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276th Meeting - Thursday July 6th 2006

'Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China's Southwest Borders'

A talk by Sara L. M. Davis

"An exemplary study of cross-border culture. Davis's original and deeply probing account of state-sponsored musical culture and of the musical practices that both transcend and subvert it deserves, like the music it depicts, to travel widely."
James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology Yale University

"Song and Silence is a fascinating glimpse at a very interesting part of China that has increasingly become the focus of environmental and minority issues in the ever-evolving multi-ethnic state that is the PRC. Davis presents a well-researched and lucidly written examination of the complex inter-play between Han Chinese and Beijing and the increasingly vulnerable minority communities in the Himalayan foothills of Southern Yunnan whose historic isolation is now being irremediably breached by tourism, commerce and the media."
Orville Schell, University of California, Berkeley

In the sunny, subtropical Sipsongpanna region, Tai Lues perform flirtatious, exoticized dances for an increasingly growing tourist trade. Endorsed by Chinese officials, who view the Tai Lues as a model minority, these staged performances are part of a carefully sanctioned ethnic policy. However, behind the scenes and away from the eyes and ears of tourists and the Chinese government, a different kind of cultural resurgence is taking place.

In this vivid and beautifully told ethnography, Sara L. M. Davis reveals how Tai Lues are reviving and reinventing their culture in ways that contest the official state version. Carefully avoiding government repression, Tai Lues have rebuilt Buddhist temples and made them into vital centers for the Tai community to gather, discuss their future, and express discontent. Davis also describes the resurgence of the Tai language evident in a renewed interest in epic storytelling and traditional songs as well as the popularity of Tai pop music and computer publishing projects. Throughout her work, Davis weaves together the voices of monks, singers, and activists to examine issues of cultural authenticity, the status of ethnic minorities in China, and the growing cross-border contacts among Tai Lues in China, Thailand, Burma, and Laos.

Sara L.M. Davis earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. She was the China researcher at Human Rights Watch for three years. Davis has taught and held postdoctoral fellowships at Yale University and UCLA. She has written for several publications including The Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and Modern China. Davis currently lives in New York.

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