A review of Alternative Development on the Tibetan Plateau: The Case of the Slaughter Renunciation Movement, by Gaerrang (Kabzung).
Gaerrang (Kabzung)’s dissertation is an engaging and nuanced account of the complex and shifting relationships between the Tibetan Buddhist revival, secular state-sponsored neo-liberal economic reforms, and the cultural transformation of contemporary Tibetan herders’ lives and livelihoods on the Tibetan Plateau. While careful to detail the larger economic, political, cultural and historical context, Gaerrang uses the case of the one village Rakhor, close to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and one contemporary religious movement, the Slaughter Renunciation Movement (which encourages herders to vow not to sell any of their yaks to the meat market for periods ranging from three years to the rest of their life) to examine the discourses and experiences of development on the Tibetan Plateau. He draws on both critical development theory and scholarly work on “engaged” Buddhism to address larger questions about the cultural politics of development in general as well as to explain the participation of Tibetan herders in a religious movement that ultimately undermines both their traditional source of income and way of life.
Gaerrang argues that Tibetan Buddhist ethics and practices become a way in which neoliberal development in China is being localized and to a certain degree contained so that it better accords with Buddhist moral understandings. He, however, is careful to point out that the success of this process is fragmentary and contested even within a single local setting. He also points to the surprising ways in which neoliberal influences and the Tibetan Buddhist revival overlap and converge, ultimately reinforcing new kinds of identities, aspirations and opportunities for Tibetan herders.
Gaerrang’s work is ethnographic in its sensibilities and methodologies. Particularly he pays attention to everyday religious practices and beliefs over textual analysis. He also uses interviews, a household survey, and analysis of recorded religious teachings to make his arguments.
The first chapter sets up the theoretical framework of the dissertation. Gaerrang discusses many of the key ideas and theories in critical development/post-development studies as well as debates around the definition of neoliberalism and the place of the state, particularly in the context of China, where the state continues to play a strong and visible role in the nation’s economy. He likens development to a kind of “cultural knot” allowing him to highlight the entangled nature of power relations as well as the multiple agents (including herders, the state and influential Buddhist religious personalities such as Khenpos) that seek to shape and define development, however, he does not downplay the power of the “persistent global penetration of capitalism” within this nexus (p. 38).
Chapter 2 offers an overview of recent economic campaigns and programs in Western China which seek to draw local Tibetan herders more tightly into the market economy. Gaerrang traces the historical, political, and economic changes that have led to an increase in local yak slaughter rates since the 1980s and shows how these reforms and policies aim to transform Tibetan herders into sedentary, secular, market-oriented Chinese citizens.
Chapter 3 looks at attempts by Tibetan Buddhist elites, particularly two influential khenpos (a title for religious hierarchs), to intervene in this on-going transformation. This intervention involves selectively correcting aspects of neoliberalism that they consider incompatible with Buddhist ethics, particularly the killing of animals for their meat. The irony that the same economic reforms leading to an increase in slaughter rates also allowed for the religious freedoms to condemn and discourage them is not lost on Gaerrang. In the beginning of this chapter, he describes both the historical changes and continuities in the long relationship between Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese authorities before turning to present day attempts on the part of Tibetan Buddhist elites to act as social agents who provide moral intervention in the face of the social transformation produced by neoliberal development. By describing several other movements led by khenpos such as the fur renunciation movement and vegetarianism, he demonstrates how they are developing their own version of neoliberalism that is encouraging Tibetan herders to change their lifestyle including what they eat, how they dress and what they consider valuable and attractive. He also points out that these khenpos explicitly aim to implement these changes in order to help herders align their lifestyles to a particular global version of Tibetan identity that imagines Tibetan Buddhists to be vegetarian and kind to all sentient beings. While khenpos deploy Buddhist concepts such as compassion, karma (laws of cause and effect) and reincarnation in teaching the value of these movements, they also use other rationales including health and environmental protection that are more modern and progressive, making it clear that their intention is not to preserve some kind of “authentic” traditional culture. Rather they are actively incorporating new forms of knowledge and thinking to create a contemporary version of Tibetan Buddhist ethics.
The fourth and fifth chapters point out that these Tibetan Buddhist interventions do not go locally uncontested. The more extreme secular neoliberal Tibetans see Buddhism as an obstacle to development but more compelling are the herders in Rakhor village who decided not to renew their Slaughter Renunciation vows for a second term allowing them to once again sell their yaks on the meat market. Gaerrang argues that while most households cited economic reasons, such as the loss of income, for their choice not to participate, far more important are the competing cultural forces, namely neoliberalism and religion that help to shape individuals and their decisions. He is not suggesting that the religious forces have failed. Rather, he argues instead that their influence has to be seen as fragmentary and contingent on other factors including kinship ties to religious personalities, access to other economic opportunities and the draw of nearby big cities. He maintains that in the end what is produced is a more “hybrid” subjectivity that shows the greater or lesser influence of both forces (p. 205).
In Chapter 6, Gaerrang demonstrates how this “hybridity” is in part assisted by the convergence and overlap between two forces particularly in the way in which they envision proper local development. For example, khenpos in an effort to imagine economic possibilities other than herding yaks encourage herders to send their children to state schools and to participate in the market economy as part-time workers and small business owners, suggestions that will ultimately incorporate them even more firmly into the market economy. Ultimately the state’s neoliberal development strategy and the khenpos religious instructions work together to reshape the lives of Tibetan herders and traditional nomadic culture.
This dissertation is an important and welcome contribution to several on-going academic debates including: the cultural politics of development, the continued interest in finding alternative development philosophies, and the increasing interest in the intersection of neoliberalism and religion.
Dolma Choden Roder
Lecturer of Sociology
Royal Thimphu College
Ethnographic participant observation
Interviews with herders, khenpos and monks, government officials and local livestock traders
Household survey of Rakhor Village (185 households)
Recorded lectures, teachings and writings of Tibetan Buddhist khenpos
Government project documents
University of Colorado Boulder. 2012. 333 pp. Primary Advisors: Emily T. Yeh and Timothy S. Oakes.
Image: Yak near Yamdrok lake, Tibet. Photograph by Dennis Jarvis. Wikimedia Commons.