Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Taming Tibet

Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development

Emily T. Yeh
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Taming Tibet
    Book Description:

    The violent protests in Lhasa in 2008 against Chinese rule were met by disbelief and anger on the part of Chinese citizens and state authorities, perplexed by Tibetans' apparent ingratitude for the generous provision of development. In Taming Tibet, Emily T. Yeh examines how Chinese development projects in Tibet served to consolidate state space and power. Drawing on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2000 and 2009, Yeh traces how the transformation of the material landscape of Tibet between the 1950s and the first decade of the twenty-first century has often been enacted through the labor of Tibetans themselves. Focusing on Lhasa, Yeh shows how attempts to foster and improve Tibetan livelihoods through the expansion of markets and the subsidized building of new houses, the control over movement and space, and the education of Tibetan desires for development have worked together at different times and how they are experienced in everyday life.

    The master narrative of the PRC stresses generosity: the state and Han migrants selflessly provide development to the supposedly backward Tibetans, raising the living standards of the Han's "little brothers." Arguing that development is in this context a form of "indebtedness engineering," Yeh depicts development as a hegemonic project that simultaneously recruits Tibetans to participate in their own marginalization while entrapping them in gratitude to the Chinese state. The resulting transformations of the material landscape advance the project of state territorialization. Exploring the complexity of the Tibetan response to-and negotiations with-development, Taming Tibet focuses on three key aspects of China's modernization: agrarian change, Chinese migration, and urbanization. Yeh presents a wealth of ethnographic data and suggests fresh approaches that illuminate the Tibet Question.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6978-7
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Note on Transliterations and Place Names
    (pp. xv-xv)
  6. Abbreviations and Terms
    (pp. xvi-xviii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-25)

    Since the “peaceful liberation of Tibet” in 1951, the Chinese state has sought to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans, to convince them to think of themselves as citizens of the People’s Republic of China. Two narratives, one based on history and the other on gratitude, undergird the discursive work of state incorporation. The first is that Tibet has always been part of China and that any suggestions otherwise are meddlesome attempts by foreign imperialists to dupe and goad an isolated few Tibetan “splittists”—separatists who attempt to “split” the otherwise seamless fabric of the Chinese Motherland. Tibet’s historical...

  8. A Celebration
    (pp. 26-28)

    Late one night in the summer of 2001, I arrived in Lhasa, grimy and enervated after the fifty-six-hour bus ride from Xining, Qinghai. After a few months away, this was to be the beginning of a three-month stay to continue my fieldwork. Things had already gone awry. My promised research permission had been pulled abruptly a few days before I left home for China, a situation that was resolved eventually only through creative finagling. In the interim, I waited anxiously.

    My anxiety was greatly heightened by the anxiety of Lhasa residents at the time. Soon after I arrived I began...

  9. 1 State Space: Power, Fear, and the State of Exception
    (pp. 29-51)

    The most prominent religious practices in which, until very recently, virtually all Tibetans have participated at some point in their lives, circumambulation and pilgrimage, connect persons and places by the physical as well as metaphysical relationship formed between participants and the landscape. As such, circumambulation and pilgrimage are also ubiquitous Tibetan forms of place making. Indeed the Tibetan term for pilgrimage, nèkor (Wylie: gnas skor), contains within it the term for “place” (gnas), understood as both a physical place and the residence of powerful deities in or of that place.

    Michel de Certeau has argued that “footsteps weave places together”²—...

  10. Hearing and Forgetting
    (pp. 52-54)

    While spending some time with a peasant family who lived about an hour outside of Lhasa, I learned that there would be a township meeting about the year’s surplus grain sale quotas. I asked if I could come along to the meeting and what time it would start. My middle-aged host replied, “They said to come at 10 a.m., but no one will actually show up until later. Maybe 12 or 1 p.m. People don’t listen with their ears anyway. They sit up there and talk and we sit lower down and can’t hear what’s going on, so we just...

