2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 318

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Development with Tibetan Characteristics in Contemporary China

Organizer: Tracy Zhang, Queen's University, Canada

Chair: Robert J. Barnett, Columbia University, USA

Discussant: Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, Universite Laval, Canada

Much attention is focused on China’s development campaigns in Tibetan regions. Local Tibetans, though important in this process, are often overlooked. This cross-disciplinary panel presents new ethnographically informed analyses of local people’s understandings of development and their participation in various Tibetan organizations in light of rapid socio-economic change. It brings together scholars who have conducted research among various Tibetan groups regarding religious revitalization, livelihood strategies, economic decision-making, sustainability, and cultural production. In this panel they recount local experiences of development in a wide range of settings including a nomad resettlement village, an urban factory, a writers’ collective, and various religious communities. Their case studies interweave new cross-border trade practices, religious and literary movements, and reactions to state environmental decision-making, exposing complex, sometimes contradictory understandings of "community", "progress", and "development". The analyses examine the articulation of state-led development practices and pre-existing configurations of social relationships, norms and dispositions, and the ways in which people make use of the former in the pursuit of their own projects. By showing the creativity that everyday people exercise in negotiating processes of marketization and social change, these papers challenge the perception that Tibetans are necessarily conservative and/or ‘passive victims’ of state policies. The contributors aim to expose existing generalizations through providing examples of how people draw upon the cultural/religious resources available to them in their decision making processes, and offer suggestions for revising the debate over agency, culture, and development.

Morality, Marketization, and Monasticism: Tibetan Buddhist Development in Contemporary China
Jane E. Caple, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

This paper tells the stories of the development of two Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Bayan (C. Hualong) Hui Autonomous County in Qinghai province: a highly reputed scholastic ‘university’ and a remote practice centre. This comparative study of two institutions, which are historically connected but have had different experiences of development over the past 15 years, challenges the notion of Tibetan monastic development practices as simply ‘accommodation’ or ‘defensive responses’ to state policies. Exploring monastic development ‘from the ground up’, it examines some of the creative ways in which monks have attempted to balance the need to maintain the integrity of their moral community and its merit-based moral economic framework while at the same time engaging with processes of marketization, globalization and social change, touching on issues including business development, tourism and translocal patronage flows. This paper shows how local conditions have provoked different responses to the shared challenges of maintaining the intermeshed soterological and mundane foundations of monasticism in the context of rapid socio-economic change. It also highlights some of the emergent tensions between monastic ideals, shifting social values and socio-economic realities. The paper engages with wider debates about agency and processes of social change, examining the significance of morality, as well as socio-economic interest, as a powerful constraining and enabling factor. It is based on fieldwork carried out in the eastern part of Qinghai province in 2008-2009.

Herders without flock: the perception of ‘job’ and livelihood strategies for the inhabitants of the resettlements on Qinghai Tibetan Plateau
Elisa Cencetti, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

Since the beginning of the 2000s, Tibetan herders, living on the Tibetan Plateau of Qinghai province, have been involved in “ecological migrations”. They began to move to resettlement villages, which the Chinese government built for them as part of the ecological protection plan, the so-called Three Rivers’ Source Nature Reserve, and poverty reduction programs. Once settled in these villages, the herders sold all or a large part of their flock. Consequently, they have had to look for new employment opportunities to fulfill their families’ needs. This paper analyzes the economic strategies of the herders’ households once they moved into the resettlements. I describe how the new context of the resettlements compelled the herders to cope with new resources and employment opportunities created by and adapted to the new frameworks of village life. I also analyze the impact of the decreasing size of the flock and the loss of jobs on herders’ social values and perception of self. Considering husbandry as ‘absolute social function’ (Bourdieu 1969), I argue that Tibetan herders settled in the resettlements, consider themselves as unemployed, even if they get a new job, as their previous occupation shaped their way of perceiving their self usefulness and the social world. This paper is grounded in 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork in several Tibetan herders’ resettlements on the grasslands of Qinghai province’s Tibetan Plateau.

