New Book: Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia — with a comment

Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia, edited by Jelle J.P. Wouters and Michael T. Heneise

Routledge, 2023.


The editors, Jelle J.P. Wouters (Senior Lecturer at the Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan) and Michael T. Heneise (Associate Professor in Religious Studies at The Arctic University of Norway), have both been very active in the past decade in promoting new perspectives in the field of Himalayan studies. For this reference work, they have assembled thirty-two chapters that offer a comprehensive overview of the ethnographic and anthropological work in Highland Asia over the past half a century.

The content of this Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia is organised by sub-regions in six sections: 1) Sino-Tibetan mountains; 2) Central Asian Mountains and Western Himalaya; 3) Central Himalaya; 4) Eastern Himalaya; 5) Bengal-Indo-Burma highlands; and 6) Southeast Asia Massif. As described by the publisher, the chapters cover “varied landscapes and communities, from Kyrgyzstan to India, from Bhutan to Vietnam and bring local voices and narratives relating trade and tribute, ritual and resistance, pilgrimage and prophecy, modernity and marginalization, capital and cosmos to the fore”. (See table of content below.)

This new book in the series of the Routledge Handbooks is announced with a release (and copyright) year of 2023, but several of the chapters are already available open access.

The handbook is a rich collection of synthesis, ethnographic or more reflexive essays that offer a good overview of research conducted in the highlands of Asia, emphasizing connections through movements of peoples, goods and ideas. The inhabitants of these mountains are presented as “the enactors, repositories, and mediators of world-historical processes” in a critical move away from stereotypical depictions of remote and isolated mountain dwellers. In the words of the editors, the handbook presents “Highland Asia as an ecumene” and “proposes a re-envisioning of Highland Asia as a world-region.” This re-envisioning is most welcome and promising, but it also calls for a brief comment.

In their introduction, Jelle Wouters and Michael Heneise state that “Highland Asia neither exists on any modern map nor is it recognised as a world region. Yet, […] there are compelling reasons to think of this highland region as deeply connected and distinct, as both an ecumene and a heuristic” (p. 2).

This statement – and the framing of their intervention – is formulated without a reference to a long heritage of schorlarship focused on “High Asia” (the French Haute Asie) starting with some of the first Western expeditions in the 1860s. The editors are well aware that High Asia was prominently defined and explicitly perceived as a complex ecumene by many (starting with the von Schlagintweit brothers (1860s), followed by Dutreuil de Rhins and Grenard (1890s) and others, such as Pelliot most famously) at the turn of the twentieth century, all the way to someone like Rolf Stein, who was a professor of “Religions of China and High Asia” (Religions de la Chine et de la Haute Asie) at the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE) until until 1975. The French Ethnological Society publishes a book series “Research on High Asia” (Recherches sur la Haute Asie), originally launched by Alexander McDonald in the 1970s. Given the relevance of “Haute Asie” for a large body of research for some hundred and fifty years, a passing reference, or better, an attempt at assessing the legacy of research done under this label, would have been worthwhile.

This being said, there is perhaps a French specificity here indeed. And Jelle Wouters and Michael Heneise rightly point out that today, “One cannot be a student of Highland Asia in the same way as one can sit for modules, seminars, and examinations, write a thesis, obtain a degree, and carve out a career in ways one could in ancient or modern Chinese, Indian, Tibetan, or Southeast Asian studies” (p. 5).[1] Their call for a renewed interest on Highland Asia as a conceptual zone is all the more welcome, and needed.

Highland Asia, in its more recent uses including this handbook, is not fundamentally different than High Asia—although of course, since the late nineteenth century, it has been used quite differently as a heuristic and came to expand and shrink according to authors (originally Mongolia was often included in what was labelled High Asia, for example). And it is for this reason, I believe, that Jean Michaud had remarked in is 2010 discussion of quickly burgeoning “Zomia studies” that more than the new neologism coined by Willem van Schendel, “High Asia, widely used in French Himalayan studies circles, may have offered a more promising option.” The catchiness of the neologism made Zomia stay we us—with the deep influence we know.

It is however to go beyond the Zomia debate (while being inspired by it) that the editors decided on “Highland Asia” as a better label for the area. The above brief comment is but a little quibble regarding what I see as a blind spot in the handbook’s attempt at “assess[ing] the history of research” (p. 29), even though the critical overview is (rightly) focused on work done over the past half century.

More importantly, the volume brings a welcome post-colonial stance and identifies new research agendas that feed into the emergence in recent decades of various themes such as: assessing the region’s importance as the Third pole, issues of climate change and ecology-centered approaches, or topics like non-human agencies and forms of relatedness that allow for a reappraisal on equal footing of the cosmovisions and ontologies of the inhabitants of these mountains.

There is much food for thought in the thirty-two chapters of this much needed handbook and on can hope it will contribute to reinvigorating research on Highland Asia.

[1] “South-east Asia, High Asia and Pacific” was the name of a Department at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), until 2014.

