Dai in the “Land of Tropical Miasma”: Encounters of Early Chinese Anthropology in Yunnan
Keywords:Southwestern China, Yunnan, Anthropology, tropical miasma, tropical landscapes, Dai people, modernity
In early- to mid-twentieth century China, the tropical landscapes and indigenous peoples of southern Yunnan entered public consciousness in two different modes of representation: as a desolate and unfamiliar frontier fraught with the peril of diseases and in desperate need of environmental and social engineering; or, as a haven of fertile land with an ideal of harmonious society. In the process of making new senses of this tropical border region, anthropology played a major role as Chinese anthropologists working in this newly institutionalized discipline turned the Dai, traditionally regarded by Han people as a marginal group living within a dangerous land of zhangqi (tropical miasma), into an ethnographic subject. From Ling Chunsheng’s vision of environmental modification and medical advancement as a twofold project to engineer a new landscape and a new people, to Tian Rukang’s cultural critique that imagined the way of life of Dai people as an antidote for modernity, this article examines early Chinese anthropological discourses on the Dai people and their lived environment. I investigate how technological and epistemological changes fundamentally reshaped the meaning of tropical landscapes in China, a multi-ethnic country of a vast and diverse territory struggling to rejuvenate within a new global order, and I ponder the symbolic and material consequences of this recent history.
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