Beyond Borders: Stories of Yunnanese Chinese Migrants of Burma (Book Review)

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08/02/20 International Studies Reference this

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Chang, W. (2015). Beyond borders: Stories of Yunnanese Chinese migrants of Burma. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

 There has been a recent increase in the demand for literature studying ethnic Chinese societies in different host countries. In response to this call for research, Dr. Wen-Chin Chang explores the lived experiences of Yunnanese Chinese Migrants of Myanmar (Burma). Chang is a Research Fellow at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. Over the past two decades, she has been consistently studying the Yunnanese Chinese in Myanmar (Academia Sinica). Her 2015 book, “Beyond Borders,” is a result of 36 months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork taking place between 1994 and 2010. In this book, Chang studies the transnational lives, migration history, and the involvement in transborder trading of Yunnanese Chinese migrants through personal narrative accounts. This book is a valuable contribution to the field of migration research as it studies an active transnational migration network of the ethnic Chinese diaspora in a country which is not a traditional destination for immigrants.

 The book is divided into two themes, migration history, and transnational trade. Four chapters are categorized under the first theme of migration history. Three of these chapters are single person-centered accounts narrated by migrants, and one is a chapter on Islamic transnationalism among Yunnanese Muslims. There are three chapters under the second theme of transnational trade. These chapters explore the lived experiences of migrant caravan traders, Yunnanese women traders, and Yunnanese participation in the transnational jade trade. The central thesis of the book is that travel is essential to the opportunities and success of the migrant Yunnanese people. Although they are all Yunnanese people who spent at least a period of their lives in Myanmar, the informants interviewed come from different walks of life. The informants include refugees, merchants, former muleteers, laborers, students, and soldiers in the war-torn borderland states of Myanmar.

 “Beyond Borders” gives the readers an in-depth insight into the complex and multifaceted relationships between the repeatedly displaced migrants and other ethnic groups they encounter during their migration journey. Yunnanese migrants mentioned in this book have to regularly interact with both the ethnic majority Burmans and relatively more established ethnic minority groups of Myanmar such as Shans, Kachin’s, Pa-O’s and Wa’s. These four groups, although being ethnic minorities, are relatively more established in the borderland states of Myanmar since the central government had always recognized them as Burmese citizens in the national constitution. The Yunnanese are not a recognized minority group. Therefore, they face extra marginalization while living in Myanmar. This out-group marginalization is the underlying theme of the author’s main arguments throughout the book.

 Chang argues that the Yunnanese Han and Yunnanese Muslim migrants have been socio-politically marginalized by both the central government and ethnic rebel militia. Migrating to or being born in the borderland states of Myanmar, such as the Kachin and Shan states, most Yunnanese migrants are exposed to the incessant political unrest and civil wars between the Burmese military and ethnic militia. She states that this constant instability in their lives forces them to continually redefine their conditions of survival. The author gives heavy praise to how these migrants established themselves in Myanmar and later in other host countries in order to transcend their marginalized status in the country.

 “Beyond Borders” explores the political interactions between the Yunnanese migrants and the Burmese and ethnic militia, especially in the first and third chapters of the book. The informants whose stories were highlighted in these chapters are highly involved in borderland politics. These informants, like many of the Yunnanese migrants, were members of the Kuomintang (KMT) army, which is a Chinese nationalist party that fled from Yunnan to Myanmar due to their defeat to the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) in the Chinese Civil War of the 1950’s. The KMT maintained two army bases in Myanmar led by the Yunnanese migrants. Chang explores how affiliation with these army bases offered much-needed traveling opportunities for the success of migrants. She also mentions that most of the Yunnanese migrants, especially in borderland villages, were able to maintain their language, values, culture, and traditions because of the security provided by the KMT.

