The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

An Anthropological and Historical Study of Ethnic Cultural Resources and Politics in South China

Joint Research Coordinator TSUKADA Shigeyuki

Reserch Theme List


South China, cultural resources, politics


China is a nation in which many ethnic groups, including the Han majority and a number of ethnic minorities, coexist. In the modern and contemporary eras, the cultures of these ethnic groups have continuously been transformed into resources, and at present as the globalization process unfolds this trend continues to advance. In our preceding joint research we were able to clarify to a degree the state of affairs concerning the diversity of cultural resources as well as their creation and change. Based on those results, we have concluded that there is a need to conduct more in-depth investigation concerning the dynamism in the contemporary fluid societies of China's ethnic groups to study how cultures are being transformed into resources and put to use, and which politics are at work here. This project will focus on cultural resources in South China. Among the questions we intend to consider are the following: How are cultures being turned into resources in terms of preservation, development and use? Also, during the process of turning culture into a resource, what kinds of infighting or struggles for influence are apparent among different actors, that is, government at all levels (the central government and local governments), intellectuals, corporations, and the general public (city dwellers, peasants, etc)? We aim to elucidate the situation through joint anthropological and historical research, and to open new vistas for theoretical approaches to cultural resources. ntial elements of subsistence and production as a single target of examination and illuminate its historicity. That is the research objective of this research project and gives the project its sociohistorical design. First we need to realize that we cannot comprehend the various problems resulting from the complex conditions surrounding the coexistence of low-degree industrialized societies that have been treated as special by anthropologists and high-degree industrialized societies. We cannot comprehend changes to those conditions, if the problems are illuminated solely by a one-way impact of concepts that emanated from highly industrialized societies such as globalization or empire.

Research Results

The objective of this research project is to explore how culture is treated for preservation, development and transformation into a useful resource by ethnic groups in contemporary China. We further aim to examine more deeply the dynamics created when politics influences these efforts. During the past 30 months, our group has produced 19 reports. These have focused on the following issues.

  1. Investigation of a wide range of groups and local case studies has clarified the realities and distinctive features of the uses of culture as a resource among the Han, Zhuang, Tai, Dong, Yao, Hani, Yi, Miao, Bouyei, Lahu, and Bai peoples of south China, together with groups from Vietnam and Thailand.
  2. Clarification of issues related to the numerous ways in which cultural resources are utilized. From reports on the latest available information on diverse aspects of cultural resources, including festivals, songs and dances, historical figures, ancestors, ancestral homelands, picturesque scenery, traditions, histories, genealogies, folk knowledge, and ethnological museums, we were able to understand the issues raised when these cultural resources are being exploited.
  3. Clarification of the complexity of conflict and cooperation between "ordinary" urban and rural people, intellectuals and corporations, and all levels of central and local government, for cultural resources. Conflicts are not confined to specific localities. Rather, they have spread widely to the provincial level and beyond. Even where corporations take the lead, government regulates what is happening, and villagers participate; events unfold along lines programmed by the government and corporations. The relationship between government and people may not be clearly dyadic. Sequentially, inhabitants' representatives are lower-ranking government officials.
  4. Both government and intellectuals play important roles in resource exploitation. Ordinary peoples' active participation and awareness of their own cultures have just started. In many cases, they follow along blindly in efforts led by either government or intellectuals to exploit, revise, or create culture. In some instances, the government promotes "creation" of cultural resources regardless of people's own intentions. Our research reveals that the question of for whom exploitation of cultural resources is being undertaken is an important one in China.

Our research has clarified the realities and distinctive features of cultural resource exploitation among ethnic groups in China. Examples include numerous aspects of the transformation of cultural resources, the actors involved in these efforts, and the roles of government and intellectuals. We have also used ethnic group and local case studies to explore how localities are involved in efforts to create a shared national culture, an official history, and the nation itself. In addition, we have begun to better understand the structure of authority and how intellectuals operate in China. Further grasping the complexity of how differently positioned individuals in "ethnic groups" operate in China will deepen understanding of ethnicity there.