THE AFTERLIVES OF SHANGRILA
FOR some time now, the idea of Shangrila has been picked apart, deciphered, and thoroughly deconstructed. For me, the great unraveling began in the early 1990s, when, browsing a bookstore in Seattle, I happened upon a used copy of Peter Bishop’s The Myth of Shangri-La. It might not be too much to say that this book launched a kind of academic cottage industry charting the multiple lives of Shangrila. None of us can think of Shangrila today without also referencing Donald Lopez’s 1998 Prisoners of Shangri-La, Tsering Shakya’s “Tibet and the Occident,” Orville Schell’s 2000 Virtual Tibet, Dibyesh Anand’s Geopolitical Exotica, and a host of other books, articles, and websites. These interventions create a must-read list for anyone serious about understanding the history of Shangrila’s multiple significations and uses, its many afterlives. We can no longer think of Shangrila without addressing histories of British colonialism in Asia (and elsewhere); the ugly and racist geopolitics of the Great Game, of Chinese and Russians and Americans and European powers vying for trade and other advantages; the Nazis turning to Tibet to test their detestable theories of Aryan superiority; Hollywood mythmaking; celebrity activism; and even Chinese nationals trying to save the country’s reputation when free-Tibet protesters confronted the Olympic torch as it made its way across the world to Beijing. Shangrila belongs to a troubled history of mostly Western desire and mythmaking, to histories of violence and the desire for domination and control, and to the Western craze for collecting all things exotic and other. Through Hollywood, the popularization of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the New Age movement, the idea of Shangrila is also linked to the desire for alternative forms of spiritualism and to the ongoing struggle to free Tibetans from what many—mostly outside China—see as the genocidal madness of the Chinese Communist state.
Mapping Shangrila, acutely aware of these complex histories, adds yet another twist to the story of Shangrila by giving us the first collection of close ethnographic readings and analyses of China’s many Shangrilas. In the hands of hucksters and entrepreneurs and government officials looking for a quick buck, Shangrila has been reborn in China. It lives again through the production of new circuits of commodity production and consumption, middle-class Chinese tourist encounters with Tibet, new film and documentary productions (both Chinese and, more recently, by Tibetan intellectuals in China), the relentless “opening up” of the Tibetan plateau for resource extraction, new ecological discourses about planetary and Third Pole crises, the forced migration of nomads to lifeless new towns, and the seemingly never-ending Chinese state project to, once and for all, liberate the Tibetan masses from their eternal backwardness. The chapters collected here thus show us that Shangrila is no longer singularly a Western fantasy, even though it continues to be recycled in the West, is still used to create resorts and name botanical gardens, motor raceways, tourist agencies, albums, museum collections, and private residences. As we learn from this wide-ranging collection of case studies, China is now in the Shangrila game in a big way, and the stakes are high for a range of different actors. Conservation scientists, the people at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) who manage the World Heritage sites, mushroom and medicinal herb collectors, Tibetan villagers and nomads who have been promised a say in their futures through new “participatory” modes of development, national park and nature reserve planners, mining and construction companies, hydropower investors, and even the lowly paid tour operator haltingly explaining to the tourist why Tibetans are self-immolating—all are part of the story of the making of a new Shangrila imaginary, this time with Chinese characteristics.
The rebirth of Shangrila in China—as a specific place called Xianggelila—can be approached through differing theoretical perspectives: neoliberalism, governmentality, resource competition, and ethnic revitalization. For almost all commentators in this volume, whether working in Xianggelila or other places, the reform-era state has created complex forms of state capitalism, which, in turn, have unleashed new forms of desire at the local level—for prestige, visibility, identity, and capital. In the far reaches of northwest Yunnan, the making of Xianggelila is a story of how local entrepreneurs, some Tibetan, many not, imaginatively linked themselves to this grandest of European colonial fantasies, to a British novel and popular U.S. film (translated into Chinese and widely distributed). This recuperated colonial past was then grafted onto a developmental model for the ethnic borderlands that would take mass tourism as the key link. The aim was nothing less than to transform a little-known town in the northwest corner of Yunnan into a major tourist destination.
