Borders, Ethnicity and Critical Scholarship
For some ten years, my work has focused on border politics and identity, ethnicity and state-society relations in China, giving rise to intensive fieldwork in the Gyalrong region of Sichuan province. These issues are addressed in my recently published book (In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border, University of Washington Press, 2014). With a particular interest in cross-cultural encounters, I have been reflecting on how my research findings based on the Gyalrong situation could be developed to provide an understanding of the complexity and agency along the Sino-Tibetan border, but also more generally of borderlands or peripheral societies.
In order to broaden the scope of my preliminary inquiries and to test the possibility of a wider comparative undertaking, I co-organized two sessions of round-table discussions on borders, ethnicity and critical scholarship, the first (alongside Pál Nyíri) at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting (Washington, D.C., December 3-7, 2014) and the second (alongside Sara Shneiderman) at the Fourth Conference of the Asian Borderlands Research Network (Hong Kong, December 8-10, 2014).
These two round-table sessions brought together scholars from China, North America and Europe who work on border regions in China, Nepal, India and other neighbouring countries and who represent a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, history, geography, religious studies, linguistics and comparative literature.
- The AAA round-table presenters were Arienne M. Dwyer (University of Kansas), Stéphane Gros (French National Centre for Scientific Research), Yibing Huang (Connecticut College), Sandra T. Hyde (McGill University), Pál Nyíri (Vrije Universiteit), and Yinong Zhang (Shanghai University)
- The Asian Borderland Research Network conference presenters were Georgina Drew (University of Adelaide), Austin Lord (Yale University), Andrew Quintman (Yale University), Sara Shneiderman (University of British Columbia), and Chris Vasantkumar (Hamilton College).
Both venues witnessed heated discussions on a critical approach to borders and ethnicity. These round-table discussions created a momentum, which I would like to maintain through this post by giving a wider academic community the opportunity to join our discussions and by suggesting topics for further debate.
Here are some of the major issues that were raised and discussed during the two round-table sessions.
A first set of questions addressed the issue of our theoretical models. For example, can the Sino-Tibetan borderlands or the Himalayas stand alone as a discursive analytic framework like Zomia? If so, what are the possible unifying factors for examining the two internally diversified borderlands – ecology, culture, religion, language, or others?
Several participants argued that the concept “Sino-Tibetan borderlands” is just as problematical as Zomia since it overlooks the heterogeneity and agency of various communities in this region and because their languages and cultures cannot be readily categorized as “Chinese” or “Tibetan”. Others hold that, despite this diversity, these communities share similar patterns in their livelihood, cultural practices and political stances as a response to the particular conditions and resources available and to their powerful neighbors, namely, Tibetans and the Chinese.
Bearing this in mind, is the center-periphery paradigm still a useful analytic framework to identify the convoluted landscape of borders or borderlands?
Arienne Dwyer, for example, pointed out that research among Salar communities in the Amdo Tibetan region constitutes an “academic blind spot”, by which she means that they have only been studied through Chinese or Central Asian languages, not through the Tibetan language. Building on this point, she argued for a cognitive linguistic approach of spatial reasoning, which may shed new light on the centre-periphery as a relative concept.
Thus, one question that is pending and is of major concern here is: is it possible to build a comprehensive theoretical model of borders/borderlands that might shed new light on the similarities and diversities of various types of borders/borderlands?
In order to draw a comparison between two otherwise contrasted situations, Tenzin Jinba argued that when comparing Hong Kong and Sino-Tibetan Borderlands, they appear to have much in common with regards their ambivalent and sometimes contradictory position in relation to the Chinese central state and mainstream Chinese cultural practices: namely, that they are not “Chinese” enough, yet at the same time very “Chinese” indeed!
Other participants engaged with this issue in different ways. Sandra Hyde argued that borderlands are not only geographical but essentially human. Contrary to Skinner’s classic topography of borderlands as an essential differentiation, Hyde pointed out the problem of globalization being borderless and also the classic critique of the West vs. the rest of the world. In a similar vein Stéphane Gros reasoned that borderlands are actually often borderless. He also took the example of bianzheng xue (Frontier Political Studies) to demonstrate that the frontier should be seen as a process rather than a place.
A second set of questions that were discussed at these two roundtables pertained to the very notions of, and relations between, borders, boundaries and the state. How do indigenous actors become involved in local institutional restructurings and how do they negotiate with external socio-political forces, e.g., the state, modernity, and globalization?
Many participants referred to their case studies in India, Nepal and China to illustrate how indigenous populations benefit from increasing political, environmental and/or gender awareness to promote their own agendas.
Pál Nyíri, for example, opposed parallel understandings of the Chinese nation-building project: on the one hand, the zhonghua minzu as a creation inside the territorial and political borders of China; and on the other hand, the zhonghua minzu (‘Chinese Nationality’), an essentially racial yet borderless concept. Based on the opposition between these two understandings, he questioned the idea of academic border—and by the same token critical scholarship which is more at stake here —in China’s contemporary cultural political environment.
These remarks generated further questions regarding the study of borders in relation to the development of Chinese scholarship. How do some standpoints from within Chinese academia contribute to Critical Border Studies?
Yinong Zhang, among others, discussed how the idea of “ethnic corridor” was coined by the pioneering Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong to solve problems posed by minzu shibie (ethnic classification). Instead of a narrowly considered frontier/border region, a much broader multi-ethnic borderland region, such as the Tibetan-Yi corridor, might shed new light on concepts such as duo yuan yi ti (unity with diversity). In addition, Zhang introduced the concept recently advocated by Wang Mingming – zhong jian quan (middle ring, or the intermediaries), which can be seen as a more polished version of Fei’s original ethnic corridor concept. Furthermore, zhong jian quan emphasizes the mutual constructive nature between center and periphery as well as the possibility of a reverse relationship in certain contexts.
Of course, there are still many unexplored questions. For example, how does borderland ecology (e.g. geography, livelihoods, environmental “resilience”) offer critical perspectives on such abstractions as the “state”? How do intra-and-inter-borderland interactions affect the way in which cultural, ethnic, religious, political and other boundaries are managed and shift in time? How does “borderlandness” affect the political economy of identity politics on different scales (global, national, ethno-regional)?
The round-table discussions were both productive and inspiring but all the questions that were broached raised others questions for further debate. We would like you to share your thoughts with us. Please feel free to address any of the topics above or to respond to any comments/replies as they come in. We hope that through this forum we will inspire each other in one way or another.
Jinba Tenzin (Lanzhou University & CEH-CNRS)
“Territories, communities, and exchanges in Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands”
ERC Starting Grant No. 283870