Skip to navigation – Site map
Book Reviews

Dru C. Gladney, Dislocating China. Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects

Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2004, 421 p.
Ildikó Bellér-Hann

Full text

1With the present volume Dru Gladney aims to dispel notions of Chinese homogeneity widespread among China scholars. He starts out from the observation that, in contrast to Indian scholarship, so far China has not produced a “subaltern” scholarly movement, i.e. in spite of the growing scholarly literature bringing in new perspectives, little has been written from the perspective of the minorities and other dispossessed groups. In recent decades, as a direct consequence of Chinese minority policies, officially recognised minorities have started asserting their identities, but parallel to these we witness similar processes of rediscovering and reasserting ethnic and regional identities within recognised groups, including the Han themselves. This is all the more remarkable since the Han have traditionally been viewed by others as a homogeneous majority population, an assertion which also finds its way in modern Han self-representations. It is this assumed homogeneity of China as a nation-state made up of a unified and undifferentiated Han majority and a few ethnic groups in its border areas that Gladney sets out to challenge, through giving voice to some of its subalterns, in order to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of Chinese society and culture. The author takes inspiration from both post-colonial (especially “subaltern”) studies as well as from Edward Said’s critique of Eurocentrism in its construction of the Asian other. Since China has never been colonised by the West, to fit the Western critical framework the term “semi-colonial” has been applied. Gladney vehemently rejects this term, replacing it with Michael Hechter’s notion of “internal colonialism”, to do justice to the experiences of the largely voiceless subaltern groups who have been subjected to various forms of Chinese domination.

2In Part I, which is entitled Recognitions, Chapter 2 considers the background of cultural nationalism and argues that nationalism is not simply a set of imagined ideas, but constitutes powerful styles of representations. Gladney points out the selectivity within the cultural taxonomisation of nationalities in China. The emerging and strengthening forms of cultural nationalisms of various groups in turn influence Chinese nationalism. Chapter 3 looks at forms of displaying nationalisms in China, which follow well-established paths, exemplified in popular theme parks. The author introduces the metaphor of the “scrambled” cable channel on television tuners to explain his contextualised, relational approach to identity formation and expression. Without the intervention of the nation-state, the controller of the de-scrambling mechanism as well as of national identities, the scrambled channels only show blurred images, i.e. identities. Following subscription the channels will be de-scrambled, the contours of the blurred images become clear just as certain identities will assume more specific definitions. Subscription allows viewers access to certain channels, and groups to certain identities, while other identities may be mandatory and given (just as government controlled channels are). The metaphor recurs again and again throughout the book. It aptly encapsulates the leitmotif of Gladney’s work, i.e. the privileged role of the state in identity formation and its interaction with localisms and indigeneity.

3Part II consists of two chapters on Representations. The main argument is that in art (most examples are taken from fine arts and film-making) the objectified portrayal of minority groups as both exotic and erotic is essential for the construction of the “unmarked”, modern, civilised Han majority. For example, it can serve as a way of addressing controversial issues which are considered taboo in Han society but only when conveniently dislocated into an ethnic setting.

4Part III is devoted to “Folklorizations”. Both articles in this part concern the Chinese Muslims, the Hui, whose “hybridity” is shown to challenge Samuel Huntington’s vision of the clash of civilisations. Introducing various origin myths, Gladney convincingly demonstrates the hybrid nature of such myths, which are, however, often characterised as “pure” by those busy promoting nationalist or religious projects. He also shows how these traditions are used to legitimate social practice and simultaneously expose Han diversity. The interconnections of localism and transnationalism are discussed through examples of Hui historic, Sufi and local tombs. Gladney shows how tombs and the practices and discourses surrounding them simultaneously contribute to the rootedness of Hui communities in their locality and connect them to transnational networks.

