Theses Doctoral

Tibet Incorporated: Institutional Power and Economic Practice on the Sino-Tibetan Borderland 1930-1950

Reynolds, Elizabeth Joy

This dissertation explores the path of Tibet’s economic integration with China in the first half of the twentieth century. It particularly examines the borderland region of Kham that encompasses parts of present-day Sichuan, Qinghai, and Yunnan. Drawing on borderland histories and bringing together Tibetan and Chinese archival sources, it focuses on indigenous institutions and local economic practices in order to demonstrate that the twentieth-century Sino-Tibetan integration was mediated primarily by Tibetan economic institutions and actors.

While previous scholarship has examined the history of Kham in relation to Chinese state-building practices, this dissertation acknowledges the equally important place of Tibetan state-building practices and their impact on the region. As a borderland, Kham was caught between two modernizing states with conflicting agendas. Understanding its economic history, I argue, requires a direct engagement with the Tibetan financial and monetary structures, taxation practices, and labor regimes that not only dominated life Kham but also conditioned the development of the Chinese state itself in the frontiers. Chinese officials frequently collided, clashed, and collaborated with local Tibetan leaders, while Chinese merchants and companies engaged in trade and partnered with and worked alongside Tibetan merchant companies, whose economic reach extended from Shanghai to Calcutta.

This dissertation focuses on four main institutions to rethink this history on the Chinese borderlands by focusing on the indigenous Tibetan institutions and structures: ulak conscript labor, currency, monasteries, and merchant companies. All four of these institutions were rooted in Tibetan socio-economic practices and were critical in the transformation of Tibetan society in the Sino-Tibetan borderland. The economic interconnectedness of the twentieth century and the increased links between Tibet and China brought a simultaneous and seemingly contradictory economic trajectory to Tibet. As the Chinese presence on the plateau increased, so did the power of Tibetan economic institutions, for the Chinese government, military, and merchants had to rely on them to exist. In a politically and economically fragmented environment, Tibetan institutions challenged state building efforts and thrived by asserting their own political, religious, and economic power across the Tibetan Plateau and beyond. A history of Tibetan economy as seen and written through the eyes of the Tibetans offers a new perspective to not only rethink modern Chinese history, but also the present day in which the Tibetan institutions still continue to mediate social and economic life on the fringes of the People’s Republic of China.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Tuttle, Gray
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 5, 2020