The first publication to come out of this project has landed! My article “Planting and its Discontents: or How Nomads Produced Spaces of Resistance in China’s Erstwhile Xikang Province” appeared in issue 3 of Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities. The issue’s special theme is “environmental humanities from below,” and it emerged from an environmental history symposium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014, though several more authors joined the issue after that.
“Planting and its Discontents” makes the argument that nomadism in the Kham region was inherently subversive in the context of China’s fervently agrarianist politics during the early twentieth century. But who or what exactly was subverting the state? I make the case that the culprit wasn’t just the “friction of terrain,” to use James C. Scott’s phrase, but nor was it just indigenous Khampa defiance. Instead, ecological characteristics of Khampa nomadic pastoralism gave it the upper hand over agriculture above 3,500 meters where grain was no longer viable, making it difficult for China’s modern bureaucracy to function in those spaces–including the carceral system.
I tried to offer a nuanced understanding of resistance, writing that “my diagnosis of resistance is not so much descriptive of practices within drokpa space as of the effects of those practices on the enterprise of assimilation.” Since the article appeared, I have come across two recent essays on Sino-Tibetan relations by other scholars that I think do especially well at drawing on decades of philosophy (or “theory”) concerning the nature of resistance, from Michel Foucault to Janet Abu-Lughod to James C. Scott. One of these is Emily Yeh’s “Tibetan Range Wars: Spatial Politics and Authority on the Grasslands of Amdo” (2003) and the other is Fernanda Pirie’s “The Limits of the State: Coercion and Consent in Chinese Tibet” (2013). I do think my article has something new to say, but I’m inspired to go deeper in future outings.
A minor critique I have of this (my own) article is that it takes a fairly simplistic view of drokpa, which it equates to “Khampa nomadic pastoralists”. I fear that I come too close to replicating the illusory farmer-nomad dichotomy of the historical Chinese state, when in reality there were and are many gradations between these livelihoods (ie, semi-nomadisms). I am now finishing a second article that will point out the problems with that dichotomy, in some ways challenging (or expanding) the premise of this one.
The entire issue in which this appears is worth looking at, especially if you’re interested in environmental history–many thanks to the editors, Rod Wilson and Bob Morrissey. There are three articles on Chinese environmental history (mine included), and Andrew Bauer’s incisive article challenging the “_____ in the Anthropocene” fad in the humanities is one that I will definitely be citing in the future. And again, if you don’t have access to the journal, a link to my pre-print copy is above. Enjoy! –MEF