Poppies as metaphor – carrying magic from east to west;
The Zomia people from ancient primitavism to modern, spectators at both.
Magic even if slight of hand is technique gained by knowledge. Knowledge in the greater tradition of humanity is control, in the lesser tradtion where ‘piratical’ magic of fortune tellers or protective talismans are used this as an individuals control over ones self as an invite to change someones destiny by defining their fate. At the turn of the century ‘Magic’ in civilized society was all but dead, but made alive by the advent of stage magicians and spiritualist returning from a journey in the east. Asian cultures have long been an exotic good to western markets, hungry for meaning or escape through tricks or a fix. This is still prevalent today with west obsession for authentic culture, finding oneself in a revised eastern philosophy or reality dueling substance use. All of these are representations of either the individual devised or state systems of control.
The linear expansion of the West met itself at the turn of the century in Asia, bringing with it a new Empirical state, opening avenues for trade goods, as well as exporting home to an ever growing discontent populaces ideas of a new world of tangible magic. Seen in emerging areas of anthropology and highly popular travel writing of people finding new belief through old ways, made more real by the returning stage magician preforming illusions to eager spectators. “The margin of European empires were sites of encounter with ‘primitive’ or even ‘savage’ peoples still steeped in the unearthly powers of ‘real and potent magic”1. At home modernization and industrialization brought new forms of social progress not seen before, how ever people were not used to the “utility of things” and the quantification of myth, churning daily life into the mundane. This was illustrated by Max Weber’s Munich University speech in 1917 ‘the fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization’ in the Western world, where science and technology were effectively destroying ideas about mysterious powers and magic, while development was taking place at a different pace else where2. This allows one a look through the lens of modernist belief that societal development “in which societies move from reliance on magic, through religion, and finally science”. This made it possible for people to live with the “Victorian Mission”, in that modernization is inevitable, bring with it democracy through capitalism… by living with it I mean excusing the actions of colonization… While people were becoming rational, their imaginations were growing hungry. This hunger has driven many cultures before, for our sake we look at the linear progression of the west as being un-nourishing, where as the east was perceived as being exotic due to its interwoven hybridization of culture through the ‘Mirical of tolerance’ which we will see later as not being whole true to the word but more over as Gananath Obeyesekere observed as the Great and Little tradition.
In any civilization, there is a great tradition of the relative few, and a little tradition of the largely reflective many. The societal dimensions of these two traditions are the great community and the little community. Thus, the great tradition is the culture of the great communities of priest, theologians, and literary men who may not even seen the village.
The notion of a great and little tradition has led to the structuralization of the religious system of a given village in terms of “levels”, layers, or strata, the image being hat of horizontal layers, one on top of the other. “Animism, our third level of beliefs, underlines both Brahman and Buddhist practices, and is for the former indistinguishable from the latter two.” Buddhism and Brahmanism have become so closely interwoven as to be indistinguishable. If these “layers” are indeed indistinguishable, the anthropologist surely does violence to the data by conceptualizing them as “layers”3
Today the west still has a desire for the ‘exotic’ east, found in popular books and movies like “eat, prey love” where one goes to find themselves, or one can go to get lost like Leo in “The Beach”, more relevant is the west’s obsession with opium and distraction from reality. be it slide of hand or consumption of substances the disconect from the magic in the world has left the west with a void, being filled at the turn of the century with stage magicians and spiritualist inspired from the near and far east traditions, this dates back to the earlist crusades. Magic,during the so-called Golden Age of Magic, which approximately coincides with the period Max Weber identified as being the characterized by the “dis-enchantment of the world” and also with the fin de siecle movement known as the mystical revival. “Modern Magic”, which participates in the ideals and technologies of modernity while cultivating an ambiguous association with other forms of mystical occult beliefs, including the arcane and the Orientalist.4 Though the Western Empire was a new force in the region, the area and peoples were accustom at least through history to the changing of power how ever today there is still highly debated region of stateless people that tie in to both the west and east contemporary culturse none as Zomia. Zomia is region stretching across the highlands of Asia, from India to China, across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, including 100 million minority peoples of great ethnic and linguistic variation. It is “the largest remaining region of the world whose peoples have not yet fully incorporated into nation-states. Its days are numbered. Not so very long ago, however, such self governing peoples were the great majority of humankind. Today, they are seen from the valley kingdoms as ‘our living ancestors,’ ‘what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civilization’ On the contrary…hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millenia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys-slavery, conscription, taxes, corvee labor, epidemics, and warfare.Most of the areas in which they reside may be aptly called shatter zones or zones of refuge. Virtually everything about these peoples livelihoods, social organization, ideologies, and more controversially even their largely oral cultures, can be read as strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arms length. Their physical dispersion in rugged terrain, their mobility, their cropping practices, their kinship structure, their pliable ethnic identities, and their devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders effectively serve to avoid incorporation into states and to prevent states from springing up among them….A history of flight is embedded in many hill legends….Civilizational discourses never entertain the possibility of people voluntarily going over to the “barbarians”, hence such statuses are stigmatized and ethnicized. Ethnicity and “tribe” begin exactly where taxes and sovereignty end – in the Roman Empire as in the Chinese.”5 Pointing out that humans have existed for approximately two hundred thousand years, sixty thousand in Southeast Asia, and only in the last one percent of human history has there been what would be a “state”, otherwise, there were self-governing groups that sometimes cooperated in social practices such as marriage, hunting, or trading. Scott also notes that “living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.”6
