Rescuing People from the Nation – and from Oblivion

Roger Casas

Catherine Churchman’s first monograph is an extraordinary piece of work, and it is so for many reasons. The first is that it is concerned with populations that have traditionally received little attention from academics. The culture of the Li and Lao, as they are somehow uncritically designated in Chinese sources, flourished in the fringes of the Middle Kingdom empires during the first millennium AD, only to disappear thereafter, leaving almost no trace in local memory.

Despite the relative popularity of the giant bronze drums regularly unearthed in the region between the Red and the Pearl Rivers, in present-day southwest China and northern Vietnam very little is known about those who made them; in fact, we do not even know what they called themselves (p. 13). In spite of this gap, early on in her book Churchman links the Li and Lao to groups speaking languages that are included in the Tai-Kadai language family by contemporary linguists. These languages are still widely spoken in southwest China and mainland Southeast Asia (p. 9).

The Introduction of the book offers an insightful reflection on the vicissitudes of these peoples as historical subjects, and in particular on their incorporation into the framework of nationalist histories in China and Vietnam. This incorporation has meant that the Li and Lao ‘have been denied a voice in both of these mainstream narratives’ (p. 10). Churchman engages the shortcomings of such nationalist histories early on, chastising their neglect of the role that ‘peripheral’ peoples may have played in the construction of the present-day ‘national cultures’.

Suspicion regarding linguistic and methodological habits on the part of specialists is ever-present throughout the book – starting with the questioning of the indiscriminate use and abuse of the word ‘Chinese’ (p. 15). Churchman criticizes the practice, common in Chinese historiography, of ‘upstreaming’ or projecting contemporary ethnic or cultural classifications (in this case, the present-day Zhuang, one of the 56 minzu (民族), the official ethnic categories used in China today) into the past to interpret texts, ‘a bias on ethnic continuity over extremely long periods’ (p. 13). Instead, she emphasises the fluidity of categories and the absence of a clear-cut boundary between Chinese and ‘barbarians’ in the past. Another inherited notion Churchman condemns is the so-called ‘externalist historiography’, a colonial practice (and later academic as well) that identifies Chinese or French colonization as the main civilizing forces behind ‘all cultural innovations and advances’ in Southeast Asia, ‘denying indigenous Southeast Asians any agency or creativity of their own’ (p. 16). In order to counter this approach, she proposes the utilization of a ‘Southeast Asian historiography method,’ that is ‘a view from the south’ (p. 19), as a more useful way of approaching the study of the Li and Lao.

However, The People Between the Rivers is much more than a mere critique of historiographical conceptions among part of Chinese, Vietnamese, and western scholarship. Churchman’s endeavour is clearly to lead by example and to offer a lasting contribution to a better understanding of the Li and Lao. After a theoretically dense first chapter, Chapter 2 offers an illuminating cultural and geographical introduction to the region between the Two Rivers, emphasising the differentiated character of the Li and Lao cultures in relation to those of the valleys surrounding them. Chapter 3, ‘Why are the Li and Lao?’, focuses on the ethnonyms used by Chinese historians to categorize populations in the Two Rivers area, discussing the realities that these categorizations allegedly describe. Chapter 4 deals with social and political change among Li and Lao societies. The fifth chapter explores military conflict between these societies and Chinese imperial armies, up to the seventh century, while Chapter 6 offers an account of trade between local groups and the empire, detailing the different kinds of commodities exchanged, which included human beings (pp. 149-51). The last chapter of the book describes the rise and fall of three of the most important families in the region, relying on Chinese historical works, but skilfully complementing these with other sources. Churchman links the end of the power of these local families with the demise of the independent political structures of the Li and Lao as such.

Contesting traditional images of unavoidable conquest and assimilation into a higher culture or civilization, Churchman convincingly argues that the several centuries of contacts and exchanges between the Li and Lao and the successive imperial dynasties not only failed to imply the immediate assimilation of these peoples into ‘Chinese culture’ (another notion the book puts into question), but had the opposite effect of strengthening local institutions. Following the work of Oskar Salemink, she concludes that ‘local leadership in the highlands was actually the product of economic, political, and ritual exchanges with the lowlands’ (p. 22). The difficulty of establishing firm domination over distant lands forced imperial representatives to search for mutually benefiting compromises between the empire and the Li and Lao. If for local chieftains these alliances ‘offered the chance for prestige, self-enrichment, and consolidation of their rule over their own people’ (p. 118), this process in turn led to the development of vernacular forms of imperial administration in the area, in the sense of an ‘increasing resemblance of Chinese administrators to Li and Lao leaders’ (p. 112).

In the opinion of this reviewer, Churchman’s investigation unfolds as a veritable lesson in historical research methodology. Even when she makes brilliant use of both ancient and contemporary sources in languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese, the scarcity of data is such that she must look into other fields of expertise in order to fill in the silences in the written and archaeological sources. Turning need into a virtue, and thanks to her meticulous investigative work, Churchman succeeds at reconstructing the features of Li and Lao societies and their historical development; and she does so by producing an interdisciplinary narrative that draws on contributions from disparate disciplines such as textual analysis, geography, military and mining sciences, botany, and zoology. There is a lot of speculation here, and specialists on the region will surely find matter for contention. Nevertheless, Churchman treads this ground with skill and authority, and the evidence is always presented in a well-argued and convincing manner. The mastery she displays in dealing with all kinds of sources concerning the Two Rivers region is such that she corrects not only alleged interpretive mistakes on the part of modern authors, but also what she perceives as errata in ancient Chinese historical books.

The presentation and discussion of the argument clearly makes this a work that is aimed at specialists, and in many places the affluence of place and person names is such that one needs a map to not get lost. However, Churchman presents her argument clearly and in a very engaging way. In those sections where historical narrative takes precedence over textual analysis and archaeological interpretation, as in the account of the last powerful families of the Li and Lao in the last chapter, or in the pages devoted to animal and vegetal merchandises, the book becomes an enjoyable read.

In short, The People Between the Rivers is a recommended read not only for specialists on the history of this particular region, but also for any historian looking for outstanding examples of how to apply a strict methodology to elaborate plausible hypotheses, in contexts where data is scarce. In spite of the inevitable limitations caused by this problem, Churchman is able to, quoting a Vietnamese historian, put ‘“flesh” on the mute archaeological “bones”’ (p. 36), demonstrating along the way that it is possible to say much more about the Li and Lao than what is contained in histories determined by nation-building interests. Her work is bound to become a reference for future studies on the region of the Two Rivers; and hopefully it will also spark similar interest within the present-day nation states whose lands the Li and Lao inhabited more than a thousand years ago.