 While it is impressive that the Yunnanese migrants managed to maintain their traditions over several generations after initial migration to Myanmar, lacking minimal assimilation as expected by the host hospitality had contributed to the worsening of already existing socio-economic marginalization of the Yunnanese community. Unlike other ethnic Chinese populations settling in urban areas of lower Myanmar, the Yunnanese Chinese migrants impose stricter nationalist identities and values to their younger generations. For instance, the first-generation migrants controlling that children could only go to Chinese schools which are not recognized as formal education in Myanmar has negatively impacted the second and third generations. Upon graduation from these Chinese high schools disguised as Buddhist and Confucianist temples, young Yunnanese migrants face pressure to migrate to more developed Chinese speaking host countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. All of Chang’s informants were able to migrate to those countries, either permanently or temporarily. However, not all Yunnanese in Myanmar were fortunate enough to do so. Some of the informants’ stories offer a glimpse into the much more deteriorated socio-economic status of their family members who lacked resources and opportunities to migrate abroad upon the completion of Chinese education in Myanmar. Incorporating studies of such individuals’ lived experiences in Myanmar would have made Chang’s research more inclusive and representative of the Yunnanese migrant experience in Myanmar.

The author did not mention how and why she chose the informants she interviewed. This is problematic since she occasionally generalizes the Yunnanese migrant experience based on the personal narratives of her interviewees. According to the personal accounts in “Beyond Borders,” some informants mentioned that they temporarily moved in with their relatives in bigger cities of Myanmar such as Taunggyi and Lashio (both in Shan State). Per their accounts, these relatives seem to be settled in Myanmar permanently instead of trying to expand their travels to Chinese-speaking host countries. It is also apparent throughout the narratives that there are some Yunnanese migrants who got into interracial marriages with local ethnic groups despite the strong opposition from the Yunnanese community. Chang could have made her study more representative of the different experiences Yunnanese migrants by interviewing such individuals who choose to permanently settle in Myanmar and those who get into interracial relationships with locals such as the Burmans, Shan’s, Kachin’s, and Pa-O’s. Instead, Chang chose to only focus on the Yunnanese from Myanmar whose life stories fit perfectly into her thesis: travel is an essential part of migrant success.

Another theme that occurs throughout the chapters is the importance of opium and jade trades for the survival of the Yunnanese migrants. Chang eloquently describes how many of the migrants became involved in the illegal and highly dangerous transborder opium and jade trade due to the lack of economic opportunities in borderland Myanmar. However, one trade Chang conveniently does not mention as the economic activity of the migrants is their well-known involvement in human trafficking (Santasombat 2016). Understandably, migrants who engage in this trade must be harder to find and might be unwilling to participate as informants in Chang’s study. However, since it is common knowledge in host countries such as Myanmar and Thailand that the Yunnanese are involved in human trafficking, Chang should have at least made a note of this fact in order to provide a more accurate picture of the Yunnanese economic activity in the borderlands to the readers.

Regardless of the shortcomings mentioned above, Chang’s “Beyond Borders” encourages readers to challenge the mainstream ideas that immigrants always flock to major cities and developed countries since borderlands are periphery to state politics, remote, backward, and lawless (Chang 2015, p. 174). From all the personal accounts analyzed in Chang’s book, it is apparent that the borderlands between China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand serve as transborder major trading posts. Not only the Yunnanese but also the local populations of all four countries actively engage in economic activities in these areas. Especially in Myanmar, some police officers, military men, and government officials of non-Yunnanese ethnicities have been collaborating with the migrants in transnational trade since the beginning of Yunnanese migration to Myanmar. Even after migrants have moved to more developed countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, many choose to maintain property and business ties in these border areas for continuous involvement in highly profitable borderland trades. Chang’s work clearly explains the interconnected relationships migrants develop with local groups in ethnically divided Myanmar, thereby contributing to the sparsely studied Southeast Asian immigration literature.

