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Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border

Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border

Jonathan Sullivan10 Apr 2015Leave a comment

Written by Tricia Kehoe.

Tenzin, Jinba. In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Over the past two decades, much work has been done to debunk the heavily romanticized and hyper-spiritualized representations that have long characterized Tibet. Yet, while fanciful myths of a utopian Tibet slowly begin to fade away, for a variety of reasons many questions regarding the experiences of Tibetans in Contemporary China remain under-researched.

As part of the wider series on Studies on Ethnic Groups in China, Tenzin Jinba, a Boston University trained anthropologist and Gyarong-Tibetan native, helps to fill this gaping hole in our knowledge. On the back of his long-term intensive ethnographic fieldwork, he succeeds in offering timely and illuminating insights into a society deeply affected by an unprecedented social transformation.

Set along the Sino-Tibetan border in Danba County, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, the book explores the discovery, development and commercialization of the “Eastern Queendom”, a matriarchal domain that may have existed thousands of years ago on the far eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It focuses on the ensuing disputes that have arisen since the early 2000’s between two townships, namely Suopo and Zhonglv, over claims to lineage connection with the matriarchal queens and the location of the legendary polity itself. Particular attention is placed on the dynamics at work within the Suopo Township, an area home to a population of 3,333, made up of Kham, Amdo and Gyarong Tibetans, as well as a small number of Han Chinese.

At the crux of his inquiry are questions concerning how the development of the Queendom discourse comes to inform local ethnic, gender and political identities, as well as state-society relations. Tenzin explores how the local dispute is informed by and embedded within state-societal relations, popular and official/ethnic representations, civil associations, social change, tourism and modernity, border/frontier, marginality, gender politics, ethnic policy, and grassroots agency. As such, the book offers a thoughtful commentary not just on the transformations within Tibetan societies, but also on Chinese society in general.

Drawing from Victor Turner’s idea of liminality, James Scott’s work on subordinate groups’ resistance in borderlands, Frederick Barth’s conceptualizations of ethnic and cultural categories as unbounded entities, as well as his own status as a Gyarong Tibetan, Tenzin skilfully explores the ways in which contemporary experience of the Gyarong people is one characterized by marginality. While the state identifies Gyarong people as Zangzu (Tibetan), “mainstream” Tibetans often question their authenticity as members of the Tibetan family owing to the Gyarong’s distinctive traditions and dialect. The subject of a contentious politics of recognition, the Gyarong people find themselves located on a geographical and cultural frontier of Han and Tibetan regions. Straddling two worlds on the Sino-Tibetan border, it is this liminal and betwixt standing, Tenzin argues, that allows the Suopo people to carve out their own space. Indeed, the appropriation of the distinctiveness and uniqueness that characterizes their marginality becomes an important strategy for the engendering of positive chances and achieving anticipated political goals. This process of “strategic marginality”, perhaps the most important contribution of the book, unsettles conventional understandings of center-periphery relations by situating Suopo as a site of convergence where Han and Tibetan centers “coalesce, fuse, and content” (p.8).

Over the course of a terse 127 pages, the book is neatly divided into five chapters. In Chapter One, Tenzin begins by attempting to trace the origins of the Queendom discourse. Stretching back to the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the exact location of the legendary polity has long been an issue of dispute in scholarly circles. Tenzin’s skilful mapping of the politico-geographic and ethno-linguistic terrain that characterizes Danba County reveals a further layer of contestation. In particular, he notes the profound implications the Chinese government’s nationwide ethnic identification project has had on the Gyarong people. Officially recognized as Tibetan under the state-created ethnic umbrella, they are seen to be “different from other Tibetans” (p.31) and the authenticity of their ‘Tibetanness’ is often called into question. Tenzin argues that the identity politics that shape and emerge from Gyarong-Tibetan relations is thus characterized by the struggle “to find their place in the Tibetan family as well as in China’s ethnic and political terrain” (p.21).

