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Title: Study on Cultural Pattern and Human Migration along the Chinese Silk Road (Gansu-Qinghai Stretch): taking the Salar's Ethnic Formation and Development as an Example
Tutor: Santangelo, Paolo
Zhang, Haiyang
Keywords: Regional Culture
Hexi Ethnic Corridor
Issue Date: 20-Dec-2012
Abstract: The present paper “Study on cultural pattern and human migration along the Chinese Silk Road (Gansu-Qinghai stretch): taking the Salar’s ethnic formation and development as an example” has a rather simple framework which unceasingly oscillates between structural analysis and historical narration. Starting from a cross-cultural perspective, it combines traditional historical insights and postmodern paradigms of conceiving history. It consists on three parts - concept definition, historical analysis and critical inquiries, fieldwork summarization - presenting a comprehensive research on the topic. Through a combination of various theoretical approaches and practical historical examples, it pays attention to the formation and development of ethnic patterns under the influence of human migrations, and describes above all the heterogeneity, variability, and diversity of Gansu-Qinghai regional culture and of its constituent ethnic cultures. It investigates, respectively, their inner structures, their historical transformations, and the forging and maintenance of specific boundaries dividing the ethnic groups involved, thus refuting by placing them under the category of “ethnic isle” or “ideal cultural type”. Ethnic groups that inhabit exclusively in the Gansu-Qinghai region (most commonly known as "ganqing diqu" in Chinese) are raised here as an example. They represent the central subject matter of the paper. The entire framework of the first part is dedicated to the discussion of this idea and provides a solid support for the following observations. In this paper, the author based on population theories and studies on history of human migration, will summarize from a dynamic point of view the main patterns, characteristics, procedures in the process of migration (including uprooting, arrival, settlement, reorganization), motives, reasons and other related aspects. In doing this he regards the changes in population distribution as a complex social phenomenon. Developing closer relations with other social phenomena, migration is constrained by natural and social environments, and at the same time poses profound influences on society itself. This research can thus enhance our understanding of the structure of various social aspects, including ethnic formation, motivations and consequences of mobility, culture relevance and flexibility within social system, the connection between human mobility and maintenance of boundaries (both ethnic and cultural), possible conflicts and clashes instigated in the process of cultural regeneration, and elements influencing identity transformation. After defining the scope of migration, it places migrants in the perspective of premodern globalization and probes into the history of ethnic relations, analyzing the changes brought to Gansu-Qinghai’s cultural pattern by the penetration of Mongolian army into the Hexi Corridor, which resulted in a network of four self-contained worlds (cultural regions). It also points out the strategic status of the region inside the premodern global system in relation to the rise of a new communication network. The first chapter presents the basic framework and the research methodology by exploring the human instinct of expanding space and transcending cognitive confines. In this chapter, the author first systematically summarizes both Chinese and foreign literature and their respective research findings, and then, taking cross-cultural theories and deconstructivism as guidelines, provides a theoretical framework in reflection of the concept of “boundaries”. As the heart of this matter, groups’ cross-boundaries behavior is described as a “migration” mechanism which comes into being as a result of human endeavors in seeking new developmental space and resources. In the meantime, boundaries are also regarded as existing in two spaces - communication and academic spaces. Therefore, two models are proposed to interpret “boundaries”: 1. laying stress on the homogenizing and heterogenizing trends among the ethnic groups unique to the Gansu-Qinghai region, explored on the basis of the “interaction and communication among cultural regions of Eurasian Continent”; 2. the formulation of a “comprehensive cultural theory suggesting the marriage between Chinese and European learning”, employed as an antidote to the randomness and subjectivity of both Eurocentrism and Sinocentrism views. The second chapter emphasizes the structural change and practical needs brought by migration per sé. It tries to answer the question why some ethnic groups rarely migrate, some others regard it as a lifestyle, while some even conceive other “ethnic groups” during their long migratory journey. Under most circumstances, adaptation to new environments simultaneously induces behavioral and emotional self-adjustment, thus gradually transforming cultural patterns and life styles. Through migration, the ethnic identity generated during the crossing of “outside frontiers” evolves in accordance with changes in social structure. This chapter also briefly introduces some regular patterns of migration in history of China, including cycle theory between nomadic powers and imperial reigns over China proper and two-way migration flows: inland population migrating to regions dominated by ethnic minorities, and ethnic groups migrating from their own settlements to inland areas. It also proposes the new concept of “three types two groups” as a comprehensive analytical method which can be applied to migration studies. The third chapter, “Postmodernism and historical investigation”, looks into the relationship between multipolar, pluralistic cultural systems (heterogenization) and the integration and unification of their respective cultural elements (homogenization). As part of the intrinsic controversies and paradox of globalization, such relationship differs from the disappearance of tradition as well as ethnic cultures. On the contrary, it inspires human groups to constantly create and use new identities, encouraging greater diversity in terms of cultural choices. This chapter reorients in a more comprehensive manner the connotation of globalization, redefines the concept of culture, placing particular stress on cultural communication and flow, the participation of plural subjects and their initiative in shaping their identity. Moreover, it stages a critical analysis of the guiding paradigm in modern Chinese and Western academic circles. Accordingly, upon its appearance in writings of the opposite side, such paradigm is unconsciously adopted and applied by both the parties. The author strives to offer a balanced delineation to all participants in this conflict of interest and to point out how Eurocentrism and Sinocentrism, respectively, forge their seemingly “realistic” features, in respect to whether our knowledge