A Report on the Meet the WEAI Authors event featuring Emily T. Yeh, author of the Study of the WEAI Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, on March 25, 2014:
Emily T. Yeh, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and moderator Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, discussed Yeh’s new book Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, a Study of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute published by Cornell University Press.
During her lecture, Emily T. Yeh provided a brief overview of the key findings and arguments in her book, along with a more in-depth discussion of the book’s final chapter on the New Socialist Countryside housing projects. Her book traces the landscape transformation in Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region from the 1950s to the present. Specifically, the book follows the changes in Tibet’s “material landscape” and, accordingly, organizes its chronology into three types of development: soil, plastic, and concrete. Yeh argued that the changes represented in those three categories reveal tensions in Tibet about how Tibetans should be incorporated into–and how they should appreciate–the Chinese state’s development of their landscape.
In the book, soil refers to the introduction of scientific agriculture. Many soldiers in Tibet in the 1950s were involved in this process. They recruited poor Tibetan men and women. This period saw a shift from an expectation for the Tibetan people to express gratitude towards socialist liberation to gratitude towards Chinese aid in Tibetan development.
For Yeh, plastic represents the covering of the landscape in plastic by Han migrants engaged in vegetable farming. This material shift was marked by Han migration through family ties, many descended from the soldiers previously stationed there. Officials believed the migrants would help transfer skills to local Tibetans by virtue of residing in the same geographic area. However, instead, Tibetan and Han became segregated residentially and economically. Additionally, many migrants became resentful of the vast amount of money the government invested in the Tibetan economy. They viewed Tibetans as ungrateful for this gift.
Finally, concrete represents urban expansion and the development of housing projects. This material shift is embodied by the rapid urbanization of Lhasa and the New Socialist Countryside housing projects, which have been carried out across Tibet and the surrounding area. Yeh argues that housing has been tied to a broader idea of development as a gift, for which the Tibetans should be grateful. Yet, a gift is never really free. Yeh noted that the act of giving forces Tibetans to recognize the role of the state as a “giver,” making Tibetans recognize their relationship with the state as “receiver.” Development projects have a genuine goal of wanting to improve society, but these gifts are also linked to notions of indebtedness.
Audio for the event is available on iTunes here: