By Michael T. Heneise and Jelle J.P. Wouters
Imagine an Asia where trails and paths fork out uninterrupted by nation states, the stoppages of borders, and the daily geopolitics of border crossings, passport patrols, and custom checks. In such an Asia it would be possible for you – provided always that you possess extraordinary stamina and abundant time – to walk from Kyrgyzstan to Vietnam without setting foot in a single lowland. This contiguously hilly and mountainous expanse cuts across the traditional divides inherited from colonial and Cold War era divisions – Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent/South Asia, China/East Asia, Southeast Asia. Geographically and geomorphologically, it connects three adjoining massifs, namely the larger Pamirs, the Himalayan Massif + Tibetan Plateau, and the Southeast Asian Massif, including the hills and highlands of Southwestern China, and is estimated (conservatively so) to be home to well over 250 million inhabitants who adapted to “highland living” in an astonishing variety of ways. The introduction to The Routledge Handbook of Highland Asia, and the 31 chapters that follow, insist that this region should be affirmed and treated as a world-region in its own right. It is a region that we propose to call Highland Asia.
From the vantages of state, nation, and capital, these lands and peoples are alternately depicted in terms of authentic/exotic cultures, as sensitive geopolitical spaces, as remote peripheries to be developed, as realms of cultural deviance that need assimilation, as new resource and capitalist frontiers, and as dangerous smuggling routes and sanctuaries for rebels. However, as this book variously relates, such stereotypes are nowhere close to an adequate representation of the past, present, and envisaged futures of highlands, highlanders, and highland living. There once was an exception to the general misrepresentation of this region, as Stéphane Gross rightly pointed out in namely the French scholarly tradition of affirming Haute Asia (High Asia), including a chair in “Religions of China and High Asia” and a book series titled “Research on High Asia”, published by the French Ethnological Society. This scholarly tradition largely terminated in the 1970s.
Much of the impetus and inspiration for this project derives from the concept of Zomia, a term introduced by the maverick historian Willem van Schendel in “” (2002). Van Schendel questioned the spatialisation of social theory as arranged through “methodological nationalism” and politically implicated area-studies that made scholarship coalesce with lowland heartlands from which dependent arteries spread out into highland borderlands. In a sense, what had emerged was a scholarly mandala in which highlands progressively acquired analytical autonomy, yet in their final evaluation theorized back to a lowland centre it shared little in common with.
Van Schendel breathed into being in essence to both challenge and reassure area studies scholars straight-jacketed by an institutionally calcified vision of the world that took its shape amid processes of decolonisation at the end of the Second World War and was further reified during the Cold War; a vision that seemed to reflect less and less their fieldwork realities. The idea was to take the area studies institutional scaffolding upriver and allow the model to take root at the edges. Some years after Van Schendel proffered the term, Zomia was taken for a wild spin as a region of reactionary statelessness by James C. Scott in (2009); and then pruned, racked, and blended by Jean Michaud, particularly in “” (2010).
The proponents of Zomia have challenged us to rethink the pervasive model of seeing spaces through national boundaries and by default framing the world. Zomia has indeed helped us to view a part of the world, largely considered a periphery, in a logical way that challenges how people that have been invisible and opaque in modern historical writing, must now be taken seriously not only as a people with agency but also as a people who have the capacity to cultivate hope in a time when the threat of the national states and the global order is far reaching. As we build on the Zomia thesis, we not only hold to its broadest geographical configuration, but also suggest that its history – rich and important as it is – is not yet fully written. And in this sense we depart from Scott, who famously stated that “all bets are off” when applying his Zomia thesis to Asia’s contemporary highlanders. Now nearly two decades after Van Schendel first coined the term, the gradual ingress of oxygen has allowed us to address the more astringent critiques, and a rich corpus of Zomia research now available allows us to stand back, take stock, note its faults, but ultimately reflect on how it relates to, or informs, new configurations of space and spatialisation, including that of Highland Asia.
To think of Highland Asia as a world-region also crucially allows us to rethink global histories, variously in relation to ideas, flows, and frictions. While highlands and mountains today readily conjure images of isolation and remoteness, large swathes of Highland Asia were long connected by flows and drives of humans and the objects, ambitions, knowledge, beliefs, and fears they carried with them. And this network – piecemeal, dispersed, and linking oases, caravan cities, steppes, depots, mountain passes, gates, and corridors – connected peoples and polities across large distances. In the words of modern-day Silk Road traveler and writer, Colin Thubron (2008): “” Indeed, when we widen our historical lens, we recognize that for millennia highland Asians have connected far-flung regions through movements of peoples, goods, and ideas. This makes highland Asians as much movers and actors of global history as the European colonists, Indian intellectuals, Japanese imperialists, Mongol nomadic invaders, Buddhist monks, or Han and Arab merchants who occupy centre stage in global history.
Today’s often more limited readings of history that present Highland Asia as historically isolated and out-of-the-way is derivative of colonial encounters, Cold-War politics with its territorial rivalries, and postcolonial transformations and developments that jointly worked to reshuffle constellations of connectivity, remoteness, and isolation. To illustrate: the Wakhan valley was once a main gateway of economic and cultural exchange and used by travelers between East, South, and Central Asia. However, as part of the Pamir Boundary Commission protocols, which formally ended the so-called Great Game, Wakhan was reduced to a corridor and buffer between the Russian and British empires so that no boundaries would be shared between both adversaries, in the process reducing it to an isolated and remote frontier of Afghanistan.
