Trading Caterpillar Fungus in Golok, North-eastern Tibet. Socio-economic Networks and Change among Pastoralists during the Post-Mao Era


Emilia Roza SULEK

PhD defended at: 

Humboldt University of Berlin



The present boom in China’s national economy affects not only industrial cities and their inhabitants, but also rural populations in remote parts of the country who live off the land and function at the margins of the national and global market. In this dissertation I provide an example of how Tibetan pastoralists have taken advantage of Chinese market processes to develop their economic prosperity and accomplish their own goals.

The dissertation analyses a regional economic boom based upon the trade in caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), a traditional and now expensive medicinal resource, which witnessed a spectacular market career in China after the outbreak of avian influenza and SARS. Growing demand for this ‘wonder drug’ created attractive income opportunities for populations on the Tibetan plateau where this fungus is endemic. My research showed how Tibetan pastoralists engaged in this new ‘gold rush’, turning from subsistence-oriented livestock breeders living in a cash-poor environment into a local economic elite. It revealed that they not only earned income from the collection and sale of caterpillar fungus as well as from other trade services that emerged together with this economic boom, but how they used the profits to transform their lives and environment in novel ways.

This dissertation represents the first comprehensive treatment of this topic within the social sciences. It encompasses a complete analysis of both its economic as well as legal aspects, and its social and religious dimensions.This analysis is supported with a rich set of first-hand data on the economic functioning of pastoral households as well as the caterpillar fungus market. The analysis of legal aspects is made using Chinese state documents which have not previously been accessible to Western readers. This data was collected during eleven months of anthropological fieldwork in which I combined interviews and participant observation with questionnaires and a household survey, a research method seldom used by scholars of Tibetan societies in China.

My dissertation contributes to theoretical debates about the nature of ‘development’, ‘modernity’ and the ‘state’ in the contemporary Chinese context. It questions many stereotypes about life in rural Tibetan areas of China and the position of Tibetans versus the Chinese state. It tells a story about a contemporary ‘gold-rush’, a phenomenon which changed the economic fates of many Tibetan pastoralists, and which demonstrates that they are far more sophisticated actors than most outsiders would have credited.