#AsiaNow Speaks with Charlene Makley

Charlene Makley is Professor of Anthropology at Reed College and author of The Battle for Fortune: State-Led Development, Personhood, and Power Among Tibetans in China (2018), published by Cornell University Press and Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Honorable Mention winner for the 2020 AAS E. Gene Smith Book Prize in Inner Asian Studies. Listen to Makley talk more about the book in this podcast interview with New Books Network.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The Battle for Fortune is an ethnography of the complex implications of state-led development campaigns for Tibetan communities in northern Amdo (Ch. Qinghai province), China. I began working on this project in the early 2000s, just after China’s central leaders launched the “Great Develop the West” campaign (Xibu Da Kaifa), producing new dilemmas for Tibetans as circulations of people, money, and information intensified in the frontier zone. I conducted multi-sited fieldwork in Rebgong, a Tibetan cultural and intellectual center and site of the famous Geluk-sect Buddhist monastery of Rongwo. I carried out the primary fieldwork for this research in 2007-2008, during the tumultuous period leading up to and beyond the widespread Tibetan unrest that spring, the massive Sichuan earthquake, and the great spectacle of the Beijing Olympics. In this research, I deepen my analysis of state-local relations in the frontier zone in the wake of the 2008 state of emergency. I did this by bringing linguistic anthropological approaches to personhood, governance, and authority into dialogue with recent interdisciplinary debates about the very nature of human subjectivity and relations with nonhuman others (including deities and material objects). The book unpacks the cultural, historical, and political economic processes that led to the watershed events of 2008 in China, and then to the tragic aftermath of those events that continue to this day. I see my book as helping us understand how we got here.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I had worked in Labrang (Ch. Xiahe, southwest Gansu province) for a decade and wrote my first book, The Violence of Liberation (University of California Press, 2007), about that research. But for my second project, I was too well-known in Labrang and things had tightened there politically as well. So I decided to move to the historically linked neighboring region and seat of the Geluk sect Buddhist monastic rival of Labrang, Rebgong (seat of Rongbo monastery), following networks I had. I see Labrang and Rebgong (including their historical patron communities on the higher grasslands) as part of a larger Amdo Tibetan and multiethnic region historically and at present. The Battle for Fortune is thus a sequel to my first book. I see these two books as a kind of diptych, or companion volumes tracing Amdo Tibetans’ experiences and my own of the post-Mao years in China, moving from the first book, and the early years (80s-90s) of great relief and optimism after the horror and destruction of the Maoist years, and the almost immediate, enthusiastic Tibetan cultural and linguistic revival, to the second book and a time (early 2000s-2010s) of much more ambivalence among Tibetans about their status as citizens and community members in the PRC in the face of breakneck development and urbanization pressures.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

The main obstacles I faced in pursuing this project pale in comparison to what Tibetans and other non-Han minorities face in China’s western frontier regions, especially since 2008. Being a highly visible, tall, woman-presenting white foreigner meant that I could not easily blend in and just be some sort of fly on the wall. Instead, as I describe in the book, residents placed me in a long history of unequal state-local relations in those regions, and expected my support for a wide variety of projects—they expected my hyper-visibility, in ways I had to grapple with ethically. Then, after the military crackdown in the spring of 2008, my visibility became a distinct political liability. I lived in fear every day of getting a friend or colleague into trouble.

In the context of such devastating collective events as a military crackdown and massive earthquake, it’s hard to imagine things turning out better or easier than I had expected! If anything, it turned out to be a life-changing journey that still haunts and edifies me to this day.

What is the most outrageous story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

One of the most outrageous things I encountered was the attentions of a Han Chinese real estate boss in the provincial capital of Xining. He was the friend of my closest Tibetan woman friend in the city, who worked for the provincial People’s Congress as a hospitality hostess for V.I.P. visitors. That’s how the two of them came to know each other. He must have thought that as an American I could prove useful, but I was both amused and stunned by the lavish banquets he threw for us. The gendered gap between his casual wealth and my Tibetan woman friend’s daily trials as a low-level official was striking, and seemed to both manifest and illustrate the upending of status and hierarchy in those formerly far-flung regions that came with state-led capitalist development.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

I am most inspired by anthropological writings that, through accessible and compelling storytelling, illustrate the nexus of meaning-making, performance, and political economy at the heart of all communication and interaction. In that, I have drawn especially on the work of linguistic anthropologists like Webb Keane, Jane Hill, and Samy Alim. I am also inspired by anthropologists who can bring to larger audiences the poignancy and poetics of lived experiences that get glossed over in macro-economic analyses of development. Eric Mueggler’s book The Age of Wild Ghosts (2001) and Anna Tsing’s works, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place (1993) and Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005), are particularly emblematic for me in that regard.

To read in tandem with my book, as a way to really unpack the trans-regional, long-term processes that led up to 2008 out west in China, and to the fraught Sino-Tibetan relationship to this day, I would highly recommend Emily Yeh’s book Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development (2013), Gregory Rohlf’s book, Building New China, Colonizing Kokonor: Resettlement to Qinghai in the 1950s (2016), Tsering Woeser’s book Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (2020), and Benno Weiner’s book, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier (2020).

What are you working on now?

In a project that emerged organically in 2015 from my work with Tibetan friends and colleagues, we are collaboratively exploring the ongoing social life of the controversial Geluk-sect Tibetan Buddhist incarnate lama, the tenth Panchen Lama (1938-1989). To this day, most adult Tibetans in Amdo (Ch. Qinghai, SW Gansu and NW Sichuan provinces) mourn the lama’s death because he was seen as the courageously outspoken medium and advocate to Chinese state leaders of modern Tibetan Buddhism, culture, and language in the face of Maoist repression and assimilation pressures. Our ethnographic and historical research focuses on a crucial, yet hitherto relatively neglected time in the lama’s tumultuous life, his triumphant early 1980s tours of his home region of Amdo. Those were the occasions when the rural faithful, reeling from the devastations of Chinese Communist Party collectivization campaigns and military crackdowns on Tibetan resistance (1958-78), were first able to see and interact with the Panchen Lama after his fourteen year detention for his high-profile criticisms of Maoist campaigns in Tibetan regions. By analyzing multi-media portrayals of those tours, our writings and multimedia projects will illuminate how the Panchen Lama’s contested presence has embodied the life and death of Tibetan Buddhist worlds in post-Mao China.

This project takes up my longstanding interest in history as a dynamic, intersubjective process. In our interview and translation work, my Tibetan colleagues and I are rethinking “oral history” from an anthropological perspective as collaborative historiography. Stories of the Tenth Panchen Lama’s 1980s visits in fact participate in a nascent local history movement in Amdo since the mid-2000s, in which Tibetans are (re)framing their pasts in relation to contested and hoped for futures amidst rapid social change.