Table of Contents:

1. Introduction: Highland Asia as a World Region – Jelle J.P. Wouters and Michael T. Heneise

Section 1: Sino-Tibetan mountains

2. The Middle Highlands of Modern China as a Historical Inter-Asian Zomia: Human-Nature Diversity in the Hengduan Mountains — Dan Smyer Yü

3. Human-nonhuman relations in the making of place in Kham – Gillian G. Tan

4. Amdo: Social landscapes and change – Eveline Washul and Yumjyi

5. The Tibetan Frontier: From Regional Boundaries to Disputed Borders – Nadine Plachta & Galen Murton

Section 2: Central Asian Mountains and Western Himalaya

6. The Uyghurs:Conceptual Highlanders of Xinjiang- Ildikó Bellér-Hann

7. Kyrgyzstan: Relating to land, nation and territory – Nienke van der Heide

8. Pamirs at the crossroads – Hermann Kreutzmann

9. Islam in the Trans-Himalayan Ecumene – Radhika Gupta

Section 3: Central Himalaya

10. Forming Communities and Negotiating Power in a Highland Borderland: The Bhotiya on the Indo-Tibet Border – Subhadra Mitra Channa

11. Infrastructures of change: Development among pastoralists in Dolpo, Nepal (1990–2020)- Phurwa Gurung & Kenneth Bauer

12. Nepal Central Highland: Resistance and the state – Mukta S. Tamang

13. Ethnographies of the Sherpas in the High Himalaya: Themes, Trajectories, and Beyond – Pasang Yangjee Sherpa

Section 4: Eastern Himalaya

14. Ethnic Belonging and the Reinvention of Tradition in Eastern Nepal – Martin Gaenszle

15. The Desire to be ‘Primitive’: The Nepalis of Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas and Claims for Tribal Recognition – Tanka B. Subba

16. Bhutan: History, Scholarship and Emerging Agency in the Bhutanese Narrative- Yedzin Wangmo Tobgay

17. Arunachal Pradesh: from a nonstate space to a contested state space – Zilpa Modi

Section 5: Bengal-Indo-Burma highlands

18. Highlanders and lowlanders in Bangladesh: reflections on borders, connectivity and disconnection in highland Asia – Ellen Bal & Nasrin Siraj

19. Peopling the Yunnan-Bengal corridor: An ethnographic history of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo people – David Zou

20. The uplanders of Tripura: changing questions of identity – Harirar Bhattacharyya

21. Migration narratives and ritual regeneration among the Karbi and Tiwa of Highland Assam – Dharamsing Teron & Manas J. Bordoloi

22. Rethinking Ethnographies on Garo Hills – Erik de Maaker

23. Ethnic attachments and alterations among Nagas in the Indo-Myanmar borderland – G. Kanato Chophy

24. Gendering Kachinland: Challenging the gender blindness of an ethnographic area in Highland Asia – Mandy Sadan & Ja Htoi Pan Maran

Section 6: Southeast Asia Massif

25. The Wa of the Burma-China borderlands: Identities and polities in the maelstrom of world-system cycles — Magnus Fiskesjö

26. Karen –Mobile Peopleswith Prophetic Movements in Myanmar & Thailand – Mikael Gravers

27. The Uplands of Northern Thailand: Language and Social Relations beyond the Muang – Nathan Badenoch

28. Animism and cosmological dynamics in Highland Laos – Guido Sprenger

29. From ‘Slaves’ to Indigenous Peoples: Shifting Identities in Northeastern Cambodia – Ian G. Baird

30. On both sides of the Annamese Cordilleras. The Bru of Vietnam and Laos – Gábor Vargyas

31. Remoteness and connectivity: the variegated geographies of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau – Tim Oakes and Zuo Zhenting

32. Ethnography in the Northern Vietnamese Highlands – Jean Michaud




Cite this blog post
Stéphane Gros (2022, August 25). New Book: Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia — with a comment. The Himalayas and beyond. Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

Stéphane Gros

Stéphane Gros is a social anthropologist at the CNRS (France), Centre for South Asian and Himalayan Studies (CESAH). He is the author of a monograph on the Drung of Northwest Yunnan province in China (La Part manquante, 2012), and has written numerous articles and book chapters on issues of interethnic relations and representations of ethnic minorities, poverty and categorization, as well as rituals and cosmology. He has edited or co-edited four collections of relevance to ethnographic theory, Chinese studies, and area studies. For 2012-2016, he was the Principal Investigator for a collaborative project titled "Territories, Communities, and Exchanges in the Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands", funded by a ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. His personal research currently investigates aspects of kinship and social organization, conversion to Christianity, as well as heritage politics and environmental discourses.

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1 Response

  1. 16/11/2022

    […] to the general misrepresentation of this region, as Stéphane Gross rightly pointed out in Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia — with a comment – The Himalayas and beyond namely the French scholarly tradition of affirming Haute Asia (High Asia), including a chair in […]

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