In Chapter Two Tenzin offers a fascinating discussion of the sexualized constructions of the internal ‘other’ in China’s state and popular discourses. Serving as a prelude to the discussion of the ways in which masculinity and femininity inform the local villagers’ struggle for the Queendom label, Tenzin takes two highly-influential novels, Wolf Totem and The Remote Country of Women, as examples of “sexualized ethnicity” and “ethnicized sexuality”(p. 36) in both official and popular minority representations in China. Yet, as Tenzin notes, these examples of Han/State-centric one-sided fantasies and nationalist self-absorption often brush away intentions and opinions of the minority other themselves. This, he argues, makes the Suopo people’s own Queendom discourse all the more relevant and significant.

In Chapter Three Tenzin explores the ways in which the Suopo people respond to the complex terrain of ethnic representation in China, and in doing so, carve out space for expressing their own desires and agency for cultural interpretation, social development and political reconfiguration. While internal orientalism stemming from both official and popular representations play significant roles in framing identity politics among the Suopo people, Tenzin argues that local state officials, elites and villagers also actively participate in the process of forging the Eastern Queendom. Yet, while local self-feminization and the elation of women’s status are promoted and celebrated locally by the Suopo men as reflections of their own progressive stances on gender equality, the voices of local women are largely absent in this book. Despite the local enthusiasm for women’s “superior status and political wisdom” (p.67), political and nondomestic spheres in Suopo and Danba remain dominated by men. In this sense, the uneven terrain of local agency becomes strikingly apparent.

In Chapter Four, Tenzin turns his attention to matters of grassroots politics and collective action in Suopo Township. Rather than pushing for independence as often imagined by Tibet-cause advocates outside of China, he argues that it is rights and interests as peasants and citizens of China that are of primary concern to the Suopo people. The Queendom dispute becomes a “symbolic stage” on which they stand up against the “vicious” local authorities to readdress all the wrong done to them (p.75), but also one around which a collective identity is forged  on the back of geopolitical affiliation and differentiation. Indeed, embedded in the social and political transformation of Danba and China in general, in Tenzin’s view, the struggle for the Queendom label unites and divides by locality, lineage, and other political interests, rather than simply along Han-Tibetan ethnic, cultural and genealogical lines.

In Chapter Five Tenzin explores the establishment and workings of the Moluo Tourism Association, a state-certified popular association in Danba. A legal mechanism on which members and villagers draw to engage in the Queendom struggle and press other political claims, the association also serves as a convergence zone for everyday village tensions, negotiations with local government and struggles over divergent development agendas. Drawing from Michael Frolic’s notion of “state-led civil society”, Tenzin asserts that the association may allow villagers’ opportunities for securing free space “to carve out a space for expressing negative opinions towards local authorities, pursuing the Queendom cause, and implementing its own agendas” (p.116). In this sense, cautioning against reductive dichotomies of state-society relations as wholly opposition-based, Tenzin emphasizes the more nuanced nature that can characterize these interactions.

While much I offered to illuminate wider issues around socio-political change and state-society relations in both Tibetan areas and China at large, in a book that aims to deals so closely with gender, the sparse attention devoted to female residents in Suopo is disappointing. Aside from a few short remarks about women’s former leadership roles in the village and supposed ‘indifference’ to the Queendom dispute, we learn very little about how they participate in local ethnic, gender and political identity articulation and construction, and/or state-society relations. Indeed, while his ideas concerning the leverage and mobilization marginality can facilitate make a welcome break from characterizations of minority groups as wholly powerless and/or passive, it is unclear why the same processes do not apply to women. In this sense, the limits of and impediments to “strategic marginality” warrant much more consideration.

Overall, an excellent contribution to the fields of Tibetan, Chinese, and Borderlands Studies, this book provides much needed insights into the complexity and multidimensionality of ethnicity and identity construction along the Sino-Tibetan border at a time of profound socio-economic transformation. It will also serve as an illustrative and helpful example of the many-sided and unfolding intricacies of state -society interactions throughout Tibetan areas and China in general.

Tricia Kehoe is a PhD student in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. She tweets @triciamkehoe. Image Credit: CC by ralph repo/Flickr.

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