China S Angry River: Are the Subaltern Speaking?

China S Angry River: Are the Subaltern Speaking?

Virginia Review of Asian Studies



What are the social implications for the proposed damming of China’s Nu River? Can the Chinese residents whose livelihoods depend upon the Nu River be classified as subaltern? If so, what are their forms of resistance and can we hear their protest? This paper argues that the damming of the Nu River marginalises and renders unconscious the ethnic minorities that inhabit the region. It explores tensions within subaltern studies to confirm that Nu locals are muted by dominant social and legal narratives. It applies this to the greater framework of power and resistance with examples of Chinese political protest in both subaltern contexts and normative narratives. Secondly, this paper applies these theories to the case study of the damming of the Nu River to explore nature of the affected subaltern groups.

Keywords: China, Nujiang, Nu River, protest, resistance, consciousness, environment, damming, dams, subaltern.

Contemporary China is riddled with tensions between economic development, the preservation of natural resources and the transformation of a largely agrarian population into an urbanised, educated people. Metropolitan centres require agricultural goods, resources and hard labour in the endeavour for wealth and prestige. An obvious cost of this is environmental. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not seem able, or even interested, in ensuring the prosperity of the country-side. While the CCP have heavily invested in the economic development of rural China, as exemplified by ‘The Great Development of the West’ campaign of the 1990s aimed at urbanising the rural population, problems in rural areas persist. As a consequence, many rural settings remain under-developed. Often, farmers resort to temporary migrant work in the urban centres to create income, thus leaving the vulnerable, elderly, youth and disabled in the villages to tend the land. These people, including the migrant workers, are China’s subaltern. They exist outside of the normative social organisations of education, permanent employment and healthcare services. They are unable to fully access these structures and are incapable of engaging with overarching political narratives. This leaves them the most exposed to legal and economic exploitation.

The lack of interest in human, food and environmental security problems pertaining to rural subjects exhibited by the CCP has given rise to protests against CCP policy: farmers are fighting for environmental protection to secure their livelihoods. This is exemplified by protests against damming along China’s Angry River; the Nujiang. The Nujiang is China’s largest undammed river and flows freely through several nations. In desperation to secure a hydro-electric supply to solve energy security fears, the CCP have lobbied to tame the river by way of thirteen dams. Local farmers, who were later joined by other actors, have created a movement which has managed to temporarily stop the CCP and protect the Nujiang.

This paper analyses the role of the farmers throughout this process. The premise of this paper is that the concept of subaltern is most productive for analysing the protest actions of the farmers. It begins with discussion of the origins of subaltern studies and evaluates the tensions within the ability of subaltern groups to have an awakened consciousness yet remain marginalised. Secondly, this paper explores three ways in which subaltern groups are understood to communicate and organise protest: rumour, communal solidarity and resistance. These themes are applied to the case study of the protest and resistance surrounding China’s Angry River.

Analyses of power and resistance often focuses upon ‘what happened’ as opposed to engaging with theoretical perspectives of ‘why’ and subsequently enriching the investigation. As a consequence, this paper focuses upon the theory that contextualises and attempts to explain subaltern groups. By doing so, it is hoped that this analysis will provide a sound understanding of subaltern groups and how they act.

Studying subaltern groups is to engage with the unawakened consciousness of mass groups that are incoherent to normative structures of law, politics and the economy. It is a study conducted upon objects of suppression by the mediators of their domination. As Leela Ghandi suggests, subaltern studies are an attempt to allow the ‘people…to sound the muted voices…’ of the masses who have unconsciously shaped history yet remained outside of the major decision making processes. Karl Marx first ignites discussion surrounding subaltern groups. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx encapsulates the meaning of ‘subaltern’ and the representation of such groups: ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented’. Marx recognises the lack of class consciousness in their ‘mode of production’, absence of communication and subsequent separation from society. The concept is further developed by Antonio Gramsci who evaluates the workings of cultural hegemony, oppression and power. Gramsci argues that a society is controlled by the elite minority who elicit the cultural hegemony, thus dictating the appropriate norms, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and employment. Those who do not fit into the normative system are excluded from legal and political narratives and are socially marginalised. Importantly, these groups are also economically dispossessed. Therefore, due to the imposed cultural hegemony, subaltern groups do not have the ability to protest within the accepted languages of law and reason and are thus rendered unconscious.

