Emily T. Yeh, Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development

Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2013, 344 pp.

Review by Valentina Punzi


Studies about the economic development of China’s western regions have mainly focused on the central government-driven plans carried out since the post-1980 reform period and intensified during the last decade. However, without a much-needed historical assessment of earlier development projects started in the 1950s, the China Western Development (Xibu da kaifa) program launched in 2000 and the most recent One Belt One Road (Yi dai yi lu) initiative promoted last year have often been mistakenly presented as sudden sprouts without seeds.

In her insightful work, Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, Emily Yeh contributes to filling this gap with an excellent monographic study that explores the topic of development in the circumscribed location of Lhasa City and its environs over the long stretch from the 1950s to the 2000s. Through a detailed account of Chinese policy changes during this period, she analyses the interconnections among physical, economic, and social transformations that affected the historical and religious capital of Tibet.

The main argument of the book is that from the beginning, the Chinese state enterprise’s coercive development strategies were conceived as acts of benevolence and that development itself was “offered” to Tibetans as an irrefutable gift to establish effective national rule in Tibet. Drawing on the Maussian theory of the gift, the author maintains that through the disguised act of disinterested giving, Chinese development is given to Tibetans as a gift that generates obligation and indebtedness, while bringing with it a high expectation of being reciprocated with gratitude and loyalty.

Based upon historical sources, policymaking analysis, and ethnographic fieldwork, Yeh effectively shows how development has been deployed by the Chinese state as both a theoretical principle and an applied strategy aimed at the territorial incorporation of the Tibetan land and its inhabitants. In this sense, the purpose of any Chinese development project carried on since the 1950s ultimately entails a hegemonic discourse that – beyond its merely economic purpose – assumes and in fact demands that Tibetans should appreciate the gift.

The book exposes the consequences of different development projects and outlines the social and economic dynamics involving Tibetans, the state, the land, and Han newcomers over the course of 60 years. The author identifies three phases of government intervention in Tibet, and more specifically in Lhasa, each characterised by a single development focus, respectively: state farms, greenhouses, and house building. This long narrative is arranged around these three thematic and chronological nuclei, poignantly named soil, plastic, and concrete, which over time have reconfigured Lhasa from originally being the very centre of Tibet to its present status as a geographic, cultural, and economic periphery in need of development.

The first part, “Soil,” deals with the earliest phase of development (1950s-1980s) and the first transformations of the Tibetan landscape through the institution of state farms, with the introduction of new modes of production and the initial cultivation of the land that involved the joint efforts of the Chinese army and the local people. In terms of centre-periphery relations, the first years witnessed the best period in the history of the region: the enthusiasm animating both the Han soldiers and the local Tibetans working in the state farms sustained relatively good ethnic relations that rapidly deteriorated afterwards, following the increasing symbolic and effective conquering of the land.

This part of the book sheds light on many pieces of diversified memories from that time that have been often silenced in the Tibetan exile communities, including, for example, the improvement of gender equality thanks to the inclusion of women in farming work. Extracts from interviews and memories vivify and contextualise the historical reconstruction of this and the next two parts of the book: the constant shifting between concrete micro-examples of biographical experiences and broader political issues offers a complex and complete narrative to the reader, and this alternating macro-micro lens authenticates the accuracy of the historical and political analysis.

In the second part, “Plastic,” the chronological focus is on the 1990s, a critical phase of transition from state economy to market economy at the national level that had a direct impact on development strategies in Tibet. State farms were progressively abandoned, and a growing number of Han migrant workers from Sichuan Province took over the emerging market of greenhouses that spread through the suburban villages around Lhasa.

The author provides an insightful analysis of the interdependence of multiple political, economic, and cultural levels of discourses and practices that, following the introduction of greenhouses, marked Tibetans’ overdetermined condition of marginalisation in vegetable farming and markets (p. 121). For Tibetans, the decollectivisation of agriculture essentially entailed not only nonparticipation but also a progressive exclusion from the new lines of market-led development.

With Han immigrants replacing the previous direct intervention of the state, the issue of Tibetan development became further connected to ethnic tensions, and the naturalisation of the increasing presence of Han workers turned into the second strategy of territorialisation in Tibet. The author clearly outlines how Tibetans were prevented from taking advantage of the new liberalised market due to the concurrence of Tibetan traditional social relations and cultural norms, the failure of technology transfer from Han workers, and the sharp contrasts between “scientific” agriculture and traditional use of the land. The interiorised Tibetan negative notion of Chinese-style development as systematically spoiling the land with chemical fertilisers and corrupting the people through urbanisation made Tibetans live in a renting economy that gave up increasingly larger portions of the land to Han immigrants to build greenhouses. The author attentively argues that the reproduction of economic and ethnic imbalance in Lhasa was also connected to the failed applicability of the Chinese popular concept of suzhi, the quality of place and people, to the city of Lhasa. In inland China, the increment of suzhi is in fact deliberately associated with urbanisation: moving to the city from the countryside means an automatic rise of suzhi that, in the case of the small and under-populated Lhasa, dramatically failed to meet Han immigrants’ expectations: based on dominant representations of backwardness, dirtiness, and superstition, Tibetans were and still are considered low in suzhi, as is Lhasa, a periphery becoming urban.

In the last part of the book, “Concrete,” the focus is on the enforced urbanisation of Lhasa and its environs that in the last decade has been pursued in order to spread development through building construction. The imposition of new living spaces that affects family relations and traditional use of the domestic space is one of the consequences of the state’s intrusive and pervasive presence in local lives. Once again, the Tibetan failure to “perform gratitude” for this new gift made of concrete is disapproved of, and its acceptance is forcefully imposed.

Constantly shifting policies regulate different programs aimed at restoring old villages, expanding the urban space, relocating people from old houses in the historical centre, and building new ones in the periphery. The author insightfully points out the specific economic dynamics of these housing projects involving both central Lhasa and the neighbouring villages, and defines the sources of investment that sustain them. Although the state provides a substantial contribution towards most of the housing plans, house owners themselves are required to cover part of the funding. Being dependent on both private credit and bank loans, Tibetans’ involuntary participation in the state’s development and urbanisation projects becomes an inescapable condition of indebtedness. The book ends with further reflections on the Maussian theory of the gift, originally elaborated in the context of “archaic” societies, and its applicability to contemporary state-citizens relationships in Tibet.

This work is a notable contribution to the study of the PRC’s long-term development strategies to incorporate peripheral areas within the body of the state and to clearly demark its territory in a way that, as the author notes, sinisterly echoes state terror.


Valentina Punzi is currently a postdoc researcher at Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale, Italy (valentina.punzi@yahoo.it).

Back to top