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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Socialism at the Margins: Politics, Identity, and Revolution on the Ethnic Frontiers of Mao-Era China
2: How Tibetan Merchants Helped Establish Chinese Communist Party Rule in Eastern Tibet
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Davidson College, United States
This paper analyzes the ideological, economic, and personal reasons why Tibetans from politically and economically influential families in Gyalthang (Zhongdian, contemporary Yunnan Province), joined the Communist Party in the spring of 1949. The Red Army passed through the ethnically diverse area of Gyalthang on the Long March in 1936, and over the next fourteen years, an underground branch of the Communist Party gained considerable support among the region’s wealthy merchants. Thirty young Tibetan, Naxi, Bai, and Han residents of Gyalthang joined either the Communist Party or the Youth League between 1949-1950, and their kinship ties to local religious and secular leaders paved the way for the People’s Liberation Army to enter Gyalthang six months later. English-language scholarship on recent Tibetan history has tended to center around narratives of victimization; this focus has led to the marginalization of more nuanced understandings of the region’s complicated past. Focusing attention on individual actors allows us to see the ways in which political calculations, revolutionary ideology, and economic considerations, played an important role in motivating Tibetans from powerful families to participate in the establishment of Communist rule. The sources utilized in this study include county and prefectural gazetteers compiled during the Communist period, draft copies of unpublished Party histories of the area, and interviews with Tibetan and Naxi descendants of early Communist Party leaders in Gyalthang.