In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of
Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border

By Tenzin Jinba

Reviewed by Timothy Thurston
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2016)

Tenzin Jinba. In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. ix + 170. ISBN: 978-0295993065 (hardcover) $90.00; ISBN: 978-0295993072 (paperback) $30.00

Tenzin Jinba. In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. ix + 170. ISBN: 978-0295993065 (hardcover) $90.00; ISBN: 978-0295993072 (paperback) $30.00

What makes a cultural site “authentic” in the People’s Republic of China? More important, what is the role of grassroots actors in interacting with the government to affirm or dispute this authenticity? How does this debate become central to a community’s identity on China’s culturally diverse margins? Finally, how do China’s policies related to Tibetan populations influence cultural expression on the Tibetan Plateau? Tenzin Jinba’s In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border wrestles with these important questions by examining a high stakes debate over the “true” location of the “Eastern Queendom” in Sichuan Province.

The dispute over the location of the Queendom began in May 2005, when a provocative newspaper article in a local newspaper shook Danba County.[1] The Danba County government had previously identified Zhonglu Township as the “Ancient Capital of the Eastern Queendom” (东女古都). In the article, a local cadre, identified as Uncle Pema, took umbrage with this assessment. Citing local lore, geographic features, and perceptions of Suopo’s positive valuation of women, Uncle Pema argued that Suopo Township was the Queendom’s true location. And yet, despite this stunning exposé and the support of some high profile cadres and scholars, little changed. The people of Suopo (called Suopowas) continue to harbor ill-will toward the county government for insufficiently supporting their claims, which they felt the newspaper article had substantiated. The high economic stakes involved in the designation of a cultural heritage site, set within the complex politics of the Tibetan Plateau, form the backdrop for a fascinating study of culture, identity, and politics in western China.

The book begins with a brief introduction that posits Gyarong [Rgyal rong, Jiarong 嘉绒]—both a geographic region on the Sino-Tibetan borderlands and an ethnolinguistic term for the people living there (officially identified as “Tibetan”)—as a “convergence zone”[2] at the border between the Han and Tibetan worlds. The convergence zone is a useful metaphor that captures the complexity of the situation in Gyarong, its liminality and the dynamic renegotiations where “Han and Tibetan centers coalesce, fuse and contend and where local society engages and intersects with the Han and Tibetan centers simultaneously” (8). It also provides an important conceptual foundation on which the remainder of the study relies.

Chapter 1, “Setting Foot in the Queen’s Land,” introduces the geographic, cultural, and political contexts that underpin the Queendom debate in Danba County, as well as the community itself. The author begins by introducing the historical context and current debates surrounding the Eastern Queendom. Next he introduces the field setting: Suopo Township in Danba County. Danba’s Tibetan population is primarily part of the Gyarong sub-group of Tibetans. Danba Tibetans are triply marginal in China. They are Tibetans, and therefore marginal to the majority Han ethnic group and subject to China’s minority policies (specifically, its Tibetan policy). Being Gyarong, they are geographically marginal to Tibet and, as followers of the Bon religion, Gyarong people are also marginal within greater Tibetan society, which is mostly Buddhist. Additionally, they are both linguistically and culturally marginal to other Tibetans, and many do not consider them fully Tibetan.

With this important groundwork in place, Chapter 2, entitled “Masculine and Feminine Internal Others in China,” provides an introduction to gendered portrayals of ethnicity in China through two separate case studies. The first examines Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem and its gendered portrayal of the effeminate Han learning from the masculine progeny of Genghis Khan. The second comes from with the Mosuo of Lake Lugu on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan, who are the subject of Bai Hua’s novel The Remote Country of Women (远方有个女儿国). Renowned across China for the practice of “walking marriage” (走婚), the Mosuo have become a national tourist attraction. The official discourse of traditional “matrilineal” practices combines with the popular exoticization of the Mosuo as a free-loving people uncorrupted by the civilizing restraints plaguing the Han (and Lake Lugu’s booming tourist economy) to feminize the Mosuo in the public imagination. This in turn has prompted the growth of an exploitative sex trade in the area. The Han-centric re-appropriation of ethnic minority Otherness leads Jinba to assert: “[m]inority images, whether feminized or masculinized, positive or negative, are often appropriated by the state and the Han for their own consumption and nationalist self-absorption” (57). And yet, as he shows in the following chapter, China’s ethnic minorities continue to wield agency and self-determination as they attempt to define their own images within the modern Chinese state and its dominant Han culture.

Following from the second chapter’s discussion of gender and ethnicity in China, Chapter 3, “From the Valley of Beauties to the Eastern Queendom,” turns the focus on the Gyarong in Danba County, where the Eastern Queendom debate continues to rage. In particular, Jinba describes how Suopo villagers consciously evaluate the “Valley of Beauties” narrative—in which Danba County is promoted as the Most Beautiful Countryside in China (中国最美丽的乡村) and the government organizes a Gyarong Charm Festival (嘉绒风情节) punctuated by a beauty contest—for both its positive and negative aspects. They are particularly conscious of how this narrative compares with the hypermasculinity for which nearby Khampa communities are famed. Suopo’s residents take pride in the suggestion that Danba is a Valley of Beauties and make reference to it in conversations. At the same time, however, Suopowas resist the moral depravity often associated with highly sexualized minority stereotypes in the popular (Han) imagination. Thus, the Eastern Queendom narrative can be deployed as a dignified foil to the exotic characteristics of the “Valley of Beauties” narrative.

