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  • Introduction to “Frontier Tibet:Trade and Boundaries of Authority in Kham”

This special issue of Cross-Currents focuses on the region of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands that Tibetans call Kham: a historical frontier where several spheres of authority have competed, expanded or retracted, and sometimes overlapped. It has long constituted a buffer zone between the larger political entities of Central Tibet and China proper, and is an area that crosses cultural, ecological, and political boundaries.

Kham is one of three traditional divisions of the geographical space that makes up what is often called “cultural Tibet” or “ethnographic Tibet,” together with the central region of Ü-Tsang and the northeastern region of Amdo (see map 1). What makes the history of eastern Tibet special, as Wim van Spengen and Lama Jabb (2009, 7) have rightly argued, is its “relative location” vis-à-vis China and Central Tibet, an in-betweenness that make it a “contingent region” (Tsomu 2015, 1), both an interface and a place in its own right. Despite evidence of the relative autonomy—or even sometimes independence—of the disjointed polities that have made up Kham throughout history, its intermediate location and relationship with the neighboring centers of power have contributed to its evolving topology.

The articles in this special issue of Cross-Currents stem from a collaborative project called “Territories, Communities, and Exchanges in the Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands.”1 Within the framework of this research project, the authors whose work appears here have avoided naturalizing any particular definition of Kham—although it is an inescapably endogenous category. [End Page 209] Regions are the products of contested historical and socio-spatial processes. In Kham, influences from multiple centers have been exercised with varying intensity, and belongings and allegiances themselves have been multiple and variable. As Peter Perdue (2005, 41) contended, “the frontier zone was a liminal space where cultural identities merged and shifted, as peoples of different ethnic and linguistic roots interacted for common economic purposes.” These liminal areas can be seen as “microcosms,” as Nicola Di Cosmo and Don J. Wyatt (2003) have proposed, where cultures and identities are constantly recomposed. In this issue, we adopt a multipolar approach to the adaptive and intrinsically mixed properties of border areas, which goes against unitary visions of China or Tibet. In doing so, we highlight the time-specific processes that took place in the history of this frontier, especially from the eighteenth century onward.

Map 1. Geographical location of Kham. Source: Created by Rémi Chaix, based on data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).
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Map 1.

Geographical location of Kham.

Source: Created by Rémi Chaix, based on data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).

In order to decipher the processes that unfolded on the frontier, it is necessary to look closely at a wide range of issues, including migration, ethnic demographics, trade networks, indigenous notions of power or potency, political negotiations, political administration, and dissemination of knowledge about the frontier. This collective endeavor historicizes the frontier enterprise and brings to the fore aspects of state-building policies and processes [End Page 210] of territorialization manifest on both the Tibetan and Chinese sides. Perhaps more importantly, it seeks to lend greater visibility to the agency of local actors—as well as non-Han actors—in their varied responses to, and involvements and negotiations with, these “civilizing projects” and forces of change (Harrell 1995a; Shneiderman 2006).

The contributions in this issue focus on the period from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, when this “frontier Tibet” formed a middle ground in which local communities, the central Tibetan government (Ganden Phodrang), the Chinese imperial government (Qing), and later the republican authorities negotiated means of accommodation and established new institutions and practices. Against this historical background, the articles address questions of economic history, cultural interchange, and political legitimation and contestation at critical historical junctures. They show in particular how historical developments in trade and commerce are interlaced with notions of wealth and value, and linked to political control and authority.2 Together they bring new, ethnographically oriented historical studies into the arena of theoretical approaches to borderlands and corridors of contact.

In what follows, I highlight some of the main threads that tie the articles together. The articles do not...

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