Contesting Border/Frontier Studies in China and Beyond: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Zomia as a Metaphor

Jinba Tenzin, National University of Singapore

Megan Bryson. Goddess on the Frontier: Religion, Ethnicity, and Gender in Southwest China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016. 264 pp. $60 (cloth).

Xiaofei Kang and Donald S. Sutton. Contesting the Yellow Dragon: Ethnicity, Religion, and the State in the Sino-Tibetan Borderland. Leiden: Brill, 2016. 494 pp. $202 (cloth/e-book).

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The scholarship on borders, frontiers, and margins in China and beyond has flourished in the last decade, reflecting an academic trend in anthropology, sociology, history, and other disciplines to restore the previously neglected, or "stolen," agency of marginal populations. Edward Said (1978), James Scott (1985), and the members of the Subaltern Studies Group (for instance, Gayatri Spivak [1987]) are among the most read and cited scholars who continue to inpire keen interest in challenging the dominant discourse and spotlighting agency at the peripheries. These so-called peripheries comprise diverse categories that derive from different statuses and roles regarding gender, secuality, ethnicity, caste, race,  class, colonialism, religion, political stance, the world order, and so on. Among the most-examined peripheries are borderlands/frontiers, due in large part to the fact that these regions often entail geographic inaccessibility, boundary crossing, political volatility (e.g., border conflicts), ethnocultural heterogeneity, autochthonous unruliness, and/or the target of the state civilizing mission. Two recent books--Contesting the Yellow Dragon and Goddess on the Frontier--reflect this academic current in China studies. Starting with these works, I will discuss the potential for an enhanced cross-disciplinary approach to borderlands (borders and margins at large) and reflect on the methodological dilemma created by striving to go beyond the circumscription of area studies (broadly defined here to include geopolitical, disciplinary, and thematic dimensions)...