The chapters on Islamic transnationalism among Yunnanese Muslims and Yunnanese women traders offer invaluable insight into the double marginalized migrant experiences that has rarely been explored before. Traditionally, Yunnanese women are expected to stay home and look after their family members while their husbands engage in long-distance caravan trades. The same expectations carry over generations of Yunnanese migrants in Myanmar. However, because of the civil unrest in borderlands in addition to the unpredictable nature of transnational trade, migrant men are away from home for several months, and sometimes years, at a time. This has led the women to step into economic roles against society’s expectations to support their families. Chang’s detailed study on migrant women’s participation in long-distance trade gives an opportunity for Yunnanese women to voice their gendered experiences with migration to a global audience. By detailing the double marginalization these women face because of their gender and ethnicity, Chang provides a valuable contribution to the immigration literature on women in Southeast Asia.

Chang also thoroughly examines a different kind of double marginalization faced by Yunnanese Muslims. The author interviewed several Yunnanese Muslim men and women in Myanmar. This population is doubly marginalized because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs. The author analyzes how migration has impacted them differently than it has on Yunnanese Han migrants. She also finds that the Han’s and the Muslims avoid inter-religious marriages regardless of their shared ethnic identities. The narratives of Yunnanese Muslims shed a light on the struggle and importance of simultaneously maintaining their Chinese and Muslim identities while living in a foreign land. Muslims have been mostly ostracized in Myanmar due to the rising Islamophobia. Chang adds to the literature by stating that Yunnanese Muslims are among the most marginalized in the country because not only non-Muslims but also Muslims of Indian origins in Myanmar discriminate against them. This shows the readers that migrants’ experiences might be much more multifaceted than they seem on the surface, especially in ethnically and politically divided host countries.

In the chapters on women traders and Yunnanese Muslims, the author successfully ties the narratives back to her thesis on the importance of travel for migrants. She introduces the concept of “intragroup nexuses” which are national and transnational networks based on references. These networks help migrants transcend the marginalization that otherwise limits them socially, economically, and politically. Throughout the book, the author clearly defines key terms and provides supplemental materials such as letters, photos, and maps as needed. The author is also transparent with the readers about the limitations of her ethnographic research. She recalls her feelings in the process of collecting life stories, thereby informing the readers of the researcher’s biases. Furthermore, she also notes that her gender had an influence on how informants responded to her: female respondents showed greater acceptance than their male counterparts. Including her personal experience as an ethnographic researcher, Chang’s work deems helpful for future researchers who aim to conduct field research in the same borderland areas.

Dr. Wen-Chin Chang’s “Beyond Border” is based on the analysis of 36 months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork on Yunnanese migrants’ experiences in Myanmar. This book is an original contribution to the study of politics since mainstream immigration literature tends to focus on developed Western states as destination countries. Chang’s work highlights Myanmar, a developing Southeast Asian state with constant political unrest serving as a popular destination state for the Yunnanese refugees. She further analyzes why the migrants choose Myanmar as their host country and how they try to successfully establish themselves in their new home whilst maintaining a strong in-group identity. The book offers detailed information regarding Yunnanese women traders and Yunnanese Muslims in Myanmar. This is very useful for future research since these two populations have not been studied thoroughly regardless of the important role they play in a transnational economy in Southeast and South Asia. Throughout the book, the author covers a wide range of factors that influence the migrants’ lived experiences ranging from cultural and religious activities to the ideological clashes between different generations of Yunnanese migrants in Myanmar. Therefore, “Beyond Borders” is a must-read for researchers who study the migrant of the Chinese diaspora in South and Southeast Asia.

References

  • Academia Sinica. (n.d.). Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences. Retrieved from https://www.rchss.sinica.edu.tw/people/bio.php?PID=45
  • Chang, W. (2015). Beyond borders: Stories of Yunnanese Chinese migrants of Burma. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Santasombat, Y. (2017). Beyond Borders: Stories of Yunnanese Chinese Migrants of Burma. Journal of Borderlands Studies, 1-2.
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