Merchants and Tongshi (Interpreters) as Cultural Brokers on the Sino-Tibetan Borderland during the Republican Period

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 12:10 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon C (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Yudru Tsomu , Lawrence University, Appleton, WI
During the Republican period the Chinese government’s political control over Central Tibet was virtually non-existent, and its domination over the Sino-Tibetan borderland was fragile and constantly contested. Nevertheless, a vibrant unofficial “Middle Ground” emerged, which was formed through trade, social interactions and cultural contacts between Chinese immigrants and the indigenous population. This paper explores how cultural brokers such as Chinese merchants and half-Chinese/half-Tibetan bicultural tongshi played an active role in forging the unofficial “Middle Ground.” In particular, the techniques used by these cultural brokers in forming social networks cut across ethnic and religious dividing lines between Han Chinese and local Tibetans.   

At the center of this work are examples taken from the biographies of Han merchants and Han immigrants in works of intellectuals such as Ren Naiqiang (1894-1989), whose writings fashioned a particular view of the borderland. These examples will also be supplemented with case studies on the family history of representative Han Chinese immigrants through extensive field-work among the current Chinese immigrant communities. My paper will argue that these cultural brokers occupied a position that cannot be explained purely in terms of ethnicity and political affiliation. These individuals carved out a unique space determined by their personal self-interest and various demands for survival during an uncertain and turbulent period. My study of the close cultural interactions between Han Chinese immigrants and the indigenous Tibetans and the mutual influence between the Chinese and Tibetan cultural practices and customs demonstrates the reciprocity inherent in the process of  forging frontier society. Acculturation clearly went both ways, rather than according to the dominant view that Han Chinese culture possesses overwhelming power and appeal which transforms indigenous cultures with which it has contact. 

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