Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book Review: "In The Land of The Eastern Queendom" by Tenzin Jinba

In Land of the Eastern Queendom, Tenzin
Jinba: University of Washington, 2014.
A matriarchy with Amazon-like superwomen on the ancient Tibetan plateau? Could the old Tibetan reference to Shar Rgyalmorong (“eastern valley of the queen”) be something more than a myth after all? Alone the idea is galvanising. However, discovering it in a real place and in our time exceeds all expectations. Thanks to Tenzin Jinba the world now knows: The mythical women's kingdom of old is for real. It can be found in present-day Danba county in Ganzi prefecture, Sichuan province, China.

Is it for real?

"In the Land of the Eastern Queendom" is the story of how a marginalised Tibetan region of today’s Kham proclaims itself the heir to the legendary women’s kingdom. In the process, they establish an identity for themselves and also improve the local economy by attracting tourists. It is the story of how all players - the state, community elders, village folks, local tourism administrators and county chiefs – forge a pact on the myth of the Queendom, bordering on obsession. At times, the account reminded me of a parody: In the movie "Waking Ned Devine", an old man in a remote Irish village dies of a heart attack soon after learning he won the lottery. The entire village then teams up pretending the winner is still alive and goes on to share in the fortunes.

In Eastern Queendom too, people work together to keep up an appearance. Danba elders, for example, deploy all their linguistic and cultural skills to reinterpret toponyms, historic events and folk tales so these give credibility to the Queendom legend. Villagers join in the party by recounting an episode where Chairman Mao visited Danba in the 1950s and was received by three famous female village heads who the community claimed descended from Queens. In their eagerness to claim the Queendom pie for themselves, individual villages in the county also try to outdo each other by competing for the title of "the true capital of the Queendom". Seriously and ferociously, they lobby the authorities to enlist official endorsement and designation.

Danba sits in the Tibetan periphery where far
western Kham and southern Amdo converge. 
The county forms part of larger area traditionally 
known as Gyalrong (also Gyarong and Jiarong)
The author also shows how locals make use of the Queendom label to defend their pedigree vis-à-vis the neighbouring Khampas, who are said to look down on the Danba Tibetans or the Gyalrongwa in general, for not being "real Khampas" due to their mixed ethnicity and an unintelligible dialect pejoratively referred to as log skad or “gibberish”. The Danba Tibetans counter the prejudice by invoking the Queendom myth: Not only are they real Khampas, but they are of superior stock because of the supreme position of women in their society. The argument effectively adds to the superwomen lore and works both within the context of a post-gender society and the socialist gender perspective. Within the context of the macho Khampa narrative however, the Queendom argument is paradoxical and self-defeating, as the author notes. Nevertheless, he acknowledges with amazement how the people of Danba invoke it so undeterred and in such unison.

Another invention deployed to cement Danba women as the rightful heirs to the royal lineage are the annual beauty contests, which attracts tourists from far and wide. Danba has an unusually high percentage of good-looking women, so the story goes, and this is once again attributed to “royal descent.” The author mentions however that during his entire field research trip in Danba, the beauty queens were the only female actors visible in the Queendom campaign. If Danba ladies really descended from queens, the author asks, why aren't they in the lead in what must be a larger campaign to reclaim their rights? Slowly but surely, a most promising female power narrative circles around a lapidary physical beauty contest. The book ends with the author concluding somewhat heavy-heartedly that it is impossible to validate the kingdom of women in Danba. In the end, too many things just do not add up.

 “Eastern Queendom” contains important lessons but without more context, readers may put the work aside as a curious niche topic within the larger field of Tibetan and Chinese studies, a tragicomical account about a peripheral place without a larger significance. After all, what is Gyalrong famous for in Tibetan history? The only two people I have come across in my readings are the 14th-century Buddhist friar Tsako Ngawang Drakpa, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa and the contemporary writer Alai,whose book "Gesar" I reviewed earlier in the year.

Yet "In the Land of the Eastern Queendom" is not just an oddly exotic story about a remote, heavily sinicised Tibetan area, where identities along with the meaning of toponyms are switched at will in exchange for profits from tourism. In my eyes, the most striking aspect about the Queendom is that it works despite the absurdity. It works for naïve Chinese tourists, shrewd bureaucrats, savvy locals and also for the state which uses it to bolster its propaganda about ethnic harmony. While the charade may cause only blank headshaking from external observers, from a local perspective, the Queendom is an unmistakable golden-egg laying goose.

