MARK TURIN Himalayan Trade from Outside In



Wim van Spengen's thoughtfully researched and carefully-written monograph is a useful addition to the growing corpus of literature on the Tibeto-Burman peoples of the Himalaya and their economies. In 'Tibetan Border Worlds', the author's stated objective is to 'lay bare the geostructural characteristics of a particular regional history' (p.52), in this case that of the Nyishangba, an ethnically Tibetan trading community whose homeland is the Manang district of west-central Nepal.

© Mark Turin, 2001

In the first chapter, Van Spengen takes the reader on an intellectual journey through the various theories which engaged him prior to fieldwork, including his self-confessed 'flirtation with world-system theory' (p. 3). The author succinctly elucidates the strengths and weaknesses of a sometimes bewildering range of intellectual viewpoints (with a particular focus on Braudel and the Annales school) and concludes that 'we should avoid a situation in which theory becomes the weapon of argument' (p. 8). He also appears to suggest that geographers would do well to read a little anthropology and history: 'geography as a discipline has much to gain by a regional point of view in which the historical experience of human groups is thoroughly embedded' (p. 8) and even that they might 'think' more ethnographically when conducting their fieldwork, thereby restoring 'synthetic description to its proper place in regional geography' (p. 14).

With this theoretical backdrop, then, chapter two sets the historical and political scene. This section will be of greatest interest to readers unfamiliar with the details of the emergence of the Tibetan state and the often-changing alliances between rulers in the region, even though at points it reads rather like an annotated bibliography (cf. pp. 29-30). Following Macdonald, Van Spengen comes to the pertinent conclusion that in defiance of Chinese and Indian attempts to claim the area as their own, the 'Himalayan region has functioned in the past not merely as a barrier but as a geographical region in its own right' (p.50). The author's emphasis is welcome: Himalayan ethnic groups and their cultures are indeed viable cultural entities in their own right.

The following chapter deals with the regionality of Tibet. The author contends it 'never developed beyond a cell-like structure, dominated by a hierarchy of greater and lesser monasteries', at least in a 'regional-organizational sense' (p. 70). Van Spengen's argument is clear and convincing: he suggests that monasteries formed a 'substitute for urban life' and makes an insightful distinction between regional exchange and long-distance trade. Whereas the former had been linked to lesser monasteries, the latter had been concentrated in newer towns and large fairs. State formation, particularly in the nineteenth century, influenced trade flows and even reshaped the 'frontier' character of Tibet, which was being replaced by 'contending imperialist spheres of interest, ultimately leading to a Chinese-dictated Indo-Tibetan boundary in the Himalayan region' (p. 98).

Entitled 'The Geohistory of Tibetan Trade', chapter four offers a detailed account of barter and trade in tea, wool and luxury goods. Van Spengen demonstrates his wide reading and careful research by presenting fascinating examples and first-hand accounts of traders in the region. The contrast between the trade in tea, 'an inward-looking affair', with that of wool, 'an outwardly directed phenomenon' (p. 110), is an important one. The facts speak for themselves: by 1944, wool made up 90 per cent of Tibet's annual export some of it even reaching America (p. 118).

The involvement of organized religion with trade is also referred to in this chapter, but Van Spengen is careful not to jump to conclusions: 'It is quite likely, though not proven beyond any doubt, that the rise of the Gelukpa order in Central Tibet, and its consolidation into a kind of ecclesiastical state in the seventeenth century, was at least partly related to the wealth generated by long-distance trade' (p. 135). During this chapter, the emphasis has shifted from a discussion of traditional barter and exchange to an examination of the networks of long-distance trade. The scene is now set for the introduction of the protagonists: the Nyishangba of Manang.

In the style of a more traditional ethnographic account, chapter five locates the Nyishangba in their historical, geographical, and cultural setting. According to Van Spengen's analysis, trade became the 'single-most important determinant of village life' among the Nyishangba, almost an obsession which he sees as precipitating 'an overall decay' in more traditional life (p. 162). A feature particular to the Nyishangba, and therefore worthy of focus, is their 'southward-bound trading network' (p. 172) which existed on a far larger scale and much earlier than among other Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups, with the possible exception of the urban Newar.

The remaining chapters demonstrate how and to which extent the Nyishangba integrated themselves into wider trading networks in general, and into the Southeast Asian capitalist economy in particular. Only after individuals and small groups returned to Manang with money in their pockets and stories of trading possibilities beyond the border did larger groups set out to 'emerging centres of urban colonial activity' (p. 175) such as Calcutta, which by the 1920s had already become the single most-important site for Nyishangba traders. Transport technology also played a central role: what trains have done to facilitate intra-continental travel around 1900, planes achieved half a century later. In the 1950s, the trading horizon for many Nyishangba included previously unimaginable destinations such as Bangkok and Singapore. Van Spengen describes this period as one of 'incipient...capitalist activity in the fullest sense of the word' (p. 203). The Nyishangba position was further enhanced in the 1960s, when they benefited from government trade policies, thus profiting from the well-established networks, relationships and commercial infrastructures they had built throughout South and Southeast Asia. Van Spengen's account of the Nyishangba trading prowess extends to the late 1970s, by which time the most adventurous of the traders were making the most of the possibilities afforded by the growth of Hong Kong.

Although painstakingly researched and very well written, Tibetan Border Worlds is not free of problems. The most important issue is one of structure: the author has in fact written two equally interesting books, one on trade (the first 144 pages) and one on traders (the last 90 pages). Only in the very final pages of his study does he bring his theory and the wider context of Tibetan history together with the ethnography of the Nyishangba as a case-specific trading community.It does seem that Van Spengen has consciously opted to keep them apart until the end, a feature which may frustrate some readers. Adventure-story one-liners such as: 'this study is the outcome of a journey through lands but dimly known and books long shelved for posterity'(viii) and those about Tibet: 'on these high tablelands roam a few hardy nomads' (p. 18) may rankle with some Tibetologists, whereas the poor reproductions of the maps (p. 43 and 63) are a little off-putting in a geography book. Whilst the work is analytically written, it contains occasional lapses into generalizing soundbites and sometimes slightly obfuscating terminology.

The ethnographic component in Tibetan Border Worlds is based largely on a three-month fieldwork trip in 1981. The standard structure of such a book is such that history stops when ethnography takes over, so here the ethnography is in need of an update. Nineteen years is a very long time for a community of dynamic and fast-moving traders, and Nyishangba entrepreneurs are at present engaged in such diverse trades as pashmina export, Internet start-ups, hotel management, and money laundering. We can but hope that the author will find a way to return to the hills of Manang, to the carpet factories of Kathmandu and to the computer fairs of Southeast Asia and provide us with an insightful update into the lives of these unstoppable traders.

­ Spengen, Wim van, Tibetan Border Worlds: A Geohistorical Analysis of Trade and Traders, London: Kegan Paul International (2000), 307 pp.,
ISBN 0-7103-0592-3

Mark Turin is a member of the Himalayan Languages Project in Leiden University and is completing his doctoral research on the Thangmi language.