What's your thesis? What did you accomplish?
Well, isn't that the question?
When I started my dissertation, I think the main issue was: How and when did Yao people, who live in South China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, first adopt Daoist practices? How did Daoism function in Yao society?
The question then went beyond Daoism. There was more in common between Yao and Chinese culture than simply the ritual traditions they practiced: their cosmology, their festive calendar, their pantheon of deities with its heavenly hierarchy, their system of ritual practices, and their texts, which were all written in a variant of Chinese, marked by a combination of literary, vernacular, and even southern Chinese and Yao dialectal elements.
Jacques Lemoine, who wrote Yao Ceremonial Paintings, went so far as to argue that the core of Yao culture was "borrowed." And everywhere I looked people were making similar claims. Chinese anthropologists, writing in the 1930's and 40's, also maintained that in every instance where they noticed what they took to be Han practices in a Yao context, Yao must have learned them from Han people. Inherent in this view was the belief that Yao were primitive; Han, on the other hand, were civilized.
Michel Strickmann, a sinologist and specialist of Daoism, and the man often credited with the discovery of Yao Daoism (some Qing Dynasty local histories as early as the 18th century already mention this), also embarked on this line of reasoning. In his brief article, "The Tao Among the Yao: Taoism and the Sinification of South China" (really the article that got me started thinking about Yao), Strickmann questioned how these texts came into the hands of impoverished villagers living in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
This was the question that was often asked: How did these texts, written in classical Chinese, pass from ethnicity to ethnicity, and beyond Chinese borders. In this formulation, Chinese writing was always confined within specific territorial and ethnic borders, even though it had been used for several hundred years in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Since Daoism is so inextricably linked to Chinese writing (a major difference with Buddhism, which has several linguistic media), it also enticed people into the same kind of pre-conceptions--Daoism and Chinese writing were all strictly Chinese phenomena, and people generally meant "Han" Chinese.
I fell into a similar trap: I remember being surprised when someone told me Yao in Northern Vietnam--known as Landian or Mun Yao-- shared a Daoist tradition in common with Landian in South China. It never struck me as odd that Yao in Guangxi or Yunnan, directly across the border from Vietnam, practiced those same rituals. It was only the fact that this Chinese religion could also be found on the other side of the border.
Why is that strange? The whole concept of a national border is a figment of the early modern period, when the global map was being divided up into separate and distinct nations occupied by single peoples, or at least ruled by single, autonomous entities.
I was imposing my modern mindset on history. I couldn't get past the conceptual block imposed on me by the modern map. And yet, peoples have crossed for millenia--back and forth--what are now perceived to be national borders.
I also did not consider it strange that Han villagers in the same regions had similar practices. I never asked how it was that impoverished Han villagers might have obtained Chinese writing. Most people in the pre-modern world, including in China, did not read and write. There is nothing genetic about writing--that is, writing is not somehow inherent to a culture, part of the essence of a people. It is absurd to say Chinese culture is "borrowed" in the case of Yao and "natural" in the case of Han.
Chinese writing was originally conceived as part of the politico-religious, divinatory, practices of ancient kings; they used it to communicate with their ancestors. Throughout much of Chinese history it was the culture of the official elite.
Recent scholarship has shown that certain religious traditions in China are connected to specific regions, and are practiced by a variety of groups in those regions. That is to say that in those regions, Han, Yao, Miao, Zhuang, etc. have similar practices. Moreover, religious traditions travel with the people who practice and believe in them.
So, back to my original question: how and when did Yao become Daoists. Strickmann, followed by Lemoine, had argued that it was by the thirteenth century, and was part of a larger process by which native peoples in South China were sinified. He viewed Daoist priests as missionaries of the state; what they were transmitting was not merely a religious tradition; it was Chineseness--Chinese literacy and a very specific socio-political structure. They were representatives of Chinese officialdom, and were helping the state to absorb--and domesticate--indigenous populations of what is now South China.
I have no major problems with Strickmann's formulation, except that it places all agency in the hands of Chinese officials, Daoist priests, Buddhist monks, etc. It is also short on evidence.
Strickmann's primary evidence was the ritual manuals discovered in Yao villages in Thailand by Shiratori Yoshiro, and re-produced in the book, Yao Documents. He noticed several motifs in these ritual manuals that were indicative of Daoist ritual movements that first appeared during the Song Dynasty (960-1279)--movements that were patronized by Chinese emperors.
