‘the boy with the bamboo stick’

This essay draws on João de Pina-Cabral’s monograph – ‘Between China and Europe; Person, Culture, and Emotion in Macao’ (2002 )- to explore passage, personhood, and reciprocity (1) as indicative that relationships are not simply links between an ‘A’ and a ‘B’, that might create a ‘C’. In doing so the combination of the themes of passage, personhood, and reciprocity are used together as a theoretical framework through which to understand a subject – in this instance Macao.

Macao explicitly lends itself to the exploration of the themes of passage, personhood, and reciprocity. The particular geographical and historical location of Macao have made it a demarcating threshold between different interest groups with different forms of power, such as Chinese and European interests in their multiple historical forms (ibid, pp1,4-6). This threshold has (i) defined the form of personhood the wielding of these powers has impressed on respective human populations, (ii) mediated the reciprocation and movement of people, objects, and power between the different interests, and (iii) been a space for the previous two to take place in. Hence at a macro-level it is a liminal space for macro-entities to work –not simply in a material sense- with each other, but perhaps more interestingly also a space for these ‘entities’ to conduct relations between different aspects that constitute them.

One way of describing this is through Pina-Cabral’s distinction between the ‘day-time and night-time aspects of sociocultural life’ (Pina-Cabral, 1997, pp.35) , where Macao facilitates a passage of things between the two. For example in the case of gambling in Macao Pina-Cabral notes that “while knowing full well that his or her very engagement in vaeseng (gambling on Imperial examination candidates) contributes towards making [the Imperial examination system] less fair.” (Pina-Cabral, 2002, pp.102) In this sense the entity of the Chinese government at the time -as exemplified in this example by its Imperial examination system- is dissolved into a network of relationships rather than as a bounded entity. In the case of the Imperial examination system it is the hegemonic ‘daylight’ aspect of sociocultural life that the power interests of the Chinese government place out front for all to see, but on examination Pina-Cabral demonstrates that it is tightly interwoven with the ‘night-time’ aspect; the underbelly of gambling (ibid, pp.99). If on the one hand the gambling practices are not permitted within China’s ‘boundaries, and its’ inhabitants cannot really participate or succeed in the prestigious Imperial examination system, then the powerful cumulative interests and agency of its inhabitants are at stake. This is where Macao enters the picture as a liminal space where these interests are shaped into practices including the vaeseng; Imperial examination gambling. In doing so the night-time and day-time aspects of power both insert themselves against each other to construct sociocultural life.

However we must be careful not to divide Chinese society into a binary opposition between the two practices, as somehow reflecting different groups of people exerting respective powers. If we did this we would simply see Macao as Arnold Van Gennep might – as a magical transit zone for relationship processing between the two interests (1909). Instead if we understand Marilyn Strathern’s points that ‘unity’ or ‘one’ invokes plurality as a homologue then these are interlinking practices (1988, pp.13-14), not between different groups of people via Macao, but are the actual persons involved as inter-reciprocating and concatenating processes of making personhood. Where what a person is, is through practice part of who another person is, thus continuity of sociocultural meaning is not encapsulated in ‘individuals’ but in spatio-temporal practices of co-constituted personhood.

Moving on, what is perhaps more interesting is how local actors in Macao have (i) been shaped by being in this liminal space for macro-level processes, (ii) shaped these macro-level processes through being active within this liminal space, and (iii) generated their own ‘social drama’ with multiple phases within Macao, meaning that Macao is a liminal space at one level of analysis, but at another level it also contains all the phases of passage, and personhood itself. This is perhaps most evident in the ever shifting ways – of determining in relation to other determinants – what being Macanese is or means. As Pina-Cabral notes up until the 1840’s Chinese subjects who converted to Christianity were integrated into the Macanese community, “that meant that all persons who converted… cut their plait.. started wearing Western clothing, adopted a Portuguese name and were integrated into the Macanese community…” (2002, pp.23). This theme of adaptive personhood runs through Pina-Cabral’s monograph, and is accompanied by observable socio-material changes.

