Visualizing an Imagined Community

Following the three year anniversary of the Urumqi protests and the recent supposed Hotan plane hijacking attempt, which the Uyghur Human Rights Project warns should be viewed with extreme caution, it seems pertinent to introduce a little of the visuals behind China’s rhetoric of ethnic harmony. It is the same rhetoric of ethnic harmony, also called Han Chauvinism (大汉主义), that provides the foundation for constructing not only the imagined community (see Benedict Anderson) of China’s 56 ethnic groups, but is at the core of party discourse on the separatist threat, the terrorists and Dalai clique of Tibetan or Uyghur conflict. The party works hard to indoctrinate the population into believing that China’s ethnic minorities have benefited greatly from the largess, the affirmative action, the development of periphery, and that any grumbling is out of kilter with reality, a slap in the face to the Party and the PLA who freed these backward minority people from the abusive Khans ruling over them, in the case of the Northwest, or the authoritarianism of a few centuries of Dalai Lama exploitation, as the CCP’s official narrative was recently parroted by a French Communist in the online publication Dissident Voice. The problem with the narrative on ethnic unity is that it is rife with chauvinism. In the sense of colonialism introduced my Michael Hechter, it represents a kind of Internal Colonialism. However, this is certainly not a transgression that the UK or the US is free from, but theirs is not the topic of inquiry here today. I merely want to recognize the atrocities committed against the native populations of the United States, and how they have been white washed by mainstream education and media; the myth of the Old West and the founding of America has been carefully crafted discursively to create an alternate history and identity for the native populations of the United States, in much the same way, according to a number of experts, as is taking place in China concerning their more contentious ethnic groups today.

As I mentioned above, the narrative presented by the central government is one of a unified nation, where all 56 ethnic groups are living together in harmony. This is the message one gets from New Year Eve Gala presentations, anniversaries or special celebrations, when the Chinese nation tunes in to CCTV and other channels that simulcast programing featuring the country’s myriad ethnic groups represented in traditional dress, singing, dancing, and entertaining. But what about when, as James Fallows and others have written about, the 56 minorities in traditional dress are actually 56 Han in costume? What about these representations, those performed or inscribed, museumized or broadcast, how are they understood by the represented individuals? What is the logic behind official representations of minority populations? What is the political and social expediency, for the institution monopolizing the symbolic power to give name and reality, and what is the result, for those thus categorized?

The concern rests particularly when the representation creates a distinct hierarchy, whereby the designated group or individual is stripped of the agency to participate in the realm of creating labels and categories, the very labels and categories designed to define and corral them. This is linguistic persecution, what Zizek, and others, calls symbolic violence. But what force allows for the designation to gain resonance with the population? If it does not represent a material phenomenon, which presumably it does not if it needs to be frequently broadcast or imprinted in public-as it is-what allows for it to gain resonance then? It is this very reproduction in public which produces a kind of forced reality, and one that after generations of reproduced symbols begins to form a power of its own, according to Bourdieu.

Deconstructing the narratives, performances, and inscribed images of representation, those that results in symbolic violence, is complicated. It requires a careful reading of the material and symbolic, the social and historical, it is a semiotic and phenomenological process. Below I will not delve into a conversation with the images. I will save that for a future post. Below are a series of posters, pictures taken in several cities in Xinjiang in 2011. They tell a story, an official story, part of the way China chooses to define itself; according to the anthropologist and China expert Dru Gladney, this is “a point that is critical to China’s representation of itself to itself, and to the international sphere (Gladney, 1994: 96).” Therefore, in order to unpack the material ramifications of these representations qua claims of ethnic abuse, human rights violations, and the like or to analyze China’s discussion of its status within broader transnational conflicts qua the ‘war on terror’ or cross border disputes between Tajikistan or Pakistan, or finally in order to simply understand how a regime relies on images to promote a certain narrative, I present the following images for consideration. This post will be followed with a deeper discussion in the future.

“Recognition of Chinese Nationalities”
“All Ethnic Groups Create China”

“Recognition of an Ancestral Homeland”
“Our Common Home”
“China’s long history is a shared history for all the peoples of this ancestral land, living and developing together in one homeland”

“Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment.”

“The military loves the people. The people embraces the military. The military and the people united are one family.”

Gladney, Dru (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

2 Responses to Visualizing an Imagined Community

  1. Pingback: Deconstructing ‘Uyghur’ Volume I « michaelcaster

  2. Pingback: Perusing Walls in China: Posters and Symbolic Power « michaelcaster

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