Category Archives: history of anthropology

Slaves of Guangzhou

In The Blacks of Premodern China, Don J. Wyatt (2010) has written a magnificent piece of scholarship on early Chinese-black interactions. Wyatt prudently deals with the shifting and contested concept of “blackness” and notes that the premodern Chinese ascribed this category to a diverse group of peoples. Citing Frank Dikotter, who has written on race in modern China, Wyatt asserts “numerous peoples became black for the Chinese, even if, owing to a dearth of contact with them, they had not previously been regarded as being so prior to those times” (15). Using documents from the Tang Dynasty, Wyatt discovers that Nam-Viet peoples of Champa were considered black. Later on, Khmers, Malaysians and Malaccans were also thought to be black. Wyatt states, “differentiation in skin color persisted as only a second determinant of foreignness well into modern times.”

The term kunlun appearing in literature during the Zhou Dynasty (1050-256 BC) was in some cases used to describe people with dark skin, but not necessarily blacks or those of African descent. However, as Wyatt argues, “well before the beginning of the 17th century the presumed fusion between blackness of skin and the grave condition of being incapable of achieving any level of cultural attainment had already become firmly fixed in Chinese consciousness.” The dark-skinned kunluns, who Wyatt speculates to be of Malay ethnicity, were perceived to be alien, a menace to society, and barbaric. Even though kunlun merchants regularly traded valuable goods with the Chinese in Guangzhou since 684 CE, they aroused fear among the Chinese. Wyatt asserts that although it was foreignness and the associated inability to attain “culture,” which remained lodged in the Chinese consciousness and elicited disdain from the Chinese, their prejudices towards darker skin were undeniable. Wyatt argues,”the fact remains that by the time the Chinese had genuinely established contact with and developed a true cognizance of the peoples of Africa, [the ways in which ] they had come to equate blackenss fully and categorically with slavery, had already been well in place and robustly intact for a period of considerable duration. Sadly, it would endure for centuries and its legacy lingers with us even now” (42).

During the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220CE), Guangzhou was a bustling cosmopolitan place with a variety of groups residing there, including the “tribal White (Western) Man and Red (Eastern) Man barbarians….many Persians, Malays, and Singhalese” (50). Using accounts written by Zhu Yu, a civil service servant who wrote Pingzhou Chats on Things Worthwhile, Wyatt observes his allusions to “foreign slaves.” Who were the foreign slaves? Some have conjectured that they could be part of a Southeast Asian contingent group, perhaps Chams, Sumatrans, and javanese. Wyatt argues that a second possibility, the more likely one, is that Zhu Yu was referring to Africans who were brought to China as slaves by the Arabs. Zhu Yu had recorded that the slaves maintained by the wealthy in Guangzhou were “black as ink. Their lips are red and their teeth are white. Their hair is curly as well as ochre-colored….They eat raw food. but once they are acquired as slaves, they are fed cooked food….There also exists a kind of wildman that lives near the sea. These slaves are able to immerse themselves in water without battling or blinking their eyes….” (56).

Wyatt also points to another possibility mentioned by Philip Snow. The black slaves might have been owned by Arabs living in Guangzhou at the time since there was a sizeable Muslim population. Ultimately arguing against this idea, Wyatt adamantly puts forth his perspective that the slaves were most likely owned by the Chinese rather than the Arabs. Eventually the Guangzhou slaves disappear or die, it seems. Wyatt does not offer a clear answer to the fate of the slaves. Again, he surmises, extrapolating from written accounts by a Spanish Augustinian friar traveling to China that by the 16th century, neither Africans nor kunluns or any “historical categories of blacks” were being enslaved by the Chinese. Due to a paucity of evidence on this matter, to which Wyatt inexorably concedes, the history of black slaves of China remains shrouded in mystery, one which I believe, needs to be explored and uncovered again and again by Sino-African scholars.

Wyatt seems to concur with this conclusion: “Once revealed to have existed at all, despite their estranged alterity within the very context in which we encounter them, China’s verifiable but heretofore obscure blacks become irremovable from our fullest understanding of the entity that traditional China was. Therefore, in the end, in the face of almost all conceivable odds, their position in our mental consciousness becomes inviolable, for no matter how marginalized they may have been in their own time, we become utterly incapable of trivializing, diminishing, or consigning them to ephemerality in ours” (135).

