Jinba, Tenzin, In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2014. xvi+170 pp. ISBN: 978-0-295-99307-2 (paperback).
This well-crafted ethnography by an American-trained Tibetan anthropologist studies the politics and culture of a local Tibetan community by centering on the recent dispute over the location of the capital of the legendary matriarchal “Eastern Queendom.” Suopo Township in Danba County, western Sichuan is situated on the border of the Han and Tibetan regions and is part of the traditional eastern Tibetan province of Kham. It is marginal to Kham because most people speak the Gyarong language and have cultural practices different to Khampa Tibetans and to Gyarong because most of the Gyarong region is in a different prefecture. Although the official and Han discourses shape the way the Suopo people (Suopowa) perceive and represent themselves as marginalized Tibetans, the author finds that the Suopowa nonetheless appropriate their marginality to construct their distinctiveness among Tibetan subgroups and their authentic status in the Tibetan family—by identifying with Khampa Tibetans, who are known for their masculine culture, to authenticate their Tibetanness; and by claiming the matriarchal queendom lineage of the Gyarong to attract ethnic tourism. Jinba argues that the Suopowa’s strategic marginality is instrumental in engendering positive changes and achieving their political goals—their queendom struggle and identity construction challenge the dominant discourse and political structure and activate sociopolitical restructuring. By incorporating various cultural elements they “carve out a new space for their survival, cultural expressions, identity construction, and political positioning” (p. 7). The book is a must read for scholars who are interested in the sociopolitical transformation of contemporary China, especially those who specialize in studying the intersection between gender and ethnicity. The most interesting contribution of the book lies in its emphasis on how marginalities “inform and shape the multiple identities” (p. 118). The book has five chapters.
In Chapter 1, Jinba situates the Suopowa’s queendom struggle within the background of developing ethnic tourism in Danba County by introducing the county’s history, location, ethnic diversity, rich Gyarong culture, and locals’ official status as having Tibetan nationality (Zangzu). He uses historical sources to reconstruct the connections between the Gyarong and the Eastern Queendom and then describes recent tension between the Suopo Township elite who campaigned to have their home recognized as the site of the queendom’s capital and county officials who gave this label to another town. Jinba problematizes the Supowa’s Tibetan identity by analyzing how the Chinese central government’s ethnic identification project in the 1950s created a unified Zangzu which included the Gyarongwa people whose Tibetan identity has been constantly challenged and disputed. In the socialist era, the dilution of religious identity and the shift toward secularization among the Gyarongwa further marginalized them among other Tibetans. But the Gyarong elite identify themselves as forming “a single unity” with other Tibetans, and use their best preserved Tibetan architecture to authenticate such claims. When the Gyarongwa interact with outsiders, they reconfigure Gyarong-Tibetan relations based on how to best represent themselves.
Chapter 2 sees Jinba’s attempt to explain the Suopowa’s motives for self-feminization in claiming the queendom lineage by analyzing frameworks of minority representation in popular and official discourses. He finds that “ethnicity is sexualized” and “sexuality is ethnicized” (p. 35) in such frameworks due to the asymmetrical power relations between the Han and minority Others who are “fetishized” for their exoticness (p. 49). Recognizing that the discourse of masculinity is often related to Chinese nationalist aspirations, Jinba argues that minorities are needed to reconstruct Han-selfhood. To correct the morbid civility of the Han civilization, masculinized Mongols became the remedy for the weak Han men, and matriarchal Mosuo women, portrayed as open and promiscuous, become the sexual desire of Han men. To attract tourist revenue, Danba county promotes itself as women’s country.
In Chapter 3 Jinba highlights the Suopowa’s agency in defining who they are rather than allowing themselves to be defined by analyzing how they gear their rhetoric to attract tourism with slogans including the “Valley of Beauties” and the “Eastern Queendom.” When the media promoted Danba as the land of beauties in the Chinese tourist market, locals initially catered to tourist fascination by displaying “authentic” Gyarong tradition. Having realized the negative impact of the sexualized image of their women in the “Valley of Beauties,” the Suopowa have deliberately detached themselves from such negative connotations and instead now champion the Eastern Queendom discourse of women’s authority to attract tourists. In doing so, elite men emphasize the higher sociopolitical status their women enjoyed in the 1950-60s rather than their “royal” blood, though women’s leadership and prominent roles back then were “a political product of time and circumstance when eligible men were not present” (p. 66). In reality, Jinba finds Suopo women have a low profile in local political matters and are not enthusiastic about the queendom cause. He maintains that locals’ self-feminization is a strategy for seeking reward by the powerful—Suopo elite men gain economic and symbolic capital and assert their masculinity by selling their women’s superior status and political wisdom.
In Chapter 4, Jinba tackles the issue of grassroots politics by differentiating the differences between the levels of the state (central/county/township) and presenting the Suopo elite’s ideas about the queendom, tourism development, cultural preservation, and village politics. He treats the queendom dispute as a symbolic stage on which the villagers of Suopo Township cast themselves as supporters of the central state and turn to official rhetoric to press their claims by denouncing county authorities in order to redress the wrongs done to them. Although the township level provides a focus for solidarity for the Suopowa in their queendom struggle against other towns, they are divided on issues of who are the more authentic and legitimate descendants of the ancient noble queens. By revealing how the local elite has harnessed the villagers’ sense of frustration and unfairness against the county authorities, Jinba demonstrates that the queendom identity is a reflection of Suopo localism as villagers are constantly negotiating their manifold identities.
The last but most interesting chapter investigates the nuanced interactions between the state and local society by exploring how members and villagers used the Tourism Association founded by Suopo Township to press their political claims. Although members are officially designated, they use the Association as a legal framework to fight for their queendom cause and advertise tourism resources by going “beyond the restrictions of local authorities” (p. 99). Jinba compares the Association to a state-guided civil society which provides marginalized people with a space to vent grievances against local authorities, and concludes that members’ disparate positions on the Association’s relationship with the township, as well as their divergent interests and different opinions on the various models of developing tourism suggest the internal differentiation of local society.
By examining the state at different levels and exploring the internal differentiation of a marginalized Tibetan community, Jinba’s book offers brilliant insights into the complicated relations between the state and local society within the sweeping socio-political transformations in China. He develops his thesis strategically and effectively with convincing arguments and substantial sources. Maps, tourism photos, illustrations and charts contribute to the clarity of the author’s argument, and enrich the readers’ learning experience.
(Yuxin Ma, University of Louisville)