- Afterword:Why Kham? Why Borderlands? Coordinating New Research Programs for Asia
This special issue of Cross-Currents is dedicated to Kham, or Eastern Tibet, which, according to the European Research Council grant supporting these articles, can be called a “Sino-Tibetan Borderlands.”1 But why should East Asianists, including readers of this journal, care about Kham, and does it in any way help us to conceive of the region as a “borderlands”? The first question was on my mind in May 2015 as I participated in the first of two workshops devoted to Kham; the second was raised by rightfully skeptical participants—most of them experts on Kham—at the February 2016 conference in Paris that concluded this project. The two questions are related, I believe, and this afterword suggests that one possible answer to both lies in using local Kham history to push the boundaries of global borderlands studies. My goal is to argue for an approach that both frames the complexities of Kham for outsiders, including myself, and provides one (but certainly not the only) option for coordinating the diverse research agendas of Kham specialists.
Kham is a place of extraordinary complexity. As Jinba Tenzin demonstrates, the past looms large here, although it is interpreted in contradictory ways: early twentieth-century rebels might seek to restore the Qing even as their shared historical memory inspired collective actions through opposition to the Qing imperial campaigns of the 1740s. Complexity is also found in Kham’s politics and administration. As Stéphane Gros notes, Kham was for centuries a contested region in which China- and Lhasa-based regimes [End Page 440] sought influence, only to face both regional power holders (e.g., the Naxi Mu family of Lijiang) and local power holders (e.g., merchants, headmen, and monasteries) who exercised material and ritual control at the local level. The largest local power holders—often the rulers of locales such as Dergé or the leaders of major monasteries—could muster the resources to invest in major works, such as the Dergé Printing House investigated by Rémi Chaix. Local leaders also managed trade through adaptive institutions such as the achak kapa, or guozhuang, so carefully described by Yudru Tsomu. And, as with many peoples who lived outside “inner China” (neidi), Kham locals gendered their work and families in ways that differed from Chinese, and Yudru Tsomu reveals the role of female “dealmakers” in the trade town of Dartsedo.
One of the triumphs of this issue, then, is that it brings together scholars who have the linguistic and disciplinary skills to interpret the complex experiences of Kham’s peoples (Khampa, Drung, Han, European, and others), male and female, commoner and noble. This work is important because we still do not possess deep and broad understandings of Kham’s history. As in many places that fall outside the cores of Asian studies regions, Kham desperately needs experts, such as those represented here, who are—in the words of Peter Perdue, Helen Siu, and Eric Tagliacozzo (2015, 6)—“versed in the particularities of a space and tradition” to interpret Kham’s spaces and traditions for us.
But how should the space that is Kham be interpreted for nonspecialists? In introducing their trilogy-in-progress, Asia Inside Out, Perdue, Siu, and Tagliacozzo emphasize innovative approaches to Asian periodization and spaces, asking that “instead of viewing regions, cultures, and peoples as physically bounded units occupying continents and polities, we need to focus on multilayered, interactive processes” (Perdue, Siu, and Tagliacozza 2015, 6; see also Siu, Tagliacozzo, and Perdue 2015, 3). In other words, we need to break free of dominant spatial paradigms, particularly the static, ahistorical notions of national and area studies boundaries that limit the investigation of dynamic processes of movement and change. Such a call is not new, of course, but it remains important.2 However, some of the results to date have produced newly reified concepts such as Zomia (Scott 2009). Originally envisioned by Willem van Schendel as a challenge to institutionalized and essentialized Asian studies regional boundaries, Zomia was to [End Page 441] encompass the transnational highland peoples of eastern India, mainland Southeast Asia, Southwest China, and the...