gastronomical or aesthetic preferences had to be adapted and camouflaged. As in all of China, moreover, cultural resistance to Confucian imperiality continously reappears and imparts to local history the appearance of a balancing act, with its vigorous contrasting calls for the return to the orthodoxy of the royal and Mandarin milieu. The memory of non-Chinese origins is lost, but not the feeling of uniqueness, until the legitimate appearance of the Annamite court in the middle of the seventeenth century, when the Manchus overthrew the Ming dynasty.

The Vietnamese, among other peoples in Asia, thus appeared as a sort of nation, even before the period of nationalism. This is not to say, however, that what binds the edifice together is a nationalism ahead of its time; up to the colonial period the state ideology that kept it centered around a son of Heaven was Confucianism. It is Confucianism which held in check all the temptations to return to formulas of the feudal type, which assured economic integration by means of enormous public works, and which, by codifying and making uniform the rites, the language, the literary canon, and so on, achieved cultural homogenization. Here we see processes and directions, not stable established institutions.

Of all the states within the Sino-Confucian movement, Korea was perhaps the most unified linguistically and culturally. China still has not completed its development even today, and bulwarks of the "barbarian" world are still to be found. The preliminary results of a recent census in China show sixty million people belonging to "minorities" out of a total of almost one billion people, with territories encompassing an enormous part of the present Chinese state. This number includes the pastoral and nomadic peoples of the north and west, who speak Turkish, Mongolian, and related languages. Since prehistoric times, this "empire of the steppes" has continously sent waves of people who have blended into the Chinese melting pot.

In the great South and Southwest, there was a different historical situation. Faced with the military-administrative advance of the Imperium, areas ruled by clan and tribal chiefs had to choose between surrendering and thus becoming acculturated, pulling back into the less easily controlled mountain and desert zones, or retreating, and migrating in stages toward ever more distant regions. On occasion, some groups have simultaneously adopted all three attitudes.

Some authors believe that the origin of the Burmese should be looked for at Kansu, in northwestern China. For reasons which are unknown, a group linguistically akin to those which were going to, or were in the process of, inhabiting Tibet, set out toward the south, changing its environment and material culture, and becoming, especially in the Thai milieu, horsemen and horsebreeders like the Thai. New upheavals put them on the move again, this time toward Ta-li, in the west, whence, they emerged around the year looo through a classic corridor into Upper Burma. It is here that they encountered Buddhism, which would provide them both with the resources of the State and the means of resisting the pressure of the Chinese who followed close on their heels. Innumerable peoples were to migrate in this way, spasmodically, in order to escape integration into the Chinese imperium. Thus, a tenacious tradition brought to Tonkin, long before the Chinese armies, one of the basic groups in Vietnam. Originating in Fou-kien, opposite Formosa, these people bore the name of Yueh, or Viet, meaning approximately "those who have crossed over, who have deserted," doubtless referring to refugees from the expansion of the Tchou or Tsin state.

The largest migration was that of the Thai-speaking people. Coming perhaps from the center of China, today these Thai-speakers still form, under the name of Chuang, the largest "minority" of the southwestern corner-- Kouang-si, Kouei-tchou, and Yunnan. But their migrations have gone on throughout the centuries. The Mon-Khmer element has doubtless been submerged in this Tonkinese prehistory, given the hypothesis that it is they who are responsible for the tonalization of the Vietnamese language. The history of Indochina is in large measure the history of the infiltration of the Thai and their rise to power when they too encountered Buddhism and its political philosophy, practiced by the Mon and the Khmers. Even today, but this time more within the framework of a search for "roots" inspired by modern nationalism, the Thais are fascinated by this district which points to the south of Yunnan, just to the north of Laos-- the Sip Song Panna, where an easily recognizable Thai is spoken but where the old culture has had less of a hold than in Thailand or Laos, having been reshaped by Buddhism and Western influences. Needless to say, the Chinese authorities have attempted in numerous ways to exploit this recent nostalgia for "roots."

Clearly, no geographical barrier has been able to stop the expansion of the Chinese state in her mission, as she understands it, to civilize and humanize, except the vast stretches of desert in which ecology imposes an essentially nomadic way of life. It was only in the seventeenth century that Formosa became completely integrated into the Chinese world. Today, before our eyes, the process continues-- on the one hand by colonizing the Mongolian steppes, Dzungours, Ouighours, and the vast mountain spurs of Tibet, and on the other by efforts to sinicize the nomadic Muslim minorities of the north, the Lamaist Tibetans, and other minorities of the southwest. The so-called respect for the customs of national minorities, for their language in particular, is on a par with a political, economic, and administrative integration which transforms culture into folklore, and local autonomy into an instrument for the penetration by the central State.

