YARTSA BOOM TIME: THE CATERPILLAR FUNGUS ECONOMY OF THE GRASSLANDS
Of all the medicines coming from Tibet, the most valuable, so costly it is an asset class of its own, is almost weightless, not at all suited to being measured by the ton. Yartsa gumbu is a bubble economy; a bubble that keeps on growing, so insatiable is the demand. In the masculine world of today’s Chinese capitalism, it is almost the ideal medium for cultivating guanxi, the ideal gift for your boss, complimenting and complementing his virility, reviving his energies, showing you respect and honour him and seek his benevolent protection. It is small and can be discreetly given, and is always welcome. The fact that it is expensive adds to its allure, proves its value. It has become a currency in its own right, a form of value that can be consumed in a display of one’s wealth and power, or traded on to an even higher level in the hierarchies of power, as a gift that keeps on giving.
The scientific story of yartsa gumbu somewhat deflates this romance, and the traditional Tibetan story of its medicinal use is brief and inconsequential. Scientifically, yartsa is what remains of the caterpillar stage of a grassland moth that has been attacked by a fungus which has eaten out the flesh of the caterpillar hidden in the grass, then, in order to reproduce, sent out through the caterpillar’s head a long, erect fruiting body to spread its spores over the pasture. It is this erection which attracts Chinese bosses, convinced it enables them to live like emperors, conspicuously consuming aphrodisiacs that compensate for the long hours an entrepreneur must spend on the guanxi work essential to accumulating wealth. The fungally hollowed out remains of a caterpillar are not an attractive marketing selling proposition, and the scientific version is routinely ignored by consumers.
The Tibetan story, however, does excite Chinese imaginations. Tibetan texts of hundreds of years ago extol yartsa gumbu as an aphrodisiac, yet few Tibetans use it, or are much interested, except occasionally as a medicine to be fed to horses in preparation for a long and difficult journey.
Nothing can stop the rise and rise of the erect fungus. It is now embedded in doing business with Chinese characteristics. Much of the building of trust between business partners, the basis on which Chinese business works, is done in nightclubs and brothels, where a man’s capacity to hold his liquor, and not lose self-control even in the arms of a prostitute, all constitute aspects of a man proving himself trustworthy in business. So the anthropologists who have studied such matters tell us.
China is reputed to have an inexorable master strategy in Tibet; yet on the ground in some areas, out on the vast grasslands, there is almost no Chinese presence, and no law, even in 2011. In many areas, for all the talk of industrialisation, urbanisation and exploitation of Tibet, the reality is a lawless frontier where authority is entirely in Tibetan hands, the state remains wisely distant, and the most primitive capitalist boom now rules.
The state may keep its distance, refraining even from attempting to capture taxes, but this is no idyllic pastoral, or timeless nomadic life on the high plateau. In Amdo Golok Machen Golok (Qinghai Guoluo Dongqinggou Maqin in Chinese) the nomads neglect their sheep and goats, and the hard work of livestock raising and nomadising, enjoying instead, to the max, their new privileged position as rent seekers with a monopoly on something China has gone crazy for.
Barely visible in the Maytime grass growth of spring, on the fertile meadowlands of eastern Tibet, is a small but phallically erect fungus, technically the fruiting body of a fungus that has attacked a grassland caterpillar, hollowed it to a husk and then sprouted its spores in order to reproduce. It is this strange “grass worm” or “caterpillar fungus” that nomads can sell for as much as GBP7000 per kg, or even more, to traders who then onsell at far greater markup to Chinese buyers. In China chongcao, as it is known, or in Tibetan as yartsa gumbu, this odd creature is so prestigious it makes the ideal “gift” to a cadre who holds the power of success or failure over your son or daughter’s school results or job prospects. Chongcao/yartsa gunbu is a currency in a class of its own, reputed to be a potent aphrodisiac and enhancer of energy and endurance. In today’s China, caught up in untamed enthusiasm for maximum accumulation, there are bosses everywhere who need to be bribed, if one is to get on in life. Yartsa is the perfect bribe, discreetly offered.
But this latest addition to the pharmacopeia of Traditional Chinese Medicine is found only in alpine meadows of eastern Tibet, and only for a month each year. May is when the grassland swarms with diggers out to make their fortune. People are ready to die for it, and people do, in knife fights that break out with little warning.
