Academic Debate on the Ethnic Corridor: An Interview with Sun Hongkai

Sun Hongkai

Sun Hongkai

Sun Hongkai 孙宏开 (1934-) is a professor of linguistics at the Institute of Ethnology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Professor Sun pioneered studies of China’s minority languages in a career spanning more than sixty years of ethnological experience. He was among the first to study the languages of the Tibeto-Burmese and Qiangic branches 羌语支 spoken in the peripheral areas straddling the administrative borders of southern Gansu, western Sichuan, eastern Tibet, Guizhou and Yunnan. This highly diverse cultural region is now called the Ethnic Corridor 民族走廊, a term first used by Fei Xiaotong 费孝通 (1910-2005), the founder of modern Chinese anthropology, to describe the region. Professor Sun worked closely with Fei in the 1970s, as part of the state-sponsored program of ‘ethnic classification’ 民族识别, that was launched in the People’s Republic in the 1950s.

Tommaso Previato earned a joint PhD from the Minzu University of China (in Ethnology) and at Sapienza University of Rome (in Sinology). Based in Beijing, he works as assistant editor for Ming Qing Studies, an annual journal on late imperial and early modern China. His research interests include migration, ethnic relations and ‘hybridization’ in western China’s ‘marginal societies’, especially along the Gansu-Qinghai stretch of the Chinese Silk Road.

In recent years, the Chinese government has frequently referred to ‘economic corridors’ developing out of the transnational agreements for energy supply and market integration. Economic corridors are presented as the means to forge deeper connections between China and its neighbours. Research on China’s Ethnic Corridor has begun to play a part in the Chinese government’s thinking on these matters. Although Ethnic Corridor research is largely overlooked in Western scholarship and media, it is an important field of study in China. For more than forty years, Chinese anthropologists have been studying the history, migration patterns and social and cultural practices of the ethnic groups who live in western China today. Their work has revealed deep and extensive relations among these groups that reach back into ancient times. China’s Party leadership has taken an interest in Ethnic Corridor research because its findings may help to enhance state policies aimed at boosting the economy of the western region. They may also provide reasons for China’s historical ‘presence’ in Southeast and Central Asia.

On 17 February 2015, Professor Sun spoke with Tommaso Previato about the minority peoples of western China and Ethnic Corridor research. The interview lasted more than two hours, during which Professor Sun explained the intricate process by which the Chinese government came to formally recognise fifty-six national groups (with a Han majority of ninety-one percent and fifty-five ethnic minorities making up the remaining nine percent). This process first began in the mid-1950s. It continued into the second half of the 1980s.

The account presented here summarises key issues raised by Professor Sun in the course of the interview. It first appeared in Italian on cinaforum. We thank Alessandra Cappelletti and Tommaso for giving us permission to publish this English version. – The Editors



Tibetan Herders in Lhagang, Sichuan, August 2014 by Tommaso Previato

Tibetan Herders in Lhagang, Sichuan, August 2014. Photograph:  Tommaso Previato

The launch of the national ethnic classification project in the 1950s led you to work closely with celebrated social scientists such as Fei Xiaotong and Li Shaoming. What  was the ‘spirit of research’ at the time and was it crucial in establishing ‘ethnic corridor’ studies as a new research field?

Li Shaoming 李绍明 (1933-2009) and I are of the same age. We first met in 1957 in the Qiang 羌 majority areas. He was conducting research  on historical and social issues while my interests were entirely in linguistics. Fei Xiaotong was our teacher. He was a generation older than us. In 1952, he taught courses on ethnic policies and ran a survey course on ethnic minorities at Peking University.

We met under these circumstances and over time, we started to work collaboratively on various projects. Later, Fei Xiaotong was transferred to the Institute of Ethnology at CASS. I remember that in 1957 he was labeled a ’right-wing intellectual’ and several years later during the Cultural Revolution he was punished for having committed ‘counter-revolutionary’ crimes. For a long time, Fei Xiaotong, together with other ‘old school’ ethnologists like Pan Guangdan 潘光旦 (1899-1967) and Lin Yaohua 林耀华 (1910-2000) were confined to doing simple translation jobs. In 1962, when the Sino-Indian war broke out, he translated several foreign documents on the ethnic groups of the border area between China and India. It was because he was prevented from conducting his own research  that he started to show some interest in what I was doing.

In March 1976, when I was sent to southeastern Tibet to analyse the Menbo 门巴, Lhoba 珞巴 and Digaro 僜 minorities, his name was still on the list of ‘cow-demons and snake-spirits’ 牛鬼蛇神 [the invective used against perceived ‘enemies of socialism’ during the Cultural Revolution]. I discovered seven new languages that year: three in Muli County 木里县, inhabited by a majority of Primi people 普米, and four in the neighbouring area of Kanding 康定. I reported my research findings to Fei Xiatong who began wondering about the reasons behind the proliferation of so many languages ​​in the region.

