All posts by markefrank

Is the yak a domesticated animal? The answer is cultural and political.

This is a lightly-modified excerpt from my newly published article, “Hacking the Yak: The Chinese Effort to Improve a Tibetan Animal in the Early Twentieth Century” (in East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine no. 48). For the published article, go here; it will be open access starting in December 2019. For the author’s preprint version of the full article, click here.


If you know one word of Tibetan, it is probably yak—though as speakers of Tibetan are quick to point out, that word refers only to the male in their language, while the female is called a dri. (I will adhere to English usage here, using it to refer to both male and female.) The species has traditionally been associated with Tibet, and with Tibetan nomads in particular. But observers have produced contradictory accounts of the historical relationship between Tibetans and the yak. To some, Tibetan mobile yak pastoralism is a primitive livelihood marked by extreme conformity with nature, while others have described it as an elaborate technical exercise.

Published sources from the early twentieth century suggest a correlation between how non-Tibetans viewed Tibetans and how they viewed yaks: those who viewed Tibetan culture as primitive tended to also view the yak as an under-domesticated animal.

So is the yak a domesticated animal?

The question of whether (and to what extent) Tibetans domesticated the yak hinges on the definition of “domesticated”.

Recent debates highlight the tension between two competing paradigms of domestication. Natural scientists have conventionally invoked a “biological definition,” which posits that an animal is domesticated when its morphology and behavior meet a list of criteria such that they exhibit what some have called “domestication syndrome”. Docility (or “tameness”) is the hallmark of domestication syndrome, typically accompanied by the retention of juvenile features, including reduced brain size.[1] This biological paradigm is predicated on the expectation that domestication involves extreme human domination of domesticates, including near-total control over domesticates’ reproduction resulting in their genetic isolation and distinctness from wild ancestors.[2]

Some anthropologists point out that such a rigid understanding of domestication rules out cases in which animals have been thoroughly integrated into human society without such an extreme degree of domination. For example, Fiona Marshall and Lior Weissbrod observed that a single Maasai community paid great attention to horse pedigree while allowing its donkeys to procreate freely, which the researchers attribute to the fact that the community under study valued donkeys for their load-bearing strength and had little regard for their pedigree or sociability, in contrast with its attitudes towards horses. Yet commonsensically, both animals are “domesticated”.[3] Similarly, geneticist Ludovic Orlando notes that Mongolians often allow their horses to roam freely and “capture” them only as needed, because this is more practical than continuous domination.[4] Many social and natural scientists now advocate weighing the biological definition of domestication against a “cultural definition” that takes pragmatics into account.[5]

Early European encounters with yaks produced some confusion over their status with regard to domestication. A British travel writer observed in 1874 that “even the yaks of burden, which have been domesticated, or rather half domesticated, for generations, are exceedingly wild, and the only way they can be managed is by a rope attached by a ring through the nose.”[6] Only after 1875 did taxonomists register a distinction between the “domesticated yak” (Bos grunniens), and the “wild yak” (Bos mutus), corresponding to the Tibetan distinction between yak and drong.[7] Even contemporary observers note that the domesticated yak is not particularly docile, nor is it as genetically divergent from its wild ancestor as the typical farm animal.[8] By biological criteria that emphasize domination, yak domestication appears incomplete, especially when the transformation from mutus to grunniens is juxtaposed with the coeval transformation from the auroch to the ox—a common frame of reference for lowland peoples. Indeed, one historical paradigm situated the yak on a trajectory parallel to that of the ox or the pig, but with some catching up to do.

Figure 1

An alternate interpretation emphasizes human adaptation over domination.

Zooarchaeologist Juliet Clutton-Brock notes that the proximity of grunniens to its wild ancestor preserves its highland niche, so that “as a pack animal and provider of milk, the yak enabled humans to colonize the mountainous regions of Tibet and Nepal.”[9] We might speculate that, as with the Maasai donkey, the load-bearing role of the yak has disincentivized selection for docility among herders, given that such selection tends to produce smaller animals.[10] In this appraisal, the yak’s influence on Tibetan society is not incompatible with human ingenuity, in that adaptation to the yak is understood to be a highly technical accomplishment. Indeed, those who have closely investigated Tibetan yak production, including ethnologists, ethnographers and scientists, tend to emphasize its technical complexity. I synthesize some of their findings here, not to provide a comprehensive overview of the yak’s role in Tibetan society, but merely to establish three points that are of later relevance to this essay: (1) that yak domestication is ancient in origin, (2) that yaks were and are the subject of an elaborate system of indigenous knowledge, and (3) that yak production was not the domain of a monolithic “nomadic” lifestyle.

