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“Up” and “Down”. “Zomia” and the Bru of the Central Vietnamese Highlands

Part II.: Fleeing the state or desire for modernity? reflections on Scott and Salemink

Acta Ethnographica Hungarica
Author: Gábor Vargyas

In the first part of my study, based on micro-historical data related to Scott’s hypothesis, I examined whether the Bru were native to their current territory. I came to the conclusion that the Bru are, if not “native”, at least the oldest known inhabitants of this area, and although their history is inseparable from the histories of the surrounding states, they are not a people fleeing from – and only partially because of – the latter. In part two, I examine the other side of the coin: the issue of state evasion, proving that notwithstanding my criticism, Scott still provides a deep insight into the Bourdieu-esque habitus of mountain-dwellers, including the Bru, and that his thesis is much more than just a “populist post-modern history of nowhere”. In the final part of my paper, I refute Salemink’s recent propositions contending Scott’s theory, rejecting his ideas about an alleged wish for inscription into “modernity” through communism and Christianity – a wish that he attributes to hill peoples.

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Abstract

In this study, the author reflects on his personal experiences and dilemma, when in 2000 an analyst from the Missing in Action Division of the United States Department of Defence asked him to identify some photos taken during the 1980-s in Vietnam. Although the author refused this request at first, he later realized that he would in fact have to identify himself on the photos and agreed to cooperate. The department wanted to make sure that the person in question was not a lost American officer previously detained in a “re-education camp”. The mere fact of this request shocked the author, making him aware of the ideological, political and ethical hazards of field research in Vietnam and the dangers generally inherent in anthropological fieldwork. His article investigates these problems.

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The 2009 publication of J. Scott’s epoch-making book, The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia initiated a long-standing debate about the ethnohistory of the Southeast-Asian Highlands (“Zomia”) and, more generally, about lowland-highland relationships, “nativeness”, state evasion, self-government, and “secondary primitivism”. This article joins the discourse based on one concrete ethnographic example, the Bru, a Mon-Khmer speaking dry-rice cultivator hill tribe in the Central Vietnamese Highlands. Using detailed ethnographic and ethno-historic data, it argues that the Bru are, if not “native”, at least the oldest known inhabitants of the area inhabited by them — a fact that does not contradict Scott’s deep insight concerning their state evasion.

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In this paper, I present a short excerpt from an 18-hour-long Bru life history recorded in 1989 in the Central Vietnamese Highlands among the Bru/Vân Kiều of Quảng Trị. The excerpt sheds light on the circumstances of Christian evangelization among the Bru through the recollections of a Bru man who was not Christian himself but was in contact with the key protagonists of the events, the missionaries and the evangelized Bru people. The interview reveals on how the evangelized and non-evangelized viewed the evangelists. What were the ways of promoting evangelization? Were the Bru impressed by the world of the evangelizers? How did the Bru conceive of the evangelizers? How convincing did they find their arguments? Beside its immanent value, this intercultural encounter has a significance beyond itself insofar as it is situated in and reflective of the icy political and ideological milieu of the Vietnam War in the 1960s–1970s, the impacts of which were still lingering when the recording was made.

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Acta Ethnographica Hungarica
Authors: Anikó Báti, Tamás Régi, István Sántha, Katalin Tóth, Zoltán Nagy, Gábor Vargyas, and Gábor Vargyas
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Acta Ethnographica Hungarica
Authors: Benedek Láng,, Ildikó Tamás,, Vilmos Voigt,, Judit Kis-Halas,, Tóth G. Péter,, and Gábor Vargyas
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Acta Ethnographica Hungarica
Authors: Dóra Kovács, Vivien Szőnyi, Beáta Gatti, Petra Horváth-Bálint, Judit Czövek, Katalin Fenyves, Tamás Ildikó, Sándor Varga, and Gábor Vargyas
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