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The Origins of Wasi Tusi: A Border Study of Histories, Myths, and Legends

Special Issue
Ming-ke WANG (Academia Sinica)
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In the spring of 1929, young frontiers-investigator Guangming Li went to visit Wasi Tusi, a local chief in the upper Min River valley whose family had been bestowed the title by China since the Ming dynasty. Li acquired a heroic “history” concerning the origin of the Wasi family from achieves, and the history was confirmed by the contemporary Tusi himself. Li also acquired a “legend” of some Han brothers told by one of the Tusi’s brother concerning the Han origin of the family. A few years later, another investigator, Changshou Ma, gained the third version of the family’s genesis history, that was, in his words, a “myth” about the ancestral Qiong eagle, from a lama who was also the Tusi’s brother. Thus three brothers of the Wasi family had declared three “histories” concerning the origins of the family.

In this article I consider these as frontier / border phenomena, and the related genesis texts, border texts. Analyzing these border phenomena and the texts, I suggest that they were products of two major historiccultural trends: the Sinicizing process which brought in the historical mentality of heroic ancestors and the related genres such as geographical gazette and clan genealogy, and the Tibetanizing process which brought in the historical mentality of the ancestral Qiong eagle. In the Qing and the first Republic era, both cultural trends reached the upper Min River valley, where, for its special natural environments and human ecology, the historical mentality of ancestral brothers was essential to its inhabitants. Therefore, bordering between the Han and the Tibetan cultures, the Wasi family not only owned three “histories” concerning the origins of their ancestors, but also the histories contained three historical mentalities.

Chinese investigators of the early 20th century were themselves the products of the historical mentality of heroic ancestors, thus they considered the Wasi family genesis text that started with a hero was a true history, and those started with “brothers” or “the Qiong eagle” were legend or myth. Their frontiers-investigations, and their representations and interpretations over natives’ histories and cultures, were actually the works of Chinese frontier / border-refashioning that was, again, a part of the China’s nation-building project. With the concepts of historical mentality and genre, I emphasize both the continuing and changing aspects of the nation-building in modern China.

Journal of History and Anthropology