Networks and Nomadism in Present-Day Inner Mongolia: The Evenki of China

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A review of Échanges marchands, réseaux relationnels et nomadisme contemporain chez les Evenk de Chine (Mongolie-Intérieure) (Trade exchanges, relation networks and contemporary nomadism among the Evenki of China (Inner Mongolia), by Aurore Dumont.

The processes of nomads’ regaining the minimum level of cultural autonomy and agency have become complicated as a result of closing their nomadic life space and state attempts to force nomadic communities to live a “modern life.” Relationships between nomadic cultures and modern states are marked with a seeming contradiction between visions of threat created by official discourses and real practice of limiting nomadic or post-nomadic communities’ autonomy. The character and scale of the projected threat depends on a temporal scale referred to – if historically a military and civilizational nature of that endangerment was emphasized, nowadays the nomads-generated risk is viewed as more political (separatism), ecological and social (backwardness). Borderline location makes the situation even more dramatic, adding new fears to the above-mentioned list, i.e., the ones connected with frontier disloyalty and nomads’ limited influence on their diasporas living outside the border. What does it mean to be a “nomad” in the reality of a modern-state frontier? How is it defined? What do “mobility,” “local economy,” and spatiality of nomadic life mean in the age of global economy?

Aurore Dumont’s doctoral dissertation, taking into account historical and geographical factors, offers an analysis of the social consequences of the policy aimed at modernizing Evenki nomadic communities in Inner Mongolia. The Evenki are one of the most dispersed nations in the world. The Evenki communities have been facing the dilemma of choosing the ways to enter modernity as well as the problem of adapting themselves to the quickly changing social and economic reality of the countries they live in (i.e., Russia and China). The dispersion, acculturation, and internal differentiation have resulted in the weakness of their “own” administrative structures and the lack of centers generating common cultural patterns. Échanges marchands, réseaux relationnels et nomadisme contemporain chez les Evenk de Chine (Mongolie-Intérieure) is an ethnographic study of the Chinese Evenki adaptation to their changing economic, political, and social environment analyzed from the perspectives of spatiality (mobility), local economy (commodity exchange) and  social structure (relations networks). The three latter issues have determined both the structure of the dissertation and the research methodology used by its author.

Aurore Dumont intentionally avoids an a historical attitude towards the analyzed communities, i.e., treating them as isolated from the traditional nomadic world and emphasizes the existence of numerous variants of nomadism, spaces of mobility, and models of economic cooperation. Historical and geographical factors are considered equally important as political and social ones, and studied following the best examples of the French ethnographic school. The author very thoroughly analyzes the Chinese, Russian, and Mongolian contexts of Evenki-ness in China, emphasizing the symbiotic and open character of nomads’ culture. The main feature of the author’s approach is her concentration on the overlapping and interrelations of state and nomadic ways of interpreting and adapting space, the state methods of codifying cultures and their local variations, the state ideas regarding nomads’ proper economic practice, and the local survival strategies that creatively combine formal and informal economies.

The introductory chapter (chapitre liminaire) presents the genealogy of the current ethnic terminology and cultural diversity of the Chinese Evenki communities. The author consistently describes the coexistence and mutual influences between the two essential economic cultures based on the communities’ existence in the woods and in the steppe. The first part of the dissertation reflects upon historical and spatial conditions of the present nomads’ situation in the region. Additionally, it presents the Evenki situation in comparison with that of other nomadic communities and the two main settled Inner Mongolian communities (the Chinese and the Chinese Russians), emphasizing the interrelated and dynamic character of the emergent Evenki identity. The attempts of socialist modernization of the northern part of Inner Mongolia radically changed the conditions in which the local nomadic communities had been functioning, both in economic and cultural respects. Indicating the consequent process of nomad “domestication” by the state, the author shows the process of nomads’ inclusion in the modern models of territory and population control through spatial limitation, institutionalization of the local social structures, and promoting new state-established subjects – first nomads as socialist workers and then as active participants in the neoliberal economy, emphasizing de-nomadization, ecology, and tourism.

The second part of the dissertation demonstrates the modern forms of nomadism. The author concentrates on the ways nomads use nomadic and sedentary spaces to show different models of representation of both people and spaces. In a complex way she presents two interrelated processes, i.e., the state’s rewriting nomadic territories employing the useful categories of ownership regimes, administrative divisions and unification on the one hand; and the recurring adaptation of territories by the Evenki according to their own categories of openness and exploitation. This dissertation presents the two competing, but parallel models of space adaptation in a complex, but clear way. Adapting to new conditions caused significant changes in all aspects of nomads’ lives, which was shown through the structural and cultural evolution of a nomadic camp. The second part of the thesis also includes an analysis of new mobility models. It presents the relationship between nomads and space using the idea of reduced mobility, and pays special attention to the transfer of mobility to spheres that are not directly connected with herding. Thanks to this, the reader is offered the possibility to look at the possibility of adjusting nomadic cultures to the state’s sedentary ambitions from a wider perspective.

The third and last part of the dissertation is devoted to the economic and social aspects of cooperation between the analyzed communities and their surrounding Chinese environment. On the one hand, Evenki survival strategies combine formal and informal economies, as well as money-based and barter transactions, on the other, however, the existence of the former depends directly on the skills of building interpersonal relationships (guanxi) displayed by the Evenki both inside their community and with the Chinese and Mongolians. Studying the Evenki models of adaptation the author discovered the common logic of herding practices, barter, and relationship development. This in turn proves a possibility of nomadic communities’ dynamic adaptation to radical limitations of their access to territories.

It is worth emphasizing that the author managed to keep the balance between the analyses of the progressing global de-nomadization in Inner Asia and the consistent attempts of nomadic communities to adapt the existing legal and economic situation to their own culture and lifestyles. Describing and conceptualizing historicized and currently changing “2.0” nomadism constitute the main objectives of the dissertation. They offer some hope of wider employment of dynamic approaches in nomadism studies that would take into account constant interactions between the state and the settled and nomadic communities. Through historical investigation of the Chinese ethnic policy in the area, fieldwork research, and some theoretical intervention the author makes an important contribution to the growing field of Inner Asian studies. She describes the appearance of new models of nomadism strictly dependent on the contemporary cultural policy, global economy and access to territories.

Ivan Peshkov
Department of History
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan
i.peshkov@wp.pl

Primary Sources
Fieldwork conducted between 2008 and 2014 in Hulunbuir area (Inner Mongolia, China)

Dissertation Information
École pratique des hautes études, Paris, 2014, 452 pp. Primary Advisor: John Lagerwey.

Image: Reindeer camp, Galaya, Inner Mongolia, 2009. Photo by author

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