8-9 December – Steppe Road: Mongolia’s Connectivity in Eurasia: an International Symposium

November 23rd, 2015 by anna.c

Steppe Road: Mongolia’s Connectivity in Eurasia

8-9 December 2015

In September 2014, upon Mongolia’s initiative, heads of state of Mongolia, China and Russia met during the SCO Summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and agreed to work together on transnational infrastructure development. The three parties agreed in principle to build a ‘Steppe Road’ in Mongolia, reviving a pre-modern transport network that facilitated trade between China and Russia. ‘Steppe Road’ thus represents a breakthrough in Mongolia’s longstanding self-perception of tragic geography, stepping out into the centre of the emergent world traffic.

This international symposium will bring together Mongolian and international scholars and policy-makers to assess the development of Steppe Road in relation to the Chinese initiative of Silk Road Economic Belt, and Russia’s Eurasian Transport Network. We aim to reconceptualise Mongolia’s geopoliticality as a ‘transit nation’ between China and Russia, and promote Mongolia’s zam sudlal (‘roadology’) to make zam (‘road’) into both an object of study and a prism to view Mongolia in terms of Mongolia’s ‘connectivity’ to its neighbours and the world beyond. This is going to be the third (and last) conference of ‘Entangled Lines: Railways, Resource Booms, and Transnational Politics in Mongolia’ — a British Academy funded international network and mobility project between the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (Cambridge University), and Institute of International Affairs (Mongolian Academy of Sciences).

For further information please email eaup2@cam.ac.uk


Chadwick Room

Selwyn College

Grange Road

Cambridge CB3 9DQ

Seminar – 1 December – Dan Smyer-Yü

November 17th, 2015 by anna.c


Tuesday 1 December

4.30–6.00 Mond Building Seminar Room

Dan Smyer-Yü

Centre for Trans-Himalayan Studies, Yunnan Minzu University

Post-Orientalist Perceptions of Tibet

Tibet has a frequent appearance in global discourses of humanitarian issues, climate changes, environmental conservation, peace-building, religion-science dialogue, social engagement of Buddhism, creative arts, and New Age Spiritualty in the twenty-first century. It continues to spark imaginations of all sorts globe-wise. Scholarly critiques of “the imagined Tibet” as a popular cultural trend were initiated in the 1990s to de-essentialize the idealized image of Tibet and Tibetans. It undoubtedly has critical impact on the public understanding of Tibet in the modern context; however, it is also noticeable that the initially intended de-essentializing effort is evolving into a recognizable essentialization of those who have strong interest in Tibetan culture, religion, and environment. This talk, based on one of the themes in the author’s book, is intended to critique how the power-representation discourse adopted from Edward Said’s Orientalism is utilized in the context of modern Tibetan studies. Through case studies of perceptions of Tibet in China and the West, it proposes a post-Orientalist perspective from which the unique landscape of Tibet is understood as the foundation for a type of topophilia, which antecedently triggers what scholars characterize as “imagination,” “fantasy,” or “hallucination.”

Lunchtime Seminar – 17 November – Sakura Christmas

November 10th, 2015 by anna.c

A lunchtime seminar will be held in the Mond Building Seminar Room, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RF

Tuesday 17 November 2015, 12.00–1.00

All welcome

Sakura Christmas

Bowdoin College, Brunswick (ME)

Hybrid Sheep in the Alfalfa Empire:
Rationalizing the Steppe in Occupied Inner Mongolia, 1920–1940

This paper examines how the ethnic and ecological contours of eastern
Inner Mongolia were formed in its collision with the Japanese empire.
It focuses on a region of overlapping Chinese, Mongol, and Tungusic
communities where state planners of occupied Manchukuo set up an
experiment in “autonomous” rule in 1932. Known as Khinggan
Province, it would serve as one blueprint for Inner Mongolia, the
first autonomous region founded in 1947, two years before the
People’s Republic of China existed.

