Hill Semites

The mountainous regions of southern China were historically difficult to govern for their  geography. For thousands of years, this rugged area was a refuge for fugitives fleeing the Han empires to the north, and various states such as the the Shan or the Khmer to the south. Those imperial regimes were Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic.  These empires were based on rice paddy farming, so they naturally operated only at lower elevations.  It was possible to avoid taxation and military conscription by moving into the hills, since the uplands were not suitable for paddy production. Hill tribes like the Karen and the Hmong planted sweet potatoes that grow inconspicuously beneath the earth, and can be left underground for years so the taxman won’t find them.

In popular uprisings against the Qing Dynasty, there was frequent association of tax revolts with millennial religious fervour. These mass upheavals took a Christian turn in the 1840’s, when the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace rebellion engulfed huge swaths of the southern provinces. This movement was never defeated, but just forced south into the mountains of Guangxi, Yunan, and northern Vietnam. Fusions of millennial Daoism and Christianity spread through the borderland hills, propagating an outlaw culture that persists even until this day among the hill tribes of Burma. When French generals sacked the citadel of Hanoi in 1892, they were repelled by a fearsome jungle contingent carrying the black flags of millennial Daoism, the infamous Drapeau Noir so conspicuous in histories of that period. Those hill forces were not guerillas, but rather mercenaries hired by the Qing to protect their vassal states in South East Asia.  Besides fighting the French in Vietnam, contingents of Drapeau Noir also defended the empire against the Japanese invasion of Formosa a few years later. And it was the these same jungle fighters who joined the “Viet Cong” (an ugly  slur) to resist the Americans in the 1960’s.

The Hill Semite is a speculative ethnicity with applications in fields such as design and economics. Geographically speaking, the hills of southern China continue through Burma, Bangladesh, Northern India, and Afghanistan. But in speculative ethnography, or the fantasmatic remodeling of human races, we don’t hesitate to include the Caucus and Atlas mountains, and wherever shrouded Berbers and Bedouins move to avoid taxation. To live in the mountains is a political choice, and Hill Semites also move onto the steppes, or become seafarers, depending on where they follow the geography of disappearance. Moving in the shadow of the state, they make commercial fortunes through the foraging of honey and feathers.

The missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) recorded a single term the Ming Dynasty used for both Jews and Muslims – 會會, or was that  回回?. This typically opaque expression of classical alter-Asia was a generic name for wandering shrouds and caravans. Old Chinese dictionaries are filled with obscure characters for foreign races. These characters frequently include animal particles, and it’s often uncertain whether they were proper names for particular groups, or derogatory slurs for any non-Chinese who shared some traits, comparable to European terms are Gypsy and Tartar.  Such designations of unknown people mark holes in bureaucracy. They are names for the unnamed, where the ugly negativity of language condenses in the encounter with the barbarian, and the winds of the void blow in to unsettle representation.

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