Author Biography

This submission is the property of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies (ANHS).


In 1999 China launched its Open Up the West campaign which was designed to change the economic face of the country’s Western regions. Left behind in the economic progress the country’s East had made since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms the West was defined in Chinese official and academic discourse as a case of chronic underdevelopment: technologically backward, lacking infrastructure and education, with its inhabitants’ living standards much below the average. The reasons for this situation were identified, and a cure prescribed: the Open Up the West campaign with the state’s intensive investments in the region was to lift it to a higher level of development. Apart from the state investments coming with this new campaign some regions of the West were fortunate enough to have another stimulus for changing the economic fate and raising the standard of life of their inhabitants. The Caterpillar fungus trade which gained a rather unexpected importance in the last decade turned out to be a hen laying golden eggs for Tibetans living in pastoral areas of West China. Importance of the caterpillar fungus income manifested both in the local economy and social life has been commented upon by a number of authors within and outside China. However, on the level of every-day functioning of Tibetan households in the areas blessed with this new ‘cash fungus’ this importance remains surprisingly understudied. This paper brings the discussion about the caterpillar fungus boom to the level of household economies to show how is its impact felt on this grassroots level. It is based on an anthropological fieldwork (which is proposed to lead to a Ph.D. degree) conducted by the author since 2007. The case study area is located in Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai province, in a township whose fame for the quality and abundance of the caterpillar fungus resources stretches far beyond the prefecture’s borders attracting numbers of gatherers from all over the province. Gathering and sale of the fungus, as well as leasing the land use rights to gatherers, bring for the local nomadic pastoralists an income of unprecedented size, unmatched by anything else available to the rural population of Golok. Data gathered in a household survey will be used in this paper to discuss several issues. The paper will start with analyzing the households’ budgets and comparing the scale of the caterpillar fungus related earnings to income from other sources. The households’ investments will be discussed, and the families’ material possessions contrasted with the data available from other Tibetan rural areas, which did not at the time or do not have access to the fungus. The paper will show how the availability of this new source of income changes the local nomadic pastoralists’ ways of managing livestock production which, prior to the boom, was the main fuel for their households’ budgets. Different decisions made regarding yak and sheep production will be shown on examples of gathered statistical data and put in a context of the pastoralists’ own cultural and economic rationale. Moving beyond the commonplace statements of the importance caterpillar fungus has for the local economy this paper brings detailed data on developments in a pastoral region which for long featured in the official statistics in the tail of the country’s economic indexes. Although in the last decade state investments have been influential in changing the economy of the area the changes discussed in this paper have been possible due to the emergence of the new caterpillar fungus-related economy rather than done with the centrally assigned assets. This paper brings comparative data for studying economic performance and social change throughout pastoral and, wider, rural Tibet in the first decade of the Open Up the West campaign.


I would like to express my gratitude to the organizers of the panel “Social, Political, Economic, and Environmental Change Amidst Development in Tibetan Areas” of the 12th Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies in Vancouver, Canada, for inviting me to contribute my paper to this post-conference volume. I should also give my credits to the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst for granting me funding to take part in the Vancouver IATS Seminar, which, due to difficulties in time scheduling, I was finally unable to attend. My thanks go also to my friends Sonamkyid and Damba Darje who gave me home and helped in gathering data presented here, and to all who helped giving this paper its final shape: Ken Bauer and Angus Cargill for editing the paper, Melvyn Goldstein for his invaluable comments and directing me onto the path of quantitative research, Dorji Dhradhul and Tshitila for supplying me with comparative material from Bhutan, my colleagues Diana Altner, Shiva Devkota, Norbet Maczey and Daniel Winkler for being always willing to discuss my field results and, last but not least, to my father Antoni Sułek who consulted many of my problems with evaluating the gathered data.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.