A hundred cars a day arrive at the checkpoint, to enter the grasslands and make their fortune, each packed with diggers. Maybe as many try to sneak by at night. Out here, on the few roads that lead to the high pasture, the checkpoint theoretically is the state enforcing its regulations on environmental protection and trade. In practice, it is manned by locals, who extract from each digger an upfront cash fee of at least 10,000 yuan, and in return receive a piece of paper declaring each a relative of a nomad family of the area. This is the price of entry. This is the invisible hand of the market at its most visible.
Yartsa gunbu is an industry in its own right. In areas where it is still abundant, it is the entire economy, hardly anyone bothers any more with the hard labour of shearing sheep and growing hay to keep sheep alive through the intense cold of winter.
Without doubt, this new frontier economy is driven by demand, and by the Muslim Chinese and Han Chinese traders and diggers, but the Tibetan nomads are the counterparties of this leap style instant wealth creation. The nomads have –for how much longer is uncertain- exclusive rights to use of the pasture, and the right to exclude outsiders. That is not only their traditional attitude, enforced with the knife, but is also the official stance of the Chinese party-state, as it manifests in such remote areas, so far from gaze of the emperor in Beijing.
It is this official backing of the locals against incomers that enables the nomads to exploit to the hilt their rent seeking opportunity, and join China’s early capitalist riproaring boom economy. Fortunes await the bold, and on the frontier it matters less whether one is Tibetan, Hui Muslim or Han. But it is the protection of the local cadres that gives the nomads their opportunity to cash in effortlessly, their ethnicity for once a valuable commodity in the new exchange economy that has made so redundant the old use economy –as Marx would have called it- that once laboured so hard to maintain a subsistence economy in the land surrounded by snows.
The latest regulatory framework in place on the yartsa gunbu grasslands restricts harvesting to those who live on the pasture. Ostensibly a biodiversity conservation measure, in practice it creates a local mercantilist monopoly open to rampant perverse outcomes, and that is what happens.
Each spring, hopeful diggers out for fast fortune, arrive and negotiate with Tibetan landholders to be given fictive status as family members, entitling them to access the land, and dig. So lucrative is this nominal nomadic status, outsiders are willing to pay upfront access fees of 10,000 or even 20,000 yuan for a month of digging all day, every day, through the month of fungal efflorescence. Detailed ethnographic fieldwork by Emilia Rosa Sulek, of Humboldt University, Berlin, gives us a rich picture of this new cowboy economy, reinventing raw capitalism from the wormhole ground up, just as vibrantly as the celebrated, throbbingly capitalist hub of Wenzhou in eastern China.
To the land holder, the 10 or 20 thousand kwai he receives is money for nothing, requiring no work, only utmost vigilance for robbers, double crossers and the mean poor –usually Tibetan- who try to sneak onto his land without paying. In a province where, on official statistics, average per capita income of rural people is no better than 6000 yuan a year, the astute nomad can merrily add to his family a further fifty souls as his relatives, or 70 or 100, or in a case so flagrant the county cadres finally did have to step in, 360 close relatives who happened to all drop by in May.
It is the diggers who do all the work, take all the risks and reap the reward if the pickings are good, their eyesight is acute and the quality of the yartsa is high. The nomad who modestly adds only 50 relations to his family has in a month earned at least 500,000 yuan, none of which is taxed. Not surprisingly, the money is splashed on flashy houses equipped with every electrical appliance one might fancy, motorbikes and cars, and the conspicuous consumption so in vogue in China.
The landholder not only takes the diggers into his family on paper but actually into his house, because a trade so fraught with rorting makes basic trust essential, best enhanced by close proximity. The bloated instant family does behave like a highly masculine family, sharing meals, sleeping under a common roof, the best guarantee against rip-offs. So wealthy are many nomads, they have three new houses on their land, all needed if the diggers are to be accommodated and watched.
TAMING THE PARTY-STATE
Emilia Sulek says: “In every town or village in Golog groups of people sit on the pavements with bags full of tightly packed yartsa. Calculator and scales are the tools for determining price and quality. In the folds of the overlong sleeves of Tibetan robes prices are being silently negotiated using gestures. For many nomads it is a rare opportunity to take a break in town, so discussions are long and nobody is in a hurry to get back home. Outside the Agricultural Bank of China there is an almost permanent crowd of Hui traders buying yartsa from nomads and gatherers. “I sell to the one that pays me more”– Herpo, a Tibetan wholesaler, says. His competitor, Tseten Gyel, adds: “It would be good if the Chinese big bosses came directly to us, otherwise Huis paint the yartsa yellow to improve the colour and insert pins in them so that the yartsa gains weight – these are not honest tricks”.
