In 1533, Lady Qu, native prefect of Wuding Prefecture in northern Yunnan, sponsored the inscription of two texts on a cliff face at the center of her domain. One was in Nasu, the language of the ruling lineage; the other was in Chinese. Both commemorated the long, powerful line of Né (or Yi) native chieftains to which Lady Qu was heir. Yet they gave contradictory accounts of the forms of chiefly succession, sources of political authority, and geopolitical position of the native domain. The inscriptions show that chiefly sovereignty was neither merely embodied in ancestral authority nor simply endowed by the emperor. Sovereignty—particularly that of a female chieftain—was the capacity to master both modes of self-description while embodying their incompatibility. While we often understand colonialism through power-laden projects of translation, Lady Qu's inscriptions give evidence that Ming colonization of the southwest might require a different approach. Native chieftains were often intermediaries in encounters between indigenous peoples and imperial agents, garrisoned soldiers, and other migrants. Rather than merely understanding these elites as translators and mediators of colonialism, we might also ask how they emphasized and strategically deployed cultural and linguistic differences to achieve ends of their own.

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