New Nomads of the Socialist Economy

A review of Des bergers sans troupeau: Les nouveaux nomades de l’économie socialiste de marché en Amdo-Qinghai (RPC) (Shepherds Without a Herd: The New Nomads of the Socialist Economy in Amdo-Qinghai (PRC)), by Elisa Cencetti.

This dissertation analyzes changes in contemporary Chinese society through an examination of territorial strategies and settlement of Tibetan shepherds in the Amdo region of Qinghai province, focusing particularly on the development of settlement policies and the building of housing estates. It consists of four parts: the first part (pp. 50-187) presents the historical and political context of the study; the second part describes the everyday life of Tibetan shepherds in a new housing estate (pp. 188-334); the third part examines biographies and careers of two people who have decided to settle in housing estates (pp. 336-419); the fourth part analyses the strategies of three people who are managing hybrid lifestyles between settlement in housing estates and pastoral nomadic life in mountain pastures (pp.420-535). The dissertation also includes a rich glossary (pp. 554-567) and a list of references (pp. 568-586).

A significant feature of this dissertation is that the author conducted 15 months of fieldwork during 2009 and 2010. Using both Chinese and Tibetan, she built productive working relationships with the informants, especially with women shepherds. According to the reflexive anthropology of Jean Bazin and Alban Bensa, the author’s narrative prism tries to restore an approach “close to the fieldwork.” This objective is evident in the dissertation’s structure, zooming in from a macro perspective to micro-analysis, ending with individuals’ life stories. This approach is also emphasized with quotations of the author’s ethnographical notes at the beginning of each chapter that explains her feelings, experiences or events.

In the introduction (pp.16-49), the author discusses the relevant literature about the Tibetan nomads’ settling process, particularly the special issue of Nomadic People (vol.9 [1-2], 2005), devoted to pastoralism in post-socialist Asian countries, and the researches of Caroline Humphrey and David Sneath, such as The End of Nomadism? (Cambridge, White Horse, 1999). Then she describes her hypotheses and questions. The author’s first question analyzes the relationships between state politics and Tibetan shepherds, as well as between nomadic and settled shepherds. The second question is concerning how settled shepherds are adapting their behaviors to their new location by moving between several places and thus creating a new form of nomadism. Hypotheses related to these both questions are accorded to Michel Foucault’s theories of heterotopias and territorial control (Le corp utopique, suivi de les hétérotopies, Ed. Lignes, Paris, [1966] 2009, and Surveiller et punir: la naissance de la prison, Gallimard, Paris, [1975] 2004). The author’s third question highlights how the everyday life of Tibetan shepherds has been shaped by their adjustment to new housing estates. It is based on James Scott’s theory on state governance (Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, London and New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988). Furthermore, based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu’s researches on habitus and its reproduction (Le sens pratique, Paris, Ed. de Minuit, 1980), and, on the other hand, to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Gattari’s researches on the production of individuals (Mille plateaux: capitalism et schizophrenia 2, Paris, Ed. de Minuit, 1980), a fourth theme of the dissertation is the shepherds’ resistance against the changes of their lifestyle, while opening new paths between housing estates and pastures or neighboring small cities.

The first part of the dissertation consists of three chapters. The first one presents the history of the Amdo region. The author emphasizes major historical events from the medieval period until nowadays in order to highlight the population melting-pot in the region, and how the politics of settlement of Tibetan people have evolved, with the establishment of housing estates being one of the latest strategies. The author presents linguistic characteristics of the province, impacts of significant historical events like the Mongol conquests (1206-71) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The second chapter exposes the links between the housing estates and the broader government-sponsored campaign of “Far-West Great Development (xibu da kaifa)” (2000), and the establishment of policies protecting the natural resources of the Three Gorges Dam area. Implementing the governmental protection policy of natural resources involved shepherds’ expulsion from pastures and places used to gather plants or mushrooms. The third chapter outlines the kinship system of Tibetan shepherds, and how it has changed until the present day through the description of one woman’s life story. It highlights the roles of kinship and lineages’ authority in the occupation of space and territorial organization. The author shows that Tibetan shepherds’ lives have changed after their settlement. They have easier access to industrial products, but have become more dependent on state allowances. This chapter also shows how Chinese and Tibetan conceptions of place and time coexist but also how the gap between both conceptions increases marginality of Tibetan people.

The second part analyzes heterotopias constituted by new housing estates as compared to nomadic pastures. Chapter 4 examines policies, goals and organization of housing estates for Chinese government. Moreover, it sheds light on officials’ ignorance of the shepherds’ actual living conditions in housing estates. Chapter 5 illustrates the complex coping strategies of these shepherds through the case study of a single mother living with her father. This example highlights the lack of men’s jobs and adaptation of women’s domestic activities in the housing estates. Chapter 6 focuses on home organization and the everyday life of a family. In this chapter, the author connects the microcosms of the body and house, and the macrocosms of kinship and landscape.

The third section of the dissertation examines economic changes related to the hybrid life built between housing estates and other places, pastures or neighboring cities. Chapter 7 investigates the life of a clever but low-educated shepherd who knows Chinese and therefore is able to obtain jobs in building sites or in Chinese companies. Chapter 8 explores difficulties faced by Tibetan people stemming from their education and knowledge of Chinese language and cultural mores. It underlines the gap between Tibetan young people of high and low education levels.

The fourth and final part consists of three chapters. It focuses on new strategies developed inside of lineages, between settled and nomadic members. Chapter 9 explains how seasonal activities of shepherds allow alternate residence. Moreover, this adaptation generates a new nomadic lifestyle between settled places and pastures, which are respectively connected, to industrial products and market economy and, to cattle and its products. Thus, the dissertation analyzes political reforms for settling Tibetans and conflicts linked to their application at a local level. Chapter 10 underlines how educational policies of Tibetans involve settlement, acculturation and hybridizing process. Chapter 11 highlights the dependence of housing estates inhabitants’ on state allowances and opportunities of settled life.

Elisa Cencetti’s dissertation draws meaningful conclusions from rich fieldwork data, and makes valuable contributions to Tibetan studies and the knowledge of contemporary China and Inner Asia. This work also proposes interpretations of concepts regarding nomadism and settlement that will stimulate further debate.

Gaëlle Lacaze
University of Strasbourg
CNRS-UMR7528 « Indian and Iranian Worlds »

Primary Sources

Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Laws on the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR)
Human Right Watch reports and the Human Rights Watch website;
Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies
Perspectives Chinoises
Cahiers d’Asie centrale.

Dissertation Information

EHESS, Paris. 2012. 586 pp. Dissertation originally written in French. Primary advisor: Alban Bensa.

Image: Photo of shepherds’ housing estate by author.

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