Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Crowded mountains, empty towns: Commodification and contestation in Cordyceps harvesting in eastern Tibet
by Lama, Kunga Tsering, M.A., University of Colorado at Boulder, 2007, 124; 1446079
Abstract (Summary)

Over the past decade, the trade in caterpillar fungus, known in Tibetan as yartsa gunbu, has become the most important source of income for rural Tibetans across the Tibetan plateau. Demand has surged, and prices have grown by over a factor of ten. Based on field research in Tibet in 2005, this thesis examines the political economy and cultural politics of yartsa gunbu harvesting and trade. Rather than examine the caterpillar fungus in economistic terms, the thesis proceeds from the understanding that economic activities are necessarily embedded in social relations and cultural practices, which in turn are shaped by political realities. I argue that the increasing demand for caterpillar fungus among consumers is significantly shaped by changing imaginations of Tibet within China, and by the state. The value of yartsa extracted from nature is transformed into exchange value that Tibetans need to survive in the new cash economy; this exchange value is produced through market demand itself produced by the Chinese re-imagination of Tibet under economic development as a place of pure nature.

Demand for caterpillar fungus has brought with it a changing landscape of moral quandaries, NGO intervention, and changing moral valuations of urban and rural, within a gendered context of culturally sanctioned violence. The sweeping demand for caterpillar fungus forces Tibetans to re-negotiate traditional practices and religious beliefs, especially with regard to sacred mountains. Traditionally, such mountains are considered abodes of deities and are not to be disturbed. However, now in the wake of rapidly rising market price as well as an increasingly cash-based economy, the pressure is high to trespass these sacred areas, thus producing a moral dilemma that Tibetans negotiate through the cultural idiom of karma.

Although harvesters, traders, suppliers, pharmaceuticals, and government officials all benefit from the trade, it is the big traders and suppliers who make the most profit. Thus, the thesis shows how differently situated agents, whether Tibetan harvesters, Han and Tibetan collectors, government officials, international NGOs, religious leaders, and Chinese intellectuals, take part in a process that simultaneously marginalizes and integrates rural Tibetan livelihoods into the broader Chinese economy and the nation-state.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: McGranahan, Carole M.
Commitee: Goldstein, Donna, Jones, Carla, Oakes, Timothy
School: University of Colorado at Boulder
Department: Anthropology
School Location: United States -- Colorado
Source: MAI 46/01M, Masters Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology
Keywords: China
Publication Number: 1446079
ISBN: 978-0-549-14718-3
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