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VANDENABEELE, Valérie. 2019. La société d’après : politique sinotibétaine et écologie au Yunnan (Society Post-Pudacuo: Sino-Tibetan politics and ecology in Yunnan). Paris: Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre.

Katia Buffetrille
Translated by Elizabeth Guill
p. 61-62

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1This book is the fruit of a thesis defended at the University of Paris X-Nanterre in 2014. Valérie Vandenabeele studied Pudacuo 普達措, China’s first national park, situated in Kham, eastern Tibet (now the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 迪慶) and created on the initiative of The Nature Conservancy, a United States NGO. The author concentrated her research on three Tibetan villages, one situated inside the park and two others on its periphery.

2A general introduction is followed by three long sections. The first studies the way in which peripheral areas are integrated in the People’s Republic of China and presents the history of the region using the accounts of inhabitants and official annals, then goes on to examine the creation of the Shangri-la tourist park and its transformation into an “earthly paradise,” instrumentalising the cultural identity of Tibetans. The second section focuses on the Tibetan populations that live in the park and on its periphery, their traditional way of life as farmers and stock breeders, then their adaptation to the modern world and to the economy of tourism brought about by the creation of the park. The author questions “the tourist rhetoric based on the widespread cliché that Tibetan Buddhist beliefs include respecting other living beings and converge with conservation” (p. 221). The third and final section deals with the way in which the park was received in China, describing the process of its creation and the integration of the “local populations into contemporary society under cover of ecology and tourism” (p. 335).

3One cannot but congratulate the sinologist Valérie Vandenabeele for her choice of this innovative subject. However, since she neither speaks nor reads Tibetan, she has – with the exception of Western sources – based her work mainly on Chinese sources and interviews held in Chinese, which has led her to study this Tibetan territory through a Chinese prism, that is, that of the coloniser. Strongly Sino-centred references therefore lead her to place the Tibetans in the “Tang Era” (p. 48) rather than in their royal era and in “Yunnan” (p. 81) rather than in Kham, or, more seriously, to create amalgams between Chinese and Tibetan representations, such as this one on p. 25: “the Sinogram she, ‘society,’ which in the past designated ‘territorial god’ (...). Although this representation is conveyed by Chinese script, it should be seen in a Tibetan context where communities are also structured around ‘territorial gods.’” The author does not explain the precise way in which her Tibetan informants use the Chinese word she (do they know of this ancient meaning, or is it just her making the connection?), nor does she investigate the respective content of these representations. Yet the “territorial god” in Tibet has been thoroughly studied by, among others, the authors listed in the bibliography, who should have been read with greater attention. Amalgams such as these lead not only the reader astray, but also the author herself, who later tells us that according to the villagers of Hongpo 紅坡, their territorial god is a “demon” (p. 230), a term that Tibetans would never use for this god. Here again, rendering non-Chinese concepts and representations via Chinese proves limited.

4Moreover, on p. 2 0 we read that “the town of Shangri-la, the administrative centre of this prefecture and administrative centre of the district, was previously known under the Chinese name of Zhongdian,” and that in the late 2000s, “the specificity of the clothes and the visibility of Buddhism gave one the impression of being in Tibet.” Yet the region of Gyalthang – a toponym that appears for the first time on p. 70 – clearly belongs to the sphere of Tibetan culture, and its inhabitants never considered themselves within a Chinese frame of references. Lack of knowledge of the Tibetan world has led the author to describe the association of mountain and water (pp. 126 and 285) as “a perfect example of Chinese landscape” whilst in Tibet it represents the perfect example of a sacred place. Moreover, it is not because “the local populations cannot read Tibetan” (p. 120) that the inscriptions in this language are always smaller than the Chinese. The reason is simply that the language and writing of the coloniser take precedence over that of the colonised.

5A lack of rigour is at the root of anachronisms but also inaccuracies such as on p. 53, where we learn that the tenth Karmapa lived in the seventeenth century “between Lijiang and Shangri-la.” Although the choice of the very recent toponym of Shangri-la is perhaps understandable in a contemporary context, it is a pity that it is overused. Furthermore, the assertion (p. 61, and p. 61 n. 3) that “Lhasa was taken in three days (…) against which the Tibetan authorities had organised no resistance, since the Dalai Lama had already fled to India” is difficult to defend. Whilst it is true that the Dalai Lama did leave for Dromo (Yatung) in the valley of Chumbi (central Tibet) in the face of the Chinese advance in 1950, it was only in 1959 that he fled to India.

6The third section, which deals with the creation of the park, is by far the best. Valérie Vandenabeele explains the intrigues and issues surrounding the park, the objectives of the various players, and the methods they used to achieve them. The important role of the Diqing authorities and the benefit Beijing gained from opening this “national park with provincial status” are highlighted.

7Work based on Chinese sources would be totally legitimate provided it defined its boundaries more modestly, and was presented, for example, as an analysis of Chinese discourse and practices in a context of colonisation. It is more than regrettable that the author did not have the benefit of a codirection by a Tibetologist. Moreover, certain articles that might have given a Tibetan point of view on the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not consulted (Peter Schwieger 2010; 2011; 2016).

8Nonetheless, despite the weaknesses described above, Valérie Vandenabeele’s work has the merit of showing how economic development of the region has been achieved through the creation of Pudacuo Park, with the aim of attracting mass tourism but with no consideration whatsoever for environmental damage, and accompanied by the folklorisation of the local culture, a phenomenon that can be seen in other Tibetan regions.

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SCHWIEGER, Peter. 2016. “On the Exercise of Jurisdiction in South East Tibet after the Rise of the Dga’ ldan pho brang Government.” In J. BISCHOFF and S. MULLARD (eds.), Social Regulation: Case Studies from Tibetan History. Leiden: Brill. 126-50.

SCHWIEGER, Peter. 2011. “The Long Arm of the Fifth Dalai-Lama: Influence and Power of the Fifth Dalai Lama in Southeast Tibet.” In A. MCKAY and A. BALIKCI-DENJONNGPA (eds.), Buddhist Himalaya: Studies in Religion, History and Culture, Vol. I: Tibet and the Himalaya. Gangtok: Institute of Tibetology. 239-57.

SCHWIEGER, Peter. 2010. “Dynamic of Shangri-la or Turning the Prayer-Wheel for the Protection of the Multiethnic Society.” In J.L. ACHARD (ed.), Études tibétaines en l’honneur de Anne Chayet (Tibetan studies in honour of Anne Chayet). Dharamsala: Amnye Machen Institute. 269-78.

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Bibliographical reference

Katia Buffetrille, « VANDENABEELE, Valérie. 2019. La société d’après : politique sinotibétaine et écologie au Yunnan (Society Post-Pudacuo: Sino-Tibetan politics and ecology in Yunnan). Paris: Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre. », China Perspectives, 2020/4 | 2020, 61-62.

Electronic reference

Katia Buffetrille, « VANDENABEELE, Valérie. 2019. La société d’après : politique sinotibétaine et écologie au Yunnan (Society Post-Pudacuo: Sino-Tibetan politics and ecology in Yunnan). Paris: Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre. », China Perspectives [Online], 2020/4 | 2020, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 11 May 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Katia Buffetrille

Katia Buffetrille is a researcher at the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE), 4-14 rue Ferrus, 75014 Paris,

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