The Art of Ethnography: A Chinese “Miao Album” by David M. Deal and Laura Hostetler


Seattle : University of Washington Press , 2006 .

The Art of Ethnography is a critical examination of a complete “Miao album” (Miaoman tu or Bai Miao tu), a primarily visual genre that emerged in 18th-century imperial China during the Qing Dynasty (1636–1911). Bound editions of hand-painted illustrations coupled with handwritten classical Chinese poetry and prose, Miao albums were produced for predominantly Manchu and Han nobles, scholars, and gentry. These officially commissioned albums depict ethnic minority groups living in the southern and southwestern frontier regions of the Manchu-ruled empire and arose in tandem with the awakening of ethnic consciousness and state building in late imperial China. As such, they present a uniquely valuable lens through which to view both non-Western ethnography and colonialism in the early modern period (here defined as 1500–1800). Hostetler's study contributes to the burgeoning literature on non-Western colonialisms on two analytical fronts: firstly, as a micro-level exploration of the albums' significance in relation to Manchu rule and “internal orientalism” in late imperial China, and secondly, as a macro-level comparison which argues that ethnographic representations of the “Other” during the early modern period of colonial and imperial expansion were not a uniquely Western phenomenon (xxii–xxiii).

This attractive monograph reproduces an anonymous and untitled Miao album depicting 82 distinct ethnic groups in Guizhou sometime after 1797. Each entry consists of a hand-painted illustration, a poem, and a textual description of the group. Interestingly, the original copy of the album has never been located. The late China scholar David M. Deal, known for his early ethnic studies of the peoples of southwestern China, received a copy of this album in 1976. Before Professor Deal passed away in 2001, he completed the first translation of the difficult text and began his collaboration with Laura Hostetler. As coauthor, Hostetler refined the translation with special attention to the classical Chinese poems that accompany each illustration, annotated each of the 82 entries, and wrote the extensive introduction.

In classical Chinese, Miao has a double meaning. Used generally, it refers to non-Han ethnic groups in south and southwest China. More specifically, it refers to the Miao ethnic minority group itself. As Hostetler is careful to note, Miao is still used today to identify one of the PRC's officially recognized minority nationality groups (shaoshuminzu). The name is highly contested, however, as evidenced by the fact that outside of China today, the name Hmong is preferred. Hostetler notes that Miao albums exist from several areas in south and southwest China, but it is the Guizhou Miao albums that have been most studied by Western scholars.

In the introduction, Hostetler outlines the sociopolitical context of early modern ethnography both inside and outside of imperial China, discusses the process through which the Miao albums were produced, and compares the albums on an international scale. The introduction also includes vivid color illustrations from extant Miao albums and other non-European ethnographic representations that demonstrate the visual vibrancy of the artwork and the “Other-ing” of the albums' subject matter.

In general, the visual and textual ethnographic content of the entries focuses on information that is most familiar and most useful to the majority Han culture. The primary topics concern Confucian values and their ensuing rituals (li), and the extent to which each minority ethnic group was assimilated to the cultural “Chinese” core. Hostetler presents the main textual content in four superimposed layers that simultaneously name, locate, visualize, and distance the group from the Han-dominated cultural and political center (xxxix–xli). The emphasis on Confucian norms is evident in both the illustrations and text, as they focus on the “civilized” and “civilizing” customs of the Han majority (see Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers, Stevan Harrell, ed., University of Washington Press, 1995). Consequently, courtship and marriage, death rituals, festivals, and religion receive the most attention. Local diet, language, and livelihoods, among other aspects of daily life, are also relevant, though less frequently represented.

Importantly, Hostetler's comprehensive and well-honed introduction argues for the worldwide existence and importance of internal, non-Western ethnographic representations of nonindigenous peoples as a basic part of early modern state building and colonialism. She not only dissects the ethnographic and pictorial representation practices in the Miao albums, but also compares them to primarily visual modes of representation in other non-European states and empires in early modern history, including the Tokugawa period in Japan, and the Ottoman Empire. Such comparison further strengthens the argument of her first monograph, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (University of Chicago Press, 2001). In Qing Colonial Enterprise, Hostetler argued that the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty practiced colonialism in their efforts to expand their geographical and ideological power and control, demonstrating how “internal orientalism” was a structural part of state building in early modern China. As a result, the intimate links between early modern Chinese “internal orientalism,” and the emergence and spread of modern Chinese nationalism(s) in the 20th century become more evident (see also Louisa Schein, “Gender and Internal Orientalism in China,”Modern China 1997:69–98). Taken together, both of Hostetler's monographs work to challenge the Eurocentric basis of colonial studies that followed the pioneering work of Edward Said's Orientalism (1979). As Hostetler notes, “the very possibility of “non-Western” colonialism is only beginning to be considered” (l), and “illustrated ethnographic albums are part and parcel of an ethnography of expansion that emerged worldwide during the early modern period” (lxi).

Hostetler's insightful use of this Miao album attests to the salience of recently emerging studies of non-Western colonialisms. Further, this innovative analysis highlights the importance of the visual in representations aimed at knowing and ultimately controlling minority border communities. The rich illustrations provide visual ethnographic detail which is difficult to achieve in written accounts and also draw the reader's attention to debates about ethnographic representation. By its nature, each entry holds valuable historic and ethnographic detail about the subjects, authors, and viewers of the albums in the 18th century. Every entry also raises questions about the extent to which members of the ethnic groups that are represented influenced these observations.

Lacking in Hostetler's analysis is an examination of the fact that Miao albums were commissioned not by Han officials, but by the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty. While the Manchu generally promoted Confucian values and enlisted ethnically Han magistrates to govern and report on the border regions of the empire, they often strategically emphasized their own ethnic distinction from the majority Han. Along the Qing empire's territorial borders, this emphasis on ethnic distinction was often exemplified by a promotion of ethnic affinity between the Manchu and other frontier peoples. The Manchu based this ethnic affinity on issues such as religious differences, which offered a distinct contrast to the Confucian cultural value system of the majority Han. Relations among Manchu, Mongols, and Tibetans in the northern and western frontier areas offer some of the best examples of Manchu camaraderie with frontier peoples. Such examples illustrate that the Manchu-ruled Qing state appears in many ways to have cajoled cooperation from minority ethnic groups, rather than promoting forceful assimilation. The Miao albums can be viewed as a valuable example of this less overtly aggressive project that aimed to consolidate and legitimate Manchu rule. A more detailed examination of this facet is warranted.

The Art of Ethnography provides fertile groundwork for continued research into the internal colonial practices of the Qing empire, as well as other non-Western ethnographic practices of the early modern period. Hostetler's analysis is therefore not only valuable in the context of Chinese studies, but also offers an insightful platform for support analyses in much broader contexts. This work succeeds in raising significant questions about the connections between ethnic awareness and the rise of modern nationalism, both inside and outside of China.

From historical and postcolonial studies to anthropological and museum studies, Hostetler and Deal's creative and critical use of this 18th-century Miao album will be widely valued. The monograph provides both a methodological and theoretical basis for analyzing and understanding the worldwide colonial encounter, the construction of ethnicity, the ethnographic representation of the Other, and the making of multi-ethnic states since the early modern period.