Living on the edge of agriculture-dominating society

Report from Zhang Qian, Master Programme in Indigenous Studies, University of Tromsø
Project 200501253-14

Financial support to the project
“Living on the edge of agriculture-dominating society”

This summer I took out fieldwork in China from mid-June to the end of August, among which I devoted nearly 45 days in Inner Mongolia and the rest time in Huhhot and Beijing for literature data collection. Generally it went through smoothly and I have got hand on ample data for my thesis writing, especially with a lot of crucial empirical and oral history data.

The grassland paradise

The grassland paradise

My thesis will concentrate on exploring the underlying reasons causing the present environmental, economic and cultural predicaments faced by Mongolians, mainly pastoralists, in Inner Mongolia of China. This choice of topic came into shape gradually upon massive pre-fieldwork reading. News from media overwhelmingly interprets the deteriorating ecological situation on grassland in Inner Mongolia as overgrazing; local authorities pursue urbanization, industrialization and involuntary resettlement of herders as the top development strategies; NGOs emphasize the diversity of practically more complicated local situations with fieldwork report illustration and advocate protection of cultural and human aspects as important as environment protection and economic development; Scholars from history, humanity and anthropology disciplines are more visible to be involved in problem reasoning, explanation and resolution suggestion which used to be dominated by ecology, agriculture and economics perspectives. Therefore, voices from different fields map a complex and twisted image and become a strong impetus for a personal fieldwork trip in another way.

Instead of covering the whole provincial region, Xinlingol League is set as the target area for its visible representation of the above compound of arguments: its best steppe status combined with the sandstorm source label, its historically formulated demographic mapping of Chinese and Mongolians’ mixture, and accordingly the coexistence of agriculture with pastoralism and the sendentarization trend. The specific route is designed to cover the main region, while it is at the same time complied with one of the sandstorm routes, one of the main immigration routes of Chinese to Inner Mongolia in old days, and also one of the main business routes connecting inland of China and Ulaanbaartar before 1920s. Additionally, literature produced by some western scholars who ever explored this area, like Owen Lattimore, would provide valuable historical reference as well as contrast with present situations there. Therefore, I started my trip from Beijing by train, going through Zhangjiakou, the key door out of Great Wall to the steppe, covering the Taipusi Banner, Xiangbai Banner, Zhenglan Banner, Duolun, Xilinhot, West Ujumchin Banner, East Ujumchin Banner from south to north sequently and finally stayed with a pastoralist family in Xianghuang Banner for a week.

Fenced grassland

Fenced grassland

The change of landscape, from intensively cultivated land, to small pieces of rangeland regulated with fences, to broad open grassland, is rather consistent with imagination, but the affinity of people with the land and their vulnerability. Both as individual and collective group, in face of institutional change related to land, ecological deterioration, industrial contamination, urbanization and modernization, are much more impressive. The hot issues mentioned above have been taking place in various forms expressed as routine life. However, the assumed distinction of Mongolian pastoralists both for their ethnicity and way of life seems to be less visible. The difference in economic practices involved seems to distinguish people from each other more than the assumed ethnicity, which is thought to be the carrier of culture including economic activities as a material dimension of culture. Therefore, interviews, observation and participatory living with them are employed extensively as methods to decode their words and behaviors in specific context.

More historical data and updated academic works are found in Inner Mongolia Library in Huhhot and in Beijing Library. Big electronic databases of master and doctor degree thesis, journals and magazines are also fully consulted. Some newly published books are especially for the research interest of social science field. The emerging cooperation among scholars to address the focus issues with their specialized field knowledge is becoming a trend. Noteworthily, the revival of Mongolian traditional nomadic knowledge is advocated as a better prescription for the deteriorating situation and the people on the land with distinct culture are suggested to be better integrated into development planning scheme.

My hypothesis is that the present environmental, economic and cultural predicaments faced by Mongolians, mainly pastoralists, might all find a root in the institutional change on land usage. The “Household Contract Responsibility System”, which testifies to be a good example of Neo-economic theory in full consideration of private interest, has changed the appearance of grassland from openness to fences, and has changed people’s life from nomadic to sedentary. Theories of sustainable development, institutional change and property relations will be employed as frame theories, other theories regarding situated development planning, knowledge production, resettlement will be invited in specific discussions.

Industrialization, urbanization, globalization, and domestic development have affected different pastoral societies across the world. Making comparison and drawing on others’ experiences might suggest a better way out.

Last but not least, I am very grateful to the generous financial support from Sami Center and SEMUT strategy fund. Without your help, my fieldwork would have been still in the air and my thesis would have hardly moved forward for the lack of crucial data as well as personal interactions with those people and their land. Hopefully I may finish my thesis by May 2006 and I will attribute an important role in this to Sami Center and SEMUT strategy fund.

Read the thesis online – MUNIN

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