A few days ago I posted several images of Sipsongpanna, taken during my recent (brief) visit there. My selection of images was intended to raise questions about Sipsongpanna’s cultural characteristics. I deliberately chose Han Chinese and modernist images to serve as a contrast with common representations of Sipsongpanna as a site of trans-border “Tainess” (representations that are often promoted by a new generation of pan-Thai intellectuals in Thailand). One reader, quite fairly, responded:
Andrew, I believe I get your point, but this is not all there is to it, right?
Right! I have no intention of denying the contemporary salience of “Tai-ness” in Sipsongpanna but the economic, demographic and social transformations that are taking place there invite new ways of thinking about culture in frontier regions. Is “Han” culture any less a legitimate and authentic part of the culture of Sipsongpanna than “Tai” culture? Are ethnic categories like “Han” and “Tai” really a useful way of understanding long-standing cultural dynamism? No doubt, ethnic markers are deployed in all sorts of official, unofficial, private and public situations but it would be interesting to see what sort of view of the region emerged from a conceptual framework that did not take ethnic categorisation as its starting point. It wouldn’t be easy given the extent to which Sipsongpanna (and Yunnan more generally) is saturated with the discourse of ethnicity, but it’s worth a try!