However, the earliest of the Yao ritual manuals come from the 18th century, about the same time Chinese sources first begin to speak of Yao Daoism. Nonetheless, they are probably copies of older materials, and some of them can even be found in the Daoist canon (Daozang).
As I write in the introduction to my dissertation: However, the early provenance of a text is not necessarily an indication of the use of that text by a given community. Conversely, lack of concrete evidence from earlier periods does not prove that Yao Daoism is a Qing phenomenon—merely that it is difficult (if not impossible) to say when Daoist traditions were revealed to
One Yao document (or type of document), known as the "Charter of Emperor Ping and the Passport (really Roster or Announcement) for Crossing the Mountains" appears to have an earlier provenance than the Daoist ritual manuals. Strickmann and Lemoine believed it to be an official document issued to the Yao people by the Song Emperor, Lizong, in the year 1260, which by the way, was the same year that Khubilai rose to power as the great Khan of the Mongol people, ten years after the Mongols first reached South China and Southeast Asia, and nineteen years before they defeated the Southern Song, whose capital was then in Hangzhou.
Strickmann, and Lemoine more explicitly, viewed the Passport--the one document collected by Shiratori that was not Daoist--as evidence of Yao/State contact. In so doing, they ignored Daoist imagery (admittedly only in later extant versions) and mythological motifs in the Passport, as well as its ritual uses in Yao society. Although the Passport was probably written after 1260, that year was indeed a year of significance for Yao/State contacts, and yet it certainly was not the first such contact.
Most likely, the Passport memorializes actual bonds between Yao leaders and the Chinese emperor (or his official representatives), or at least harkons back to an earlier time when such bonds were made. It thus epitomizes a specific type of relationship between center and periphery, capital and hinterland.
The very name Yaoren (Yao people) was first used in official Chinese sources in the 11th century to refer to specific people(s) living in the mountains of what is now Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hunan who were not part of the administrative units (prefectures and counties) established by the state, and therefore did not pay taxes. An earlier term--moyao--applied to people(s) in the same region--Hunan, Guangxi, and Guangdong--pointed directly at specific claims made about exemption from taxation and corvee because of the meritorious deeds of Yao/Moyao ancestors. The Passport makes precisely the same claim: because of the merit obtained by our primogenitor, the dragon-dog Panhu, all later generations were exempted from taxation and were granted other privileges, such as the freedom to live an autonomous existence in the mountains unperturbed by Chinese officials and powerful families.
Now we come to Wulingren (a person from Wuling), the name I use on this site. By the 12th century, some Chinese officials recognized a connection between Yao people, who were by then scattered throughout South China all the way to Hanoi, and groups who had earlier occupied a specific region of Western Hunan, known as Wuling. One 12th century text claims: Yao people are the descendents of the dog Panhu, from Wuling, known as the Wuling Man.
There were Man (the a is pronounced like the sound you make when a doctor looks inside your mouth, like the o in "fog") with various geographic designations from all over what is now Hunan, Hubei, and outlying areas--Wuling Man, Lingling Man, Changsha Man, etc. The important thing to keep in mind here is that these are not necessarily different subgroups, in a modern anthropological sense; rather, different Man are defined and distinguished with respect to their territorial relation to specific administrative units (commanderies), i.e. Wuling Commandery.
By the 3rd or 4th century--a period of narrative and ritual codification--a story about these Man was first recorded in written sources, for the most part, the same as the one told in later Yao documents, such as the Passport. Some of the names are different, but the narrative is the same. It told of how a dog named Panhu, in the service of Gao Xin, one of the legendary emperors in ancient China, had killed an enemy ruler. Because of his merit, he was able to marry the emperor's daughter. The couple, part wild and part imperial, settled down on a mountain in Wuling, where they had 12 children, 6 boys and 6 girls--the origin of the 12 Man/Yao clans.
This story was used both by Chinese officials and by Man/Yao leaders. From the Chinese perspective, it situated Man/Yao within the state. From the Man/Yao perspective, it legitimized their autonomy from it. Ultimately, every later dispute about taxation, and the position of Man/Yao with respect to the state (an empire), harkened back to specific bonds entailed by what I refer to as the Panhu myth.
What did I accomplish? I think I provided the reader with a cultural and politico-religious history of Yao/Official contacts throughout the history of imperial China. As I explored the various narratives told by and about autochthonous peoples in South China, as well as the labels used to represent them, I also highlighted the emergence of the Chinese state--that is, the administrative network that linked diverse regions with the capital.