Jianlin Han of the Chinese Academy of Agrarian Sciences, summarizing the findings of an international constellation of scientists, notes that initial domestication of the yak must have occurred approximately ten thousand years ago, and that DNA evidence points to a single domestication event on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (meaning that Mongols and other yak herders beyond the plateau were eventual beneficiaries of this feat).[11] Domestication of the wild yak (Bos mutus) is usually attributed to the Qiang 羌, an ancient civilization thought to be ancestral to Tibetans (as well as modern Qiang) and which the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations describes as “quite possibly the earliest animal husbandry culture of excellence in the world.”[12] DNA and archaeological evidence points to a major expansion in yak production about five thousand years ago. The breeding of female cattle (Bos taurus) with male yaks (Bos grunniens) to produce hybrids has been traced to 1100 BCE, though according to Han, it intensified in the middle of the twentieth century—precisely the period with which this study is concerned.[13] Yak pastoralism is thought to have originated on the southeast of the plateau, corresponding to the western portion of modern Sichuan Province (and the overlapping Tibetan region of Kham); today western Sichuan is also host to the world’s largest yak population (4,084 as of the year 2000, not including hybrids).[14] In other words, yak husbandry has benefited from millennia of experience plus many hundreds of generations of passive and active selection, even if these techniques did not conform to the scientific method per se.

Tibetan mobile pastoralists often identify (and are identified by their Tibetan neighbors) as drokpa (Wiley: ‘brogs pa), a term that is typically translated as “nomad.”[15] But those who picture the Tibetan nomad as moving erratically or, as Chinese observers often put it, “chasing the water and the grass” (zhu shui cao er ju 逐水草而居) are mistaken; unlike peripatetic or “wandering” nomads (such as Gypsies and Thuggees), the drokpa are transhumant nomads, meaning that they move methodically between a certain number of pre-selected locations according to the season. The most basic principles of yak transhumance in high-altitude settings are that animals must move higher as the temperature rises and lower as it drops, and that animals must move shorter distances when they are most vulnerable to effects of the weather (the onset of spring); the drokpa clan will have designated pastures whose spatial distribution adheres to these principles. From a sedentist perspective, such mobility is unusual, and drokpa may appear to be unduly influenced by their animals. Recent scholarship, however, has inverted this narrative by arguing that settled agriculture reflects a high degree of plant influence on humans in exchange for dubious benefits to individual people.[16]

In fact, sedentary agriculture appears to have facilitated high-altitude nomadism such that it arguably represents an evolution of sedentary agriculture, or an escape from it. The farmer and nomad are linked by a continuum of production methods through which individuals may transition from the more temperate conditions of the lowlands to the harsher conditions of the highlands. Robert Ekvall, who conducted extensive field research in Amdo (northeast Tibet) between 1926 and 1941, noted the existence of an intermediary social category called the sa ma drok (Wiley: sa ma ‘brog meaning literally, “neither soil nor high pasture”) that practiced a semi-nomadic lifestyle.[17] Ekvall was able to observe the evolution of households from one mode of production to the other–not from nomadism to farming, as sedentary outsiders have often assumed, but from farming to semi-nomadism and then (sometimes) to full nomadic pastoralism.[18]

The multi-step process Ekvall describes implies the transmission of detailed technical knowledge across generations. Farm households typically kept a small number of cattle, but once the herd of a farming household reached a certain size, the farmers might establish a separate summer pasture within a day’s reach, both to give the herd ample grazing room and to protect the year’s crop from those same animals; the herd returned to the farm after the harvest. Some households retained their farms while others abandoned them entirely, rotating between pastures with the seasons. While Ekvall notes that sa ma drok households never achieved an identity as drokpa regardless of their livelihood (and perhaps predominated at a lower altitude than the latter), the sa ma drok lifestyle provided excellent technical training in nomadic pastoralism and many individuals were incorporated into drokpa lifestyles through marriage or other means. Further, these seminomadic households occupied an important niche in the pastoral economy as an intermediary between farmers and drokpa; for one thing, with access to both cattle and yaks they were ideally positioned to breed the hybrids known in Tibetan as dzo upon which many drokpa relied for dairy and other purposes.[19]