Like the Third Reich laying claims to the “eternal forests” of the
Germanic soul, Japanese imperialists pursued their ethnic origins in
the primordial nature of the Asian continent. What they found in
eastern Inner Mongolia in the early twentieth century, however, was a
“dying race” of nomads being dispossessed of their communal lands
by Chinese settlers. This paper looks at how ethnicity and environment
became conflated in such a way that the subsequent Japanese project to
“revive” Mongols also led to forbidding land reclamation and
encouraging pastoral practice on what remained of the steppe. By the
1930s, though, this program sought to eliminate the nomadic features
of herding because its imperial architects did not see seasonal
migration as a “rational” use of resources, but rather, the root
of overgrazing and land degradation in Inner Mongolia.

Such dramatic and sweeping claims by the imperial state did the
political work of motivating grassland protection policies in
rearranging the livelihoods of herders in the Mongolian territories.
Japanese experimental farms began disseminating alien grasses and
hybrid animals whose intensive care demanded sedentary patterns of
livelihood, undercutting nomadic practice over time. The introduction
of alfalfa and merino from idealized landscapes of Australia and North
America fostered these ecologies of betrayal: while the steppe would
continue to look like the steppe, the resultant scientific
stock-farming would also transform an underlying ecology of
transhumance into one of sedentary extraction.

Seminar – 10 November – Fernanda Pirie

November 2nd, 2015 by anna.c


Tuesday 10 November

4.30–6.00 Mond Building Seminar Room

Fernanda Pirie

University of Oxford

Rules, Numbers, and Lists:
Legal Order in Historic and Contemporary Tibet

Law and legalism often seem elusive on the Tibetan plateau. Not only was there no institutionalised legal system in traditional Tibet, and hardly any general law-making, but even local rules and agreements were often barely legalistic. Many ostensibly legal documents, from those establishing general laws or monastic rules, to individual records and agreements, mixed the legalism typical of legal forms—the use of precise terms, abstract categories, and generalizing rules—with the very different language of metaphor, simile, and aphorism. Although such documents often appeal to Buddhism,  its deities and moral principles, this does not seem wholly to explain the appeal of imprecision, analogy, and concrete imagery in documents establishing tax regimes, property relations, and forms of debt bondage. In this presentation I seek to shed some light on these phenomena with an example from contemporary Amdo (eastern Tibet) where nomadic pastoralists still engage in blood feuds and appeal to both legalistic rules and elaborate, metaphorical rhetoric during the elaborate processes by which they settle conflict. I suggest that the contrast between the two ways of thinking about and describing the world—legalism and metaphor—reflects broader tensions between practices of discipline and defiant individualism in the lives of the nomads and in the history of their tribes. This might, in turn, reveal something about the role of law within wider Tibetan societies.

Seminar – 27 October – Bryan Miller

October 20th, 2015 by anna.c


Tuesday 27 October

4.30–6.00 Mond Building Seminar Room

Bryan Miller

University of Oxford

Configurations of Steppe Urbanism: Permanent Centres of Pastoral Polities in Mongolia

Despite productive developments in archaeological approaches to urbanism, the study of constructed centers among steppe nomadic groups continues to receive cursory attention. Although the development of permanent centers of intensive social, economic, and ritual activities are often deemed incompatible with mobile lifeways and systems of pastoral production, revised considerations of the structures and environs of walled sites in early Inner Asia provide alternative notions of urban developments. Through a functional approach to urban centers and their sprawls, I propose that permanent settlement sites of the Xiongnu nomadic empire (2nd c. BCE – 2nd c. CE) were in fact complex built environments configured as expanded spatial occupations incorporating ritual arenas, production facilities, and key pastures. The case of central ‘urban’ places among early Inner Asian nomads thus highlights both the potency of urbanism approaches for studies of societal developments among steppe pastoralists and the potential for such groups to alter our understandings of the emergence and development of urban settings.