Mapping Shangrila? The very title screams contradiction. The original Shangrila of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon was unmappable—hidden away in a place no one had previously known about and no one could find except by accident. It was a place of the imagination. And now people are not just mapping it; they are visiting it, preserving it, developing it, and harvesting mushrooms from it for a world market. The imagined space that was really nowhere has become real (or at least the imagination of that space has been projected on a real place), while at the same time the real space of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands has been imagined—as a place of difference, a place of conservation, a place of abundant resources, a place of aesthetic pleasure.
In the introduction to this varied and stimulating collection, Chris Coggins tells the story of visiting Khawa Karpo and mentions that it is one of the eight gnas ri, or sacred mountains of Tibet. Recalling only Kailas out of that catalog, and curious what the other six might be, I searched online for gnas ri and found an entry for a country of that name at the Nation States Encyclopedia, a wiki site that consists of (as the editors inform us) more than forty-four thousand entries, all of them for totally fictitious countries and nations. Gnasri, according to the site, is “an isolated, landlocked country located north of Karenytenia and Purzkistan . . . at an average elevation of 4,500 meters.” Several of the names associated with the geography and history of Gnasri are given in Tibetan script.
To most of us, the physical gnas ri Khawa Karpo is no more real than its eponymous kingdom next door to Purzkistan. And although the mountain is undeniably physically there, still, in the imaginations of people living nearby, it is, after all, a gnas ri, a “dwelling mountain” of a powerful god. The god, in fact, buried seventeen Chinese and Japanese mountaineers preparing to defile (i.e., climb) it in 1991, after which an unlikely coalition of local traditionalists and the Nature Conservancy successfully petitioned the State Council in 2000 to keep the real place imagined by not allowing anyone to go there, any more than they can go to Gnasri or could go to the original Shangrila.
But now people can go to Shangrila, because it is a real place, a county that used to be called Zhongdian in Chinese and is still called Gyalthang in Tibetan, easy to find on a real map north of Lijiang and south of Deqin in northwest Yunnan. And it is but one place in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands that is being not only reimagined but incorporated into the Chinese nation-state as a space of accessible wonder, friendly exotica, extraction opportunities, and conservation imperatives.
How the Sino-Tibetan borderlands are becoming legible—readable—is the topic of this book. And one can read the book as the history of any combination of a set of interlocking stories that make up a fascinating part of the real history of our time.
One can read Mapping Shangrila as a story of a real nation-state, or at least of a People’s Republic of China that is trying hard to become one, by incorporating topographic, ecological, economic, and cultural differences into a proud, strong, united, modern nation that nevertheless preserves its local differences. Or one can read the book as the story of global capitalism and its penetration of previously inaccessible places in search of resources and profits, from lumber to minerals to mushrooms. In still another way, one can read the book as a story of the globalized reaction to this resource exploitation—of nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, and even private citizens working to preserve the landscapes, flora, fauna, and cultures of places that need to remain exotic both for their own sake and for the sake of people who want to visit them. Or again, one can read the book as a story of imagined places, or how imagined places become real and how real places become imagined from various vantage points.
My point is that the political, economic, conservationist, and imaginary projects are all part of a grand transformation, one we could not have foreseen when University of Washington Press editors and I conceived the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China series back in 1993. There are still ethnic groups in China, but their relationship to the state, the economy, and the rest of the populace, not to mention their relationship to the rest of the world, has been transformed beyond anything we could have imagined back then. We can no more return to the Zhongdian of 1993, or to the 1993 version of any of the places described in this book, than we can visit Hilton’s Shangrila or the Gnasri kingdom of the role-player’s imagination. But through the vision (dare I say “imagination”?) and editorial leadership of Emily Yeh and Chris Coggins, along with the variegated and polyglot ethnographic sensibility of the chapter authors, this book has come together to make the nature of this transformation lucidly legible to readers. Read, then, and feast on the multiple contradictions of Mapping Shangrila.