Moving from lowland farm to high pasture was not simply a matter of preference in that it required a high degree of technical knowledge. Anthropologist Rinzen Thargyal provides unique insight into this body of indigenous knowledge through his interviews with nomadic households that were exiled from Kham’s Zilphukhog Valley by the Communists in 1957. While in Kham, his informants had practiced strategic gelding, retaining some virile bulls (or chu-yak) for breeding but castrating other bulls for use as docile pack yaks. Keeping track of livestock fertility was key to successful husbandry, and Thargyal’s informants had an elaborate scheme for identifying the age of yaks, including unfamiliar ones, first by counting their teeth and later, after the age of seven years, by counting the lines (or trü) on their horns.[20] The naming scheme that Thargyal records for yaks at each age is corroborated by Namkhai Norbu, who conducted his field research in Dzachuka in 1951 and who reports that the average yak there reached 10 trü, corresponding to 17 years.[21] Drokpa took care not to milk yak cows (dri) too early since this could starve their calves and put an early end to milk production (“to starve dri calves is a self-destructive act for a pastoral nomad” notes Thargyal) but were more likely to eventually starve the calves of yak-ox hybrids (dzo), which are known to be less valuable for most purposes than their parents.[22] We should recognize that in addition to these token details, Tibetan nomads have developed a vast amount of tacit knowledge that would be difficult or impossible to transcribe, and that would be lost if their way of life were to disappear.

Figure 3.JPG


Popular discourse outside of Tibet has tended to ignore the technical complexity of yak transhumance and has instead constructed it as primitive and simplistic.

Observers often painted a caricature of Tibetan society as neatly divided between nomads and sedentary Tibetans; for example, a journalist for the North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette pontificated in 1914 that “the population of Tibet falls naturally into two divisions, namely, those who live in tents and those who live in temples. The people may roughly be divided into priests and nomads.”[23] “Nomads” figured in Chinese-language discourse as youmu min 游牧民 or “ranging herders”. The notion of the ethnos or minzu 民族 remained ill-defined during this period (in comparison to its later Communist usage), and nomads throughout Inner Asia were sometimes even referred to as youmu minzu 游牧民族, a sort of para-ethnic category.

The term niuchangwa 牛場娃was further impemented as a rough loan-translation of drokpa, niuchang being the Chinese term for yak pastures. The Chinese journal New Asia (Xin Yaxiya 新亞細亞) remarked that “the ethnos (minzu 民族) of Tibet can be approximately divided into two groups. The first are the house-dwellers (fangshewa房舍娃), and the second are the niuchangwa.” The author claimed that Tibetan house-dwellers were “almost the same as us Han,” while the niuchangwa was “entirely unlike us Han”[24]

Such writers were wont to focus on “pure” nomads, ignoring the complex gradations between farmer and nomad as observed by ethnologists, or relegating them to impurities within an otherwise binary economy. Concern with the “pure” nomadic Tibetan took on eugenic dimensions, and paralleled the rise of the “pure Han” as a concept in Chinese and international discourse.[25] Ren Naiqiang, the preeminent Han scholar of Kham, contended that the Han lived in the lowlands of Kham while the “pure Tibetans” lived on the high plains herding livestock, and their mixed-blood offspring inhabited the spaces in between.[26] The very concept of the “nomad” seems to encourage this kind of binary, since it is a simplification that obscures the complex range of lifestyles is attempts to describe.[27] In the imagination of sedentary peoples, the “nomad” is essentially primitive, violent and a relic of the premodern past—prejudices that infiltrate even contemporary historical scholarship.[28]

International appraisals of nomads as barbarians living in something like a state of nature made it easy to interpret their livestock as undomesticated or under-domesticated. In 1914 the North China Herald imagined Tibetan nomads as passive beneficiaries of the easy predisposition of their animals, since “the yak gives the nomad little or no trouble and though undomesticated [my emphasis], is a quiet and timid animal.”[29] Positivist theories of social evolution generally posited that nomads were at a more primitive stage of development than sedentary peoples, and the ingenuity involved in domestication must have seemed beyond the nomad, prompting the (mis)conception that Bos grunniens was docile yet unaltered by its human hosts.

It is in this milieu that the monolithic “nomad” became the target of Chinese nationalist discourse on the yak.

