Creating a frontier cultural project in the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands: Miao (Hmong) ethnic minority livelihood struggles.

Authors: Charles Solberg*, McGill University, Sarah Turner, McGill University
Topics: Asia
Keywords: frontier, sustainable livelihoods, China
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Napoleon C1, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In Southwest China’s geopolitical frontier, ethnic minority communities struggle to create sustainable livelihoods while being increasingly drawn into the state’s gaze and expected to ‘be modern’ in specific ways. Here, communities function on the edge of state power, cultural politics, and economic margins. In the midst of an agrarian transition, remote minority farmers now need cash income for farming inputs that were previously found organically on-farm, as well as for relatively new schooling, health, and transportation costs. Concurrently, ‘getting ahead’ increasingly involves striving to be Han, while shedding ethnic minority identities. This paper is rooted in ethnographic fieldwork in a minority Hmong (Miao) village of 300 people in Wenshan prefecture, on the Vietnam border, during summer 2017. We seek to explore and better understand how Hmong villagers have coped with the pressures of an agrarian transition and modernisation processes, and highlight the role circular labour migration has played in reshaping local livelihoods, customary practices, and family structures for those ‘left behind’. Unlike the case in much literature on rural-urban migration in China, we find that financial capital accumulation is not the goal of most village migrant. Instead, culturally rooted local livelihoods continue to be placed front and centre of household ambitions, albeit with a specific modern struggle. As such, Hmong farmers blend state expectations with cultural norms to create their own frontier cultural project.

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