The Cultural Power of Privatization in a Tibetan Carpet Factory
Tracy Zhang, Queen's University, Canada

In the context of China’s post-Mao economic reform, privatization is generally described as a political-economic transformation from state/public to private ownership. This paper seeks to explore the cultural politics of privatization by examining how workers and managers make sense of privatization in a Tibetan carpet factory in Lhasa. Drawing on interviews and four months of participant observation at the factory, this paper examines how people explained the policy changes since privatization that corresponded to wages, housing, and non-pecuniary benefits (e.g., religious holidays and gifts) in the context of an ongoing pension dispute. The interviews suggest that these policy practices intensify labor exploitation and also engender hierarchical subject positions, for example, “factory owner,” “manager” and “contract worker.” At the factory level, worker and manager understandings of the changing labor process indicate that privatization is not simply a result of state-led pro-market development. I argue that privatization is activated by complex historically-formed networks (e.g., trade, political, and personal connections). The transfer of ownership is gradually legitimized and naturalized, sometimes in ironic and contradictory ways, through varied cultural norms and social arrangements. This paper will contribute to the debates on emerging social-economic inequity and stratification in contemporary Tibetan society. My case study also engages with studies of the discursive and symbolic aspects of capitalist power, exploitation, and resource distribution.

Negotiating with Heretics: The Dynamics of Exchange and Cooperation between Tibetan Buddhist and Bonpo Institutions in Contemporary Nyag rong (Xinlong) Prefecture
Marc des Jardins, Concordia University, Canada

This paper examines contemporary social dynamics between a Tibetan religious minority, the Bonpos, and Tibetan Buddhist institutions within the Prefecture of Nyag Rong in Western Sichuan. Despite a steady decline of the Bonpos population due to governmental policies and mass conversion to Buddhism, Bonpos are still present in Tibetan territories but now as a minority religious group. With the founding of the PRC and its fluctuating policies regarding religion and Tibetan religions in particular, the Bonpos have found a new period of relative religious freedom. This situation has dramatically changed the social and cultural dynamics of various Tibetan groups that prevailed for long where Buddhists dominated the cultural and political landscapes. This paper, based on field research conducted between 1991 to the present in Western Sichuan, focuses on the Bonpo communities of Nyag Rong and its Ye Shes monastery. It examines how this group reinvented itself with the drastic reorganization of society under Chinese rule and how it was able to exert influence on the local scene as well as throughout the Tibetan areas in Western China. It examines the social, cultural and political strategies used by this particular institution to reestablish its presence in Eastern Tibet and represent its community all the way to the national level.

The Third Generation: Generating Agency in Tibetan literature
Francoise Robin, INALCO, France

In 2005, Rdo rje Tshe ring (aka Ljang bu, b. 1963) organized the literary festival “Waterfall of Youth”, where twenty poets gathered on the shore of the Kokonor Lake. In the hitherto heavily state-supported world of contemporary Tibetan literature, the festival was the first-ever non-government Tibetan poetry meeting to be held on the Tibetan plateau. A group of like-minded poets of similar ages formed upon that occasion a literary organization called “The Third Generation” (Mi rabs gsum pa). This group, led by the writer Skyabs chen bde grol (b. 1977), brought a new impetus to contemporary literature through several initiatives. They set up the most important Tibetan-language website on literature and culture (“The Butter Lamp”, Mchod me), launched a literary magazine (“Third Generation”, Mi rabs gsum pa), and organized their own poetry festival- always remaining clear of government cultural authorities and their interventions. Other literary groups followed suit. I argue that among other factors, the state-driven economic development in Qinghai and Gansu provinces including campaigns like Xibu da Kaifa (2000) and the Tibet Work Forum (2010) have in turn indirectly contributed to the development of the Internet and private editorial enterprises which play a critical role in fostering a private literary scene. In these new venues, competing Tibetan views, not only about literature and culture, but also about social policies and issues, are regularly debated.