To the mountains
Is there room to maneuver in an era of political tightening? Perhaps so. It’s time to follow the wisdom of the ancients and head into the mountains.
The mountains are still high, though the emperor may no longer be so far away. As Scott wrote [see clip on Scott below], the state has mostly learned to climb the hills. Mostly. There are still some ways to avoid central directives once one is in the mountains. Otherwise, a more subtle form of escape is possible in population cores. One of Scott’s earlier works, Weapons of the Weak, documents everyday forms of peasant resistance that falls short of collective rebellion: foot dragging, petty noncompliance, feigned ignorance, or the strategic use of rude nicknames for officers of the state. Chinese are already good at this stuff. We should be sympathetic to their larger “efforts to hold one’s own against overwhelming odds—a spirit and practice that prevents the worst and promises something better.”
There is something about the Han-Chinese gaze that is transfixed by glories of the state, whether these take the form of big walls, big ships, or big numbers. China’s intellectual tradition is to celebrate state power. It’s perhaps not much of an exaggeration to say that imperial China monopolized the entirety of intellectuals, through its administration of the imperial examination system, which induced the country’s most ambitious to spend their lives studying texts aimed at increasing the power of the state. Thus it’s unsurprising that China failed to develop much of a liberal tradition: court philosophers tend not to be enthusiastic advocates for constraints on the court.
Meanwhile, it’s not a hidden fact that imperial China had its most splendid cultural flourishing when the polity was most fragmented—during times that carry faintly apocalyptic names like the Warring States period, when Confucianism and Daoism came into shape—and that it experienced its worst political decay after continuous centralization, whether Ming or Qing. Perhaps these historical patterns will repeat again.
I’m uncomfortable with the Han-centric view that has so many gradations of barbarians, whether these are mountain folks, horse folks, or just foreign folks.
I wish we can celebrate the rebellious, marginal peoples that have practiced ways to stay at arms-length from the state. It might be a hard ask for the hard men in Beijing to admire unruly mountain people, many of whom have loose ethnic commitments and no written language. But life in Yunnan was much better than being in the big cities last year. “Far from being seen as a regrettable backsliding and privation,” Scott writes: “becoming a barbarian may have produced a marked improvement in safety, nutrition, and social order.”
I advocate for departing from the court center too. So it’s time to say: it’s a barbarian’s life for me.Here is a clip on Scott's book from earlier in Wang's text.
Yunnan has been a distinguished refuge for peoples tired of the state. It is the heart of a vast zone of highland Southeast Asia described by James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed—the best book I read this year (and which I will be drawing on throughout this piece). Scott writes about the innumerable hill peoples who have repaired to these mountains over the last several millennia, escaping oppression from the Burmese state, the Tibetan state, or most often, the Han-Chinese state.
In Scott’s telling, early states (of several millennia up to a few centuries ago) did not grow because people were drawn towards “civilization” or a luminous court center. They grew because the domineering temper of a rice- or wheat-addicted despot demanded ever greater populations to produce grain surpluses for the glory of his court. The process was dialectical, as wars made the state, and the state made war. Thus most of the people in a population core consisted of captives seized in a military victory or purchased from raiders. Scott goes so far to claim that where one can find an early state, there one will find a population core sustained by coerced labor.