China and the Middle Ground

Filed under: — gina @ 12:20 am

This week, our East Asia History Reading Group had the fortune of discussing Richard White’s The Middle Ground with Professor White himself. The purpose of this book was to write the history of Native Americans and Empire in the pays d’en haut, the area around the Great Lakes, from the years 1650-1815, a region Professor White has termed the Middle Ground. Professor White presents the Middle Ground both as a spatial and theoretical construct. It is both the area where Europeans and Indians coexisted and created a new cultural space, and also a theoretical term meant to point to the process with which Indians and Whites mutually accommodated each other, constructed together a mutually comprehensible world. He traces through 2 centuries the creation and destruction of this process, and the ways in which alliances, wars, trade and empire affected the ability of Indians and Whites to maintain a status quo. He also complicates the traditional narrative of empire. A narrative of the conquerer and the conquered obscures the complexities of the relationships between and among Indians and Whites, and while violence was present, the middle ground appeared and “depended on the inability of both sides to gain their ends through force.” The Middle Ground, he points out, is not a pretty place. He has often been called an apologist for colonialism because he pointed out the compromises and concessions each side had to make. This, however, is obviously not the case; the Middle Ground was created out of destruction and violence, the description of which in the book was nauseating.

The reason we decided to read the book is because the concept of the Middle Ground can be used in other contexts; it has been cited numerous times in books about border regions in China, specifically Yunnan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Qinghai (Peter Perdue cites White in his bibliography, and a new great study by C. Patterson Giersch uses White’s work as theoretical construct). Reading this exhaustive account of American history, I also became confused as to the extent to which his theory could be applied. Were all colonies Middle Grounds? Does it work outside borderland situations? Does it even work outside of the pays d’en haut?

To clear up some of these questions, I will summarize some of White’s interesting insights. Despite the fact that he did not want to be the “judge in the court of the Middle Ground,” he did think that both the physical space and the process did have some distinguishing characteristics. First of all, it needs to be a situation in which the two opposing groups could not overwhelm one another by force. At the same time, it needed to be a situation in which both sides needed the other. Finally, there needed to be a set of institutions in place to sustain this balance of power. In the pays d’en haut, this included Jesuit priests, a system of posts, a gift giving system in place, etc. Professor White pointed out that it is these institutions which distinguished other parts of the Americas from the pays d’en haut; they were not a Middle Ground, simply areas of cross cultural contact.

Professor White stressed that the one way in which the Middle Ground did not work in later colonial situations is that if one side has the overwhelming power to dictate, there was not a Middle Ground. He stated that in the pays d’en haut before 1815, the French and British did not break local power and rule, in fact, the didn’t rule much of anything. This description rules out a lot of European empires. The Middle Ground is also not, as Professor White claimed, a place where everyone came together and loved each other. Nor is it another term for cultural compromise. Misunderstandings actually played a large role in the creation of the Middle Ground. What he meant by this was that each group tried to argue with one another based upon their understanding of the other sides’ cultural premises. As an example from his book, he shows how Indians tried to make arguments with the French based upon their understanding of Christianity, and at the same time, the French attempted to spread Christianity by using terms they extracted from local religious practice.

The Middle Ground is also historically contingent; it, like all things, has a starting point and an end point. There are many reasons the Middle Ground of the pays d’en haut came to an end, one of the most important of which was that the Americans of the frontier no longer needed Indians. He also brought stressed a point that he made near the end of his work: ethnography and anthropology helped to erase the Middle Ground. These studies, which for the first time introduced race, created a group of “others” that could not be dealt with in an equal level (this is not to say the French did not see the Indians as “others”; but the otherness came from the fact that they were not Christian, it had nothing to do with race). The example he gave to us was the issue of marriage. In the pays d’en haut, temporary marriages were quite common. Once the marriage came to an end, the father mattered little; the woman would simply take her child, half French and half Indian, back to her village. The issue of race, or difference, was not important. In fact, towards the end of the 18th century, identity was a matter of personal choice; no one could be said to be completely French or Indian. This changed in the 19th century, when these Indian women were told by their villagers to leave their husbands and their mixed children behind because they were not pure “Indian.” This was done in the name of tradition, when really it was a quite radical statement. In this way, as  White claimed, when Middle Grounds disappear, they become black holes, sucking everything into themselves, including historical memory.

At this point we should ask, how applicable are these theories to China? Some of us in our group pointed out that these theories are very helpful in describing situations in borderlands, where neither the central Chinese government nor other bordering empires had any control over the local population (Giersch, who wrote of frontier politics in Yunnan, certainly thought so). The situation in China, however, was much more complicated. The 司土 system in areas such as Qinghai and Tibet created a system of local warlords which administered these regions. In some of these regions, the local imperial appointed warlords had much more power than others, so the use of Middle Ground is contingent on a case-by-case basis. There were some areas in which local leaders ruled in succession for generations, and others where power was determined by the ability to mediate and communicate, thus creating a Middle Ground.

Another issue that distinguishes the system in China from other contenders for the Middle Ground is the fact that there was no real clear starting or ending point like there was in the pays d’en haut. These groups on the frontiers of China had been interacting for centuries, and there was no clear starting point that would help us trace the creation of this Middle Ground (if there was, perhaps the Song or even the Han dynasty). Nevertheless, framing the trade and relations in these areas within a Middle Ground framework it seems would be useful for analysis.

For those interested, White will be releasing a 20 year anniversary of his book soon. He plans to write a new introduction that summarizes the way his work has been used (and sometimes misused) as a theoretical framework.

3 responses to “China and the Middle Ground”

  1. Very interesting stuff. I particularly like how carefully bounded the theory is: It would be very easy to abuse this as a kind of “gateway drug” to a world systems theory version of Imperialism (and I’m sure it’s not unrelated) but White is very careful, apparently, to avoid that kind of glib linkage. There are places and times where it might well be useful (what we now call Manchuria has, I think, been a Middle Ground at times).

    The idea of the destruction of memory that comes with the clarification of categories is a very important one, a trap that even historians have difficulty finding their way through much of the time.

  2. Alan says:

    Nice post and it sounds like a nice conversation. I would almost think China would be a great place to expand the Middle Ground by looking away from geographic borderlands. Obviously it is an idea which can be helpful in those places, but what about 19th century Shanghai? Calling it a Middle Ground does not really do anything, and the issue of who controls the territory was pretty settled, but there were a lot of examples of people who “tried to argue with one another based upon their understanding of the other sides’ cultural premises” Missions almost always work like that. Compradors as well. James Legge and Wang Tao. Some of these are not things that people have written much about lately, in part I think because denouncing compradors as imitation foreign devils seems pointless, and if you don’t do that how do you think about them? Reading White might help.

  3. Robert Fried says:

    Based on the graph, income distribution seems to be improving. China’s capitalist march toward communism…

Powered by WordPress