Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Of Horses and Motorbikes
Lilian Iselin, University of Bern
JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5716, pp. 429-450
Section 4 of 5 (pp. 443-446)

Pastoralist Modernities

The ethnographic material presented above reveals that the use of the motorbike over the horse is a pragmatic decision. Motorbikes are fast, convenient and useful in a number of activities pastoralists engage in. It also exemplifies that, at a different level, the proliferation of motorbikes and their use have deeper implications. Movement, deeply embedded in the practices of pastoralists is central to the making of place. The use of the motorbike is creating a different dimension in the process of place making. Although at the practical level it is simply replacing one means of transport for another, it has become the vehicle – literally and imagined – of accessing modernity.

“Modernity,” of course, is not an unambiguous term, and instead of theorizing the concept, I suggest to consider it contingent on historical, political, and economic processes that have occurred in the pastoral setting of TangkorThang skor as well as on predominant, state-sponsored discourses of development, progress and modernity.

[page 444]

The last four decades have transformed TangkorThang skor and the lives of pastoralists in significant ways. The collectivization period (in the 1960s and 1970s) marked the beginning of the setting up of an infrastructure that was going to have a lasting impact on conceptualizations of space and place. For the first time in the history of TangkorThang skor, brick and concrete were used to construct buildings of a more permanent nature than the mud houses the nomads had used (and to some degree are still using) for their winter quarters. Roads were built, a hydro power station, a factory, a bridge, a grain station, and other administrative buildings. The administrative center of TangkorThang skor came into being and was soon to be the main point of reference outside the pastoral production station (chukléphyug las) during the collectivization period and beyond.34 State-imposed policies brought a shift from subsistence economy to planned production, and later – since the reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping – to a market economy. They were paralleled by a discourse introducing notions of modernization and progress, which relegated traditional nomadic pastoralism to the backward.35 Horses at that time were used in the daily practices of the pastoral economy. Movement, although still at the center of pastoral production and the way of life of nomads, had become restricted and regulated.

The late seventies and early eighties brought more liberal policies and led to the restoration of many practices that existed before pastoral AmdoA mdo was integrated into the People’s Republic of China.36 Although this was a pivotal point in history, the pastoralists nevertheless had to accommodate new realities such as higher population numbers, administrative rule and policy implementations – most of which are imbued with state-propagated notions of modernization and progress. Winter pastures were divided in the late nineties, leased to family units on a fifty-year contract, and fenced resulting in the loss of spatial movement and flexibility in addressing contingencies such as bad winter, drought, and so forth.37 Pastoral practices had to change, too. Policies and measures as mentioned above led to more settled-ness of the pastoralists, less flexibility in movement with more defined directions of movement from a fixed winter pasture, to summer pastures that are now less frequently reassigned compared to pre-1950 practices, resulting in a decreased need for movement related to herding.

However, although individual households were reinstituted as the anchor point for pastoralist movement the pastoralists had to take into account space opened up by the historical, political, and economic developments of the last few decades. The reality of an administrative and trading center with shops, teahouses, clinics, schools and so forth has created a different point of gravity amidst a pastoral landscape. The implementation of the household responsibility system and the [page 445] possibility to engage in private business allowed some pastoralists to start small business ventures in the administrative center, further creating an urban center of some substance. Schooling, medical services and manufactured goods have created a pull towards the administrative center at which such commodities – often associated with a perceived “modernity” – are available.

Pastoralists have, at least to some degree, made the switch from a subsistence economy to a market and cash economy.38 Markets which were formerly located outside the pastoral space (and as needed were accessed by yak caravans and horses), are now located right in their midst. The “urban center” as a real place, opens up opportunities for pastoralists to engage with and access that market. This is mostly done by use of the motorbike. On the one hand motorbikes have become the means through which pastoralists, who live dispersed and remote from markets, can conveniently access such localities to sell their products and gain cash income, which gives them access to modern consumer goods and modern services such as medical and veterinary care and schooling. On the other hand, the use of motorbikes themselves requires cash, not just for the initial purchase but for maintenance and fuel. This reinforces the cash economy and ties the pastoralists firmly into developments towards a modern market economy.

The “urban center,” however, has to be understood not just as a place with shops, schools, and clinics that offers modern services, but as a multi-locality in that it has various meanings in different contexts.39 The “urban center” as a market place, as well as a place representing modernity, opens up new space. It ties in with national and global flows of different kinds: through the market; through modern education and the opportunities these open up; through tourism; and through modern media of communication in the sense Appadurai has suggested.40 The space of the pastoralists has increasingly been fragmented and reduced through fencing, increased settled-ness, roads, electric wiring, buildings and not least the administrative center. This fragmentation, however, is not solely located in the outward signs of a propagated and perceived modernity, but also in the ways in which it has transformed place-making as located in the practices of the pastoralists. Within the pastoral landscape there has emerged a point of gravity which links them with a modernity that has created new opportunities, imposed new images and values and created new needs. The motorbike has reduced distances in tangible ways and has brought formerly dispersed-living people closer together. It acts as a means through which to bridge increasingly fragmented space. The motorbike and the movement it allows between the pasturage and the “urban center” have [page 446] become part of the place-making of the nomads and the way they engage with “modernity” as represented in the locality of the town.

[34] Some services and goods now available in the administrative town were before located in monasteries or trading posts, the latter often at the fringes of pastoral territories.
[35] Miller, “Tough Times,” 84; Janet Upton, “The Development of Modern School-Based Tibetan Language Education in the PRC,” in China’s National Minority Education: Culture, Schooling and Development (London, Falmer Press, 1999), 294.
[36] See Goldstein and Beall, Nomaden Westtibets, 146-55, 183; Manderscheid, “The Revival.”
[37] Yeh, “Tibetan Range Wars,” 507; Miller, “Tough Times,” 104.
[38] Within the “modernity” they find themselves in, this has become necessary. Schooling (now actually being enforced), medical bills, and the acquiring of necessary commodities, not least of them fuel for their motorbikes, require cash.
[39] Margaret C. Rodman, “Empowering Place: Multilocaltiy and Multivocality,” in The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 204-23.
[40] Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Culture Economy,” in Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1990), 295-310.

Note Citation for Page

Lilian Iselin, “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Lilian Iselin, “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 429-450, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Iselin, Lilian. “Of Horses and Motorbikes: Negotiating Modernities in Pastoral A mdo, Sichuan Province.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 429-450. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5716 (accessed ).