about historical facts is tarnished. Lastly, regarding the Gansu-Qinghai stretch of the Chinese Silk Road as a cultural symbol capable of remedying clash and confrontational trend of civilizations, the paper attempts to provide a relatively tolerant research platform for cultural exchange. The fourth and fifth chapters feature the core argument of the paper. The interaction and subdivision among different cultural zones of the Gansu-Qinghai region are unveiled in the perspective of the geographic and historical unity of the Eurasian Continent, which is assumed as a prerequisite. Furthermore, also accounted here are how, against the background of the Eurasian cultural communication, the ethnic culture of “potential ethnicity” in the area integrates and blends with a variety of other ethnic groups on their way to form distinctive hybrid cultures. It analyzes the role played by nomadic powers(such as the Huns, the Uyghurs, and the Mongols at the frontiers) in different historical periods (basically three periods: from Han dynasty to Tang Song dynasties, the Mongol’s Yuan dynasty, as well as Ming Qing), their relations with the “centre” governing China Proper, the moderating effects brought by the existence of a “marginal society” as an intermediary between these two entities, as well as the changes in the preexisting cultural pattern in the region. Through the review of the interactive history between the two, the chapters also probe into the continual formation, communication, disintegration, and reconstitution of ethnic groups, and the consequent construction, breaching, deconstruction, and reconstruction of corresponding cultural “boundaries”. In the meantime, under the guidance of a “cross-boundaries” viewpoint the paper makes observations and reflections concerning this society’s legitimacy and historical subjectivity. The fourth chapter “Hexi Ethnic Corridor at the crossroad of civilizations” forms the basis for the chapter that follows. Explanations are given from both ecological and cultural structure aspects, arguing that various cultural zones in Gansu-Qinghai region has never been in absolute advantageous position nor enjoyed a culturally dominant status. In this chapter, the author also specially emphasizes and evaluates the media role it plays as a “marginal society”. The degree of unity between northern nomadic ethnic groups and dynasties ruling China Proper is measured to deduce some basic rules in the development history of the region and related frontier areas. The fifth chapter is a logic extension of the previous one. By denying the idea of globalization as the inevitable outcome of modernization, the author reinterpret it as a particular historical process closely related to human mobility and the integration of different cultural regions after mutual encounter and blending. He goes further advancing the thesis point of a premodern globalization in the area. This chapter also underlines the influences posed by the storm caused by the Mongols on the rise of a “global network” and analyses how Gansu-Qinghai region is pushed to an unprecedented central position along this historical process. Ultimately, it is concluded that the formation of unique ethnic groups in the region (Mongours, Salars, Dongxiangs, Bonans, and Yugors) is the final outcome of this globalized process, and then a brief account is dedicated to its development during Ming and Qing dynasties. By gathering and processing data collected directly during fieldwork, the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters introduce the reason for the author’s choice of the research field, of which a detailed historical survey is given. Through the familiarization with the case study and the formulation of concepts inspired by some non-structural interviews with the locals, these three chapters analyze the historical process of formation and diversification of the Salar people from Xunhua (Qinghai Province), how a state of mutual attachment is nurtured between them and other various ethnic groups, as well as how they manage to maintain cultural boundaries in a social system carachterized by a high degree of pluralism. In addiction, a categorization of the most influential belief systems in the region is provided, distinguishing between two main creeds: Orthodox Islam and Tibetan Buddhism. A detailed description is brough out to reveal how the Salars evolve from the initial condition of “potential ethnicity” into a new ethnic group gradually absorbed into the “China cultural frame”. With examples, this part also reflects on the historical conditions and the physical environment they were related to. Besides, en passant, it points out the reasons why the Royal Court ambiguously classified all the people under the “Dar al-Islam” and neighboring ethnic groups as “Fan” (normally conceived as Tibetans) and “Hui” (Muslims), promoting their centralization and pushing to bring “the frontiers” culturally closer to “the center” in order to interiorize what is called the fandi (border area inhabited by foreign tribes). It probes into the matter by analizing the devising strategies and the variety of measures taken by the Court throughout the history of Imperial China. In the conclusion, on the theme of breaching the “boundaries”, the author borrows the ideas advanced by scholars such as Fredrik Barth (b. 1928) and the Italian ethnologist Ugo Fabietti (b. 1950) with an effort to point out that any definition of ethnic group and culture lays on a idealistic pattern - although to a certain degree it can help to represent social realities, it is still necessary to avoid assuming that cultures and ethnic groups develop and are cultivated under relatively isolated circumstances. Taking the distinctive ethnic groups of Gansu-Qinghai above mentioned as an example, the paper intends to demonstrate a universal mechanism for all human societies - constructing boundaries in three aspects: regional (real space), cultural (structure) and cognitive (ideal conception). It thus questions the reason for the existence of communal motives to migrate beyond original boundaries, forming alliances based on regional divisions, and competing for access to resources (including symbolic ones). The author’s observations about ethnicity and “academic space” inspire his reflections on the process of the formation and maintenance of “boundaries”, especially those related to cultural differences, historical boundaries among ethnic groups and all the possible connection between the two. The author realizes the fictional nature of “boundaries” and how, through migration, groups decide its identity construction strategies. This part summarizes the theoretical and historical analysis realized in both part I and part III.
Research interests: History of Anthropology, Chinese Ethnic Groups, Periphery VS Center Dynamics, Nomadism and Sedentarization processes, Ethnic Migrations, Culture Exchange and Transfer, Marginal Societies and Frontier History etc.
Personal skills keywords: cheerful personality, strong sense of responsibility, tendency to learn quickly, cooperative and hardworking

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