What is important to realise here is that the goose has "relatives" in other Tibetan areas along the frontier with similar narratives. Herein lies the larger significance of Tenzin Jinba's work in Danba. As chance would have it, I am female, Tibetan and hail from a frontier family myself. Many observations made in Eastern Queendom resonate with me as I see them being played out in my hometown as well. To this larger context of the Queendom story, I would now like to add a few thoughts.

Whenever Tenzin Jinba detected yet another contradiction in the Queendom narrative, I was secretly hoping that Danba could still be the women’s kingdom. However, when he mentioned that nobody in the area had even heard of such a place prior to 2004, my alarm bells began to ring: The story began to sound familiar! As the author reveals, the "Queendom" idea was hatched by the head of the Propaganda Department of the Ganzi Prefecture. The official “saw proof” in Danba's architectural style as well as local customs and rituals.

Popular Amdo singer Drönbe on her album "The Cluster of Golden Stars" (2009) depicted in what looks to me like a Gyalrong ladies Chupa - said to be beautiful and worthy of a queen. The marketing strategy seems to work.

The way the Queendom was "discovered" in Danba county happened in the same manner "Shangri-La" was discovered in Zhongdian county of the Diqing prefecture. Prior to 2001, the locals of this Tibetan region in Yunnan had no inkling either that they were the last paradise. State-hired scholars then “proved” that the setting in "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton was in fact the Zhongdian plains.

Suddenly more parallels jumped to my eye. A conspicuous one was Tenzin Jinba's story about Danba elders' linguistic pipe dreams. They were reminiscent of the mindboggling linguistics applied in Zhongdian to cement the case that they were "Shangri-La". While in the Queendom, it is two villages quarreling over who gets to be the capital city, in "Shangri-La" it was two counties, Zhongdian and Lijiang, contesting the title. In the case of "Shangri-La" too, the evident inconsistencies have not stopped the hype. If visitor statistics can be trusted, the place receives more tourists every year than the whole of the Tibet Autonomous Region combined.

In "Mapping Shangri-La – Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands" (2014), Emily Yeh and Chris Coggins poignantly summarise the general mechanism how tourism development unfolds in Tibetan frontier regions. Their observations are valuable in that they apply also to Danba and the Queendom: The state portions "Tibet" top-down into non-threatening, consumable pieces of Tibetanness for domestic tourists. The "product" is packaged with an official storyline, official sites to visit and official things to do. Tourism in the Sino-Tibetan fringe is guided and orchestrated with visitors "educated" along the official narrative. Personal discovery off the beaten track is not part of this package. The commodification process is duped "Shangrilazation" and has become the default tourism approach for many Tibetan areas in the fringes. Zhongdian "Shangri-La" is the prototype with others following such as "Little Tibet" in Gannan (Labrang) and "Yading Shambala"(Joseph Rock's Konkaling) to mention but the better known ones.

From an absolute perspective, places like the ones mentioned above including the Queendom are gradually exposed as faux. From a relative perspective however, I propose we do not discard the obvious material rewards too quickly. Thanks to tourism, locals can tap new sources of income as hoteliers, restaurateurs, tour guides, drivers, performers, meditation teachers, language teachers, and so forth. The hospitality industry has created attractive alternative jobs to traditional agriculture, which also takes some pressure off the land. While Chinese tourism inevitably brings undesired effects and a strain on the local culture and environment, it is noteworthy however that some locals manage to appropriate the myth to work precisely for environmental conservation and cultural protection.

Paradoxically, Shangrilazation has also led to a revival of Tibetan culture in some border towns with locals beginning to show a renewed interest in their Tibetan heritage, the written language as well as Buddhism. That these results are achieved in the name of a fictitious place should not diminish the tangible merits. My hypothesis is that it is precisely due to the infantile, politically non-threatening cloak of a Chinese-created fictitious Tibetan place that cultural revival and environmental work becomes possible in the first place.

From a local perspective therefore, Shangrilazation is not the worst of all worlds. Especially when we think back of what the Chinese thought of Tibetans and their culture only a few decades earlier. Who would have expected Tibet to become a dream destination for them? When was the last time Tibetans under China had some degree of freedom to pursue and express their cultural and religious identity? Where else in the Tibetan areas is it possible today to engage in cultural activities without immediately being suspected of ulterior political motives, if not in the “Disneyfied” places?