The story often overlooked in this narrative is how the reinvention of Shangrila got entangled in a global ecological imaginary of biodiversity conservation. In the mid- to late 1990s, after nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had experimented for a decade, intent on figuring out the cause of poverty and advising the government on the best courses for poverty alleviation, northwest Yunnan and other parts of the Tibetan Plateau came to be viewed as a working laboratory for a new kind of collaborative global environmentalism. As some of the chapters in this book illustrate, the making of Shangrila as global ecological laboratory necessitated working with government, at all levels of the Chinese bureaucracy. At the same time, the global biodiversity project sought to transcend the fixed administrative and ideological boundaries of the prefecture, the province, and, yes, even the nation-state. This new environmentalism, this transregional, transnational, and planetary ecological imaginary, was meant, in part, to assist China in getting over the political hangover of the Maoist past, which many environmentalists viewed as an ecological disaster. Science would now serve development. The ecological would finally find a secure place in China’s developmental planning. This would happen not just in the northwest corner of Yunnan, where the mythological Shangrila was being reassembled into Xianggelila, but in multiple locations across the Tibetan borderlands.
My first encounter with China’s Shangrila came in the summer of 2000. I was invited to be a self-funded participant at an event in Kunming called the Cultures and Biodiversity Congress (CUBIC). This gathering of the global biodiversity tribe aimed to create a policy document, which would eventually come to be known as the Yunnan Initiative. This visionary document was to be presented to the Yunnan provincial government in a bold attempt to convince the leadership that ethnic minority cultures and biodiversity were intricately linked; that Yunnan’s unique cultures and biodiversity were under extreme threat from shortsighted government policies and the expansion of local, regional, and international markets and, in some instances, by locals themselves; and that the future of “local livelihoods” depended on new planning regimes, new resource management models, and new forms of cooperation between governments, nongovernmental actors, and commercial interests.
CUBIC was not just a huge meeting spanning many days of lectures, breakout sessions, and PowerPoint presentations (in those days, incidentally, all prepared on IBMs). It was also meant to be a traveling practicum for those who wished to get into the “field.” We thus became a mobile research unit, traveling from Kunming to Xishuangbanna in the far south of Yunnan, and then back north, high on the Tibetan Plateau. Looking back at my field notes and recalling my many conversations with other participants, I realize that it was the trip to the Tibetan Plateau that most energized my traveling companions. It was essential, we were told, to see the biodiversity and cultural plentitude of northwest Yunnan firsthand. To get close to the land. To feel it and smell it. To meet local people.
Though we traveled with government officials from various bureaus and were hosted at multiple sites by officials, there was a paradoxical sense that it was necessary to sidestep the official state-speak of the government if we were to really experience the new Shangrila in the making. Only then could we get close to the truth of what was happening on the ground. The state created a new version of Shangrila. But it might also obscure its most essential truths. How were people using forest and non-forest resources? Who was to blame for the years of deforestation? Did local Tibetans really participate in and benefit from the ghastly scourging of the forests? Were there ethnic practices that could be studied and mobilized for alternative visions of development? I remember thinking: This is an anthropological dreamworld! The possibilities for fieldwork seemed endless. I was crazed with excitement. The Chinese ethnologist and the American or British or Italian anthropologist would now stand beside the conservation biologist. Events like the CUBIC field junket allowed one to meet scholars and environmental experts from all over China. My pockets were bulging with name cards, the essential mingpian. I was creating a network, a web of connections that might help me in the future. I was getting to know, for example, Liang Congjie, who would become a friend and respected colleague until, sadly, he passed in October of 2010, and also younger Chinese NGO staffers, relatively new to this world of biodiversity management and environmental stewardship. Over the next decade, a handful of these people would become some of China’s most visible environmental activists. All around me there was a heady mix of deep knowledge about northwest Yunnan and other regions across the Tibetan Plateau. It is as if we were inhaling biodiversity with every breath. After the ravages of Maoism and the extractive practices of the logging industry, northwest Yunnan now had a chance to be rightfully returned to a state of equilibrium, in which ethnic culture would be harmonized with nature. In this very moment, the underlying logic of the Euro-American dream machine—the idea that Tibet must deliver something, a personal journey, spiritual quest, an alternative civilization, a future without war, or a market or trade route—was giving way to something seemingly entirely new.
