Cross-border Ethnic Buddhism in China, Burma and Thailand, 2001-2002

Sara Davis' UCLA Ford Crossing Borders project focused on Tai ethnic minorities who lived in the tropical mountain regions of Southwest China.

For the past twenty years, Tai villagers have dramatically revived their suppressed traditions of Theravada Buddhism and nearly 600 village temples, destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976,) have been rebuilt. Davis' project synthesized research she conducted in China for her 1999 dissertation, field research complied during time spent in Burma and Thailand in the summer of 2001 and archival research in the Chinese, Thai and Tai languages.

While at UCLA, Davis lectured in several different classes, primarily in Anthropology and in her own discipline in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Davis participated in two events sponsored by CSEAS. In October 2001, she lectured on the topic "Slipping Over the Border: Development and State-Ethnic Conflict in China and Burma" and in December of the same year she co-organized with past CSEAS director Prof. Anthony Reid, a conference in collaboration with the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies and the Southern California China Colloquium on the related topic: "China and Southeast Asia: Breaking Down Historiographical Barriers." Conference speakers included: Wang Gungwu, National University of Singapore; Carl Trocki, Queensland University of Technology; Charles Wheeler, U.C. Irvine; Philip Huhn, Harvard University and Laichen Sun, California State University, Fullerton.

Dr. Davis' final project was the ambitious conference held at Chiang Mai University in Thailand titled "Culture at the Crossroads: The Challenge of Preservation and Development in Sipsongpanna, Yunnan," which took place in July 2002. Co-organized with Prof. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University, the conference closely examined the role of tourism in relation to the revitalization of Tai art and culture in contemporary Sipsongpanna, China. This gathering helped to lay the groundwork and establish future collaborations and ties for Chinese and Tai minority scholars, journalists, activists, officials, archivists and NGO representatives from the U.S., Thailand and Australia.

Davis was able to secure additional sponsorship and funding for the conference from the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, the China & Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies, and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.

Conference participants and panel titles were as follows:

Panels Participants
Modernity and Cultural Change in Sipsongpanna (Keynote address)
  • Mr. Ai Han Bing, Deputy Governor, Sipsongpanna
The Historiography of the China-SE Asia Frontiers
  • Prof. Xie Yuanzhang, Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, Kunming, Dr. Ratanaporn Sethakul, Payap University and Prof. Pat Giersch, Wellesley University
Evaluating Sipsongpanna's Cultural Heritage(s)
  • Emeritus Prof. Ai Feng, Nationalities Literature Dept., Yunnan Social Sciences Institute, "Palm leaf scriptures in Sipsongpanna"
  • Mr. Ai No, Tai culture reporter, Xishuangbanna Bao (prefectural newspaper)
    "Folklore and folklife in Sipsongpanna"
  • Ms. E Guang, renowned Tai oral poet, Sipsongpanna
    Mr. Ai Han En, Xishuangbanna prefectural government; and Mr. Ai Xiang Zai, Gasa (Co-organizers of Sipsongpanna's first pop music concert in 1997 and producers of Tai pop music CDs)
    "Township Government"
  • Prof. Songsak Prangwatangkul, Chiang Mai University
    "Northern Thai/Tai Lue folksongs"
    "Popular music, desktop publishing and other innovations"
Crossing borders: The globalizing study of Sipsongpanna
  • Mr. Sawaeng Malasam, Yupharat College
    "Chiang Mai Tai Lue migration"
  • Dr. Janet Sturgeon, US
    "Akha forestry in China and Thailand"
  • Dr. Leo Alting von Geusau, Amsterdam
    "Akha trade routes"
The role of local archives in the community
  • Dr. Nora Yeh, Archivist, American Folklife Center, U.S. Library of Congress
Pros and cons of centralizing cultural resources
  • Dr. Nora Yeh, U.S. Library of Congress/American Folklife Center
  • Dr. Heather Peters, UNESCO
  • Dr. Sara Davis, UCLA

After her UCLA residency in August 2002, Davis was able to secure a long-term position as the China researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York. At the same time she has continued her academic involvement as a visiting scholar at Columbia University's East Asian Institute.

Sara Davis received her Ph.D. from the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1999. Her dissertation title was "Singers of Sipsongbanna: Folklore and Authenticity in Contemporary China."

In October 2005, Davis' related research was published by  Columbia University Press as Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China's Southwest Borders.

Published: Monday, July 26, 2004