This is not to say that Shangrilized Tibetan places do not face the same problems as other Tibetan areas. Political repression, external domination, loss of culture and crisis of identity are omnipresent worries as Tibetans struggle to find a halfway decent modus operandi while hoping for better times. As the author highlights in connection with the two Danba villages that contend over who gets to be the capital of the Qeendom: Political repression is a sword of Damocles with locals having to walk a fine line: "If the queedom dispute were labled a political riot, all their efforts would be rendered meaningless (p. 75)." But while the challenges in Danba are the same as in other Tibetan areas, the interesting point is how the Gyalrongwa deal with them. The idea of the Queendom is undoubtedly orchestrated top down, but it is important to acknowledge that locals too are heavily involved with many at the forefront actively shaping and implementing it according to their own ideas rather than impassively standing beside or even opposing it.

Last but not least the question about political allegiance: What can be said about frontier Tibetans with regard to their political orientation? Tenzin Jinba sounds stressed that some Tibetans perceive the Gyalrongwa as politically indifferent and "Chinese". The author, a Gyalrong native himself, retorts they are proud of their Tibetan heritage, but that this pride does not automatically include support for political protests. He consults a reputable Lama-friend to find out more about the reasons for Danba's political abstinence whereupon the Buddhist dignitary cites "practical concerns" and "secularization".

In my view, we would also have to add "historical neglect by the centre" to account for the emotional distance: Whatever nation-building efforts may have been undertaken by Lhasa in the old days, they did not penetrate to the periphery. The political reality in the borderlands was simultaneously overlapping and with multiple centres of power. There were the local Tibetan leaders, there were provincial warlords, there was the representative of the emperor in China and later the Nationalist government; finally, there usually was a prominent monastery affiliated with a mother institution in Central Tibet through which the Dalai Lama made his influence felt. To safeguard local interests in this complex power matrix, frontier Tibetans have moved in and out of one culture, adapting their outlook to best suit the times and circumstances.

In the case of Gyalrong, the diverse ethnicity, particular linguistics as well different religious orientations are additional factors that distinguish them from the pack. In Tibet proper we have an ethnically bi-polar situation of Tibetans neatly on one side and Chinese on the other. In the periphery however, the delimitations are less clear as Tibetans have been living side by side with the Chinese and other ethnic groups for centuries. In Gyalrong in particular, ethnic intermarriage has been common, which makes the Gyalrongwa stand out even among frontier brethren. It is therefore safe to assume that the point of departure for ethnic identity and allegiance differs from other Tibetan areas. Using ethno-nationalist slogans of "one flesh, one blood" alone to distinguish Tibetans as we are prone to do in exile and also in the border areas of Kham and Amdo, will inevitably fall short and only reinforces internal differences. In the Sino-Tibetan fringes, ethnicity and language look more like one among several rather than the sole decisive factor.

And while some perceive the people of Danba or the Gyalrongwa in general as bogus Tibetans, sober-minded Westerners may perceive places like the Queendom as too Disneylandish. For the Chinese overlords on the other hand, the Queendom and other creations along the frontier are Tibetan enough for the touristic experience, easy to access and politically stable. As for the Gyalrongwa themselves, it looks to me like they are doing what many frontier Tibetans have always been doing: Using the hype, the projections and stereotypes, not taking things too seriously, and make the best of one's situation and the times. Any strategy that could eventually lead to passing on the Tibetan culture to the next generation – if only halfway intact – not only deserves but also absolutely must be explored to the fullest. In this regard, Tibetans in general may find something to learn from the experience of the frontier. Accepting these marginalized groups into our fold will make us Tibetans more resourceful and versatile on the whole.

The Queendom author is himself a role-model operating skillfully between the devil and the deep blue sea. If his work is perceived as too accommodating, the Tibetans will accuse him of collaboration. If his work is perceived as too opposing, the Chinese will accuse him of secessionism. The sociology and anthropology professor of Lanzhou University has been carefully walking a fine line, able to work with foreign universities and share his insights with readers like us. He is also going to participate in an international conference on Tibetan borders in Paris early next year as I have learnt. I wish him and the organisers all the very best of success. I hope some of the insights can be applied beyond the academic discourse to provide inspiration for a broader understanding and tolerance of what constitutes Tibetan culture and what it means to be Tibetan.

Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

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