Prof. Yu Shuenn-Der

Grandma uses pebbles to count her circuits around the stupa. We meet Grandma on entering Guji Station. She is chanting her mantra and processing in a circle around the village’s white stupa. The eldest among her siblings, whose parents passed away when she was only nine years old, Grandma is now 78. She has remained single and spent decades taking care of her families. Now her great grand-nephew is of age to inherit the family responsibilities and she can finally retire. She spends most of her day time circling the white stupa, 250 rounds in the mornings and 200 in the afternoons; each session takes three to four hours.

Her family was the first to settle in the Guji valley about 150 years ago. Two other families quickly followed. With Grandma’s own household and another also dividing into two during her father’s generation, Guji has sustained a total of five households for at least sixty years. She says Guji valley was a forest when her family first settled there. The first three households cleared the land and raised livestock like most Tibetan families. After her family divided, villagers reached an agreement that the total number of households in Guji should remain at five, since the natural resources in the area could not support more family divisions or new settlers — either would increase pressure on current family livelihoods. We interviewed other households and the villagers’ consensus was confirmed. It was surprising to find such an explicit and conscious statement relating kinship practice to the exploitation of the natural environment in a community we often consider “traditional.”

Grandma explains that “too many yaks but too little land” was the reason behind the consensus. She points out that when her family had around thirteen yaks, the forest still occupied part of the valley; thirteen was what the available farm land could support since they needed enough barley straw from raising grain to feed the yaks over the winter when grasslands were covered by snow and ice. More farmland became available in the 1960s when the government chopped down most of the remaining trees in the valley to make charcoal. Today, Grandma’s household works 23 mu of land (one mu is equivalent to one fifteenth of a hectare) and owns thirty-something yaks. The reason why their farmland is less than the average, 30 mu, is because the family sold 7 mu to CERS. Other than the family at the top of the valley, the other four Guji households raise on average around 35 yaks.

For Tibetans living in this part of the world, yaks are indispensable. They produce milk for yogurt, butter, and cheese to consume and for sale; they plow the land and are themselves commodities to be sold when the family is in great need of cash. Yaks, along with houses and land, are key properties for Guji Tibetans. They can even be considered a kind of “capital” in today’s parlance, since they are both a means of production and can be easily converted to cash. Gnya’ dud tsang (meaning the household on the top) is the richest household in Guji. Even though the gravel plant they opened five years ago brings in cash in daily basis, this family still keeps more than a hundred yaks.

CERS in Guji, at far left facing Kawa Karpo. The Gnya’ dud tsang has been able to accomplish this accumulation of property, I believe, because the last two generations have practiced polyandrous marriages. Polyandry allows household property remain intact, as brothers, who share a wife, engage in different economic activities. Studies show that Tibetan kinship system is extremely flexible; Tibetans often adopt what works the best for the long-term survival and prosperity of the household. Some experts have used the concept “house society,” developed by the French anthropologist Levi-Strauss, to explain Tibetans’ flexible kinship strategies and marriage arrangements that always focus on concern for the family estate. Polyandry is one of these strategies. Villagers often refer to the size of household members to their economic situations. Having enough labor was historically the key to success in a subsistent-oriented economy and has remained crucial in Tibetans’ engagement with the modern economy today.

There has also been a strong preference for sons to be the family heir in Guji and Deqin in general. It is said that male labor is more important to the peasant household economy. If a family has only daughters, there is less urgency around keeping all of them in the household. This explains why we see mainly fraternal polyandry and few polygynies in the Deqin area. In Guji there have been five polyandrous marriages in the last fifty years, and the practice has actually increased in frequency in the past ten years, when three such marriages involved parties currently in their twenties and thirties. This was one more such marriage than happened in their parents’ generation. In other words, we continue to see Guji households fall back on this arrangement to abide by the agreement that ‘no further family division’ would occur. They not only maintain a balance with their environment but are also in a better position to adapt to the modern world. Having two or three adult males in the family allows them to more easily participate in the modern economy, whether working as drivers and hotel waiters, or operating their own businesses when an opportunity presents itself.

The nearby village of Wunongding provides a pointed contrast to Guji. Wunongding has twenty-two households, five of which emerged in the last eight years due to family divisions. As a result, the average mu of farmland and yaks owned are many fewer than those owned by Guji households. We were told, also by a local elderwoman, that over the years there have been only three polyandrous marriages in Wunongding. Her impression is that Guji is better off; villagers own more land, yaks, and are more prosperous.

We also visited Lashuei, which consists of seven households and is located down in the valley near Guji. We were told, this time by a local senior, that his household has not divided for seven generations, and instead had arranged at least two polygynous marriages and one polyandrous marriage, in the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations. These had kept the family wealth intact. He stressed that his family is much better off than the other six households that divided from two original households. His explanation reiterated a point we had often heard before: if households are divided, the family’s strength is scattered.

Another senior woman once married to three brothers, two of whom have passed away. However, we are seldom aware that this has long been an embedded problem for patrilineal Han Chinese, when during family succession, properties are equally divided among brothers. Despite the fact that poverty and the dispersal of family capital is a common result of this kinship practice, Han Chinese have always accepted it as customary without being aware of the problems it creates, while Tibetan polyandrous marriages, which may in fact be more “rational,” have always been considered exotic and even backward by outsiders.

Kinship has been considered among the traditional cultural practices increasingly seen as irrelevant when modern institutions, like administration, law, and market economy, take control. This has been the rationale behind the argument that certain traditional (or “feudal”) practices should be replaced by modern ones. Nonetheless, Guji is a vivid example of how a traditional practice helps its cultural members adjust to the modern economy. Particularly interesting about Guji is that the ongoing practice of this kinship strategy has been enforced by a long-term consensus that is based in a self-interested stewardship of the local environment.

I believe Guji’s peculiar agreement is likely to be continued, at least in the near future. However, the area faces great challenges. The government plans to build a dam that will supply water to meet the ever-increasing demands brought by tourism and urban development. We saw workers doing geological excavation at the north end of the valley. This is not a project Guji villagers like to see, but they may have to accept it under pressure from the local government. Villagers also point out that there has been less rain in the last few years and they no longer rely on their farmland to produce foods for daily consumption like they used to. As their engagement with the cash economy has increased in recent years, they actually feed most of what they produce on their land to the livestock and purchase foods for themselves from the market. They still plow the land as they used to in the autumn, but things have very much changed. The old agreement seems to be taking on modern meanings as when the village head explained to me why villagers still prefer to enforce the consensus. He interprets the benefit of ‘no further family division’ in terms of subsidies received from the government and the Songtsam Meili Hotel; that is, with more households, shares will be smaller. I asked the village head whether he would sell his farmland if a new investment project came to him. He replied that if other households did the same, he would certainly jump at the opportunity. Without reservation, he points out the dangers of what Marxist anthropologists often call the continuing penetration of the capitalist economy, which is, ironically, a problem few care about today in this supposedly Communist society.

We again see Grandma circumambulating the village stupa as we take leave of Guji. Om Ma Ni Pê Mê Hum, the six word mantra, is her prayer for religious liberation, not practical gain. I think I will need to adopt this same attitude when I revisit Guji in the future.