Subaltern studies were expanded when the Subaltern Studies Group (SSG) began to engage with theory and literature to try and hear these muted voices. The scope of their study is limited to post-colonial and post-imperial nations as these nations had suffered the imposition of a Western cultural hegemony and the subsequent marginalisation of their identities and voices. Although the SSG largely focuses upon Indian decolonisation and nationalism, the themes are applicable to China as a post-imperial nation who, in the contemporary context, is defined by an exclusive cultural hegemony. Subaltern groups were (found in) ‘the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as the “elite,”’ therefore determining that subaltern studies seek to find the ‘culture that informs the condition’ and how that hegemony can be deconstructed argues Guha.A consequence of this is the difficulty of investigating subaltern groups and using their own narratives of power and resistance. Therefore, the investigator must engage with subaltern modes of communication such as rumour.

When Spivak infamously questions whether the subaltern could speak, she reveals the difficulties of representation in subaltern studies. Errors in representations arise primarily from a West-East dichotomy. Traditionally, scholars have studied groups that have conformed to normative structures such as law and politics; narratives that can be reasoned with. Subaltern groups, however, do not exist within these frameworks and thus cannot be understood through the traditional lenses. The failure of the SSG was that subaltern groups could only be understood when they engaged with the prescribed narratives. Spivak exemplifies this with the Indian practise sati. Sati involves a widow burning herself upon her husbands’ funeral pyre. The motivation for immolation is subjective, however, it was not interpreted this way and the British Raj banned sati claiming it symbolised female oppression. Spivak describes this as ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ to demonstrate how the “voice” of the female was constructed as an instrument of either indigenous male patriarchy or British rule. The Raj maintained what they were doing reflected the desires of the native population and that the legal protection of females symbolises the modernity of a nation. The banning of female immolation demonstrates the dangers in representation of subaltern groups. The Raj incorrectly identified sati and, as a consequence, further separated Indian widows from legal and political structures to further divide the Indian community under the British Raj.

Spivak contends the hazard of subaltern studies exists in the unknowing and complicit reinforcement of colonial attitudes and understandings. The SSG are linked to post-colonial studies which, Spivak argues, irreversibly ties the area to colonisation and the economic, social and political domination that was originally conducted. Spivak questions whether post-colonial studies reaffirm the colonial classification of the East by observing practises from Western, privileged positions and consequently failing to properly dismantle preconceived interpretations of post-colonial nations. This implicit deconstruction of the subaltern that occurs in the study of their expression is known as epistemic violence. Edward Said’s work supports Spivak’s position, arguing that the investigator is strongly institutionalised to view subaltern groups as ‘other’ and therefore objects of examination. As a consequence subaltern groups must be studied in relation to socio-political realities.

Misunderstandings of subaltern groups can be explained by the theory of essentialism. On a superficial level, essentialism is understood as the recognition of the essence of things and the core mechanism that defines it as an individual entity. Essentialism is defined in opposition to difference and can consequently be helpful in recognising the complex and unique interplays of culture, history and religion and therefore does not create a set of preconceived universal norms and values. The realisation of essentialism and difference, however, can be obstructive insofar as it can allow the denial of differences within essentialism. In a post-colonial context, essentialism enables the reduction of an essentialist idea to be summarised into what it means to be female, Chinese or Indian which Rushdie argues is similar to exoticism. The problem, argues Morris, is in what escapes the essentialist narrative. These interpretations further label and define subaltern groups to an essential notion of “Other” to prevent scholars from engaging with the consciousness of subaltern groups.

Spivak prescribes a strategic approach to essentialism to allow the voices of the subaltern to be reviewed and unmuted. Spivak’s methodology entails deconstructing the ways in which subaltern groups are presented by analysing each facet of the motivation behind the actions of that group to uncover the ‘true voice’ of that subaltern: ‘[“Deconstruction”] is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced.’ Strategic essentialism is a method that uses group identity as the basis of a struggle but also recognises and debates issues related to that group identity and the individuals within the group. While this appears theoretically engaging, strategic essentialism has been regularly misinterpreted. Primarily, essentialist theory and deconstruction are often understood to be incompatible and there is difficulty in putting strategic essentialism into practise.As a consequence, the concept is subjective and inadequate to provide a benchmark for investigation. This problematises the ability of scholars to listen for subaltern groups.

The representation of subaltern groups is therefore a key tension within post-colonial studies. The question posed by Marx in the 19th Century has proven central to realising Eastern and Western differences and the understanding of the ‘Other’ in the shaping of and validity of subaltern and elitist identities. As Spivak demonstrates, there is significant difficulty in overcoming preconceived ideas of normative structures and narration to properly engage with the consciousness of subaltern groups. This logo-centric dependence on the West prevents subaltern groups from speaking independently and resultantly, the outcome of post-colonial studies becomes almost contradictory of its aims. While strategic essentialism may enable some groups to enter the fray, the subaltern remain subjects of investigation and consequently, are disempowered.