The attempt to integrate the Zomia peoples has been seen as development or modernization, but in reality, it is an attempt to make them taxable, to profit off of their production. Thailand, for example, has attempted to replace minority populations production of opium with other crops, which is seen as them “cleaning up” the country, when in reality they are attempting to collect money from people that were fairly independent of the state. The state seizes natural resources, and encourages mono-cropping agriculture for profit. In 1986, the government began evicting hilltribe peoples via torching homes, stealing livestock, and “forced, sometimes at knifepoint, to hand over their silver ornaments…For centuries tribal people have inhabited the mountains in what is now the national territory of Thailand. Today more than 500,000 hilltribe people reside in the northern provinces. Culturally and linguistically distinct from the Thai majority, these people have diverse cultures and languages. The six main tribes, in descending order of population size, are Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Mien (Yao), Akha and Lisu. No centralized nation-state existed in Thailand until early in this century; the northern principality of Chiang Mai was semi-autonomous from the Bangkok court until 1910….A 1958 ban on opium production also increased government interest in the mountains. The opium-producing poppy, which only grows well at higher altitudes, has long been cultivated by some, but by no means all, hilltribe farmers. Opium’s immense value as a cash crop derives from its high market demand, its transportability and the fact that, unlike many crops, it does not spoil.”7 Since then, minority groups of Thailand, Laos, and Burma have been expelled from one country to another. While the government states they are nomadic and illegal, this is incorrect, as they are not culturally nomadic, they are simply fleeing the hands of any state. They are part of Zomia, unrecognized as official citizens anywhere. They are undocumented and this makes them vulnerable no matter where they are. The saying “history is written by the victors” applies to Southeast Asia. Archeological remains of ruling kingdoms captivate historians and casual visitors, as well as most civilians, yet there is a history of peoples that have been erased. The states that are remembered were small in comparison to the population of the areas, most people lived detached from these states all together. Scott uses the term “padi state” to describe how state centers strategically attracted people to increase profit through irrigated rice agriculture: “As a new political form, the padi state was an ingathering of previously stateless peoples. Some subjects were no doubt attracted to the possibilities for trade, wealth, and status available at court centers, while others, almost certainly the majority, were captives and slaves seized in warfare or purchased from slave-raiders. The vast “barbarian” periphery of these small states was a vital resources in at least two respects. First, it was the sources of hundreds of important trade goods and forest products necessary to the prosperity of the padi state. And second, it was the source of the most important trade good in circulation: the human captives who formed the working capital of any successful state. What we know of the classical states such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, as well as the early Khmer, Thai, and Burmese states, suggests most of their subjects were formally unfree: slaves, captives, and their descendents.”8
An interesting and alarming reality is shown here (as said before the idea of the ‘Miracal of Tolerance’ is not true to its word) ; as one who has frequented ancient ruins of kingdoms long gone, it is never spoken about that these kingdoms were in fact built and powered by slaves and captives from the area, yet it is the reality worldwide. It is therefore also unspoken that many captives ran, as the life living under the state was oppressive in every way, not to mention the frequency of disease, drought, and famine when you have a large number of humans in a small area, and the use of people as war tools, which also explains why every great civilization one frequents the remains of today inevitably collapsed, leaving people again “stateless”. History has a strange way of painting a timeline where people move gracefully from simple, nomadic peoples to integrated, tax paying, obedient peoples of amazing kingdoms, but this is the history of few. People could actually avoid being a part of the state, whatever state there was near them, until very recently in time, and until they were forced, or it became profitable to create a symbiotic relationship between them and their local state. Humans have a way of creating complex relationships that benefit opposing parties. Unfortunately, if one party has more power, it doesn’t end well. For the Zomia peoples, they were able until fairly recently to reap the benefits of trade with the state without the subordination of becoming a part of the ruling state. The realization of far away territories having great economic value due to their resources such as oil, metals, timber, etc as well as humans, meant the various states of the region had a new interest in it’s small groups of highland peoples, made difficult of course by the fact that these areas were full of people who spoke completely different languages not only from each other but certainly from the dominant government bodies. The ethnic identity of hill peoples, as well as their tendency to speak multiple languages, made migration and evasion of the state easier – Scott describes this as an “apparent anarchy of identity”, which was made understandable only by altitude – certain groups tended towards certain altitudes of the hills and therefore tended to farm specialized crops that thrive at said elevations. Long-distance travel and marital alliances were common. “Zomia is thus knitted together as a region not by a political unity, which it utterly lacks, but by comparable patterns of diverse hill agriculture, dispersal and mobility, and rough egalitarianism, which, not incidentally, includes a relatively higher status for women than in the valleys.”9