  11. Part I. Soil

    • The Aftermath of 2008 (I)
      (pp. 57-59)

      I managed to visit friends in Lhasa for a couple of weeks in the winter. I wanted to see what had become of the city, and of my friends, before it was closed off again for all of the coming anniversaries. What I found was a city under siege. Posted at every intersection throughout the city were four to seven People’s Armed Police officers, bearing rifles and riot shields, standing on duty twenty-four hours a day. Armored vehicles circulated the streets at night, shining bright lights, accomplishing their intended tasks of intimidation, instilling fear, and ensuring that the streets were...

    • 2 Cultivating Control: Nature, Gender, and Memories of Labor in State Incorporation
      (pp. 60-92)

      The first problem faced by the People’s Liberation Army after it marched into Lhasa in October 1951 was how to accommodate and feed its more than eight thousand troops. One of the provisions of the Seventeen Point Agreement was that the PLA would be “fair in all buying and selling and shall not arbitrarily take a single needle or thread from the people.” Due to the extreme difficulty of transporting goods from the east, the troops were entirely dependent on local supplies. The sudden introduction of this large number of soldiers into Lhasa badly shook the local economy, and according...

  12. Part II. Plastic

    • Lhasa Humor
      (pp. 95-96)

      I spent a lot of time in Lhasa laughing, at everything from the slapstick comedy of watching strangers douse each other in buckets of water in the Barkor to pointed and ironic commentaries on state memory work. The latter often referenced the familiar obligation from everyday life in the Maoist era, still revived in official media around important anniversaries, to “speak bitterness” about life in “old society” Tibet. The production of testimonies about the harshness of class-based oppression in pre-“liberation” Tibet was mandatory during the Maoist period as a demonstration of class consciousness and a performance of gratitude. Though sometimes...

    • 3 Vectors of Development: Migrants and the Making of “Little Sichuan”
      (pp. 97-125)

      The trip from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, to Lhasa encapsulates the rapid transformations of Tibet since economic reform. Until the late 1980s, Han cadres who went home for the Spring Festival holiday returned to Lhasa loaded down with large sacks of vegetables. Though the July First State Farm and urban cooperatives grew vegetables for the urban market, and though many government work units had their own plots of land on which cadres grew vegetables for work unit consumption, supply was far from sufficient to satisfy the urban demand, particularly by Han cadres.¹ Over the next decade, the scarcity...

    • Signs of Lhasa
      (pp. 126-128)

      Slogans are a defining feature of the Lhasa cityscape. Emblazoned on red cloth banners hung between streetlamps across streets and on the sides of buildings, imprinted on city buses, pasted on billboards of all shapes and sizes, and featured as part of product advertisements, they are quite simply everywhere, making Lhasa a space with an extraordinarily high “quotient of ideological density.” Some residents claimed not to even notice them anymore. Just as they read novels or aimed sunflower seed shells at each other during meetings, they had simply stopped seeing the signs, opening the gap between the performative and the...

    • 4 The Micropolitics of Marginalization
      (pp. 129-160)

      The official discourse of development in Tibet posits Han migrants as agents of technology and skill transfer, bearers of development and science, and vectors of progress. Even though early Sichuanese farmers were much more successful at bringing their own friends and family to Tibet as petty entrepreneurs than at fostering vegetable cultivation among Tibetans, officials continue to insist that “experienced vegetable growers from other provinces have been invited to pass on new know-how to local vegetable growers and this has helped raise … output.”¹ When I described my research plans to a Tibetan scientist at the beginning of my fieldwork,...

    • Science and Technology Transfer Day
      (pp. 161-162)

      The transfer of science and technology by the state to Tibetan villagers is intended to be accomplished both directly, through state-sponsored efforts, and indirectly, by way of the villagers’ proximity to Han migrants. In February 2001 I had the opportunity to observe the former in action during a day in which science and technology were brought to “the masses.” Called “The Three Go Down to the Countryside” (sange xiaxiang), this was a mandatory annual event in which Lhasa work units traveled to a rural area to promote (1) science and technology, (2) education, and (3) hygiene, with the overarching goal...