The entire species was characterized its participation in a backwards mode of development and thus its potential for improvement by the Han was self-evident; the key was extraction from nomadism. For example, in a 1943 essay titled “Nomadic and Sedentary Pastoralism,” one Dong Mi凍沁traces the divide between sedentism and nomadism to the ancient sage king Fuxi 伏羲, whose guidelines for the sustainable raising of livestock were articulated in the Rites of Zhou (Zhou li周禮). The Han were those who had received the transformative influence (hua 化) of Fuxi, while the nomads on the western frontier were those who had not. Dong faults the decline of the Qing dynasty over the previous two hundred years with facilitating nomadism, because “the people have not been opened to knowledge.”[30]

Dong’s nomads, which seem to be based mainly on secondhand reports, are utterly devoid of science. He writes that “many of the residents of the northwest have been stuck in a rut, following the water and the grass, and I hear that the livestock must live and perish of its own accord for they don’t know how to improve it.” He then cites Chiang Kai-shek as saying that “Argentina in South America is the world’s greatest producer of meat, and yet the pastures of our own northwest could displace Argentina if they were opened up and properly developed.”[31]

Dong’s polemic reflects a synthesis of Han chauvinism with the global paradigm of “improvement.” An early watchword of scientific agriculture, “improvement” typically referred to increasing yields per unit of livestock or unit of land, and was inspired by the marketization of agricultural products in Europe beginning in the 18th century. Its infiltration of Chinese discourse as gailiang 改良 or gaijin改近gave Chinese and international agrarians a common idiom for discussing Tibet. In an article on the founding of Xikang Province (Xikang sheng西康省), The Christian Science Monitor had this to say:

Tibet’s nomads have been ignorant of how to care for the Yak. In Minya, west of Tasienlu [Kangding], many cows give only a quart or so a day and the price of highly-watered milk is high. To the nomad “a yak is a yak, and who ever heard of improving a yak? And why improve the yak?” As the nomad sees it, an improved yak may give more milk, and more milk may give more cheese, which will produce more money. But more money will mean more expense… so why improve the yak?[32]

 “Value” (jiazhi價值) became the arena in which industrialized, scientific production sought to compete with nomadic production. “The value of the yak is indeed great,” wrote a contributor to Xikang Economy Quarterly in 1944, “but knowledge among the people is shallow and they do not recognize its value.”[33] Nomadic pastoralism was doubly troublesome to sedentary observers because of its lower economic output and its problematic mode of social organization. [End of excerpt.]

For the full article, visit the links at the top. The references below refer to entries in the bibliography of the full article.

[1] Clutton-Brock (2012), p. 8; Ritvo (2004), p. 214.

[2] Ingold (2000), p. 75; Saey and Engelhaupt (2017), p. 22.

[3] Marshall and Weissbrod (2011), p. S405.

[4] Quoted in Saey and Engelhaupt (2017), p. 23.

[5] For example, see Alan Outram (2014), p. 759; Saey Engelhaupt (2017), p. 22-23. The implication of “cultural” here is not so much that we should defer to a given culture’s definition of domestication, but that we should frame our understanding of domestication in reference to a species’ practical role in a given cultural context.

[6] “The Yak of Thibet” (1874).

[7] Wiener, Han, and Long (2003), p. 9.

[8] Clutton-Brock (2012), p. 85.

[9] Clutton-Brock, Juliet (2012), p. 85.

[10] Tibetans do produce more docile bovids by breeding yaks with oxen, a process I shall examine shortly.

[11] Han (2013).

[12] Wiener, Han, and Long (2003), p. 3.

[13] Wiener, Han, and Long (2003), p. 3.

[14] Wiener, Han, and Long (2003), p. 7.

[15] Robert Ekvall more accurately translates drokpa as “high pasturage ones” See Ekvall (1968), p. 3.

[16] For example, see Diamond (1987); Harari (2015), pp. 87-109; Scott (2017).

[17] Anthropologist Rinzen Thargyal has also described the sa ma drok, but Ekvall was the first scholar to describe their transition from sedentary to nomadic pastoral production in detail.

[18] Ekvall (1968), pp. 21-23.

[19] Ekvall (1968), pp. 20-21.

[20] Thargyal (2007), pp. 76-78.

[21] Norbu (1997), pp. 39-40.

[22] Thargyal (2007), pp. 78.

[23] “Among Tibetan Nomads: A Picturesque People, the Ways of the Yak”.

[24] Wang Dufeng (1930), p. 23.

[25] Zhihong Chen Traces the notion of the “pure Han” to the writings of Ellsworth Huntington and Zhang Qiyun in the early twentieth century. See Chen (2012), pp. 85-88.

[26] Ren Naiqiang (1990), pp. 219-220.

[27] In their critique of the term ‘nomadism,’ Carolyn Humphries and David Sneath note that “pastoralism in the vast grassland region of Inner Asia is not timeless ‘nomadism’ but is a series of local knowledges and techniques located in particular historical circumstances.” See Humphrey and Sneath (1999), p. 1.

