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Yale-NUS College

Publication Date

Spring 2016

Program Name

China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities


This anthropological study explores the socio-political discourse of suzhi among the Mosuo minority, occupying the Yongning Basin region between Yunnan and Sichuan. The concept of suzhi, translating roughly as ‘quality’, first appeared during the 1980s in the context of ‘population quality’ (renkou suzhi), which refers variously to the educational attainment, material development, or more abstract moral quality of a people (see Jacka, 2009). In terms of ethnicity in China, numerous other studies have already shown how discourses like suzhi have been deployed to construct ‘Han modernity’ vis-a-vis its ‘Other’, the ‘primitive’ minority (see Zukosky, 2011, also Jacka, 2009; Gladney, 1994). Comparatively little inquiry has been directed toward how suzhi is negotiated within ethnic minority communities themselves. In response, this paper works to present an ethnographic lens onto the lived experience of suzhi discourse on the ground within the Mosuo minority. The study is based on fieldwork conducted over the course of 17 days in a variety of locations in the Lugu Lake area and Yongning Basin. Findings are derived from approximately 15 casual interviews with informants in both traditional and ‘tourist village’ settings, representing the Mosuo, the Han, as well as other minorities such as the Pumi. The study concludes that suzhi discourse is not only present as a static government trope, but alive and actively adapting in the local context of the Mosuo. In almost every case, my Mosuo informants regarded their own suzhi as exceptionally high. The majority of these informants cited the Mosuo ‘big family’ (da jiating) as the basis for such high suzhi - as the ‘big family’ required harmony, good manners, and an overriding care for all children as their own. Mosuo notions of suzhi also engage local folklore and the prevalent religious tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In both cases, however, suzhi is clearly disassociated from educational attainment, material development, or any other markers of successful participation in the Chinese state and market economy - as many have argued is the contemporary function of official suzhi discourse (see Zukosky, 2011, 234). The G. Link II


Political Science | Race and Ethnicity | Social and Cultural Anthropology


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