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)


LOGO-ERC“Territories, communities, and exchanges in Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands”

ERC Starting Grant No. 283870


Cite this blog post
Jinba Tenzin (2015, March 26). Borders, Ethnicity and Critical Scholarship. The Himalayas and beyond. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from

Jinba Tenzin

Professor of Sociology/Anthropology at Lanzhou University, and Research Fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) for the ERC-funded project “Territories, communities, and exchanges in Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands” (2014-2015)

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9 Responses

  1. Naran Bilik says:

    We need multiple “centers”for polyphonic voices to be heard rather than one. Our minorities studies center at Fudan University is going to undertake projects in relation to cross-border ethnic-nationality studies, and we need your help in many ways. My thanks go to Jimba and others who made these two sessions happen.

    • Tenzin Jinba says:

      I am often amazed by the fact that ethnic studies has become such a flourishing field in China, which might not be found in other parts of the world. Under such a context, many ethnic minority scholars have claimed their centrality. For instance, some scholars in China debate on whether the concept “Tibetan-Yi Corridor” (coined by Fei Xiaotong) does justice to other ethnic minorities residing in this region, such as Naxi, Qiangzu, etc. As a result, they propose that the “Tibetan-Yi Corridor” should be changed into “Tibetan-Yi-Naxi Corridor”, or “Tibetan-Yi-Qiang Corridor”, etc. We can expect that most of those who promote such an idea are scholars from a particular ethnic category. In a way, this is an illustration of ‘multiple centers’ thesis in China. However, this phenomenon tells us much more about dynamic ethnic landscape in China that need to be further analyzed.

  2. Stéphane Gros says:

    To follow up on Tenzin’s mentioning my contribution to the discussion that took place, I’d like to add that in my view, the Sino-Tibetan borderlands have to be considered in their temporality. This area has certainly been a frontier (bianjiang), and as such frontiers regions are borderless lands where borders precisely where in the making. In the Republican Period (1920s up to 1940s) a plethora of diverse frontier study societies sprang up that proposed ways of developing the frontiers. This was a time when China’s frontiers were still very much a process. This was also a foundational moment for Chinese sociology and anthropology. With the launching and promotion of bianzhengxue, the “frontier” was reinterpreted and naturalized as a quintessentially national space. So this is to say that at a particular moment in time, the Sino-Tibetan frontier, an area of encounters between Tibetan and Chinese civilizations, certainly became a borderland. And borderlands as such are the location of unfinished business and ambivalent attitudes.

    • Tenzin Jinba says:

      Since the roundtables in last December, I have been thinking more thoroughly over the idea, as proposed by Stephane and others, that the Sino-Tibetan borderlands/frontiers, or borderlands in general, had better be considered as ‘process’. For that purpose, the works of those on spatial production (Neil Smith, Henri Lefebvre, Doreen Massey, Arjun Appadurai, and David Harvey, etc), are of essential importance in helping us better understand how borders or frontiers are produced and reproduced in history, and how they are situated in the sociopolitical changes. In this way, a multidisciplinary perspective deriving from human geography, history, sociology, anthropology and political science is instrumental in identifying this process. I hope to hear more about how our colleagues look at the “process’ idea based on your own field of study, both geographically and disciplinarily. Thanks!

  3. First of all, congratulations for Tenzin on having successfully organized the panels on Tibetan-Borderlands related themes. I have felt very sad for not being able to attend them…I have learnt a lot from your short piece and Stephane and others’ responses. My own interest in the borders has derived from my observation that where boundaries are maintained there are also most active material and cultural flows. I have taken Southwest China as an exemplificatory area where such “mixtures” of the “sealing-off” and “opening-up” historical movements can be illustrated. Tenzin is undoubtedly right about those who have insisted on adding the name of their own ethnic groups to Zang-Yi Corridor. These are those who are engaged in certain “cultural struggles” to assert their collective identity and “cultural capital” in the world of contacts and ethnic psycho-mental complexes.