5Part IV entitled “Ethnicizations” starts with the author revisiting his original, major field sites among four Hui communities. He proposes that ethnic identity is shaped by the dialogical interaction of traditions of descent and state policy, and is continuously negotiated and re-defined. Chapter 9 aims to bring issues of social theory into current scholarship on Central Asia as well as to firmly locate nationalism in history. Through looking at the experiences of three individuals, a Hui, a Uyghur and a Kazakh in the transnational diaspora, Gladney shows that in a changed environment, without the active intervention of a powerful nation state in defining ethnic identity, the ascribed ethnic identity is pushed into the background and other factors are foregrounded : the Hui in Turkey emphasise Islam, the Uyghur the national factor, and the Kazakh their descent-based transhumance. The author also suggests that, analogous to the Han majority, the homogeneity of the majority groups of other countries, more specifically, the Turks of Turkey and the Russians of the former Soviet Union should also be called in question.

6Part V, “Indigenizations”, moves on to discussing aspects of Uyghur identity in northwest China. The opening chapter bears the provocative title “Ethnogenesis or Ethnogenocide ?”. It focuses on the dynamic nature of ethnic identity, in which the state is a regulatory, channelling force but also encounters local resistance. Gladney argues that modern Uyghur identity can only be understood as a result of continuous interaction between indigeneity/ethnohistory and Chinese state policies in changing historical contexts. The next chapter deals with Uyghur “cyber-separatism” and underlines how transnationalism, Islamisation, as well as the exoticised representations of the Uyghur by the state all promote an objectified representation of Uyghur identity, which is then instrumentalised in achieving policy objectives and simultaneously contributes to the construction of a homogenous, monolithic Han majority.

7In Part VI, “Socializations”, Gladney returns to Hui ethnography. Chapter 12 looks at informal, i.e. traditional religious, and formal, i.e. state education, and argues that, while centralised state education has been one of the most powerful means of “making Muslims” and integrating them into the Chinese nation state, parallel systems of transmission of knowledge have persisted. Education remains a contested arena in which competing and often conflicting sets of norms are negotiated. Chapter 13 compares contrasting attitudes to prosperity between Hui and Han. Hui entrepreneurialism is explained not in terms of favourable predisposition or national characteristics among the Muslims, but rather through the active state encouragement of market activities among the Muslims. This contrasts with Han ambivalence towards the market, which may be explained by state restrictions of the same activity as “antisocialist” among the Han.

8Part VII, “Politicizations” focuses on local responses to world events. Chapter 14 discusses the views of Hui and Uyghur subalterns about the Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003. Gladney demonstrates again the diversity of China’s Muslims, how they participate in international relations, are informed about global events and respond to them with many voices. Chapter 15 also connects Chinese subalterns’ responses to global events, this time the student protests on Tiananmen Square to the end of the Cold War. Gladney argues persuasively that the Tiananmen events in many ways followed the trajectories of a TV series “River Elegy”. It is perhaps no accident that the concluding chapter is also subsumed here. Gladney’s main concern has always been the political dimension of social relations. He argues that the rising nationalist rhetoric accompanying the nationalist project poses a major threat not to other countries but to China’s own subalterns, whom it encounters within the framework of internal colonialism.

9In many ways this volume is a worthy continuation of the Gladney œuvre. For those already familiar with his earlier work, few of his arguments here will come as a surprise. The sense of familiarity is also evoked by some of the ethnographic examples, and several of the chapters are re-worked versions of previously published materials. Muslims are introduced repeatedly in each chapter where they are mentioned. Better editing and co-ordination of these chapters would have produced a more elegant volume, eliminating inconsistencies such as the occasional use of the adjective Turkish in the sense of “Turkic”, at other times replacing it with “Turkic” (e.g. pp. 183, 202, 206, 210). But these small flaws should not detract attention from the intellectual unity of Dru Gladney’s anthropological work in general, and this volume in particular. Presenting diverse ethnographic materials in a colourful and highly readable style, Gladney never loses the main thread, i.e. understanding Chinese society and culture from the subaltern perspective. He thereby fulfils his promise to deconstruct essentialised notions of a monolithic Han majority.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Ildikó Bellér-Hann, « Dru C. Gladney, Dislocating China. Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects », China Perspectives [Online], 62 | november - december 2005, Online since 20 December 2006, connection on 15 April 2014. URL :

Top of page


© All rights reserved

Top of page