Debates within Anthropology…

Never have I been so overjoyed at the voices of dissension among my fellow anthropologists. I echo Aristotle’s acclaimed notion of the importance of the polis and the “political animal” which reside in the polis and Michael Sandel’s advancement of communitarianism, an idea that points to the spaces where individuals who are “encumbered selves”– encumbered meaning possessing specific backgrounds, histories, positionalities, values, characteristics – convene, deliberate, debate, and discuss what is at stake in our respectively differing ideas.

Anthropology as a broad discipline has evolved and become fragmented. This has advantages and advantages, which we can ascertain when we contextualize these changes within history. In America, World War II was a turning point (Eddy and Partridge 1987). Ethnology was defined as the study of living culture of people in contrast with archeology and anthropology was perceived to be the Science of Man which was sufficiently broad to encompass all facets of human existence and simultaneously specific to look at processes that facilitated the prediction of events. As American policy became less isolationist and more globally-minded, the expansion of anthropology ensued. In 1939, a “committee of human moral” was established, including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, with the aim of addressing social problems. The war influenced early anthropology to use scientific procedures to study social problems. This included inductive empiricism of France Boas, the systematic study of culture of Bronislaw Malinowski, and methods of interactional analysis to identify problems holistically and attempt to solve them. In fact, Margaret Mead argued that we needed to focus on large problems and not relegate them to economists or political scientists because anthropologists had a working knowledge of how to move from the “microscale” to “macroscale” and devise “mascroscopes” to observe and record details of human groups while including them in the larger whole.

The British schools of anthropology were formed in conjunction with the demands of Colonial Administration. Abdel Ahmed in Anthropology of Sudan discusses Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Nuer as a response to the request of the government of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan which had difficulties in dealing with the Anuak nobility and thus needed “applied anthropology” to help the government organize its administration. It’s important to note Manilowski’s urgent plea in 1929 for anthropologists to try to bridge the gap between theoretical anthropology and its practical applications so that the study of social organizations and their relation to the “social nature of the individual” is practically useful. Thus, from its inception, it can be argued that anthropology as a recognized discipline was applied.

However, as Ian Horowitz points out, when analyzing the history of anthropology, we should consider the relative deprivation of funds for social scientists (Horowitz 1967). The expansion of academic anthropology was correlated with the flow of research funding provided by the government and private foundation sources. The expansion of education after World War II contributed to the rise of academic positions. The abundance of funding allowed for anthropologists to turn to more abstract concerns. Eddy and Partridge argue that fewer anthropologists sought practical uses for their knowledge and instead, retreated to their “departmental cocoons.” In the mid-1960s, the question of power and exclusion came to the fore as minority groups began to protest and demand equal rights and students and faculty questioned the role of the US government in the Vietnam War. Critical interrogation of international policies gave rise to heated debates in anthropology about ethics and whether social scientists should be used by the government as tools for their own agenda.

The application of anthropology, particularly in light of Project Camelot, which was endorsed by the army and department of defense, used research from social scientists to determine and predict potential of internal war within societies and measure effects of counterinsurgencies as well as government actions regarding the underlying problems, came under close scrutiny. Marshal Sahlins stated that this was an example of the “corrosion of integrity” and argued for the protection of the anthropologists’ relation to the Third World. He objected to any further involvement in research by American anthropologists working in defense, foreign policy, or intelligence agencies for the US government, while concluding that “we cannot legislate ethics…” and would be better off “letting each man learn to live with himself” (Horowitz 1967).

Conrad Arensberg (1958) reached a similar conclusion, asserting that “science has its own morality…which governs us in our doings as anthropologists and scientists,” but whether one wants to use anthropology for a specific end is a private, moral concern, not a public or scientific concern. On the other hand, as Robert Redfield argued (1958), impartiality on the part of the anthropology is impossible on a logical basis and perhaps undesirable. He said, “When the anthropologist intervenes, he lives and life is making difficult choices….seeing these men who have undertaken new difficulties, I admire them. They have given up the privilege of uncommitment.” With respect to ethics, the most common response was an avoidance of the issue rather than a warranted discussion and debate (Eddy and Partridge 1987, Comitas 2000).