[28] For instance, historian Michael Khodarkovsky describes the nomadic groups along the steppes of the Russian empire as “societies organized for war” (2002, p. 17), while Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper write of Eurasian nomads generally that “nomadic life meant that the whole society could be mobilized for war” and that “the point of war was plundering, sharing out the booty, and moving on to get more” (2010, p. 99).

[29] “Among Tibetan Nomads: A Picturesque People, the Ways of the Yak”.

[30] Dong Xin (1943), p. 34.

[31] Dong Xin (1943), p. 34

[32] “China Builds ‘Inner Empire’ With ‘Go-West’ Movement”.

[33] Xu Deming (1944), p. 111.

Doing Research at the Sichuan Provincial Archives: a new unofficial guide

四川省档案馆, 花牌坊街191号

[Note: I have edited this post since its initial publication for greater accuracy, particularly regarding Qing-era records. Thanks to Gilbert Chen for his input!]

I spent the bulk of my last research stint in China–just over eleven months–visiting the Sichuan Provincial Archives (四川省档案馆) in Chengdu for my research on the history of Xikang Province. The ChuanDang 川档, as the name is locally abbreviated, are an amazing and under-utilized resource (I was sometimes the only user present), but they’re also quirky and can be confusing. A lot has changed since Maura Dykstra wrote her guide to the Sichuan Archives. A source of much confusion is the archives’ melange of originals, microfilm and digital documents, compounded by the hybridity of its digital and non-digital interfaces. After an intro to the basics of archiving at the ChuanDang, I’ll offer tips and strategies for navigating some of the more complex aspects of these archives today. Most of my experience is with Republican-era documents, and I’m not able to comment extensively on working with Qing microfilms.

Highlights: The ChuanDang mainly feature archives for Sichuan provincial bureaus from the Qing through PRC eras, but there are a couple of collections worth highlighting: First, many international scholars come to consult the Ba County archive, which is one of the very few extant county-level archives from the Qing Dynasty; this collection has now been digitized and is keyword-searchable. Secondly, the ChuanDang hold virtually all of the accessible Xikang Province archives, most of which was subsumed by Sichuan in the early 1950s, much of which has yet to be digitized. Finally, there are some catalogs corresponding to central government organs that were temporarily based in Chengdu; for example, I accessed records of the Central Meteorological Bureau (中央气象局) from the 1940s.

Transportation: The location of the archives in northwest Chengdu isn’t very central and there is no subway stop nearby (Line 2 is about a 30-minute walk away). Bus routes 4, 37, 62 and 109 have stops near the archives. On any of these routes, get off at the stop named 四川省档案局. I recommend routing your trip on Baidu maps (click here).

Hours: The reading room is open from 8:30am to 11:30am and 12:30pm to 5:30pm on Monday through Friday, plus 8:30am to 11:30am on Saturdays. However, from 12:30 to 2pm the service desk is usually staffed by an attendant who does little more than supervise the reading room; to request documents you will likely need to wait for the main staff to return around 2.

In my experience you can request digital documents any time that the main staff is available (roughly 8:30-11:30 and 2-5:15), but you should request any originals before 3pm. Staff will often do a very loud last call (perhaps not unlike your local bar) around 3. Technically the deadline for print requests is 4:30, but staff implored me to aim for 4pm or earlier when requesting copies of originals, which can be very time-consuming for them.

On Day 1: If you don’t have a Chinese ID you’ll need to have your passport and your introduction letter from a Chinese institution ready. Sign in at the guard post by the front gate on HuaPaiFang Street (you’ll need to show your passport the first time) and proceed to the reading room through the automatic sliding-glass doors immediately ahead. You’ll have to walk through a metal scanner, and then you’re in the beautifully-lit atrium that is the Sichuan Archives Reading Room. Put any large bags in one of the automated lockers to the left of the metal scanner before you start working.

The first time you visit, you’ll need to show your introduction letter to the staff behind the service desk, which is in the middle of the room. They give you a paper form to fill out with your name, danwei, phone number and–importantly–a short description of what kinds of records you’re looking for. Be prepared to write 2-3 sentences in Chinese characters on the topic(s) and period(s) you’re interested in. Think broad–if your description is too narrow, there is a chance that at some point you may be denied access to records that don’t seem to match your topic or time period.

If all goes well, staff will write down a username and serial number for you on a slip of paper, and this will be your login information for the archives’ in-house digital interface. The username should be your Chinese name, and in my experience, the serial number is the date on which you arrived followed by your number in the sequence of new users for that day. Eh, it’s not as complicated as it sounds–you’ll figure it out.

