Historical anthropology in Asia’s communist highlands: Methods, Contexts, and Ethics
Part 1Session 2
Wed 14:00-15:30 Room 3.06
Part 2Session 3
Wed 16:00-17:30 Room 3.06
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- An Introduction to Historical Anthropology in Asia’s Socialist Highlands Jean Michaud Université Laval Pierre Petit Université Libre de Bruxelles
Gathering life stories and oral traditions among the Na of Southwest China
Pascale-Marie Milan Institut Français de Recherche sur l'Asie de l'Est
In the Sino-Tibetan borderlands, official narratives of the national minorities’ history are particularly focused on origins, a theme shared by national minorities through their interest in genealogy. However, official narratives contrast with oral histories held by these minority groups. Faced with the development of tourism, the Na of southwest China often publicly use these official narratives to also benefit from tourism income and gain a place in the modernizing political agenda of the country. Yet, they privately maintain other narratives about their past that are more in line with their own ways of thinking and cultural representations.
History of a Life-History. An Eastern-bloc European Anthropologist in ‘Communist’ Vietnam
Gábor Vargyas Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
In 1989, during my first fieldwork among the Bru in Quảng Trị, Central Vietnam, I have recorded an 18-hour long life history of a widely informed, exceptional Bru man, covering grosso modo two third of the 20th century, from French colonization to the end of Vietnam War and the resumption of life around reunification. As the story was full of – then and ever since – touchy political and ideological details, conforming to my promise, I refrained from publishing anything of it during a quarter of a century. In 2007, in the course of a new fieldwork in Ðắc Lắc among a resettled Bru community during the war, the exceptionally icy circumstances of my fieldwork convinced me to give up my hopes for the advent of a politically benign period in which the story may be welcome, and my reticence to publication. Delineating some of the constraints and pressures I had – and still have – to cope with, just as the solutions and answers I gave to them, I shall present an “insider’s” view of doing fieldwork in a “brotherly” communist country raising some fundamental questions of anthropological fieldwork in totalitarian countries.
The synergy of oral and written historical accounts in the production of anthropological knowledge – a Chinese case study
Sylvie Beaud Teikyo University
Dealing with fieldwork, the ethnographer in China is often caught between different types of historical discourses as well as various memory traces scattered everywhere that may be of use for his/her research. The number of documents, research productions on the history of China can be overwhelming. Oral testimonies of the informants, archives, interviews with local historians or civil servants, stelae, ritual and theatrical practices, among others, all provide different pieces of the historical puzzle(s) of the investigated topic. How do we, anthropologists, make use of these historical accounts? How do they dialogue between themselves, and with our academic writing?
‘I never knew my Dad experienced that!’ Reflections on a collaborative oral history project with Hmong youth and elders in upland northern Vietnam.
Sarah Delisle McGill University
Sarah Turner McGill University
Oral history has been argued to be an important tool for studying the “hidden histories and geographies, the place-based lives and memories of disadvantages people, minority groups, and others whole views have been ignored or whose lives pass quietly, producing few if any written records” (George and Stratford 2016: 190-191). Hmong ethnic minority populations in Vietnam’s northern borderlands have a long history of oral tradition and story-telling. Yet with an historical absence of literacy and no self-created written archives, the first-hand knowledge and experiences of Hmong elders is seldom communicated beyond their kin. Therefore, at the request of a Hmong community member we developed a collaborative, intergenerational oral history project that would allow stories of Hmong elders to be shared with others on the internet. This project including training Hmong youth in research methods, helping advance their English skills, and working towards inter-generational knowledge transfer.
Silences and amnesia: Historical memory and its hollows in the Lao highlands
Pierre Petit Université Libre de Bruxelles
Historical anthropology usually proceeds by generating new information through fieldwork and archival research. Taking a reflexive stance, the present chapter will rather question the silences and hollows of the research process, with a view to discuss their potential – and paradoxical – value.
The Archive, the Road, and the Field Between: Towards a Geography of Vietnam’s Black River Region
Christian Lentz University of North Carolina
This paper offers a methodological reflection on the ethnographic research underlying my book, Contested Territory: ?i?n Biên Ph? and the Making of Northwest Vietnam (2019). Whereas the book’s empirical foundation rests on archival documents from Vietnam and France, “The Archive, the Road, and the Field Between” discusses the fieldwork conducted to collect those documents and situate them in the context of the Black River region. Spread over more than a decade, this ethnographic fieldwork was multi-sited, involving lengthy visits to national archives in Hanoi, ?i?n Biên’s province library, offices in ?i?n Biên Ph?, travel around the region, and immersion in the social life of rural, montane villages. The paper focuses on several moments in the longer research process when ethnographic engagement offered crucial insight into the historic themes treated in the book, ranging from an interview with a farmer accompanied by five officials to an encounter with veteran in Hanoi and informal labor exchanges with archival leadership. Each moment led me to consider my own positionality as a young American researcher working in a former conflict zone. Taken together, these experiences generated a sense of place, empathic understanding, reciprocal commitments, and appreciation for ethnolinguistic diversity that both informed the book project and, I argue, renew a geographic dialog between history and anthropology in the highlands of Southeast Asia.
These two panels revolve around germane questions of the foremost interest when addressing the upland societies of Communist Asia: How can scholars manage to competently access information about the past? How do local societies produce and store their story in their own terms, terms that more often than not are ill at ease with national and Western categories? How is the memory of the past transmitted –or not – and following what logic? Regarding oral testimony, who are exactly the ‘wise ones’ –or the reliable ones? –researchers are routinely directed at for their interviews? How can one handle the oft-reported male authority on historical information and how can historical narratives better reflect the different voices behind the authoritative versions of those in charge? How should one cope with key informants but also with gatekeepers when working with minorities under authoritarian regimes? How can historical statements be addressed as situated speech acts and not mere data? And how is one to capture history-in-the making through events, rituals and performances rather than interviews and surveys, including the telling of biographies and micro-stories symptomatic of ancient processes? If written archives are the staple of historians, how do social scientists use them? Do they proceed the same way as historians, or do they develop a specific method and agenda? How does archival research intersect with fieldwork, and what kind of added value might it bring to it? Is access to the national or regional archives restricted for political motives? If so, what are the costs and the possible compromises needed to access them? And in sheer terms of positionality, by what right can Western and/or ‘White’ scholars dig into the past of societies other than their own?… Facing such minefields, this double panel is intended as a guiding discussion for those confronted with such multifarious and at time, daunting challenges. It is based on experiences and reflections rooted in decades of work in the three Marxist- Leninist states of the subcontinent who share portions of the Southeast Asian Massif: China, Vietnam, and Laos.