China & Inner Asia: Table of Contents
Organizer: Charlene E. Makley, University of Michigan
Chair and Discussant: Dru C. Gladney, East-West Center, Honolulu
The center and periphery model, with China and the Chinese as center, surrounded by discrete zones of decreasing civilization, has long occupied both imperial and national Chinese cosmography as well as European and American scholarship on China. In recent years, however, scholars in modern Chinese studies have called for a reexamination of political, cultural and geographic boundaries in China once assumed to be fixed and distinct. As James Millward argues, this is not just the expansion of the boundaries of the field of China studies. An examination of the notion and process of boundaries in China also entails the interrogation of categories such as "nation," "state," "modernity," and "identity" which have commonly framed analyses of state-local or center-periphery relations.
This panel aims to displace this model by taking what has been called "the frontier zone" as its center of focus, a center surrounded by China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central Asia. The "frontier zone" in China is the rugged stretch of mountains and desert from modern-day Yunnan in the south to modern-day Gansu and Inner Mongolia in the north which for centuries formed a shifting zone of frontier politics and trade. This "zone" marked the outer limits of Chinese state power and cultural influence over a wide variety of ethnic groups and polities, in some places all the way up to 1949. Drawing on research from anthropologists recently returned from these areas, the panel seeks to contribute to this line of inquiry among China historians by illuminating contemporary processes of local, national and global interaction. Papers will highlight local particularities as well as draw out more general patterns of "frontier" relations still salient today. Questions of particular interest are: of what import is the "transnational" in the frontier zone today? What happens to broad categories such as "the state," "nation," "modernity," and "postmodernity" when analysis is grounded in local interactions? How do people in the frontier zone enact, embody, or challenge state "civilizing" and legitimation" projects?
The era of "opening up and reform" (gaige kaifang) beginning in the early 1980s has provided unprecedented opportunities for foreign anthropologists to undertake long-term fieldwork in. the ethnically diverse and therefore politically sensitive regions of the "frontier zone." In recent years, many such anthropologists have returned from fieldwork in these regions and can now provide more nuanced understandings of local interactions there than have been attainable before. This "back-to-back" panel because it accommodates the relatively large number of anthropologists who have recently completed fieldwork in these regions, and the topic of the "frontier zone" allows a double panel to both highlight and consider in relation to each other southwest and northwest China, regions which have often been considered separately.
Charlene E. Makley, University of Michigan
The town of Labrang (Chinese: Xiahe) in Southwest Gansu province, with its centuries-old Tibetan Buddhist monastery, has long served as a locus of interaction among Tibetans, Han Chinese, Muslim Chinese (Hui) and Mongols. It is a space which encompasses junctures at many interrelated levels and is therefore ideally situated for a study of the issues raised by practices and notions of the "frontier" in China. In this paper, I draw on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in and around the famous monastery of Bla brang bkra shiskhyil to demonstrate the articulations between spatial and temporal processes in the (re)creation of boundaries vital to local identities and politics in the transformed political economic context of the post-Mao era. The town of Labrang is geographically situated at the juncture of high grassland plateaus worked by Tibetan and Mongol nomadic pastoralists and lower river valleys cultivated by Tibetan, Han and Muslim Chinese farmers. As such, it has been subject to temporal and spatial practices which construct it simultaneously as center and margin among local Tibetans as well as to the Chinese state. Within this larger context, I draw on interactions and interviews with locals as well as historical research to investigate these processes and how they are changing, being challenged or reproduced in the post-Mao era. This focus on the structure of local interactions in Labrang will illustrate the actually complex and multilateral nature of the construction of the "frontier zone" in China. Such local complexities are effaced in the empire/state-building fantasies embodied in Chinese state and scholarly notions of the backward "frontier" (bianjzang). I argue that while a notion of a "frontier" or "border" has been highly salient in Labrang historically and at present, the diverse practices and often competing discourses which constitute this shifting zone of inter-ethnic and political interaction shed new light on the concepts of the "state" and "nation" themselves.
Almaz Khan, University of Washington
The identity and cultural politics faced by Inner Mongols in the latter half of the 20th century have involved not only the PRC nation-state and the dominant Chinese society but also the transnational existence of the independent nation-state of Mongolia. In analyzing the impact of Mongolia on Inner Mongol identity, I will adopt and adapt theoretical insights from diaspora studies. According to established understanding, "diasporic consciousness" is an intellectualization of the existential condition of dispersal from the homeland (Safran, 1991). By this classic definition, Mongols of Inner Mongolia apparently do not fall into the category of a diaspora community. Inner Mongolia being their factual homeland, they are neither the classical diasporic communities (such as the Jewish and Armenian dispersion), nor are they emigrants, expatriates, refugees, guest workers, exile or overseas communities. Nevertheless, I argue that the intense longing and political and cultural orientation of ethnic-minded Inner Mongols for a pan-Mongol identity or ethno-nation in unity with Mongolia in effect constitutes a subject position which both in practice and ideology resembles a diasporic identity and identification.
The diaspora paradigm will lend me a valuable and workable entry point into the question: Why do ethnic-minded Inner Mongols feel physically alienated and dispersed from a land to which they have never belonged in the first place, but in which they invest all their dreams, imagination, admiration and yearning? In short, viewing Inner Mongols identity processes through the theoretical lens of diaspora, I argue that diaspora can be both real (physical) and imagined (ideational). This argument, after systemization and test, will add an intriguing perspective to studies of nationalism and transnationalism.
Lawrence Epstein and Peng Wenbin, University of Washington
The idea of establishing eastern Tibet (Khams) and other "ethnic minority" areas as Sikang Province first arose at the turn of this century as a response to a number of forces: the perceived threat of colonial penetration of China, regional ambitions by local and imperial officials, and political instability and chaos in the Tibetan frontier areas. In a sense, "Sikang" was an area peripheral to two centers, China and Tibet, neither of which had the power, resources or ambition to incorporate it fully, and the unsettled and shifting political status of the region remained a key area of contention between them (and remains so to this day). In this paper, we explore how this frontier area, in the transitional period from the traditional to the national modern Chinese state, was made central to the Chinese nation-building project at a particular historical moment in the 1930s. We discuss the divergent interests of the parties to its creation, as part of the strategy to stabilize and control the southwest to integrate it firmly into China and turn the "frontier into a national base during the Anti-Japanese War. In particular, we discuss the copious ethnographic and other studies which began in earnest in the 1930s under the patronage of regional officials, which sought to define and explore the area, and the role this scholarly interest played in the creation of this short-lived province.