The valleys is where the “governed peoples” reside, hence the split in the discussion of people in the hills and people in the valleys. Hill societies are noted as “systematically different” from valley societies, as hill peoples tend to “animists…who do not follow the ‘great tradition’ salvation religions of lowland peoples (Buddhism and Islam in particular). Where, as occasionally happens, they do come to embrace the ‘world religion’ of their valley neighbors, they are likely to do so with some degree of heterodoxy and millenarian fervor that valley elites find more threatening than reassuring.”10 Disparities in wealth and status are present in both hill and valley societies, though the hill societies tend to be unstable and changing in these disparities, similar to the ebb and flow of language and ethnic identity. Zomia is a region of resistance and refuge, both avoiding all state control as well as fleeing state control – a series of rebellions in the 19th century, for example, pushed millions of refuges south into the highlands. The agricultural and social traditions of the hilltribe peoples have been adapted as a way to continue to evade state control. Many people have in fact moved from hill to valley and valley to hill. These shifts are often accompanied by a shift in ethnic identity. Some peoples have weaved in and out of the state control/valley region over generations, depending on the rise and collapse of various states and kingdoms. The kingdoms of Southeast Asia were dependent on the geography. Once monsoon season started, the ability to control the outskirts of the land was decreased dramatically. Scott states that “the Southeast Asian state….was a radically seasonal phenomenon.”11 Roads were unusable once the rain began pouring. After the monsoon season, the heat of the hot season made it impossible for soldiers to fight. In addition to this, rice was the foundation of life and control – rice was the only staple that permitted extreme population densities. Rice can feed many people as long as the labor is there to harvest it, as well as water – the state needed to be near large water sources to harvest rice. With this reality is also the reality that “none of these padi states flourished except by slave-raiding on a substantial scale….slaves, it is fair to say, were the most important ‘cash crop’ of pre-colonial Southeast Asia: the most sought-after commodity in the region’s commerce….until roughtly 1920, the majority of urban Southeast Asian population were either captives or their descendants (often in the past two or three generations.”12So, people were shuffled from hill to a state in a valley, then resettled themselves in another hill region, and were snatched by another state, or sometimes choosing to join a state of the benefits were right, then maybe back to a different hill region by marriage, all the while changing their language and ethnic identity, and changing their lifestyle depending on the time of year and what they could be forced to do. Natural disasters and epidemics in these mostly tropical areas were also a determining factor in the fate of an autonomous group OR a state, mosquitoes don’t discriminate. Slave raiding was done both by the valley people to the hill people AND there other way around. During wars, armies looted and captured people, took crops, spreading poverty and famine and leading to even more mixing between different groups.
All states in the region have tried to bring people under the linguistic and cultural wing of the larger country – “Culturally, this reduction and standardization of relatively autonomous, self governing communities is a process of long historical lineage. It is an integral theme of the historical consciousness of each of the large mainland Southeast Asian states….internal colonialism, broadly understood, aptly describes this process. It involved absorption, displacement, and/or extermination of the previous inhabitants. It involved botanical colonization in which the landscape was transformed – by deforestation, drainage, irrigation, and levees – to accommodate crops, settlement patterns, and systems of administration familiar to the state and to the colonists….The attempt to bring the periphery into line is read by representatives of the sponsoring state as providing civilization and progress – where progress is, in turn, read as the intrusive propagation of the linguistic, agricultural, and religious practices of the dominant ethnic group: the Han, the Kinh, the Burman, the Thai.”13 The history of such areas is also dominated by the history of the states, rather than the people. Scott states “the thicker the paper trail you leave behind, the larger your place in the historical record. With the written record the distortions also multiply.”14
The timeline of willingly transitioning from “primitive” to “civilized” is therefore called into question: peoples forced into the state narrative then escaped are obviously at odds with this, not to mention the foundation of the fact they were forced to begin with! If the majority of peoples lived peacefully without a governance in human history, it would seem that is more “civilized”. The propaganda of the “other” has also been usefully worldwide and for thousands of years for small state, kingdoms, and empires to control those just outside their grasp. What is very intriguing is the juxtaposition of the “other” for profit. Right now, one of the biggest sources of money for some minority peoples of Thailand is actually outside tourists visiting them FOR their “otherness”, for example the Karen people due to their tradition of stretching their necks with metal necklaces. While on the surface it appears to exploit them, it is one of very few sources of income they have that allow them to be separate of the ruling state of Thailand without giving up their culture, language, and traditions. When we move our lens from the internal struggles in Asia to a global view, we see a global interest in groups such as the Karen reminding the states of the value of cultural diversity, which in turn unfortunately reminds them of the profit they can make from such groups, yet keeps them from forcing such groups to completely assimilate. When reading “Conjuring Asia”, one gets a perspective from 19th century Europe’s gaze at the East and the interest in its folk traditions, specifically magic. Magic carries a very bizarre place in anthropological history, in that many of the “Great Traditions” such as the dominant religions of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity are at great odds with magic and folk beliefs, yet people’s that live under these Great Traditions often hold Little Traditions, like the belief in shamans, spells, amulets, local deities, etc. When looking at Southeast Asia, many groups living under state control and under the Great Tradition of Buddhism maintain their Little Tradition of belief in things like Sak Yant (magical tattoos). Conjuring Asia zooms out and looks at European interest in the “secrets of the East”, meaning their “Little Traditions”, which coincides with a time of an increase in the interest of “Little Traditions” of Europe as well – the 19th century brought a craze of seances, magic stage performances, symbolism, science fiction, and an interest in the morbid and post mortem. They took this new fascination and travelled with it, bringing back treasures, tricks, and stories from the East and Middle East.
