AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 332

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Session 332: Place, Heritage, and Construction of the Local

Organizer: Yi Zheng, University of Sydney, Australia

Discussant: Edward M. Gunn, Cornell University, USA

What happens when “history is rescued from the nation”? Can cultural and literary histories of “China” be defined by and consist of multiple traditions and centres? While the question of place and scale becomes increasingly important in recent China studies, this session will venture further. It will examine the make-up of the worldview and frames of reference in several Chinese place-based literary texts and cultural anthropological studies from the early twentieth century to the present beyond the national-local and centre-periphery trajectory. It will explore questions such as what constitute local traditions that are distinct but intertwined with other worlds, how local cultures adapt and evolve when drastic political and social changes are imposed upon, and how local worlds differentiate from and define each other. In particular, our inquiry will focus on how the locals/authors mark their location: what heritages of a place they evoke, what their historical and cultural points of reference are, and how they seek a sense of self in locale or chronicle local histories and the present, which are not simply part of a “national” cultural whole. The panellists will address and debate these issues in their cultural, literary and anthropological studies of Alai’s native place configuration that locates Tibet’s cultural and historical centre in West Sichuan; contemporary Mosuo identity between the national and the international markets; the Kangding region Tibetan tradition of scripture rounds that distinguishes as well as combines the human, the natural and the sacred; and Li Jieren’s early 20C historical trilogy the Great Waves—a “spatial-descriptive” epic of a geographic region that refuses to settle into the local colors of a national bildungsroman.

Alai’s Native-Place Ethnography: Re/locating Tibet?
Yiyan Wang, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Alai, the Tibetan writer from Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, has produced three major novels: Red Poppies (1999), Empty Mountains (2004) and King Gesar (2009). The first two novels are set in his native place Aba and they document the modern history of local Tibetan villages, especially how the fabrics of Tibetan society and community structure are permanently changed by the impact of the arrival of the Chinese and the Chinese state intervention in the 20th century. The third novel is a rewriting of the Tibetan epic poem, King Gesar and, to a large extent, a Tibetan national story. Interestingly, the Ancient Tibetan kingdom “gLing” lies between the Yangtze River and the Yalung River, currently in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan. Alai’s location of Tibet’s cultural and historical centre in West Sichuan poses important questions. Is it plausible to pluralize local Tibet? What does it mean that the birth place of Tibet itself was in the geographically distant East (of the Great Tibet)? What is the implication that for many Tibetans home is not Lhasa and its surrounding areas of “Tibet proper” but in places where Tibetan villages always have had other ethnic residents? Is this a Tibetan writer proactively seeking Chinese recognition by writing exotic Tibetan stories in Chinese for a Chinese readership? Is his native place narrative ethnography of the “Tibetan minority nationality” or the Tibetan historiography of Chinese colonization? This paper seeks to demonstrate how Alai’s native place configuration is rather mischievous: not only does it reinvent Tibetan local stories but it also invokes what and where “Tibet” is.

Mosuo Identity in “Nu’er Guo”: Toward Theorizing Ethnotourism, Authenticity and Place
Eileen R. Walsh, University of Sydney, USA

The Chinese state and media representations have made Mosuo territory of southwest China a site of travellers’ desire, and grown a booming tourism industry at Lugu Lake, an area now dubbed “The Women’s Kingdom”. The cultural characteristics China’s Maoist government tried to change in the Mosuo ethnic group are now celebrated as markers of Mosuo uniqueness and value, and create a compelling marketing image which has attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists to “Nu’er Guo”. The Mosuo, represented as matriarchal with free love, provide to Chinese travelers not just minority difference, but the fantasy of a place of radical sexual escape from Confucian, or “civilized” standards. Identity and fantasy feed tourist interest in this area, taking advantage of an ideational slippage between matrilineal and matriarchal. Travelers to this area are usually attracted by the idea of a land of maidens and a chance to be an adventurer seducer, or a land of wise old mothers and a harmonious sharing society. I discuss the dynamics of tourism at Lugu Lake, and the effects this has had on how locals discuss Mosuo identity. Tourism, and in particular ethnic tourism, makes it quite difficult for locales such as Lugu Lake, and those who live in them, to escape the centre in constructions of the local and even of the self. Whether national, commercial or international markets or media regimes, these larger regimes create a norm, as well as a normative otherness that is present and demands attention, that filters into Mosuo writings and discussions.

Scripture Rounds at Moerduo Mountain: Spatial Practice and Embodied Text
Xinjian Xu, Sichuan University, China

This paper combines analysis based on long-term anthropological fieldwork with textual examinations. It studies the Kangding region Tibetan tradition of scripture rounds at the sacred Moerduo Mountain in Sichuan Province, together with local legends and mountain gazetteers. It will study this practice as the construction of a spatial relationship between the human, the natural and the sacred and thus an embodied cultural text, based on age-old but nonetheless changing belief-systems. In particular, it will explore how the Danba Tibetans, through their everyday as well as the special annual ritual scripture rounds, construct a sacred space, which is differentiated from but intersects with the daily profane space, including its situation vis-à-vis the oppressive political and social regimes. The discussion will highlight how this local and indigenously developed tradition refers simultaneously to different worlds and different religious and cultural systems, while being lived through daily in the complexity of the local and the bigger world.

Provincial Republicanism and the Local Epic
Yi Zheng, University of Sydney, Australia

Li Jieren (1891-1962)’s historical trilogy The Great Waves (1937) is best described as a “spatial-descriptive” epic of a geographic region. This presentation will demonstrate how in Li’s expansive, ever-going narrative sequences the minutiae of Late Qing and Early Republican gentry activism, plebian movements, social upheavals and daily life in and around the city of Chengdu refuses to settle into the local colors of a national bildungsroman. Li’s original ambition is to document Chengdu’s “changes in social life and institutions, as well as the evolution of social mentalities” from the late 19th century up to the time in which he lived and wrote. In its commitment to chronicle changes of a particular locale, the novel recreates the becoming of an emplaced modern urbanity. However, the process of this world change Li’s sprawling epic depicts, of which the burgeoning republicanism among the local gentry is a part, cannot be subsumed into the process of the National Republican Revolution. It is linked, as much as the inland provincial city’s changing urban life, to worlds beyond the rivers and across the sea, while at the same time rooted in the dramatic recent development of age-old regional economic, social and cultural networks. Formally, Li’s epic-chronicle which combines the French panoramic novel with traditional Chinese episodic novelistic structures that allow divergent mini-dramas, wayward plots and arrays of side characters accords no place for the becoming of a modern Chinese subject in a national temporal progression.