Chronicles of Zomia
There is a nice alpine orogeny, running from Afghanistan, across the roof of Asia, then into & through Yunnan, most of Burma, upcountry Siam & Indochina. It is all contiguous, all elevated, all rather wild — this vast territory enheaved when three continental plates collided. About a decade ago it received a name from the Dutch historian, Willem van Schendel. He called it, “Zomia,” from a root which means “highlander” in many Tibeto-Burman languages. Think of it as Appalachia, but on a hundred times the scale.
Notwithstanding my Gaelic genetic inheritance, I was schooled to despise, or glibly romanticize, the Highland types. Everyone was; & with what ease government & media “stereotype” the enemies of the State who lurk in such remote places as, “The caves of Afghanistan!” But of course, the infusion of rude tribal persons with modern ideologies, & weapons of mass destruction, does make for something easier to stereotype than what was there before.
I cannot get my head entirely around Zomia. The scholars who now employ the term as a geographical concept disagree about its extent; van Schendel himself excluded everything west of Ladakh. The Tibetan massif is a different world from the lower mountains to its east & south, both geographically & culturally, the latter more densely & variously populated. The former has more in common with the vast pastoral empires of the “hordes” of Mongolia & Central Asia, though more secure in its mountain fastnesses. Historical migrations from there & from elsewhere, through mountainous southern China & into South-east Asia, were much more complex.
But it is true to say they have always been Enemies of the State, up there in the mountains — hence, too, our sneaking attraction. In the 1950s, even the Hillbillies of Appalachia were enjoying some good press, when the liberal anthropologists began to realize that they had preserved customs & attitudes from the earlier & freer society of the rebellious Thirteen Colonies, & that there might be some point to their counter-cultural rejection of the later mass-market America. (The mass market for Whole Earth hippiedom was being conceived.)
It is to the easternmore reaches of this Zomia to which Yale’s celebrated anarchist anthropologist, James C. Scott, characteristically alludes. His most recent book is delightfully entitled, The Art of Not Being Governed. I seldom read such books, but skim them with enthusiasm. The gentleman, who also raises sheep, has been at his hobby horse for nearly half a century now, starting about the same time my own father was travelling among the Hill Tribes of South-east Asia, & learning to love them as this author did. During the Vietnam War we got to know these people — “Hmong” has become our generic term — as perhaps our most effective allies against Uncle Ho. They really hated Communism; & a few other things, in common with hill people everywhere: slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labour. And, epidemics, if Professor Scott is to be believed.
In a sense, these are the things that define the State, or more arguably, Civilization. Men are put under burden, & told it is for their own good. They learn to salute Power; to obey, to conform, to serve, without question. But there are men who don’t like this, & move to the hills. Or else, they get chased there. My own Caledonian ancestors showed all the traits, including a murderous contempt for Lowlanders. They showed, as if Zomians, considerable wit in the invention of methods for remaining stateless. They dodged the bullet for centuries, until the Highland Clearances finally caught up with them, & put an end to their freedom.
I shall leave the curious reader to follow the proper nouns to the proper sources, should he wish to learn more about the Higher Asians — with their incredible range of ethnicities & languages; their resistance alike to literacy & to law; their millenarian & prophetic propensities; their chameleon skills; their mobility, & with that, their ingeniously successful techniques of swidden agriculture (often more varied & complicated than “slash & burn”).
At the opposite end of the spectrum of human barbarity, we have the urbane. Total mutual incomprehension can be assumed between these extremes. Glancing through rebuttals to the Zomian theses, from the po-faced academic elite, I am again & again struck by the observation, “You just don’t get it, do you?” The agents of Po don’t get, in most cases, that these people do not subscribe to the premisses of political & economic science, any more than to the other premisses of the Lowland mindset; don’t get, that the hillsman does not consider himself inferior to the “insects of the plains.”
It seems all my life I have been reading the English travellers, & those of other countries who penetrated the wilderness, & who could understand the motives of “primitive” peoples from some calling in themselves, to which settled suburban life did not answer.
Most recently, I was again reading Charles Waterton’s Wanderings in South America: memoirs of deep incursion into the woods of Guiana in the early 19th century, to stuff birds & collect snakes & other items for his extensive “cabinets of natural curiosities.” He was a brilliant naturalist, whose descriptions of new species & explanations of their physiology & behaviour have stood up through subsequent official science. Too, a fine Recusant Lord, from the vicinity of Wakefield where the Catholics never quite gave up — just as their ancestors had never quite agreed to the Norman Conquest. He counts among the great English eccentrics; if also, alas, as a pioneer of the “ecology” business, for he surrounded his large estate with a tall wall, to protect the private wilderness around his very moated castle, back home in Yorkshire. Conversant with both worlds, he uses the assumptions of the British aristocracy to mock the tribesmen of Guiana, & the assumptions of the tribesmen to mock the British aristocracy — remaining triumphantly indifferent to criticism at both ends.
The story of Progress is highly biased, as I may have mentioned before in this anti-blog. It omits at least half of human nature, & overlooks all the history that doesn’t fit. We need another account that will take in the whole, re-orient to the immortal, & incidentally rescue us from the corvée frame of mind. (Gentle reader will guess that I find it just where Waterton did, in the Gospels.)