Liberty Commentary

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.

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