Two years later, I was appointed by the Sichuan Ethnic Affairs Commission 四川省民族事务委员会 to conduct research on the Baima 白马 people. Historians believed that they were the descendants of the ancient Di 氐, one of the greatest ‘barbarian’ tribes in Chinese history in the period of the Three Kingdoms and Six Dynasties (220-589). The Di had established their own kingdom in an area that is now Gansu and Sichuan. Historical sources made no mention about the local dialects spoken by the Di, so it was difficult to define their linguistic affiliation. Several academics including Li Shaoming, Miao Yue 繆钺, Meng Wentong 蒙文通 and others at Sichuan University, came to the view that the Di were the ancient ancestors of the Baima.

Fei Xiaotong saw the value of the findings that I and others had produced. What was unfortunate was that in those years, for obvious political reasons, he was kept in a state of semi-confinement and was unable to undertake any field research. He always waited for me to come back from my fieldwork. He would then come to my office and ask me questions about the new data I had gathered.

[Professor Sun then vividly recounts a whole sequence of events that led him to become involved in the state-sponsored ethnic classification program, which enabled him to work closely with Fei Xiatong. Sun observed that the work of ethnic classification in the 1950s was implemented more slowly than expected. There was a short pause in the mid-1950s. The program resumed in 1958, with the broadened aim of including other disciplines besides ethnology].

It was exactly at this time that many of the minorities began to ask for more recognition at the national level. The Baima were undoubtedly among them. In 1972 they called for a ‘revolutionary assembly’ 县革委会 in Pingwu county 平武县 to debate the matter. The assembly was to consist of local leaders of Baima ethnicity.

Lhagang Steppes, Sichuan, August 2014 by Tommaso Previato

Lhagang Steppes, Sichuan, August 2014. Photograph: Tommaso Previato

Thereafter, an official document in support of the classification program was produced. In 1976, the document was formally accepted and listed on the political agenda of the national government, although we had to wait until 1978 to go back to the field. Fei Xiaotong realised that there were still so many ethnicities that did not fit the classification criteria or guidelines laid down by the state. To us this meant that the work of ethnic categorisation was far from finished. Fei Xiaotong was fully convinced of this because I had identified seven new languages in Muli and Kanding, and ten other languages in western Sichuan, along the stream of the Dadu 大渡, Jinsha 金沙 and Yalong 雅砻rivers.

Using the data I had provided, Fei Xiaotong took the issue of ethnic categorisation to the People’s Political Consultative Conference 全国政协 in 1978. That year, he published a paper based on my initial research findings. I remember we had an argument on how to scientifically define the entire region. Given that, throughout history, the region had seen repeated migrations of the Tanguts 西夏 heading north and the Tibetans moving in the opposite direction, how should we name the region? It was precisely this question that led us to introduce the concept of ‘ethnic corridor’ to the mainland academic community and to incorporate the term in our newly established field.

This concept has now been embraced and widely used in Chinese scholarship over the past four decades. Have there been new discoveries? In particular, has the reassessment of the Silk Road studies had any influence over present-day research on the Ethnic Corridor?

As you have learned from my article ‘Re-analysis of the Languages ​​of the Ethnic Corridor in Southwest China and Related Problems’ 再论西南民族走廊地区的语言及其相关问题, I am currently working on a project that examines the Tibeto-Burmese languages ​​spoken in the southern foot of the Himalayas. The whole cultural area bounded on the west by Pakistan and Nepal, on the east by Bhutan, India, Sikkim and Myanmar, and on the south by Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, has in fact a high percentage of Tibeto-Burmese language speakers. How did these ethnic groups become widely distributed in the area? The academic community assumes that their progenitors originated from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. A historical process of long migrations induced them to leave this area to move to the foothills of the Himalayas. Recent Ethnic Corridor studies has been guided by research into this historical process.

Please allow me now a short preamble. I mentioned earlier how my involvement in the national project of ethnic classification [during the late 1970s] led me to the Baima. I spent about five years doing research on the shores of the Minjiang 闽江, Dadu, Yalong and Jinsha rivers. I discovered several minor languages there, like the rGyarong 嘉绒, Ergong 尔龚, Zhaba 扎巴 and Ersu 尔苏. These languages show many similarities to the Qiang and Primi dialects.

On the basis of these findings, I postulated the existence of a ‘Qiangic’ sub-family by grouping together twelve languages, including the now extinct Tangut. The ethnic minorities speaking these languages ​​are all distributed within the so-called ‘basin of the six rivers’ 六江流域, that borders Tibet on the west and the Yi 彝 majority areas on the east. The entire area is known as the ‘Tibetan-Yi Corridor’ 藏彝走廊 for this reason.

In different historical periods, the people descended from a common Tibeto-Burmese ancestor moved back and forth along this ‘passageway territory’ and eventually migrated southward. How could it be that so many different languages germinated [from a single cultural matrix]? This process of blending and differentiation took a very long  time, it was the result of nearly two millennia [of interactions and mutual cultural exchange]. My findings from a side project – ‘The Tibeto-Burman languages ​​of the southern foot of the Himalayas’ 喜马拉雅南麓的藏缅语族语言 – enabled me to estimate that the number of Tibeto-Burman languages ​spoken in the world today amount to no less than 300 in total.