But what was this something new? And could it be sustained? Within a little less than two years, after almost a decade of quite assiduous study, backdoor maneuvering, gifting, historical re-creation and fanciful reconstruction, the Diqing provincial government would win State Council approval to change the name of Zhongdian County to Xianggelila. Pages of text have been produced since then demonstrating how this process took place, the forms of exclusion upon which it was predicated, and the differential economic outcomes for those entrepreneurially savvy enough to cash in on the new Shangrila. There has been a perpetual tension between the big government infrastructure project, entrepreneurial craft, local self-fashioning, tourist excess, and the grassroots desire of “locals” who so badly wanted to get into the game of turning their religious practices, villages, homes, song and dance, and bodies into objects of desire. Perhaps, as some scholars have asserted, there has been an ethnic upside, that what we have witnessed over the past decade is the creation of a new kind of pan-Tibetan ethnic identity (Hillman 2003; Kolås 2008), one celebrated by the harmonizing state and yet never fully controlled or represented by it. Perhaps.
At CUBIC in the summer of 2000, and in the decade to follow, the idea of Shangrila as a global ecological laboratory was slowly taking shape. I don’t think we find the hunger of the ecological scientist in the deep archive of the West’s many Shangrila imaginaries, nor among the great plant hunters and explorers Erik Mueggler has documented in The Paper Road. What was born in the late 1990s in northwest Yunnan was an ecological Shangrila, one that would be at once both national and transnational. This ecological Shangrila would be a testing ground for new mapping strategies, in which, for example, a local villager’s hand-drawn map of a forest and its multiple uses would be commensurate with the large satellite images of the Yunnan Great Rivers Project’s conservation zones that hung on the corporate office walls. It would be a laboratory for testing new modes of local participation in national park planning or nature reserve management strategies, where, everyone seemed to believe, local voices, histories, and “traditional” practices would surely matter in the making of an ecological future. It would be a place in which Kodak and Fuji would team up with the Nature Conservancy (TNC) to bring cameras to villagers (TNC was not alone in this kind of endeavor). With disposable camera in hand, villagers would shoot their local environs, documenting their everyday relationship to the plentitude of nature that surrounded them. These images were then collected. Interviews conducted. Local views recorded. All of this material was then worked into masterfully organized portfolios of images and texts (usually only captions) that evidently captured both the voices and visions of the natives, as they saw the world around them. In principle, this portfolio of images was to be presented to a government official in a poverty-alleviation or tourism or construction bureau. This official might, just might, take these villagers’ voices and visions, as mediated through the Photovoice project, into consideration in the next round of state planning. In too many cases, I was to learn some time later, the image-making project never successfully informed policy. Rather, the images became the means for the extraction of surplus value, enlarged into massive and beautifully crafted images and hauled off to a fund-raiser event in Shanghai, or Beijing, or San Francisco. The participatory ecological imaginary had gone global, via the traveling photo exhibit.
