McKay on Yeh and Coggins, 'Mapping Shangrila: Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands'

Emily T. Yeh, Christopher R. Coggins, eds.
Alex McKay

Emily T. Yeh, Christopher R. Coggins, eds. Mapping Shangrila: Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands. Studies on Ethnic Groups in China Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. xv + 332 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-99357-7; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-99358-4.

Reviewed by Alex McKay (University of Leiden - Emeritus) Published on H-Buddhism (September, 2018) Commissioned by John Powers (Deakin University)

Printable Version:

Cultural Landscapes in Conflict

Mapping Shangrila is a strong ensemble comprising ten essays (with extensive additional editorial material) concerning the processes by which the cultural landscapes of the Sino-Tibetan border areas are being made legible. While primarily anthropological, it includes a contribution by two ecological conservationists involved in NGO efforts in this region. The collection is a welcome centering of these cultural border regions, the precise dimensions of which are wisely undefined here but that historically embrace a region of fragmented sovereignties and diverse peoples, which may be best understood in terms of overlapping mandalas of culture and power. While historically under-studied, a number of important works on this region have emerged over the last decade as scholars have gained increasing access there. Mapping Shangrila, edited by Emily T. Yeh and Christopher R. Coggins, is a significant contribution to that growing body of literature.

An immediate caveat is that although a Republican Chinese era ethno-linguistic classification recognized fifty-six population groups in this region, the essays here are overwhelmingly concerned with Sino-Tibetan interactions. While the contributions demonstrate the hybridity of the cultural landscape and the processes by which it is inscribed, coded, and produced, their focus does not fully reflect the diverse ethnic perspectives and processes of the region. The binary position also tends to produce essentialized identities on occasion, particularly in regard to (Han) Chinese, while wider historical contexts are largely absent. Charlene E. Mackley’s essay is notable here in recognizing that local Tibetan understandings of sacred landscape in their present form are more the product of Lhasa cultural expansion processes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than of “ancient” beliefs.

A final caveat may be that unlike the editors not all of the authors are widely read in the body of literature concerning “sacred mountains” in Tibetan culture, with several notable omissions from the collective (and otherwise lengthy) bibliography. That literature, among other findings, presents historical processes as well as diverse local manifestations of more-universal understandings, and wider immersion in that literature might have further refined some of the material here. The collection might also have benefited from greater consideration of traditional Chinese conceptions of landscape—in general Han are the Other here—and I would like to have learned more about the impact of Chinese “backpacker” culture.

The editors state that the “cultural landscapes of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands are, as elsewhere, media for the social construction of territory, nature, and personhood” and the central theme concerns how “landscapes are deployed ... in contests for epistemological authority” (p. 9). The various representations in myth, literature, text, etc. are central to the processes involved, with modern China, in its “ecological state” form, dominant if not hegemonic. Michel Foucault is deployed by several contributors as a theoretical framework or point of departure, and with the exception of Travis Klingberg, Li-hua Ying, and Yeh, the authors discuss collective rather than individual agency.

The essays are divided into three categories, with each section preceded by an introductory piece from the editors. This results in a cohesive (in the best sense) work rather than a diverse collection of essays, although studies of matsutake mushroom conservation and of “caterpillar fungus” (cordyceps sinensis), while important in themselves, rather strain the primary theme of landscape.

Three contributions comprise the first section, “Shangrilazation.” Ying’s “Vital Margins: Frontier Poetics and Landscapes of Ethnic Identity” discusses Tibetan and Han literary representations of border landscapes. Primarily focused on elite perspectives, the essay demonstrates that both Han and Tibetan representations make landscape a place in which meaning can be located. Han perspectives were historically established through the term hua wai zhi di (lands outside civilization), but the once menacing Other is now tamed, spiritualized, and eroticized, becoming a place in which Han Chinese might seek a spiritual transformation of the self largely impossible in the materialist cities.

Chris Vasantkumar’s “Dreamworld, Shambala, Gannan: The Shangrilazation of China’s ‘Little Tibet’” draws a distinction between Western and Chinese modes of tourism, with the latter concerned not with voyages of discovery but with participation in “confirmation” of state-sanctioned sites. This is an important distinction, not developed by other authors here, and the implications of Chinese literature revealing a desire for Western approval of their status also provide a basis for further inquiry. The occasional lack of wider reading revealed in these essays is demonstrated here in the author’s thesis that Han domestic tourists engage with notions of the miniature; understanding might have been enhanced by engagement with Rolf Stein’s The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought (1990).

The final piece in this section, Klingberg’s “A Routine Discovery: The Practice of Place and the Opening of the Yading Nature Reserve,” discusses the transformation of the Yading Nature Reserve (finally established in 1996 and then developed). It emphasizes the tourists’ production of an exotic place through their “seeing,” photographing, etc., as well as through the earlier writings of Joseph Rock and two Han Chinese observers.