The index: When I first visited in 2011, there was only a barely-legible hand-written index in what seemed like a million binders in glass bookcases along a wall. That’s still there, but most researchers now use the brilliant new text-searchable digital index, which is available on any of the computer workstations in the reading room. Open the IE browser and the login page will appear; then make sure to select the option for entering a serial number (编号). PRC citizens use their shenfenzheng number to enter the system, but you will need that number they wrote down on a little slip of paper (see above).

Typical among PRC archives, catalogs are chronologically sorted into the Qing, Republican (1912-1949) and PRC (1949-present) eras. However, there are a lot of choices within those master categories, and you might want to look at the complete list here. Note that the ChuanDang actually contain records for two provinces: Sichuan and Xikang, since the latter was mostly absorbed into Sichuan after 1955.

The archives’ website appears to feature an online search function for the index, but judging from my attempts at using it, this online index only works a small subset of the archives, and seemingly only Qing records.

Pulling records: Requesting documents through the digital index is easy, but be careful: not only are you allowed to request only 20 items per day, but you’re allowed to make only one request per day. Fortunately, it’s a multi-step process that allows you to add items to your list before officially submitting it. When you’re ready to make your request for the day, check the check-boxes next to each item you want to request and hit the button at the top that says “Submit a List” (提交一个清单). Then, make sure to verbally tell someone at the main desk that you have put in a request (“我提交了一个清单”). Staff may well not put your request through until you make a verbal request, precisely because you are only allowed one such request per day and they don’t want you to squander it.

The digital index is fairly intuitive, but what happens after you put in a request is more confusing. If some files you requested are digital, staff will tell you right away which ones you can access, and they’ll make those files available to your account. You can then return to your work station, hit refresh on the browser, and you should now see links to view these files. Files that don’t provide a link haven’t been digitized, or aren’t available to you.

If some files you requested have not been digitized, staff may simply tell you that they haven’t been digitized. They may or may not ask if you want to see the originals. If you do want to see them, be proactive in requesting the originals (“我能不能看原件?”). However, if some of the files you requested are digital and some are not, staff will likely ask you to view the digital files first and may not comply with your request to pull originals until you say you have done so. Originals can’t be pulled between 11:30 and 2pm. Expect to wait up to an hour or longer for your originals to arrive, and don’t be shocked if some of the files don’t arrive, even if staff initially seemed to indicate that they were available. In fact, about half of my requests for originals that staff initially approved did not arrive in the end, often with no clear reason given except that they were unviewable.

Unviewable records: It’s likely that staff will at some point tell you that you “can’t view” (看不了) one or more files. There are many possible reasons for this–for example, the file may be undergoing digitization, it may be too politically sensitive. The ChuanDang are in the throes of digitization, so the volume of files currently undergoing digitization is fairly large. Generally, entire catalogs (全宗) are taken out of circulation at once for digitization, so it might be good to ask in advance which catalogs are unavailable, or better yet–write down a list of collections you’re interested in and ask about their availability before putting in a request. Staff at the main desk will probably have to make a phone call to archivists to find out.

Most importantly, be patient and anticipate that you may not be able to view a lot of the records you want. I was dismayed to learn that collections I considered to be crucial to my dissertation were indefinitely unavailable, but this ultimately prompted me to be more creative with my approach and make slight alterations to my research questions or seek the answers in alternative sources.

Viewing records and taking notes: Records come in one of three formats: digital, microfilm (mainly Qing records), and originals. ROC and early PRC records are in the process of digitzation, and you are generally allowed to view originals only if the record you want is in a catalog (全宗) that has not yet been digitized and isn’t currently undergoing digitization. In my understanding, visitors can no longer view the originals of Qing records, and these are available either as digital files or on microfilm. According to a colleague who recently worked with Qing records, the Ba County archives as well as Qing records from before the Guangxu reign have been digitized, while Guangxu- and Xuantong-era records are available only on microfilm.

Digital files will open as PDFs in a web browser, so your experience will be much like viewing online PDFs on any PC. Microfilm viewing also seems pretty standard. Originals are handed over to you at the main desk when they arrive, after you sign in with your name and passport number. There is plenty of desk space for viewing originals and great natural lighting. As of early 2017, staff did not require gloves for viewing originals, nor did they provide them (but please wash your hands first!). You are free to take notes on your own paper with a pen or pencil, or to bring in your laptop and type as you read. Photographing records, however, is strictly prohibited (and the rule is enforced).

Staff prefer that you return any originals you view on the same day, but of course, this is not always feasible. Staff generally will store records for you upon request as long as you are coming in again within 24 hours, and they seem willing to do this for up to (about) three days in a row. Incidentally, I noticed that the typical Chinese visitor would request records, look at them for a couple of hours, make copies and then return their records.

