The Newsletter 91 Spring 2022

Friction and Collaboration in Asian Borderlands

Ping-hsiu Alice Lin

Borders, borderlands, and frontiers are not new concepts. They each carry different meanings in different disciplinary contexts. While borders are most closely tied to conceptions of state sovereignty, they are also exceptionally salient devices across and within which resources, commodities, and people move, and in so moving, define, reinforce, or contest claims to national sovereignty and territory.

Scholars have moved from a study of the hard territorial line separating states within the global system to the processes of bordering through which people, commodities, and territories are managed differently, and the processes of change within what are labelled “borderlands.” For anthropologists, the primary interest lies in studying the daily practices of ordinary people in the borderlands. Instead of a clearly demarcated concrete physical space (near a border), borderlands also symbolize a cultural and geographical periphery.

How should we approach borderlands in Asia? A continent that is both vast and amorphous, with nation-state systems formalizing after decolonization, borders in Asia became increasingly hardened and securitized in efforts to mark oftentimes contested territorial sovereignty. While borders may have a beguiling logic for many, a consequence of the Westphalian system, these arbitrary divisions have meant different things for the people dwelling along Asian borderlands; in the case of the flowing rivers, lofty mountain ranges, sacred landscapes, and wandering wildlife, state demarcations of territory could be potent barriers to mobility or hardly noticeable at all. 

In a world of presumably clear and established borders, a dive into the everyday experiences of ethnic communities living on both sides of borders, partitioned and divided along lines of nationality, offer a useful reminder of the cultural complexity of people beyond borders and the reinvented entities of nation-states. Beginning from the viewpoint of the communities residing in borderlands along the southwest of China – neighboring Pakistan, India, and Myanmar – Hasan Karrar, Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, and Sun Rui contribute to our understanding of borderlands by capturing different aspects of life in these spaces across time. For them, borderlands are not conceived as predetermined geographic spaces, but rather as places where the control of the state has had material and immaterial consequences on lives, livelihoods, and ecology. Together, they show how communities on both sides of borders have been shaped by colonial histories or postcolonial states, as well as their infrastructural or proselytizing projects, broadening our range of understanding of borderland lives in Asia.


Ping-hsiu Alice Lin is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Harvard University. E-mail: