Among the Tribes in South-West China by Samuel R Clarke begins with the epigram:
"There is probably no family of the human race...of which so little is accurately known as of the non-Chinese races of Southern China."
The book was originally published in 1911, and yet to a certain extent, that statement still rings true today.
By his account Clarke was a missionary in southwest China for 33 years, beginning in 1889. He traveled extensively in Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan over that time, his ethnographic studies focused mainly on the Miao ethnic minority and their subgroups.
Clarke extensively studied Miao language, culture, history and the major differences between what he referred to as the different Miao 'tribes'. His book also includes brief sketches of the Chung-chia (today's Buyi) and Lo-lo (a subgroup of the Yi) minorities.
These detailed and informative ethnographic studies are the focus of the first half of the book. The remainder is devoted to anecdotes about the missionary work Clarke and his family performed around southwest China, as well as some of the problems they inevitably encountered.
The Miao language, according to Clarke, resembles Mandarin in that it is tonal. He is unable to figure out just how many tones there are because there are simply too many dialects through which to wade. This was such a problem that villages had trouble communicating with each other.
Clarke also notes with particular interest that the Miao have no written language. Consequently, their creation stories and traditions are all oral. Clarke quotes at length from the creation stories, which he transcribed and translated with the help of his teacher.
These stories are sung by separate groups of men and women in a call-and-answer style. Clarke draws extensive parallels between the Miao creation myth and the biblical story of Noah's Ark.
Mythical traditions similar to the Bible and Clarke's own missionary work aside, the Miao of the late 19th century were strictly animists. They had no priests or idols, and musical festivals took the place of more formal religious rites.
Wizards played an important role in Miao society, acting as doctors and in times of serious trouble, exorcists. Clarke explains that Miao stories are completely lacking in moral direction; nothing is right or wrong in the traditional tales. He finds this shocking because the Miao he met had almost daily contact with Han Chinese and must have known about Confucianism.
After cataloguing Miao culture in some detail, Clarke does the same for the Chung-chia and Lo-lo minorities. And although his observations of the Miao were often made in comparison to Han Chinese, he compares the Lo-lo and Chung-chia solely to the Miao. He does make a point of saying, rather flippantly, "The Chinese do not despise the Chung-chia as they do the Miao".
In another interesting aside, Clarke describes the Lo-lo as living in a near-feudal society where the Black Lo-lo were land-holders and the White Lo-lo virtual serfs.
The book's latter portion deals exclusively with Clarke, his family, and their friends' experiences while doing missionary work. This section is much more personal and accessible than what precedes it and contains many stories and personal anecdotes.
Perhaps the most interesting story is a chronicle of what missionary life was like during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century when Empress Dowager Cixi declared war on all foreign powers, which severely complicated life for missionaries across China. These anecdotes do much to rescue the book from plunging into academic dullness.
In Among the Tribes, Clarke does have a tendency to drift toward ethnocentrism. But this was likely more a product of the times than personal bias, and takes little away from the book's overall importance.
Readers interested in detailed accounts of early contact between the West and southwest Chinese ethnic groups or the history of Western missionaries in this part of the country should find this book especially rewarding.
Clarke's work is a seminal attempt to understand cultures still obscure to the Western world. His descriptions of Miao culture and tradition are still quoted today, and they help to demystify and humanize a group of people that remains unfamiliar to most outsiders.
Among the Tribes in South-West China, published by Caravan Press (2009) is available at Mandarin Bookstore for 98 yuan and can also be purchased at Prague Café's Beichen location. It can also be ordered online at mandarinbooks.cn.© Copyright 2005-2020 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.