Requesting prints or photocopies: While you’re not allowed to photograph documents, one of the most amazing things about the Sichuan Archives is that everyone is allowed up to 20 free pages of copies per day, which is a fairly high daily limit (eg. the Chongqing Municipal Archives allow only 10). Prints/copies can be made from all three formats, including microfilm. On the flip side, you don’t have the option of paying for more copies; 20 is simply the limit. When viewing digitized files, this means 20 PDF pages; when viewing originals, this means twenty individual page faces (not folios), even though they will likely copy facing pages onto a single sheet of paper.

Entering a request for copies can be confusing. To request copies of microfilm or digital files, you need to write down the index number(s) and pages requested on a form that you can pick up at the main desk. But when requesting copies of originals, don’t fill out a form; instead, you should insert a slip of paper (these can be found in baskets throughout the reading room) at each photocopy start point within the document, with the number of pages you want copied written on it; then hand it to a staff member and indicate that you would like copies. Since some files are paginated and some are not, I recommend always writing the number of pages to copy instead of the page range. Expect to wait about 20-40 minutes for your copies to arrive. If the person on copy duty hasn’t come in, you may not be able to request copies (I discovered that this includes many Saturdays), so check early.

Tips and Strategies

Here are some strategies I developed for working at the ChuanDang over the course of my year there. As far as I know, everything below is perfectly within the rules, and most of these are probably mutually beneficial for you and the staff.

  • Digital before originals. If you’re consulting a large number of documents in different collections, there’s a good chance that some have been digitized and others haven’t. In my experience, the staff clearly prefer that you view the digitzed docs first and then, when you have exhausted those, and on a different day, move on to requesting originals of records that haven’t been digitized. But there’s a benefit to starting digital for you as well: once approved, the digital records in your account are viewable as long as the account is active, which means you can build up a library of dozens of records over time. You can request digital files, move on quickly to originals, and then return to the digitals whenever you feel like it.
  • Avoid letting your account expire. Your serial number can expire with as little as a week of inactivity, along with your collection of saved digital records. If plan to keep working but need to be away for over a week, you should talk to staff about your timeline and ask if they can keep your account open. If your account does expire, getting a new one is as simple as taking in your passport and asking for it (but your digital records and record history are gone forever).
  • You can download digitals to the computer station. Digitized records are delivered to users in PDF format through a browser window, so it’s possible to download them to the work station’s hard drive (but DO NOT try to transfer them to your own device!). I had been doing this tentatively for my first couple of months, unsure whether or not it was acceptable, but I found out one day when the intranet was down. Other users couldn’t view their digital records, but since mine were on the hard drive, I could. In fact, a junior staff member asked me to wait while she checked with her supervisor to make sure that this was okay. She came back nodding and said, “how did you know you could download them? You’re very clever!” Of course, this practice could be banned at any time, and be prepared to stop if staff ask you to.
  • Call ahead about availability. When I expressed frustration about records being off-access for digitzation, staff consistently recommended that I call ahead to find out which collections were off-access at any given time. The number is 028-87660582.
  • Really, don’t photograph records. I’ve seen multiple people get yelled at for photographing records (digitals and originals), even though signs forbidding this are posted throughout the reading room. Not only does this put a strain on your relationship with the staff, but they will likely want to watch you delete your photos before they let you go. It’s not worth it.
  • Print and sprint. When working with originals or microfilm, staff seem to encourage visitors to photocopy what they need and then return materials as quickly as possible.* They don’t mind you requesting the maximum number of copies (20) every day; in fact, they seem to encourage it. This isn’t the greenest strategy, but you may want to consider taking advantage of the relatively generous copying policy to cut down on time spent with originals or microfilm.
  • Check the non-digital index. Some source types, such as photographs and ziliao (资料), have not been fully entered into the digital index. You may want to browse the hand-written index along the wall for these. If you find items that aren’t in the digital index, you’ll need to request them in writing; talk to a staff member about that.
  • Develop a good working relationship with the staff. Like many archives in the PRC, staff may seem less welcoming towards users (and not just foreigners) than what we’re used to in our home country. Some of the best advice anyone gave me about archiving in China is that it’s a relationship between the researcher and the staff, and that the most productive experience comes from mutual understanding, which takes time. If time allows, start slowly and learn the ropes. Staff will take you more seriously when they’ve seen you coming in and following the rules week after week, and they’ll be more likely to go out of their way to help you–but don’t demand that on day one.

