Buddhism, Economy and Gender among the Tai Lue of Sipsong Panna (P.R. China)

Sipsong Panna (Chin.: Xishuangbanna) is a rapidly transforming, multi-ethnic region in Southwest China, host to the largest community of Theravada Buddhists in the country, the Tai Lue.

After being repressed during the Cultural Revolution, in the last decades monasticism has recovered its importance as a socializing discipline for young Tai Lue males. Concurrently, and pushed by sustained double-digit economic growth in China, Sipsong Panna has integrated in national and regional economic webs, becoming a key trade hub in the Economic Quadrangle formed by that country, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, and one of the fastest-developing areas in the region.

In an economic context dominated by Han Chinese businessmen and their relational networks, Tai Lue monks and former monks play a fundamental role as the group’s resilient cultural elites, promoting locals’ engagement with market economy, even becoming successful entrepreneurs themselves. However, the current prominence of these men obscures the fundamental role local women played in the traditional economies of Sipsong Panna, a reflection in turn of their relatively privileged position in long-standing kinship and gender regimes.

Taking into account historical articulations of gender and economic orders in Sipsong Panna, this project aims at offering an ethnographically informed exploration of the contemporary interplay between religion, economic action, and imaginings of femininity and masculinity in this thriving frontier where China meets Southeast Asia. Can the economic endeavours of Tai Lue religious specialists realize their potential to subvert inter-ethnic symbolic hierarchies? What kind of innovative and idiosyncratic transformations occur in vernacular gender orders in Sipsong Panna, in a context of intense material and symbolic transactions between local, national and global spheres?