The Cultural Politics of Ethnic Identity in Xishuangbanna, China: Tea and Rubber as “Cash Crops” and “Commodities”

Janet C. Sturgeon


In 2003, the poverty alleviation bureau in Xishuangbanna, China, introduced tea and rubber as cash crops to raise the incomes of ethnic-minority farmers who were thought to be backward and unfamiliar with markets. Using Marx’s commodity fetish and Polly Hill’s critique of “cash crops”, this paper analyses the cultural politics of ethnicity for Akha and Dai farmers in relation to tea and rubber. When the prefecture government introduces “cash crops”, the state retains its authority as the dispenser of knowledge, crops and modernity. When tea and rubber become commodities, however, some of the symbolic value of the commodity seems to stick to farmers, making rubber farmers “modern” and tea farmers “ethnic” in new ways. Through rising incomes and enhanced identities, Akha and Dai farmers unsettle stereotypes of themselves as “backward”. As a result of income levels matching those of urban middle-class residents, rubber farmers even challenge the prevalent social hierarchy.

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