We have two parallel interpretations of “magic”, the illusion and the tangible. The belief in the State can be interpreted based on the facts and outcomes of being a believer, as similar to a belief in stage magic – one is drawn into an illusion that doesn’t satisfy. Tangible magic is what is sought after worldwide, even after worldwide, even after a stranglehold of the state and the tantalizing stage magic performances, even after the overwhelming power and influence of the “Great Traditions”, the ungoverned, the “Little Traditions”, prevail and remain alluring for humankind.
Refinement as commodity – a group of people being refined to a standard and more efficient form, the state cultivates people into a refined, concentrated area to increase profit, metaphorically speaking the same process one uses with mind altering drugs that have traditionally been used in magical practices, such as the coca leaf in South America into cocaine, and the poppy into opium in Southeast Asia. The state has exploited what was once a symbiotic relationship with Zomia much as people have exploited traditional herbs in seeking both profit and enlightenment, here we see the “Little Traditions” mined by all.
There is also the concept of population control here, where people moved from slavery to forced civilianship by taxation, and then entered a stability in which they sought magic. Magic as a form of independence and control over one’s life. So we have the commodity of magic versus the individual’s belief and use of such. Goto-Jones also speaks to the modern world lacking Magic. Furthermore Patterson In vanishing act we are introduced to contemporary Shamans practicing different forms of divination and protection in a ever changing and modernizing world of Cambodia, where new money finds the the rich and powerful as well as the everyday seeking guidance and appeasement of ancestors, local spirits and with the use magical talismans. Speaking to the changing power of state and the greater tradition to the globalized economy. This new authority that reaches into ever ones life today, greater then the empires of old, brings with it too, the interplay of ideas and influence of cultures, intermingling of belief making the furture an evermore so inseparable hybridization. Leaves one with not only the belife in magic but a hope for a bright if not ever more so global culture. As in Pattersons and Mauss’s words “For many centuries we directly practiced Hinduism, and after that Buddhism, and so this still exerts a heavy weight. You inherit from a very strong past. So it is not easy to ignore. We do observe that the Neak Ta (nature spirits) still exist. We do observe that people still practice the same rituals they practiced centuries ago. In this period of high technology, the two things coexist. Technology is apart of our modern life and traditional things will still prevail” “A magician does nothing, but makes everyone believe he is doing everything, and all the more so since he puts to work collective forces and ideas to help the individual imagination in its belief.”n115
1-Mauss, Marcel, A General Theory of Magic, 1902, reprinted in London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
2-Goto-Jones, Chris. Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge Univ. Press. 2016. Print. Pp 50, pp 109n19.
3-Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Great Tradition and the Little in the Perspective of Sinhalese Buddhism. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Feb., 1963), pp. 139,141. jstor.org/stable/2050008
4-Goto-Jones, Chris. Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge Univ. Press. 2016. Print. Pp 46n74 -Mauss, Marcel, A General Theory of Magic.
5– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Preface.
6– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Pp 3.
8– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Pp 5.
9– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Pp 19
10– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Pp 21.
11– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Pp 61.
12– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Pp 81.
13– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Pp 13.
14– Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed; An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Univ. Press. 2009. print. Pp 34.
15-Patterson, Ryun. Vanishing Act: A glimpse into Cambodia’s world of Magic. Self published. 2015. Print. Pp 88. and n1 Mauss, Marcel; The Magician.