This is just one example out of many. In fact, central to historical dialectics between connectivity and remoteness in Highland Asia was the colonial and postcolonial drawing and closure of borders and the cutting off of old routes of exchange. These were the eventual outcome of most political rivalries, rebellions, and revolutions and turned into the epic of Highland Asia’s modern geopolitical history. This is an epic of centres becoming margins and vice-versa, of corridors turning into remote frontiers, of mushrooming and mobile political borders, of increasingly ambitious and heavy-handed states coming eye-to-eye in the most unlikely of places (glaciers, mountain deserts, and forested hilltops) where they fence, trench, and garrison themselves in based on the firm belief that territorial sovereignty is best reproduced at the borders. To now think of Highland Asia as a world-region allows us to unearth and see the linkages, connections, and corridors that became blurred by exclusive visions of nation-states.
Besides movers and shapers of global history, Highland Asians have always also been political world-makers and thinkers in their own right, not just the rebels, refugees, actors of resistance, or timeless “primitives” influential socio-evolutionist traditions of scholarship have often reduced them to. Their political craftsmanship reveals itself as much in projects of state and empire-building, such as is central to Tibetan political history and the rise of upland monarchical rule in Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, as in polities brilliantly designed to resist predatory regimes of power and capital, with their loci in adjacent valleys and lowlands.
Premodern state projects repeatedly faltered at the hills, whether in Afghanistan, Northeast India, or the hills of Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Significantly, this was because forms of highland production, exchange, and thought were honed in ways that resisted domination by states and ruling classes. Some of these communities might have originated as runaways from oppressive state projects, as James C. Scott influentially argued, but many others have been in the hills for as long as their oral history can remember. But whether empire-builders, state resistors, rebels, or runaways, Highland Asians have for centuries, and to the present, been skilled and successful practitioners of political worldmaking and have existed sometimes in active connivance and connection, but often out of joint with the worlds created by contemporaneous lowland states and powers.
Combine all of the above: approaching highlanders as actors of global history and political designers sui generis, the linking of the massifs and Zomia perspectivism, and the cumulative knowledge value should be fresh and grounded theory-making that is not just “on” or “about” but also from and with the highlands. However, our comparative and theoretical apparatuses have been slow to catch up with the fresh highland ethnographic and other insights to be explained.What significantly thwarts such theoretical developments is the stubborn salience of the hill-valley/highland-lowland binary as a prime analytical trope, in the sense that most comparisons and theories continue to be developed in the lowlands and from where they are extended into the highlands, either to confirm or critique these theories. In this way, highland historical and ethnographic data have long been treated akin to erosion or mining, with them being extracted to feed the ever-hungry power grid of lowland hubs of social theory.
Said otherwise, akin to the ways in which the highlands are currently incorporated into the capitalist market, which is as a supplier of raw material, scholarship has long mined the highlands for raw data to test and illustrate theories from elsewhere.Thus, most social theorising is constructed and channelled through the lowland-highland binary, and this ultimately keeps in place the centrist, lowland ontology as the designer label of social theory.
If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that our historical and social analysis must be re-tooled because earlier modernisation discourses have fallen flat in the face of rapid, ideologically-driven geographical and geopolitical reconfigurations. The Asia of the future – modern, technologically advanced, politically pragmatic and increasingly ‘open for business’ – is not what it used to be. While Asia’s largest states still promote this old futurism, what is being experienced on the ground races in the opposite direction, and its deepening plights increasingly difficult to censure.
Climate change will undoubtedly pose the greatest challenge, as populations in increasingly hot, disaster-prone, and ultimately uninhabitable regions across Asia’s lowlands, seek better living conditions, largely in adjacent highlands. Temporary migratory patterns will turn to permanent settlements, and Highland Asia, as China’s and India’s supplier of water, will become their refuge – very likely the world’s greatest human refuge by the end of the century.
Is Highland Asia therefore important to study? We feel we make a compelling case, and very much look forward, in the coming weeks, months and years, to engaging scholars in debate and dialogue about this region, it’s importance as critical world region, historically and in the histories to come.
Michael T. Heneise is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. His work focuses specifically on dream experiences and dream narratives as sites of intersubjective encounter, negotiation, and sociopolitical agency. He has worked in Latin America, in Northeast India and more recently in the Norwegian Arctic. The founding director of the Highland Institute in Nagaland, he is co-editor of the journals Himalaya and Highlander.
Jelle J.P. Wouters is an anthropologist and teaches at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan. He is the author of In the Shadows of Naga Insurgency: Tribes, State, and Violence in Northeast India (OUP, 2018), the co-author (with Milinda Banerjee) of Subaltern Studies 2.0: Being against the Capitalocene (Chicago/Prickly Paradigm Press 2022), the editor of Vernacular Politics in Northeast India: Democracy, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity (OUP, 2022), and the co-editor (with T.B. Subba) of The Routledge Companion to Northeast India (Routledge, 2022).
Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta
Featured Image: Ze-Mnui (Yangkhullen), Manipur, India 2014. Courtesy of Tristan Heneise.