The project shows how [the rise and development of] these languages ​​are the aftermath of repeated migrations over the southern stretch of the corridor. Fei Xiaotong and I had defined the north-south orientation of the corridor. Subsequently, Li Shaoming suggested that some migratory flows could alternatively have followed the east-west axis. He drew on evidence obtained from an adjoining section that connects Yunnan to Tibet through the ancient ‘Tea-Horse Route’ 茶马古道).

Lhagang Monastery, Sichuan, August 2014 by Tommaso Previato

Lhagang Monastery, Sichuan, August 2014. Photograph: Tommaso Previato

Many of the historical sites in this section  remain unexplored. The cultural relics unearthed there are certainly of enormous significance for archaeological, anthropological and religious studies. In Basum Tso 巴松措, which is within the administrative borders of Gongbo’gyamda County 工布江达县 in [southeastern] Tibet, and in [western] Sichuan, for example, there are several villages where you’ll often see this [Sun points at a miniature replica of a qionglong 邛笼 tower, lying among an untidy pile of books and papers on his desk].

It is strange to find towers of this type erected in such a remote region. Why are they there? And why do local residents speak a language completely different from that of the Tibetans inhabiting the surrounding villages? My colleagues at CASS and I have sought to answer these questions. We immediately recognised the great value [of these architectural masterpieces] but unfortunately we were not able to advance our investigations. The French explorer Frederique Darragon has even made a documentary movie about these. By means of conventional radiocarbon tests carried out on a sample of wood taken from one tower, she found out that these prominently visible artefacts date back at least 1700 years. The discoveries indicate that the towers were built long before the unification of Tibetan tribes accomplished by Srongtsan Gampo (617-649). All of this explains how the Ethnic Corridor itself can be regarded as a valuable source of historical relics. The people from the region and their vestiges deserve more scholarly attention.

In the globalised and economically integrated world we live in today, what is meaningful about research on the Ethnic Corridor?

At the moment, there are many foreign scholars who come to do research [on the historical evolution of the Tibeto-Burman languages]. For all those who deal with the phenomena of morpho-syntactic variation, this indeed is the ideal place. Unlike other languages of the Sino-Tibetan family, such as the Chinese putonghua that is a highly insulating language without significant morphological differences, many dialects spoken in the Corridor do not have tones and their linguistic features are closer to those of agglutinative languages [e.g. the Turkic language family]. Nevertheless, current research in the region is not limited solely to linguistic aspects.

Socially and politically, the region has yet to be economically developed and this is why, in my opinion, the state should allocate more resources to improve living standards there in the near future. At a recent ‘Workshop on plural perspectives of the Tibetan, Qiang and Yi Corridor’ 第二届多视角藏羌彝走廊研讨会 at Minzu University [22-23 November 2014], I pointed out that the rise of China’s economic power in the world should give the state more room to operate. The state has gained new strength now and could make use of it to reshape the local economy which is still extremely weak and backward. When I was sent to the Tibetan areas at the Indian border in 1976, the indigenous people there were still living in caves. The Trung 独龙, whose community has at present only a few thousand members, practiced forms of ‘slash and burn’ agriculture and lived almost exclusively by hunting, fishing and gathering. The first time I went there made a deep impression on me: the men and women were using only banana leaves to cover their intimate parts. The conditions in which the locals live to this day and those of Chinese people from China’s coastal provinces are worlds apart. They can’t be compared. To give these indigenous people full access to modernisation requires state intervention.

At his meeting with the representatives of the Trung minority [on 20 January 2015], Xi Jinping pointed out how important it is to create modern infrastructures in the region. For this reason, with regard to the concept of ‘One Belt – One Road’  一带一路 launched by the leadership, I suggested that the term ‘One Corridor’一廊 be added, by which I meant the Tibetan-Yi Corridor. Actually, the strategic decision to develop a corridor connecting Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar has already been listed among the national policies.

In the statements the President made during his official visit to the above countries, he has in fact spoken in favor of the establishment of an ‘economic corridor’ 孟中印缅经济走廊 in the new southern Silk Road. Therefore, we Chinese academics have decided to urge for ‘One Belt – One Road – One Corridor’ 一带一路一廊, to highlight the need for greater mobilisation of resources for western Yunnan and southeastern Tibet, whose economy remains stuck in extreme poverty. If the government is capable of stepping up to the plate, then Xi Jinping’s remark during his meeting with the Trung leaders last month – ‘all fifty-six national ethnic groups must achieve moderate levels of prosperity’ 小康 – will finally come true. Of course, ongoing modernisation may also bring many negative effects, such as the disappearance of linguistic and cultural diversity. But I think these people must have the right to improve the quality of their life. The significance of doing research on Ethnic Corridor today is to enable these cultures to open up 文化开发 to the outside world so that the communities that practice them can benefit from economic change. It is our responsibility to give the government feedback on local conditions and to make appropriate recommendations. Over the sixty years of my academic career, I have done my best to put this into practice.