    • 5 Indolence and the Cultural Politics of Development
      (pp. 163-188)

      The grounding of state legitimacy on economic development and the delivery of a comfortable and prosperous society (xiaokang shehui) involves a delicate balancing act, in which officials stress the development that has already been achieved while also pointing to the great gaps that can only be addressed through further state intervention and the self-cultivation of Tibetans as desiring subjects of development. This is evident in the statements of many top leaders, such as that of Hu Jintao above, as well as in an article that appeared in the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP:

      Whenever one mentions Tibet,...

  13. Part III. Concrete

    • Michael Jackson as Lhasa
      (pp. 191-194)

      How have Lhasa’s rapid development and urbanization been experienced by its residents?

      Transplantation, an installation piece by artist Benpa Chungdak (see figure 5), speaks to this question. He set up the piece in January 2004, to the south of the Potala Palace, the backdrop to the photo. Unlike artwork that merely acts as a “report” of the surface of society, this piece was a deliberate attempt by the artist to dig into layers of meaning, to enter society and get involved with it.

      The piece of earth on which the installation was placed had recently been the home of the...

    • 6 “Build a Civilized City”: Making Lhasa Urban
      (pp. 195-227)

      When interviewing migrant vegetable farmers and the Tibetans who rented land to them in 2000–2001, I frequently visited the villages of Dongkar Town. One was located at the fork in the road just west of the July First State Farm, where West Liberation Road leads out of Lhasa’s continuous built-up area toward the road to the airport on the south, and to the county seat of Tolung Dechen to the north. This village was home to an early Tibetan vegetable farmer who had adopted greenhouse cultivation for a short period of time in the mid-1980s. I sometimes chatted with...

    • The Aftermath of 2008 (II)
      (pp. 228-230)

      A light dusting of snow has settled on the barren brown mountains to Lhasa’s north and south. They form a majestic backdrop to the growing city, now expanding across the river. The air is frigid. Women in chupas covered by heavy winter aprons, woolen hats, and face masks obscuring all but their eyes walk past the young Chinese soldiers standing at attention at every intersection.

      Golden plaques have sprouted throughout the city exhorting Tibetans to build a harmonious society.

      The Barkor is a sea of masked faces and varied accents. On the rooftops next to the Makye Ame Restaurant and...

    • 7 Engineering Indebtedness and Image: Comfortable Housing and the New Socialist Countryside
      (pp. 231-263)

      Since the 1980s, and particularly after the deepening of market reforms after 1992, the Chinese state has staked the legitimization of its sovereignty over Tibet on Tibetan gratitude for the gift of development. In 1985, the Central Committee of the CCP and the State Council announced that the Yangzhuoyong Lake Power Station would be constructed “as a gift to Tibetan people.”¹ The sixty-two large-scale Aid-Tibet projects launched in the TAR with the Third Work Forum on Tibet in 1994, which marked a turning point ending culturally liberal policies and ushering in large-scale Han migration to Tibet, were presented as a...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 264-268)

    Development has most often been told as a singular story: of Western imperialist expansion, of the invention of the Third World after World War II, of being essentially another name for capitalism as an abstract, totalizing, and unitary force. Such narratives too neatly package contradictory and indeterminate assemblages of socio-spatial phenomena shaped by particular geographical processes into a final predetermined outcome in which aspirations and desires for development can never be anything other than an extension of a specifically Western mode of being. They erase the long imperial history of China as a colonizing center engaged in territorial conquest, a...

  15. Afterword: Fire
    (pp. 269-272)

    Between 2011 and the time of this writing in the spring of 2013, the Tibetan plateau witnessed a series of more than one hundred self-immolations. Unprecedented in Tibetan political history, these grisly acts of protest and sacrifice against increasingly repressive forms of rule were quickly labeled “terrorism” by state authorities, and the monks, nuns, and lay men and women who have set themselves aflame, were declared losers as well as terrorists. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the challenge these self-immolations pose to state territorialization. Terror and territory are intertwined: maintaining a bounded space of territory requires the constant mobilization of...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 273-294)
  17. References
    (pp. 295-312)
  18. Index
    (pp. 313-322)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 323-324)