The pledge to scientific neutrality pervaded various aspects of anthropology and came under attack as anthropology fractured into subfields with multiple interests, particularly clashing interests among academic and non-academic anthropologists. The debate about science harkens back to theories put forth by Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Durkheim argued for the distinctiveness of sociology as a science and used the method of induction in beginning with a set of facts and building a theory of suicide and then examining it as a “collective fact.” Weber, on the other hand, counters this type of science by analyzing causality through the examination of human intention and insisting on the “separation and mutual irreducibility of ‘fact’ and value’” (Burawoy 2000). What’s at stake in the argument is not only the object of knowledge but the positivistic and hermeneutic perspectives and methodologies within both disciplines. Both defenders and critics of anthropology as a science tend to subscribe to outdated and essentialist notions of “science,” calling it “Western” and necessarily linking it to “rationality” and borne out of the Enlightenment era and the Industrial Revolution. However, evaluating the emergence of science(s) in particular social and cultural milieu and looking it as a contested space imbued with power (Nader 1996) proves invaluable and liberates the anthropologist/ethnographer from having to choose between scientific, empirical research and interpreter. As Lisa Maalki maintains (2007), ethnography is a form of “situated empiricism that is simultaneously and without contradiction, an improvisational practice” which considers the role of affect, emotion, intuition, along with rigorous empirical research. This argument was first brought up by Victor Turner, who opened up anthropology to reflexivity as he “stressed the exception, the betwixt and between and marginal.” Similarly, his wife, Edith Turner noted the incompleteness and partiality of ethnography and our striving for understanding as an ongoing process (Smadar, Narayan and Rosaldo 1993).

Debates of neutrality on the part of the researcher contains far-reaching implications for the role of anthropology. Mounzul Assal writes, “To be neutral is synonymous with not making a moral commitment. But this is itself a commitment: two completely different stands but paradoxically exactly the same. To be neural is making a commitment to the support of the system within which one is working anthropologically. If one does not notice oppression or injustice exploitation because one is only a scientist and science does not concern itself with political issues, then one is being myopic and self-deluding without objectivity. Ultimately amorality is immorality.” Politically engaged and activist anthropology are predicated on Assal’s perspective. Perhaps Sol Tax was one of the first anthropological studies that espoused value judgment on the part of the researcher and set a precedent for future collaborative anthropology work. The Fox project was a program of action ad research which addressed ideas of self-determination with the help of the anthropologist.

In the 1970s, anthropologists were hired by local communities as cultural brokers and facilitators to help the community achieve an outcome with the research of the anthropologist. This is similar to politically engaged anthropology urged by Gavin Smith (1999) and activist anthropology advanced by Victoria Sanford and Angel-Ajani Asale (2006), who exhort anthropologists to engage theory with politics, link power structures and macro-forces with intimate social relations and examine and write against “unequally distributed suffering, violence and abuse.” Another position embodied in practical anthropology also attempts to synthesize theory with practice by inquiring into the cause and coming up with solutions to conditions that cause abuses of human rights in both vertical and horizontal dimensions of the problem (Kearney 2004).

Debates about development continue to proliferate among anthropologists working “in development” and those doing research “on development.” Edelman and Haugerud (2005) capture the debates well, stating that anthropologists working within development find criticism by academic anthropologists “self-serving and counter-productive” and neglectful of the constraints workers in the aid industry face (Gow) while academic anthropologists find much of the information, trajectory, and underlying premises of development agencies problematic and too simplistic to achieve any successful aims (Escobar, Ferguson). Van Willigen observes that there are different kinds of anthropologists. There are professional anthropologists who work full-time outside the academy. In fact, this has become more common. The challenges they face include keeping current with theories. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the academic anthropologists also engaged in applied work as consultants. They straddled the best of both worlds. There are academic anthropologist who also do applied work, in particular in the sub-fields of medical anthropology.

Examining the debates within the discipline makes me relieved that there are disagreements, as long as they do not degenerate into ad-hominem attacks and polemics. Disagreements are productive since they make us question our own point of view and learn from others. I’ve arrived at a very cliche yet insightful conclusion. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Some anthropologists are good at academics. Some are good at development work. Some are better at theory, while others might be better at fieldwork. If we can learn to appreciate our respective strengths and collaborate where weaknesses might linger, than our discipline would benefit from more fruitful collaboration.