It is hard to explain why these man peoples, "barbarians," throughout every stage of their history, have refused, at least some of them, integration into the State. Perhaps the essence of this phenomenon can be grasped if one examines the most recent of these refractory peoples, the Hmong (often called Meo). More than any other group in the region, the Hmong, without a doubt, foster the feeling of the perfection of their own humanity, to which one belongs both by ancestry and by adherence to their customs and unique culture. This gives rise to an easily offended, quasi-absolute traditionalism, and a knowledge of the "other" Hmong that decreases rapidly with distance. Itinerant agriculturalists, caught up in the flow of a centuries old migration, the Hmong live in very small dispersed units, on the crests of mountains, the sides and the valleys having been populated through much older migrations. An anarchic society, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, it is limited in the scope of its sense of self and little troubled by its past; knowing no territorial bounds, it has at best established only an armed peace with its neighbors. By their sense of themselves, the Hmong remind us irresistibly of those American Indians who have successfully resisted extermination by sheer moral force, that is to say, by the unshakeable conviction, in the face of the most overwhelming circumstances, of their identity and of its worth.

With considerable variation in the content of their cultural identities, one finds the same pattern among nearly all the peoples of the region-- Yao, Karen, Akha, Kachin, Lolo, Yi, etc., not counting the small groups of Mon-Khmer speakers, isolated areas bearing testimony to a long-ago era when Austroasiatic cultures had dominated the region. In reality, it is primarily the linguist or ethnologist who puts these scattered fragments of people together into their imagined original forms. The members of these dispersed entities manifest no desire to re-form themselves, or to form larger units, even in the midst of the worst political upheavals. During the Indochinese War the Hmong found themselves serving on both sides, nulla vergogna. If one speaks, therefore, of the Hmong "people" in this context, it can only be a purely theoretical sense: the reality-- the extent of their cultural and political identity-- is the village and those neighboring it (sometimes quite far away) which are connected with it through kinship and exchange. Consciousness of identity stops there, a few days' walk away.

These groups which refuse to become integrated also reject any possibility of integrating and assimilating a foreign Other, although obviously their cultural endogamy cannot be absolute. I remember having read, in an old Burmese Gazetteer, the somewhat astonished comments of a British administrator in northwest Burma; he had interrogated a group of "Kachin," and the latter had explained that they came from another valley where they had lived for twenty years in the proximity of a Kachin village, that they had taken on its language and customs, but that earlier they had lived elsewhere and they were not Kachin. But nobody could tell him what their prior "identity" had been, and the eldest among them seemed not to remember the language they had previosly spoken. This group, apparently consisting of a few related families, had thus "borrowed" by osmosis an identity, unbeknownst perhaps even to the involuntary lenders. They held on to it until the group migrated perhaps a valley or two further on, when a new opportunity might give rise to still another change in identity.

This type of situation must be quite common. History certainly shows how languages maintain themselves in the face of all opposition, but also the disconcerting ease with which some groups, sometimes very numerous, have at the mercy of circumstance changed their language and donned a new culture, as if from a second-hand clothing store. That the fragmented Levant-- Hellenized, Byzantinized, Christianized, Persianized-- became so quickly Arabized with the advent of Islam, is truly astonishing. But that at the same time there continued to exist up to our century so many minorities, all more or less schismatic, and as far away as villages in Syria and Iraq, where Aramaic is still spoken, is hardly less surprising. Thus, from one locality to another, one passes from the malleable to the infrangible. Is there any historical sociology that can account for the existence of this handful of villages in the middle of Thailand, where, as the French linguist Diffloth has recently shown, the old Mon language survives though surrounded on all sides by the Thai tongue for a thousand years? The people are evidently unaware that they speak Mon: they have been cut off by the centuries and by hundreds of kilometers from those populations in Burma who are the heirs of the language and of the brilliant Mon past.

But let us return to our Annamite (Annamese) cordillera. While the creole elite of the Chinese colony of Tonkin succeeded in gaining its emancipation, it had no choice to but take the problem of relations with the man, those who are called, in Vietnamese, the mot, the savages.

The mountain masses of the west and northwest were held by tribes that historians find it difficult to identify. These tribes even succeeded at one point in banding together into a powerful state, the Nang Chao, which defied China. In the south, the Chams kept watch. With the mountain people, a pact was necessary: the Vietnamese system could only function on the plain, where the large rice-producing market towns could be equipped with a complex and costly hydraulic system. The march toward the south, begun two thousand years before in the Hoang Ho basin, had to be followed by the conquest of the plains. These, on the coast of what was to become the future center of Vietnam, were pitted with rocky ridges plunging down into the Sea of China.

War and military colonization, Roman style, with the don diên, villages of veterans demobilized on the spot, were to be the means for a step-by-step advance, which for three or four centuries went quite slowly. At this stage, it was total war: the defeated population was dispersed, even space was reorganized: the colonists went so far as to redesign the local hydraulic system. But in the fifteenth century, with the definitive fall of the last Cham kingdom, the political situation changed. While nothing remained of the political and religious institutions of the Cham kingdom, their monuments are still there (occasionally to be reinterpreted by Vietnamese popular religion) and the people are also there.

Go to the second part of the text | 1 | 2 |

| Accueil Totus |

L'adresse électronique de ce document est:

[email protected]