I was looking at a geographical text from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century called the Việt Nam dư địa chí. The Viện Hán Nôm’s catalog entry for this text states that it contains information about “the customs and languages of 45 minority nationalities” (phong tục và tiếng nói của 45 dân tộc ít người).
In actuality, it contains a section on “savage and aboriginal human types” (蠻土人種, man thổ nhân chủng). It lists 45 different groups: 22 in the north, 15 in the center, and 8 in the south.
I’ve never found a text in classical Chinese which lists different “ethnic groups” in such detail. That they are referred to as “man” and “thổ” should be an indication that the discourse on “ethnic minorities” in the nineteenth century was quite different from what it is today. From what this text indicates, it most certainly was.
The Việt Nam dư địa chí says, for instance, says the following about a group called the Lao: “The faces of men and women are like indigo. If they come across a person, they kill him with a poisoned arrow and steal his goods. They also cut off the person’s hair to make women’s clothing.”
As for a group called the Xá, it says that “Women are the leaders of the động (this is the name of an administrative unit in a minority area). They wear a tricolored turban on their heads and a tricolored belt around their waists. They carry bows and daggers like men. They often harm people with black magic.”
Ah, but we shouldn’t let old texts like this one deceive us. Of course it is actually the case that the “54 minorities” and “the Kinh” have lived in harmony for centuries.