After CUBIC, the Nature Conservancy was gracious enough to invite me back to Yunnan the following year to track its projects, work beside its staff, attend meetings, and reflect on its many projects. Other social scientists would follow. As Robert Moseley and Renée Mullen rightly put it in chapter 5 in this volume, we didn’t always speak the same theoretical language or share the same goals. Remarkably, and to TNC’s immense credit, the organization let us loose at its project sites, where we learned things we didn’t always like. At one point, for example, a TNC staffer on his way out shared an entire file drawer of contracts, financial agreements, reports from hired Chinese field biologists and ethnologists. I was astonished to see what people were paid, the wild divergence between different levels of staff, the money that was going to some nature reserve officials and how some were getting paid almost nothing for their labor. I thus became interested in the forms of work and labor that went into the new ecological tasks of documenting, mapping, and mobilizing local participation in the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, but this turn inward to the internal logics of the organization’s operations in China was not always embraced. Suspicions arose if the gaze was not turned outward to the larger task of documenting biodiversity and convincing local villagers that they would be better off in the long run if they participated in various programs—the making of eco-villages, a large-scale biogas project, Photovoice, and new management training sessions. Could the anthropologist be trusted? What would he or she do with the data that were being collected? When ethnic tensions emerged between Naxi and Tibetan staffers, as they did, and accusations of scheming and corruption surfaced, what would the anthropologist do with these company secrets? Would the anthropologist undermine the larger project of convincing the Yunnan and, much later, central government that biodiversity was a form of national capital that should be studied and preserved? How could the dream of collaboration be maintained when differing views surfaced, not only between the leadership of the project in Yunnan and the anthropologists but also between the many Han and the ethnic minorities who staffed the projects on the ground?
Anna Tsing once wrote about how cultures are continually being coproduced in the interactions she called “friction.” In my view, Tsing’s vision of collaboration and the tensions and instabilities that inform it has always been at the heart of the Shangrila imaginary, whether we are referring to the utopia of Lost Horizon, which became a big chunk of the material for the imagining of Xianggelila, or the new ecological imaginary in which biological scientists and ecologists would work side by side with social scientists and figure out how nature and culture could be properly managed and synced. Tsing reminds us that all collaborations are about the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference. Collaboration is not a simple sharing of information, she tells us, and there is no reason to assume that collaborators share common goals.
In this respect I differ somewhat from a certain reading that seems to me to inform the introduction to part 2 of Mapping Shangrila. Here, Chris Coggins and Emily Yeh would have us believe that everything begins to change with the Tibetan uprisings of March 2008 and the subsequent global financial crisis. They see multiple signs of hope between the late 1990s and 2008—innovative projects, international staffers working with Chinese environmentalists, social scientists working with biologists, Yi and Naxi working with Tibetans, prefectural and provincial governments accepting the gift of an international ecological mapping and planning process. They see a new kind of collaborative possibility in the making, what I have called an ecological Shangrila. After 2008, a period of retrenchment sets in, and the Chinese state reasserts itself. International environmental organizations are subjected to new forms of scrutiny and even surveillance, money dries up, projects fizzle out.
But long before 2008, there are many examples of projects, funded and supported by various international conservation organizations, that go nowhere. One could point to the enormous resources wasted in terms of labor, time, and money on biogas conversion projects. One could look at long-standing and still unresolved village conflicts over matsutake and other non-timber forest products. One could look at beautifully constructed ecotourism centers in places such as Qianhushan or the Thousand Lakes District in Diqing Prefecture that today sit empty because villagers could not decide on workable management strategies and ways of sharing profits from ecotourism. One could go on forever about the eventual failure of the campaign to stop damming on the upper reaches of the Nu, Mekong, and Yangzi Rivers. One need only point to the disaster that is the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site, where river water resources were magically written out of the original mapping. One could point to the White Horse Snow Mountain Nature Reserve and the deal that had to be struck with provincial authorities to keep out mining interests. Today, one can walk a half hour from a village just outside the nature reserve and photograph snub-nosed monkeys “in the wild.” An endangered species has been turned into a zoological specimen in order to save the mountains from mining.
Mapping Shangrila shows us that the colonial fantasy of Shangrila lives on, refusing to die. Or, rather, it continues to return to the world of the living in a bizarrely reincarnated form, disfigured yet somehow strangely familiar.