- In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border by Tenzin Jinba
This is, in many respects, an exemplary piece of interpretive ethnography, providing an intimately detailed interpretation of the construction and uses of a legendary royal matriarchal ancestry (Eastern Queendom), involving mainly male representatives of rival shaoshu minzu from Tibetan subgroups in Danba County, in Sichuan Province. Their context is that of a marginalizing, state-imposed ethno-religious classificatory system. The monograph has been both a pleasure to review and, at the same time, a source also of some tantalizing, arguably underexplored, questions. Tenzin Jinba’s representation of political causes, construction of historical narrative, and of changemakers as bargaining for identity and share of China’s wealth reveals little of local women as political participants as opposed to their use as convenient symbolic markers of identity. The promise of a focus on the politics of gender and ethnicity contained in the subtitle of the monograph is stronger in its exploration of male-led politics within the public sphere of ethnic and economic influences and adversarial relations than of female agency and action. The accounts of interactions between state and intermediary state agencies, between representatives of local village and local government interests, between individual protagonists—that is, male protagonists—carving out mutually hostile territories of Queendom heritage are evoked in rich descriptions and depicted in wonderfully close minutia. This contrasts with the thin accounts of women where they occur, revealing the gendered nature of all research and researcher subjects.
Tenzin marks three influences on this study as noteworthy. First, his status as a Gyarong/Tibetan native and this close-up portrayal of social change and changemakers [End Page 99] which clearly demonstrate the privilege that may be derived from an insider position; second, Victor Turner’s concept of liminality; and third, James Scott’s work on resistance strategies by subordinate groups (p. xiv). The aim of the study is “to show that ethnicity is just one of the multiple identities of the locals and doesn’t matter to them all the time” (p. xiv) but can play into, and be used for, a negotiation of claims and local interests (such as the claim to a direct ancestral link with the Eastern Queendom).
The study’s core narrative—at the heart of lively local disputes—is constituted by rival claims to membership of, and descent from, a legendary matriarchal, non-Tibetan royal lineage and to sole representation of the “Ancient Capital of the Eastern Queendom.” The insider’s ethnographic lens provides a penetrating closeup of the Suopo community. The Suopo people, according to Tenzin, pride themselves on a culture of masculinity that is associated with their membership in the Khampa, a Tibetan subgroup. Such pride sits oddly, so Tenzin remarks, with the vociferous claims by the most vocal combatants to descent from a matriarchal lineage. Moreover, given Suopo striving for identification with Tibetanness, ancestry reaching back to a distant lineage of non-Tibetan queens would hardly help their cause. In a volatile context of rivalry, resistance and underhand strategies, Suopo people’s contention with their main rival—the neighboring township of Zhonglu—over the most indisputable link with the Eastern Queendom provides the political and relational fuel for a fascinating narrative of human interest to feed a long-running soap opera. Yet, make no mistake, this is an in-depth and nuanced ethnography, exploring carefully relations between a marginalize people, the central state, and local government, unpacking with great subtlety and perception the adversarial relationship with representatives of intermediary level government and the contrastive high regard for the distant central authorities in Beijing. Marginalized by the state’s ethnic and Tibetan policies, and doubly marginalized as a subgroup of the Tibetans and as not quite authentic Zangzu, it is nevertheless this very process of marginalization that allows for Suopo people...