In the second section, “Constructing the Ecological State”—or what the editors call “saving nature by selling it” (p. 99)—landscape transformation processes are analyzed from the perspectives of different administrative levels: national, local, NGO, etc. John Aloysius Zinda’s “Making National Parks in Yunnan: Shifts and Struggles within the Ecological State” discusses local government initiatives in the establishment of China’s first national park, Pudacuo in northeast Yunnan. Pudacuo proved an immediate commercial success, enhancing the “joining of Shangrilazation with the extension of the ‘environmental state’” (p. 106), albeit that process hides competing interests among different state agencies. The author’s primary concern with organization(s) provides an important perspective on landscape contestation issues.

Robert K. Moseley and Renée B. Mullen’s “The Nature Conservancy in Shangrila: Transnational Conservation and Its Critiques” offers a very different perspective, one drawn from their work on the Yunnan Great Rivers Project in 2000-2005. They raise the questions of which forms of knowledge are privileged in the landscape construction process. In an effort to promote more communication between social and physical scientists in the conservation field, they make the important point that natural scientists are much more accepted by Chinese government than social scientists.

Michael J. Hathaway’s “Transnational Matsutake Governance: Endangered Species, Contamination, and the Emergence of Global Commodity Chains,” concerning the global commodification of the matsutake mushroom (Yunnan’s most valuable export crop), and Michelle Olsgard Stewart’s “Constructing and Deconstructing the Commons: Caterpillar Fungus Governance in Developing Yunnan” raise important issues of resource governance and contribute to the literature on these commodities, albeit at a certain remove from the central theme. They testify, however, to the agency of forces beyond those immediately apparent, with pesticide and other contamination of matsutake mushrooms threatening the Japanese demand and state road building affecting local control over outside harvesters of the caterpillar fungus.

In the third section, “Contested Landscapes,” Coggins and Gesang Zeren’s “Animate Landscapes: Nature Conservation and the Production of Agropastoral Sacred Space in Shangrila” examines Tibetan concepts of sacred landscape and how they are revitalized by the state ecological project, with particular reference to Zeren’s “fusion of native and non-native environmental discourses” (p. 203). This is a significant and nuanced contribution to our awareness of the tensions between Tibetan understandings of human and non-human landscape actors and the “reterritorialization” of Tibetan sacred space by both Chinese state and global processes (p. 211); it deserves a lengthier treatment.

Mackley then contributes a sophisticated discussion of the implications of cultural politics in “The Amoral Other: State-Led Development and Mountain Deity Cults among Tibetans in Amdo Rebgong.” This piece centers on contestations in Rebgong over the authenticity of the spirit mediums who intercede between humans and mountain deities (here zhidak rather than yullha). The author, tracing Chinese state religious discourse, points out that mountain deity practices are often areas of contestation, and in this case tensions over the motivation of mediums are accentuated by the wider context of contemporary state development.

The section concludes with Yeh’s “The Rise and Fall of the Green Tibetan: Contingent Collaborations and the Vicissitudes of Harmony,” which revisits Toni Huber’s concept of “Green Tibetans” and discusses the decline of that discourse after the post-2008 riots saw significant revisions in Tibetan exile strategies.[1] What was once a relationship between Tibetans and sympathetic Westerners is now between Tibetans and Han Chinese. Thus the projections of “traditional” Tibetan care of the environment have been transformed, not only by being in Chinese rather than Western language formulations but also through the removal of the exile Tibetan government’s anti-Chinese discourse. Thus the emphasis in exile Tibetan literature on Chinese destruction of the Tibetan environment is replaced by the claim—directed to the Chinese—that Tibetan environmental efforts are in accord with Chinese law. Yeh discusses the example of grassroots organizer Rinchen Samdrup and the transformation of his written discourses from primarily religious to primarily environmental perspectives. But his post-2008 arrest and five-year prison sentence for “separatism” is a chilling reminder that ultimately environmental protection in China in any meaningful form is very largely in Han hands.

A thoughtful reflective afterword by Ralph Litzinger on Yunnan as “ecological Shangrila” concludes the volume. He points out that the fractures resulting from the 2008 crackdown were not entirely pivotal, but may be located within a lengthier process in the protection of the Tibetan environment in which there had already been many failures, conflicts, and grand schemes that went nowhere.

Shangrila may be where you find it—there is even a Shangrila resort in Fiji—and given the speed of change and the increasingly culturally imperialist transformations initiated by Premier Wen Jiabao, Mapping Shangrila may already be somewhat dated with its focus on events and processes in the first decade of this century. But as the editors point out, “the work of landscape production is never finished” (p. 25), and as an examination of a particular period, it is of lasting value, containing as it does many stimulating insights and indications for further lines of inquiry. This is a significant work in which each essay has its merits: a credit to the editors. It should stand the test of time.


[1]. Toni Huber, “Green Tibetans: A Brief Social History,” in Tibetan Culture in the Diaspora, ed. Frank J. Korom (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1997), 103-119.

Citation: Alex McKay. Review of Yeh, Emily T.; Coggins, Christopher R., eds., Mapping Shangrila: Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. September, 2018. URL:

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