The Hillside Tujia/Miao Lady Takes a Bandit Husband Rich from Growing Opium (Honest!)

Page 3

The Immoral Economy of Poppy and Opium Production

The first-rate documentary from which the above clip was extracted is a model of concise, no-nonsense ethnography of up-hill montagnard economics (There is also a lot more of interest – I suggest watching it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWflBUfw1z8): it was made not too long ago by a University of Sydney anthropologist named Wm. Geddes, who narrates from his field study from (Miao) Meto settlement just southwest of the notorious “Golden Triangle” entrepot of Chiangmai in N. Thailand. What is remarkable (and altogether erased from all intra-China documentaries) is the detail on how the opium poppy fits into the semi-nomadic or rather peregrine communal life of the region’s largest ethnic minority, the Miao or Hmong. (The tujia are interspersed with Miao settlers in the Guzhang county vicinity where Ms Yang and her scary boyfriend have built their love nest).

The following points come through as essential to the “decoding” of the opium economy.

(1) No village depends solely or even principally on poppy growing. The standard pattern is subsistence farming for cereals or staples.

Here, Maize and a non-wetfield rice referred to (confusingly) as “paddy” even though there are no paddies – the rice is broadcast into the best corners right before the monsoon, and left to the mercy of the Rain God if it is or is not to be flooded under during its prime generation. There is no tedious re-planting of the seedlings, nor is there a second “rice” crop. The harvested rice is accumulated as much for holiday or festival consumption as for daily nutrition; to help preserve it the kernels are not milled until a day or two before they are to get on the table. Weeding and other while-growing work is handled by the extended family, not the village “commune.

The principal (first-used) cereal crop is maize, which seems to tolerate lower grades of soil fertility and natural irrigation, so it gets planted “next”. (No data, but the work also seems family-based).

Neither rice nor maize are traded or indeed tradable: if either fail, the disaster will be so widespread (since every village plants them) that there will be no sellers, esp. in the roadless uphill wilds.

(2) There are 2 non-subsistence crops of significance – or four if one counts gourds and (probably) beans or other legumes inter-planted in the poppy fields.
The two most important are hemp and of course poppy. Unlike the poppy, hemp is entirely self-consumed, fully reprocessed into a ramie cloth that is used fro making a ceremonial batique for women to wear. The post-harvest labor that batique manufacture absorbs is clearly (in hours and skill) the most arduous part of the work-year, and is left entirely to the women, in off–hours when they are not needed in the fields. The work is also family-level, or even below.

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