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China's inner Asian border with Russia: what does it reveal about relations between the two countries?

The China Centre lecture on Thursday 6 May 2021 was delivered by Professor Dame Caroline Humphrey, Sigrid Rausing Professor of Collaborative Anthropology (Emeritus) and Founder & Research Director, MIASU (Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit), University of Cambridge.

Professor Dame Caroline Humphrey's lecture addressed the anthropology of ethnic minorities along China’s 2600 mile border with Russia. She examined the transformation that has taken place in recent years in the lives of the Buryat, Tungusic and Hezhe minority peoples. She contrasted the radically different experience of minority groups on either side of the border. On the Chinese side there has taken place rapid modernisation including the construction of modern transport systems and cities such as Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia. Extensive rural-urban migration has radically changed the nature of work and social life for many of the national minority communities, resulting in ‘spatial disorientation’ with the disappearance of traditional landmarks. On the Russian side of the border infrastructure is decaying. The Russian population in the Far East is declining from natural causes as well as out-migration from the region. It is difficult to attract investment to the region.

Despite practical difficulties in crossing the border through formal channels, some minority groups have maintained and enhanced their cross-border inter-action. Among the Buryats large semi-spontaneous Buddhist festivals have emerged, coordinated through social media and modern communications technology. Participants travel long distances along ancient routes and eschew modern transport systems.

Issues discussed in the Q&A session included the revival of Buddhism among the region’s national minorities, the relationship between Buryat and Tibetan Buddhism, population change in northeast China, and the role of infrastructure to the border region’s development.

Caroline Humphrey, FBA, is an anthropologist who has worked in Russia, Mongolia, China (Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang), India, Nepal and Ukraine. She has researched a wide range of themes including Soviet and post-Soviet provincial economy and society; Buryat and Daur shamanism; Jain religion and ritual; trade and barter in Nepal; environment and the pastoral economy in Mongolia; and the history and contemporary situation of Buddhism, especially in Inner Mongolia. She has written on inequality and exclusion; the politics of memory; naming practices; ethics and conceptions of freedom. Recent research has concerned urban transformations in post-Socialist cities (Buryatia; Uzbekistan, Ukraine). Currently she is developing a research project on socio-political interactions on the Russian–Mongolian–Chinese border.

Caroline Humphrey's PhD (1973) from the University of Cambridge was on 'Magical Drawings in the Religions of the Buryats', supervised by Edmund Leach. Since 1978 she has held appointments in the Department of Social Anthropology (Cambridge). Together with Urgunge Onon she founded the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU) in 1986. She retired from her post as Sigrid Rausing Professor of Collaborative Anthropology, University of Cambridge in October 2010 and became Director of MIASU.

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