A study conducted on the translation of the grievances of subaltern groups in China demonstrates how subaltern groups are disempowered. The study investigates an altercation in Taishi Village in 2005 regarding corrupt distribution of welfare benefits in the area. Village elders argued funds for collective welfare had been illegally taken by local cadres. The protests in Taishi Village quickly drew national attention and lawyers and legal representatives flocked into the village to aid the protesters and provide them with a conscious, recognisable voice that would resonate with the national political agenda. This removed the resistance from the control of the subaltern group and translated it into a legal narration: a language that the original protesters were incapable of reaching or understanding. The protest became part of the national agenda and synonymous with the fight for democracy and integral to the campaigning of the rights defence movement. External actors interpreted the protest as part of a larger, homogenous idea of empowering the exploited farmers. It was believed that by joining the issues of Taishi Village with other rural battles, it would create an empowering solidarity across China and influence CCP policy. The inhabitants of Taishi Village were not in want of this. The lawyers demonstrated a poor interpretation and translation of the grievances of the villagers thus rendering Taishi Village a tool in their construction of the framework of normative protest and resistance argues Woodman. Taishi Village exemplifies the pitfalls in representing subaltern groups.

The fiasco at Taishi Village questions whether subaltern groups can speak and simultaneously remain subaltern: do unmuted subaltern groups merge into the greater consciousness of class struggle? Utilising strategic essentialism, Spivak concludes subaltern groups cannot speak thus determining they remain unconscious. Subaltern resistance cannot be translated into another narrative without being changed which, as Woodman exemplifies, is not uncommon. Thus, for subaltern groups to consciously engage with other actors is to recognise the accepted modes of communication and to cease being subaltern. Guha disputes this and argues that the premise of subaltern studies is to engage with what consciousness is awakened in oppressed groups. Guha, therefore, questions what mechanisms subaltern groups use to protest and resist and whether these shaped or impacted on the political agendas of their time.

This is illustrated by the origins of what the British title the "Indian Mutiny” or, for the Indians, the First War of Independence (1857). Indian soldiers were employed by British Raj as sepoys to help the crush Indian uprisings. The sepoys were deployed across India with modern weaponry, the Enfield Rifled Musket. This ensured greater accuracy and distance than its predecessors. To load the rifle, sepoys bit open the cartridge and poured gunpowder into the muzzle. The cartridge was waterproofed with grease and used as wadding. The mutiny began when rumour circulated that the cartridges were dipped in animal fat; namely lard from the pig and tallow of the cow. In reaction, Muslim sepoys refused to open cartridges for fear of breaking taboos regarding pork and the Hindu sepoys were admonished at the possibility of being lowered in caste for consuming the sacred cow. The rumours sparked the sepoys’ refusal to fight and thus caused the ‘Indian mutiny’.

Rumour is not a traditional narrative used to effect political change; however, in this case, rumour irreversibly affected the socio-political construction of British India. Rumour was the principal means of communication used by the soldiers of the War of Independence to mobilise insurgents and evoke comradeship. Spivak asserts the importance of oral traditions which conveys ideas, hopes and protest to unite subaltern groups. In the Indian Independence, these customs of song, story and myth gave rumour the greatest authority. It is evident the culture of the spoken word was utilised as a framework for protest to effect political change. This determined that the affected were in control of the conversation and their grievances were not forcefully translated into a separate narrative as had occurred in Taishi village. The “Indian Mutiny” is historically important because subaltern culture informed the protest. This is important insofar as culture has historically developed in juxtaposition with reason, contends Dirlik. Rationality, however, is premised on both culture and reason if it is to at all be tied to the living world. Accordingly, to avoid ideas regarding the influence of culture is to remain imprisoned in rational ways of seeing. Unconsciousness must be the departure point for critical analysis and radical activity. This is arguably what was achieved through rumour during the “Indian Mutiny”.

The Jasmine Revolutions that occurred in China early 2011 (19th February 2011 – 21st March 2011) illustrate the power of rumour in a modern context. The revolutions were sparked by the Arab Spring where protesters were fighting for democracy, human rights and transparent governance. Peculiarly, the Jasmine Revolution began outside China on social networking websites, Twitter and where anonymous users encouraged Chinese to meet on Sundays at various places around China to peacefully protest for change. On the arranged dates, thousands of Chinese gathered expectant of protest yet nothing actually happened and nothing was actually changed. The “revolutions”, however, demonstrate the impact and authority of rumour to unite groups through a common belief. While the men and women involved do not fit the traditional description of subaltern, their involvement and desire for change illustrates a feeling of frustration in their ability to shape the political agenda.