Eating and Caffeinating near the Archives

The ChuanDang are on Huapaifang Street (花牌坊街), a road named after a site where memorials once commemorated chastity martyrs. The surrounding neighborhood isn’t terribly exciting, but there are a few places to eat or get coffee. My favorite by far is the Parasol Cafe, an eccentric coffee shop whose owner rides a Harley and keeps llamas in a stable nearby.** Parasol serves seriously decent coffee and cake, and you can order food from the restaurant next door (I recommend choosing from their jiachangcai menu for budget options). To get to the Parasol Cafe, look for Xilin Alley (西林巷) just to the left of the archives (if you’re facing them from Huapaifang Street) and follow it all the way to the end, where you’ll find a row of restaurants prominently situated in front of a hotel; Parasol will be on the left-hand side.

Acknowledgments: My year at the Sichuan Provincial Archives was made possible by an IIE Fulbright research grant.

*After reading this guide, a colleague of mine commented that he had a different experience with printing: “My personal experience is that the archival staff would lose patience if you continuously ask them to print documents for you,” he writes. As with other areas of archival research, I suppose the ideal is reaching a balance that is acceptable to you and the staff.
**The cafe owner does not keep “lamas” in a stable, as a typo (since fixed) seemed to indicate.

“The Rooted State”: Abstract

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In 1939 the Republic of China fixed borders around the Kham region of ethnographic Tibet and declared it to be “Xikang Province,” but Chinese authority there was more realistically bounded by an environmental limit: the convoluted “grain line” at about 3500 meters above sea level that divided arable valleys from high grasslands. How could Republican China, still a predominantly agricultural state, hope to thrive in spaces beyond agriculture? This dissertation seeks to answer that question by means of a history of everyday life along the grain line on the eve of the Communist takeover. Drawing on a large body of unpublished records from the PRC and Taiwan, I argue that human-plant relationships were central to both Chinese expansion into eastern Tibet and resistance to that project. Moreover, human-plant relationships were central to identity formation on the plateau, including national, ethnic, and gender identities.

“The Rooted State” makes key contributions to knowledge on two fronts. First, it recovers the all-but-forgotten history of Xikang Province, and by extension, the history of eastern Tibet’s incorporation into the administrative system of the Chinese nation-state. Xikang was governed by a warlord with only a tenuous connection to the central government and dissolved into neighboring provinces after sixteen years. Its significance to the history of Sino-Tibetan relations is unobvious and has been mostly ignored in the scholarly literature. I demonstrate that while Chinese authority in Kham was limited by social and environmental factors, it was not “imaginary” as Hsiao-ting Lin has claimed.  Rather, modest advances in agricultural development supported modern institutions from schools to prisons that disciplined Han migrants and assimilated indigenous Khampas into the Chinese ethnic nation, establishing a foundation for subsequent Communist rule in the region.

More broadly, “The Rooted State” contributes to knowledge about the relationship between agriculture and modernity by following Chinese agriculture to its environmental limits in the early twentieth century. Even as certain nationalists contended that “China is a country founded on agriculture” (Zhongguo yi nong li guo中國以農立國), others envisioned a Chinese sovereignty that extended to non-arable sectors of Inner Asia, including Kham. I approach Xikang as a site where the state attempted various strategies to reconcile the incongruity between these visions. Agronomists endeavored to push the grain line higher by introducing new varieties and techniques to Kham, while politicians sought to reconfigure transportation routes and political borders in order to subsidize upland regions with lowland food. Their failures are as instructive as their successes, because they underscore the material demands of Chinese modernity.


Project update: Lots of Good News!

I have lots of good news to report about my research project, The Rooted State:

  • The first article to come out of this project, “Planting and its Discontents: or How Nomads Produced Spaces of Resistance in China’s Erstwhile Xikang Province,” has been published in issue 3 of Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities. Click here to read more about that.
  • I have been offered a dissertation completion grant from the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at UIUC, which would allow me to focus entirely on writing during the 2017-18 academic year. I am still waiting to hear back about another grant, but having this option is wonderful.
  • My paper proposal to the Agricultural History Society 2017 conference in June has been accepted, and I have also been invited to participate in their graduate workshop before the conference with a modest travel grant. I will be workshopping one of my dissertation chapters on experimental agriculture in Xikang Province.
  • In March I completed and sent off two essays pending publication: a book chapter for an edited volume on Kham, and an article that will be part of a special issue on historical human-animal interactions in Asia if it passes peer review. I anticipate that both of these will be published by 2018, but possibly earlier.

For perspective, I’ve gotten about as many rejections, including a couple grants and at least one conference that I was excited about.  Oh well!