  4. Yinong Zhang says:

    Scholars from multiple disciplines working in different regions have come up with the similar idea that frontier/borderland is better conceived as dynamic, be it “transitional zone” (Spenden 2002), “middle ground” (Giersch 2001), or “process” (Kapstein 2002). For that purpose, many (including Fei Xiaotong) tend to prioritize history, especially “historic fragments”, as the authentic source–which Wang Mingming sarcastically called “rummaging though the garbage can of history”. While I have learned many new things from this historical approach either in anthropology or other discipline, I think it is equally important to bear in mind that the dynamic nature of frontier/borderland has always been maintained by conformity and conflict (to borrow from Spadley and McCurdy) of cultural encounters which happens from past to present. The well-known question Spivak asked “Can Subaltern Speak” is still valid in this case in the sense that the very concept of frontier/borderland can be better understood only if we take a more critical approach to such old important concepts as nation-state, nationalism, colonialism/post-colonialism. Many thanks to Tenzin for giving me these great opportunities!

    • Tenzin Jinba says:

      My own scholarship has been benefiting from “rummaging through the garbage can of history”. As I am now starting to investigate how Tibetans contribute to the making of the Chinese cultural frontier in history, I very much enjoy the process of “rummaging through the garbage can of history.” The following two books have played an important role in my ongoing historical inquiry: Wang Mingke’s “Huaxia Bianyuan” (Chinese Cultural Frontier) and James Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed”. Both of them are able to use substantial historical data to identify the dynamic interactions between the center and periphery. However, I think their unique perspectives are inseparable from the theoretical insights. Therefore, a dialogue between historical and anthropological (sociological and other theoretically-oriented) approaches is of essential importance to produce “thick” readings of borderlands/frontiers in transition. After all, the subaltern start to speak only after the scholarship adopts a new theoretical direction of emphasizing (though sometimes overdone) the agency of “the weak”.

  5. Gerald Roche says:

    Thanks Tenzin, for creating this forum and promoting discussion of these interesting and important issues. My own research on the Mangghuer in NE Qinghai has repeatedly brought me into contact with the concept of the Sino-Tibetan border, and I agree that it is one that deserves our attention. My own feeling about borderland concepts in general, and the Sino-Tibetan borderland in particular, is that these can be problematic concepts when dealing with the complexities of cultural and linguistic diversity and how these are patterned spatially and demographically (these are the topics which motivate most of my own research). In a paper that will hopefully soon be published, I’ve called the Sino-Tibetan frontier a concept that promotes an ‘exotropic gaze’ – exotropia is the opposite of being ‘cross-eyed’, so that the gaze splays outwards towards two distal poles and away from the center. Terms like ‘Sino-Tibetan’, but I would argue borderland discourses more generally, promote an exotropic gaze insofar as they condition us to view the local as being constituted as a hybrid product of distant, and usually more pure, dynamic centers. Or in a Zomian sense, the local only exists as a strategy for escaping the center, but the effect is still the same – to draw attention away from the local. Rather than using borderland or Zomian discourses, I would say the region that you and I are both interested in can productively be called marginalized, peripherlized, etc., i.e., subject to social, political, and historical processes that elide local agency. The question is whether we, as scholars, employ terms and theories that contribute to this elision, or adopt frameworks that highlight local distinction and agency. One way that we can do this is by employing local terminologies for the territories, languages, and social groups that we are discussing. For example, in a co-edited volume that has been recently published, instead of talking about ‘the Monguor’ as a people of the Sino-Tibetan frontier (which is how they are inevitably discussed, typically only as an aside in discussions that privilege either the Sino or Tibetan and deploy the Monguor in support), we talked about the Monguor as being inhabitants of three traditional territories: Duluun Lunkuang, Sanchuan, and Khre tse bzhi. The use of these traditional territorial names, I feel, is an important way of centering local interests and problematizing the social and political processes that marginalize the diverse peoples of the region – their identities, languages, and so on.

  1. 26/03/2015

    […] was reminded of this while reading an article from Jinba Tenzin, “Borders, Ethnicity and Critical Scholarship“, which I submit for your consideration as it pertains to our understanding of the Gyalwa […]

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