The Mystery of Zomia

In the lawless mountain realms of Asia, a Yale professor finds a case against civilization

by Drake Bennett

Picture a map of the world color-coded to represent not countries, but altitude. In North America, Appalachia would be a long, topographical peninsula between the densely settled Eastern Seaboard and the fertile plains of the Midwest. In South America, the western population centers would be an elevated archipelago above malarial lowlands; in Northern Europe, the Benelux plains and polders would be difficult to discern from the North Sea.

And in southern Asia, stretching from the Vietnamese highlands up into the Tibetan plateau and as far west as Afghanistan, would be a single sprawling mountain realm that is home to more than 100 million people. This is Zomia.

Zomia is a rugged swath of Asia that for 2,000 years has remained culturally aloof from the traditional centers of power and the pull of empires. Its inhabitants, Asia’s “hill people,” have earned a reputation for egalitarianism, insurrection, and independence. Up until the second half of the 20th century, many of the societies there remained nonliterate and supported themselves through trade, smuggling, and Iron-Age practices like slash-and-burn agriculture.

Though never seeing itself as a country apart, this distinctive zone has recently begun to gain broader attention. The historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam coined the name Zomia in 2002, as a way of challenging the continent’s traditional geographical boundaries. And this fall, the Yale political scientist James Scott has published a book making a far more ambitious argument: Zomia, he says, offers a sort of counter-history of the evolution of human civilization.

In Zomia’s small societies, with their simple technologies, anti-authoritarian tendencies, and oral cultures, Scott sees not a world forgotten by civilization, but one that has been deliberately constructed to keep the state at arm’s length. Zomia’s history, Scott argues, is a rejection of the mighty lowland states that are seen as defining Asia. He calls Zomia a “shatter zone,” a place where people go to escape the raw deal that complex civilization historically has been for those at the bottom: the coerced labor and conscription into military service, the taxation for wars and pharaonic building projects, the epidemic diseases that came with intensive agriculture and animal husbandry.

What Zomia presents, Scott argues in his book “The Art of Not Being Governed,” is nothing less than a refutation of the traditional narrative of steady civilizational progress, in which human life has improved as societies have grown larger and more complex. Instead, for many people through history, Scott argues, civilized life has been a burden and a menace.

“The reason why some people didn’t become civilized, why some people didn’t ‘develop,’ may not be a question of them not having the talent, or being backward and so on, but may be historically produced by their desire to avoid what they saw as the inconveniences of states,” says Scott.

Scott’s anarchist history of Zomia is controversial, both in its claims about the predatory nature of the state and in its portrait of Zomia’s past. Other scholars of Asia – and Southeast Asia in particular – charge him with overgeneralizing about the region, and with seeing political motives in decisions and traditions that in fact have their roots in ecological necessity, happenstance, or even the profit motive.

But Scott, and other scholars of Zomia, are also pressing for a change in how we see the political world. In looking beyond national borders, or politically defined regions like East Asia or Southeast Asia, and in applying different kinds of organizational logic – in other words, in thinking of areas like Zomia as places in themselves – they see a chance not only to paint a more coherent portrait of history, but also to better address the troublesome and sometimes violent politics that can erupt in what are traditionally seen as the world’s marginal border regions.

“There are all kinds of ways of cutting up the world,” says Scott, “and it partly depends on what you want to understand.”

The image of Asia has been shaped by its great empires: the Han and Tang dynasties of China, the Gupta Empire and the Mughals in South Asia, the Thai and Malay city-states. These civilizations grew up on coasts or in fertile river valleys, the largest engulfing vast stretches of territory and leaving behind rich historical records in everything from tombs and temples to treatises and household goods. Their cultures still dominate the identities of the countries where their descendents live.

All this, however, is lowland history. Zomia is an alternate world, a realm of mutable, outlaw cultures, creating almost no empires and resisting being incorporated into those that originated elsewhere. Its people include the Hmong, the Wa, the Karen, the Lahu, and the PaO. Its exact borders are up for debate: Scott’s definition of Zomia is smaller than some, stretching from Vietnam up into China, but west only as far as northeast India, covering a region traditionally known as the Southeast Asian massif.

The defining characteristic of this expanse of thickly wooded hills and mountains is what Scott calls “friction of terrain.” Travel is arduous and inhabitants are difficult to dislodge or discipline from below. In Zomia, elevation not only compounds distance but supersedes it, so that people living several hundred miles apart but at the same altitude can have nearly identical cultures – but little in common with neighbors who live lower or higher in the hills.

All of which makes Zomia a place where state power has made itself felt only weakly, if at all. As Scott writes, Zomia “represents one of the world’s longest-standing and largest refuges of populations who live in the shadow of states but who have not yet been fully incorporated.”

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