Henrietta Moore describes this particular characteristic in her analysis of peoples’ relationship to globalising processes where “problematization is always more than a work of thought… also involves placement of the body… technologies and the material world… cultural invention refigures self-stylization and self-other relations.. not just about conformity to the normative or to power, but is about the strategies that [persons] ‘in their freedom can use…”(2011, pp.21). Paul Richards remarks on a similar phenomenon and investigates it further when he says “Something as mundane and yet as charming as clothes could still be a logical starting point… that seeks to maintain a balance, analytically, between social and technical forces… clothing is a performative activity”(2009, pp.507). Richards states that “we create new ‘technologies’ by bridging the junction between the power to make (or unmake) [an environment] and the social and ritual capacities for regulation through which making is governed”(ibid, pp.495). Thus Pina-Cabral’s processes of ‘palimsestic’ personhood development can be equated with ‘technologies’ as defined by Richards, identifiable through the incarnation of one of their material aspects; clothing.

This aspect of ‘making’ personhood – as a technology of identity adaptability – appears again in relation to what Richards refers to as the “social and ritual capacities for regulation through which making is governed” (ibid, pp.495)when Pina-Cabral draws attention to the Macanese style being “radically challenged during the colonial period (1846-19676)… it was made clear to the Macanese that if they did not become more European they would lose many of the privileges that justified their very continuation as a distinct community [/collective personhood]”(Pina-Cabral, 2002, pp.38) whereupon the Macanese adapted their use of language, cuisine, style of dressing and domestic manners. As Pina-Cabral goes on to note, the key three vectors of Macanese self-identification – language, religion, and phenotypic appearance’ – “constitute the basis for identification of a Macanese person, but it is not necessary for all or any of the three to be present in order for someone to identify, or be identified by others, as Macanese… There is a certain element of personal option in this identity… [and] should not be read in any way as signifying a weakening of a Macanese sense of ethnic self-identity.” (ibid, pp.39,42). Hence as this characteristic is not a weakening of Macanese identity, it can be explained as the fluctuating status of Macanese persons in their passage across changing terrains of power – as what it is to be Macanese is not essentialist but embedded as comparative relationship of identity that ‘makes’ persons according to their historical posture and choice of how to creatively lever the technology of identity adaptability.

In light of Pina-Cabral’s monograph and encapsulated in the aforementioned quote that “there is a certain element of personal option in this identity” (ibid, pp.42)it seems that there is an identifiable effort by the Macanese to keep liminal from becoming limbo, where the Macanese have acquired a process of perpetual crises living, and sometimes thriving. Their history can be read as a lesson of a non-utopian ideology and practicality, which generates a collectively differentiated personhood that is adaptable to internal and external circumstances. As Christina Toren mentions, people are not a-historical but historical persons (2002), thus the Macanese person is constituted of the events that preceded their current existence in time, but are sensitive to the historical processes that constitute them. This can also be a collectively conscious effort in both the aforementioned sense and in how “memory enters the contextual dialogues with identity”(Pina-Cabral, 2002, pp.53) as exampled well in Chapter 4 of Pina-Cabral’s monograph where the Macanese reaction to the Portuguese Governor’s brash ‘day-time’ actions toward the Chinese are mediated through maintenance of relations with the Chinese – rather than supported – by the Macanese. Again the Macanese reside in a liminal space of personhood during periods of high conflict – rather than take sides – before later stepping into the next phase of passage by reconfiguring the Governor as a martyr in relation to their identity. Later on in history Pina-Cabral again notes this characteristic taking place more formally in the Macanese context where “a Portuguese member of the Macao government made a statement to the Lisbon press to the effect that he understood perfectly well that the Chinese did not want to lose face and that they would need to prepare [Macao] for their future control by altering a few symbols”(ibid, pp.76).

