An old Chinese saying goes, “Those on top have policies; those below have counterstrategies” (Shang you zhengce, xia you duice). This adage sums up several millennia of relationships between East Asian imperial regimes, which ruled from the productive and powerful center in China, and their poorer, less powerful subjects living in the borderlands. It is still true in the twenty-first century: the People’s Republic tries to consolidate its control over its border regions and solidify the loyalty of border peoples to the regime, while border peoples (now called shaoshu minzu, or “minority nationalities”) deal with the state’s efforts in various ways. They do not always resist or always accommodate, but they act strategically, joining in when it appears advantageous or when they have no choice, but resisting when it appears intolerable not to. Since the regime they deal with assumes itself to be morally as well as economically and materially stronger, peoples on the periphery face the prospect not just of being ruled, but of being absorbed into the more “civilized” culture and polity of the center.
This kind of relationship is not new. The last empire with an actual emperor, the Qing (1644–1911), was not even ruled by ethnic Chinese, but rather by Manchus, originally a peripheral people from the northeast. But in its southwestern domains, the Qing, like its predecessors, assumed the moral superiority of the center and attempted to balance the advantages of letting peripheral peoples be, against the costs of trying to consolidate their control and assure the peripheral people’s loyalties.
One of the peripheral peoples the Qing regime had considerable trouble controlling were the Zhongjia, a Tai-speaking group of Guizhou, now incorporated into the Buyi or Bouyei minzu, or “nationality.” Well before the Qing, the Zhongjia were formulating counterstrategies as both Chinese immigration and imperial policy impinged on their livelihoods and social structures. By the time Jodi Weinstein’s narrative begins, in the mid-Qing, the Zhongjia were practicing the familiar mix of going along and joining the civilization with resisting and defending their local autonomy and their own livelihoods.
Weinstein tells the story of the counterstrategies of the Zhongjia in the eighteenth century. She begins with the history of Qing attempts to consolidate their rule, switching from indirect rule through native leaders to direct rule by appointed magistrates. She then gives us a rich account of how some Zhongjia resisted, indirectly through schemes of trickery and evasion and more directly through rebellion, in the Nanlong area in 1797. Importantly, though, not all Zhongjia resisted, and not all resistance was direct confrontation, let alone military confrontation.
This story points out to us, in clear and lively fashion, how little has changed even as so much has changed. The People’s Republic is orders of magnitude more powerful than the Qing state; it can deploy not only force but also persuasion much more pervasively than could its Qing predecessor. But it still faces the same problems, and peoples of the borderlands buy in when they see it as advantageous or resist when they see it as necessary.
This story is also important for another reason. The state narrative of the People’s Republic stresses that the Qing was a Chinese regime, an earlier version of themselves. That the rulers were Manchus is of little import in this telling of history; Manchus were then and are now one of the many groups that makes up the Chinese nation. This state narrative has been strongly challenged by advocates of the “New Qing History,” who are much more inclined to see the Qing as a multinational empire than they are to see it as a Chinese nation that happened to be ruled by a monarch in sumptuous robes instead of by a committee of bureaucrats in dark, pinstriped suits and red neckties. But Weinstein’s book tells a more complex story: the Qing emperor and the twenty-first-century bureaucrats were facing the same problems: ethnic and cultural difference combined with unequal power leading to the disinclination of ruled people to submit uncritically, but leaving open to them various strategies of accommodation and resistance.
Finally, the book is noteworthy because it introduces another historical narrative alongside those coming from the center and from outside critics: the narrative of the Zhongjia themselves. As Weinstein examines the different stories of the rebellion coming from the official Qing history and the oral history collected from the rebels’ descendants, we see clearly that not only are policies from above opposed by counterstrategies from below, but also historical narratives from above are countered by different stories from below. Weinstein’s sensitive and multifaceted account of one small corner of Guizhou in the eighteenth century helps us, in the words of Prasenjit Duara, rescue history from the nation.