Chapter 4 moves from county-level machinations to grassroots politics at the township level. Entitled “The Queendom and Grassroots Politics,” it examines the role of local Tibetan elites who deploy their social capital and resources to channel popular expressions of discontent with the Queendom narrative. Some of these local elites are affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. Others are not. Lest readers mistake their discontentment with broader Tibetan independence movements, the author takes care to note that Gyarong Tibetan villagers in Suopo do not seek independence; instead, like many Han throughout China, they seek to protect their legal rights by re-appropriating the Chinese state’s own discourses and policies. Of particular interest to Tibetan elites in Suopo is the case of Dongfeng Village, a newly built village inhabited almost exclusively by Han Chinese. The anti-mining activism among the ethnic Han in Dongfeng Village provides inspiration for Suopo Tibetans as they advocate for the Queendom. The Queendom struggle, then, is seen to be intricately related to other grassroots political movements across the country, with elites playing an important role in this process.

Singling out an even smaller microcosm, the fifth chapter, entitled “The Moluo Tourism Association: How Far to Go?,” focuses on the creation of a tourism association in a single village in Suopo Township. Far from a monolithic body, the Moluo Tourism Association is a political unit composed of eight carefully selected members: teachers, businessmen, and cadres. Each member is a personally motivated social actor, inserting their own particular interests into the work of the Association. But the common thread uniting them is a concern with how far they should go in taking their grievances to higher authorities. The Moluo Tourism Association’s members have no desire to be associated with Tibetan separatists, nor do they wish to meet the same fate as a tourism association in nearby Jiaju, which was shut down after running afoul of the local government.

The book ends with a brief conclusion reflecting on the marginality of Suopo Township and development of the Queendom discourse. The author reads the Queendom discourse as both a struggle against local officials and an attempt by local Tibetans to reshape the image of Tibetans in the national discourse. At the same time, the notion of the convergence zone is used to argue that Suopo Tibetans utilize their marginality as a resource to move between the Han and Tibetan worlds. However, their strategic marginality does not mean that their choices are freely made so much as made within historically and culturally determined configurations of the social, economic, and political status quo.

Through his carefully researched ethnography, Jinba provides important insights into tourism and cultural heritage issues in China. In doing so, he shows that the economic and cultural stakes of cultural heritage and tourism are very high indeed. He also complicates our understanding of China’s ethnic minorities as well as the government’s relationships to ethnic minorities and China’s autonomous regions. The government at the grassroots level of Danba County, for example, is shown to be comprised of a diverse body of individuals. These local officials retain considerable flexibility in asserting their own interests. This, in turn, inspires considerable local discontent, although Jinba is careful to point out that not all local discord should be read as discontent with the central government or its policies.

In the Land of the Eastern Queendom is written in an accessible, engaging style; undergraduates, graduates, and scholars will find much food for thought in this compact book. Its brevity, however, is not without drawbacks. Despite the work’s many strengths, it would have benefitted from some extra theoretical and ethnographic exegesis to help clarify some of the complex issues muddying the waters of this otherwise excellent and topical ethnography.

Tibetologists, for example, might appreciate a closer examination of how a Gyarong population comes to speak the Kham dialect of Tibetan, and how this either relates them to or distinguishes them from other Gyarong populations in China. They will also likely find problems with the suggestion that all other Tibetans are Buddhists while Gyarong Tibetans follow the Bon religion. The situation is more complicated, with Bon populations scattered across the Tibetan plateau and a few Buddhist communities in Gyarong. More recently, many Tibetans have begun describing Bon as a sect of Buddhism, and some of the old animosities observed by Jinba may be undergoing changes as Tibetans seek to unite.

Additionally, more careful and detailed examinations of the concepts and dynamics of tourism and heritage processes in China would have benefitted readers interested in Chinese studies and folklore studies. For example, the term “authentic” appears (sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not) so often throughout the work that one wonders why Jinba chose not to engage with the related notions of authenticity—including topics like fakelore—in anthropology, folkoristics, and other fields concerned with these concepts and issues.

These qualifications notwithstanding, like other books in the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China series, In the Land of the Eastern Queendom brilliantly brings to life an understudied ethnic population and some of the critical issues it is facing. It also adds much-needed complexity to discussions of ethnic minority relations with (and within) the Chinese government. It will interest scholars of cultural heritage, grassroots politics in China, China’s ethnic minorities, and a number of other research areas.

Timothy Thurston
Smithsonian Institution, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

[1] Entitled “The Capital of the Eastern Queendom Comes to Light,” no further citation is given.

[2] The concept, appropriated from ecological discourse, highlights the significance of cultural borderlands both as marginalized spaces and as potential sites of transcultural dialogue. Drawing from such theorists as Bhabha and Hannerz, Jinba invokes the convergence zone to embrace the hybridity and creolization of the border areas without painting over the distinctive features of Gyarong identity.