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Hacking the Yak: The Chinese Effort to Improve a Tibetan Animal in the Early Twentieth Century

Mark E. Frank

Abstract


This article considers the roles of yak bodies in relations between Han Chinese and Khampa Tibetan communities during the early twentieth century. It argues that bovine bodies were sites of Han-Tibetan interaction wherein culture, biology, and locality were intertwined. I chronicle the earliest large-scale engagement of the Chinese state with yak pastoralism in the context of its efforts to consolidate control over the eastern Tibetan region of Kham. Yak husbandry is traditionally an enterprise of Tibetans and other Himalayan ethnic groups, but the yak was targeted for ‘improvement’ by Han Chinese modernizers beginning in the 1930s. An effort to decouple the yak from its Tibetan cultural context at the Taining Experimental Zone saw mixed results. Livestock scientists there made modest gains in productivity, yet they did so by approximating to a high degree the nomadic mode of production from which they were attempting to extract the yak.

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