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Keywords:

  • regionalization;
  • China;
  • Laos;
  • Akha;
  • Tai;
  • cross-border rubber cultivation

This paper is a multi-sited ethnography of cross-border rubber cultivation between China and Laos. Smallholder minority rubber farmers from Xishuangbanna (China) have forged successful informal share-cropping arrangements to grow rubber trees on the land of relatives and friends in neighbouring Laos. By becoming rich and entrepreneurial rural citizens, Akha and Tai farmers have also, in their own eyes, raised their own ‘quality’ (suzhi) and see themselves as ‘modern’. By examining various meanings of ‘modern’ in China, and contrasting the rubber farmers' experience with Jacob Eyferth's notion of rural ‘deskilling’, this paper shows how through learning to plant, cultivate and tap rubber, these farmers have taken on the discipline and technical knowledge of ‘modern’ workers and become ‘skilled’. By rising in ‘quality’, minority farmers on China's periphery challenge the entrenched binaries of urban/rural, modern/backward, prosperous/poor and Han/minority nationality. Xishuangbanna minority farmers acknowledge that they are also ‘backward’ in the Chinese social hierarchy, but their extension of rubber cultivation to kin and others in Laos has confirmed their modernity as dispensers of development, technical know-how and ‘superior’ Chinese culture to Lao farmers who are ‘backward and poor’. In contrast to large state rubber farms that have failed to establish rubber plantations in northern Laos, minority farmers have created regionalization.