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  • Planting and Its DiscontentsOr How Nomads Produced Spaces of Resistance in China’s Erstwhile Xikang Province
  • Mark E. Frank (bio)


Di guang ren xi—the land is vast, and people are few. This classical idiom appears in nearly every major Chinese publication on the Kham region from the early twentieth century. It figures as a sort of talking point, an apologia for China’s slow progress in modernizing its southwestern borderlands. Kham was unlike most other Chinese places. Not only did it look big on a flat map (larger than Texas by some estimates), but it also had a vertical range of over two miles, rising from the Sichuan basin to the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau. Kham’s upper reaches could not support agriculture of any kind and were populated mainly by nomadic yak herders or by no one at all. The land was vast, and the people were few.

A modern Kham needed people. In 1938 the chairman of an experimental land-reclamation project toured several counties in Sichuan Province looking for eighty farmers and one hundred stonemasons to settle Kham, which was known in Chinese as Chuanbian (the “Sichuan borderlands”) and later Xikang (“Kham in the west”). Xikang was slated to become a province of the Republic of China in 1939, but administrators faced logistical hurdles: a paucity of farms, combined with a lack of good roads and bridges, made the price of agricultural products far higher than in China’s lowland interior. Building things was more difficult at high altitude. The founder and governor of the new province, Liu [End Page 112] Wenhui, emoted to readers in the 1940 inaugural issue of his own local newspaper that “the people of the interior could not possibly imagine the hardships we have experienced” because of transportation difficulties, backward culture, and a lack of economic development.1 Against all odds, he and his settlers had finally built Xikang Province.

Planting was central to the building of Xikang Province. The administration relied on the practice of land reclamation (tunken, kaiken), which in turn necessitated the transplant (yizhi) of Han Chinese who were skilled in agriculture from China proper, often under military supervision. Land reclamation was simultaneously an economic activity and an expression of human ingenuity, a mode of production in which farmers were agents and the land was reagent. In Chinese writings on Kham, farming as an enterprise was often favorably opposed to nomadic pastoralism, which was then the dominant mode of production in the region. Nomadism seemed to reverse the agential polarity: it was the nomad who responded to the land. The most consistent definition of nomadism in Chinese texts was yet another phrase from classical literature, zhu shui cao er ju—chasing the water and the grass.

Modernizers were certain that nomadism was the unfortunate consequence of geographical isolation. When natural obstacles were overcome and agriculture came into contact with nomadic pastoralism, the latter would disappear, or so it seemed. By this point, Chinese intellectuals had embraced the tenet of social evolutionism that ethnic groups occupied higher stages of human progress than others, exemplified by the work of such social scientists as Henry Lewis Morgan. Morgan’s argument that agriculture was a necessary condition for civilized society in fact meshed nicely with earlier Confucian ideas about the Divine Farmer and the sagely origin of planting. Like the mythical Divine Farmer, the Han would introduce farming and elevate Khampa nomads from their primitive mode of production. Agricultural reformer Han Dezhang commented in 1941 that “the people of Kham are in constant contact with the Han, and the gradual replacement of nomadism with sedentary agriculture is the inevitable result.”2

But what if the replacement of nomadism with sedentary agriculture was not inevitable? Recent work by political theorist James C. Scott depicts nomadism and other marginalized modes of production as escapes from, rather than preludes to, intensive agriculture. In Scott’s narrative, it is the proclivity of grain agriculture to concentrate subjects and [End Page 113] tie them to the land that makes that mode of production so amenable to coercive governing techniques. Scott gives the rugged highlands of the Southeast Asian Massif, which he terms “Zomia” after...


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pp. 112-141
Launched on MUSE
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