One of the ‘few symbols’ being referred to was a statue of this infamous Governor Ferreira do Amaral. Within the context of the following two stories is a pivotal example of the materialisation of negotiated personhood within the Macao context, where we can see multiple actors each producing the other person in how their posturing is understood through by acting as an observer with multiple postures:

“The statue represents the Governor on horseback, twisting down with a riding-switch held in his left hand. Originally, however, it contained the figures of two Chinese men, represented in a smaller scale, just as they were being thrown to the ground by the Governor’s spirited response.”(ibid, pp.70)

“It would seem that, as they were passing through the Portas do Cerco, which he had arrogantly crossed, Ferreira do Amaral [the Governor] was hit on the face with a cane by a boy. Before he could react, even though he was armed with a pistol, he was pulled down from his horse and killed by armed men.” .”(ibid, pp.70)

The tension portrayed by Jiao Pina-Cabral between the characters in each of these historical narratives seems to capture in some respect (i) the dynamic relationships between its constituent actors, (ii) the dynamic inter-dependence of who each actor is, on their relationships with the other actors, and (iii) how points (i) and (ii) change along two big axes of passage; time and space.

Even though the two stories quoted suggest a binary opposition of how power is represented, they are simply two opposing windows amongst many others, onto a complex set of inter-relationships, made more complicated to understand due to the constant change in temporality and spatiality they generate.

If we look at all the persons in both stories we can see in clear terms what the concept of personhood means. Simply put who they are to each other and to the observer, is contingent on who they themselves are in terms of their history – in both the recent and ‘far-back’ sense. Thus what another person means to us; who they are, and how we understand ourselves; who we are, are an inseparable weave of relationships gravitating around the biosocial agency of each actor with their particular posture on their histories meeting. Pina-Cabral’s analysis of the statue of Governor Ferreira do Amaral through the passage of time and space reveals it as a physical and symbolic manifestation of the negotiation of personhood that has taken place in Macao’s history and across its persons.

In conclusion ‘personhood’ and ‘passage’ are dynamic concatenated processes of assimilation, reconfiguration, and creation as seen in Jiao Pina-Cabral’s monograph on Macao. They are seen not just as themes within a complexity of inter-relationships, but muli-scalar thematic practices that have shaped the undulating complexity of Macao, out of which bounded concepts such as ‘individual’, ‘progress’ or ‘Macao’ are sublimated as an inevitable act of human mono-posturing. Having said that, the benefit to the mono-posturer is an ethno-centrically salient purchase on the inconceivable complexity of being from the perspective of their person’s history.

I have titled the essay ‘the boy with the bamboo stick’ because in the afore-quoted story of the boy who interrupts the general. His character most epitomises the Macanese in a metaphorical sense, as when they voice their unhappiness with Governor, they are doing so with a bendy bamboo cane (2) against the firearm of the Governor who represents Portuguese colonialism. Nonetheless this colonial actor is effected by the ‘soft-power’ or ‘night-time’ like practice of the boy. Consequent to this it is the multiple Chinese persons who move in and take opportunity to ‘dice and slice’ him. It represents both the vulnerability of the Macanese situation -in between the military and arrogant might of the others- but also the use of timely presence to invoke a liminal state in which time pauses and then clasps together, whereupon the other actors have paths ensue. It is almost magic.



  • Pina‐Cabral, J. (1997) ‘The threshold diffused’ African Studies, 56:2, pp. 31-51.
  • Richards, P. (2009) ‘ Dressed to Kill; Clothing as Technology of the Body in the Civil War in Sierra Leone’ Journal of Material Culture, 14:4, pp.495-512.


  • Gennep, A. (1909) ‘The Rites of Passage’ Reprint 1960, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Moore, H. (2011) ‘Still life: hopes, desires and satisfactions’ Polity Press: Cambridge.
  • Pina-Cabral, J. (2002) ‘Between China and Europe; Person, Culture, and Emotion in Macao’ London School of Economics. Monographs on Social Anthropology. Vol. 74. Continuum: New York.
  • Strathern, M. (1988) ‘The gender of the gift; problems with women and problemswith society in Melanesia’ University of California Press: USA.
  • Toren, C. (2002) ‘Anthropology as the whole science of what it is to be human’ In: R.G. Fox & B.J. King, ed.2002, ‘Anthropology beyond culture’ Berg Publishers: New York.
(1) focus primarily on the personhood aspect.
(2) Bamboo is also likened to the Macanese in Chapter 1 of Pina-Cabral’s monograph.
A was a short essay by Abraham Heinemann for MA module in Theory in Social Anthropology.