The Art of Ethnography: A Chinese “Miao Album.” David M. Deal and Laura Hostetler, trans. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. 177 pp.
Reviewed by Jiang Lu
The Art of Ethnography: A Chinese “Miao Album”
is a fully-illustrated translation of a “Miao album.” Miao albums
originated in the 18th century to depict the minority ethnic groups
living in frontier regions of imperial China during the Qing dynasty.
“Miao,” in this specific context, refers not only to the groups of
people who were classified as Miao, or Hmong, by the majority Han
culture, but also to the many minority peoples along the southwest
frontiers of China. The original and important purpose of producing the
Miao albums was to provide new officials with information about the
populations to be governed. The genre employs prose, poetry, and
detailed illustrations. This genre combines hand-painted, color
illustrations of ethnic minority groups paired with hand-written
annotations in classical Chinese.
this book, 82 beautiful illustrations are selected from the original
albums. The Chinese calligraphic texts annotating the illustrations are
translated into English. Each plate illustrates a different ethnic
group residing in Guizhou province, and documents its ritual
performances, especially those of weddings and funerals. Details of
daily life, such as diet, garments, and annual festivals, are also
emphasized in theses documents. Therefore, this book is a unique and
valuable source for the fields of history, anthropology and folklore.
In addition to its lovely artistic illustrations and descriptive
annotations in both languages, the profound analysis of the albums in
the introduction by Laura Hostetler gives the book its scholarly
the album as evidence, Hostetler points out that ethnographic
representation was practiced by expanding powers in many parts of the
world, not only by European or “Western” states. In her analysis, the
Miao album is compared with the Qing Imperial Illustrations of Tributary Peoples
(Huang Qing Zhigong tu) commissioned by Emperor Qianlong in 1751. This
work aimed to describe peoples from around the world and in frontier
areas of China proper. In the comparison, Hostetler sees striking
similarity between the two, although the Miao albums were more rustic
and informal. Since the Miao albums were compiled during the late
Yongzheng (ca. 1723-1735) or the early Qinlong (ca. 1736-1796) period,
Hostetler suggests that the genre of Qing Imperial Illustrations of Tributary Peoples
was based on that of the Miao albums. While tracing the genesis of the
genre, Hostetler examines the sociopolitical context in which the
albums were first made. The Miao album directly served the purpose of
the Qing Empire’s expansion, implemented by the aggressive frontier
policies of Emperor Yongzheng, by providing useful ethnographic
information to the imperial officials. Based on this observation,
Hostetler argues that ethnographic interest in other peoples was not
simply a “Western” phenomenon, but was rather part of a much more
widespread process of state building in that period (p. xxiii).
Hostetler hopes that greater awareness of non-Western representations
of their “Others” will serve to balance current Euro-centric views of
the early modern history of the world.
further support her argument, Hostetler uses a comparative approach to
examine similar ethnographic documents from Tokugawa Japan (1603-1876)
and the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1300-1920). The comparisons demonstrate
that a variety of different expanding states and empires actually
collected and recorded information about people with whom they were
coming into contact. In the period roughly between 1500 and 1800, these
states countenanced exploration, direct colonization, or diplomacy.
These two examples of ethnographic representation place the Miao albums
in a comparative historical perspective.
also points out that the Miao album was a phenomenon long before the
introduction of the Western-based forms of nationalism into China, and
that it represents its special Chinese characteristics. Instead of
using a simple dichotomy of the barbarian versus the civilized, the
Miao albums focus more on the distancing of the observed group from the
Confucian cultural center through description of specific local
weakness of this book is in the English translation of the texts.
Careful comparison of the original Chinese text and the English
translation shows that the translation is not very accurate in some
places where the translation does not reveal the true meaning of
expressions that hides behind literal meanings of words. For example,
in plate 13, the text Nu Huai Chun (女怀春) is translated as ‘Young girls cherish springtime’ (p. 27). The actual meaning is ‘Young girls are longing for love.’
Another issue resides in the analysis of the Miao album when Hostetler discusses and explains the use of the word Han
as Chinese. The explanations become even less satisfactory when we
recognize that the rulers of the Qing dynasty, who produced or
commissioned the albums, were non-Han people. In this sense, the
problem is more than the Chinese versus the non-Chinese ethnic groups.
A careful examination of the ethnicity of the Qing rulers may lead to
some interesting discoveries in our future studies of the Miao albums.
Although there are several elaborately edited Miao albums (Miaman tu or Baimiao tu)
published in the Chinese language in China, this is the first Miao
album with an English translation of the texts, and a comprehensive and
profound analysis. It thus, despite some limitations of translation,
provides a useful resource, especially for non-specialists
interested in the these compelling documents of early Chinese
Lu is an Assistant Professor of Interior Design and Industrial
Technology in the School of Engineering Technology at Eastern Michigan
University. Both a folklorist and an architect, she holds master’s
degrees in both fields and is a doctoral candidate in folklore at
Indiana University. Her research focuses on Chinese architecture,
material culture and folk arts, as well as on computer-assisted methods
in architecture and material culture research.