“The yartsa trade offers a chance to nearly everybody with modest capital to invest and a nose for business. Herpo sits on a small carpet in front of a motorcycle repair shop. His narrow eyes quickly count the yartsa he has been brought by gatherers. Only six years ago his family still lived a nomadic life. But Herpo decided to sell all of their 80 yaks and move to the town to look for a better future. Tseten Gyel, a former monk at the Ragya Monastery, had similar hopes when he returned to society six years ago. For an ex-monk, a man with no job, no land and no animals, the yartsa trade was the only way to start a new life. He borrowed 3000 yuan and for the first time in his life bought yartsa to sell later at a profit. Although the bulky contents of the money belt that he carries under his robe suggests that its owner is a mobile bank, Tseten Gyel complains that compared to other wholesalers he owns nothing. It’s a risky business – he says: “I lost my money not once but twice as the prices can change between a morning and an evening several times”.
This is the contemporary Tibetan version of the Hollywood Western, the stock exchange of the dusty streets. The grasslands are cash lands, yet the state stays its hand, knowing it can intervene and extend its reach into these badlands only with full force majeure, or not at all. The locals know the party-state, which values stability even more than revenue, has little inclination to capture the money of the nomads. The Chinese traders too have little to fear from the state. They make sure they are well-connected as the yartsa becomes, in Chinese hands, packaged chongcao elegantly presented to one’s boss at new year.
Although the restraint of the party-state contradicts the usual view of China as dictatorial, reaching pervasively into the lives of the masses, there is plenty of precedent for forgoing a fiscal boost because it is more politically important to leave the market to sort itself out, for fear of the violent reaction to official intervention. As long ago as 1724, when Qing dynasty China first declared Qinghai to be part of China, the emperor restrained his local officials who wanted to impose taxation, saying stability is the top priority, and frontier areas must be allowed to grow so more Chinese settlers will be attracted, forming a long term basis for securing the frontier for China.
Not only does the taxing state take a long view and keep out, the buy in of the traffic policing state is limited. In order to ensure that only locals have access to the precious grasslands, roadblocks are established, and the papers of would-be diggers are examined. That is how the rentseeking opportunity for entrepreneurial nomads is maintained. The sojourners need to produce certification from the nomad that they are family. Once past the official roadblock, everything is possible. No police will venture into the knife-prone pastures to check that everyone’s papers are in order, or that collection of yartsa exceeds some mathematical formula of sustainability.
Unsurprisingly, the crudely faked permits attesting to the enormity of one’s family, which suffice as entrée to a fortune hidden in grass, are worth so much. Manning the roadblock checkpoint is also worth much, so much so it is in practice subcontracted to locals who do know who is who, and have the will to enforce the ban on anyone unwilling to pay the rent. On paper, the checkpoints are manned by townbased officials of the Animal Husbandry Bureau, Grassland office or State Forestry Administration; in practice they seldom move far from their urban compounds, and readily let locals do the work, for a share of the proceeds. Again, this is much like Wenzhou capitalism, a similarly spontaneous discovery of the dynamics of price making, with not the slightest veneer of respectability.
Like Wenzhou, this boom has been building for decades, but only in recent years has it become so big that it is now the only game. All interests are met, not only the diggers and the landholding nomads, but also the state can say the business is tightly regulated, that in the interests of the livelihoods of nomads, and protection of grassland, only locals are allowed to dig, and all others are banned.
As Emilia Sulek says: “As the season for harvesting yartsa approaches a fever takes hold of the area. Schools schedule a holiday to let students help their families with harvesting. Even distant relatives that have long left behind the life of a herder in hope of making a career in Xining, the provincial capital, come back home. It’s not just Tibetans wanting to take part in the ‘gold rush’, however, recently local authorities introduced a regulation banning entry to Golog to all those without relatives or land of their own in the area. Travellers to Golog meet checkpoints on its roads, along with queues of landcruisers, and people sitting at the roadside waiting for somebody to lift the barrier to the pasturelands still covered by last year’s dry grass.”
This eruption of naked capitalism has come to a society of intimately connected but physically scattered nomads, who all know and are related to each other. These are what the Russians used to call the small peoples, numbering only in the tens of thousands, spread over great areas, who would in normal times gather only for special seasonal festivities. Although the Golokpa people have a reputation as fierce warriors, they are intensely loyal to their clans and have deep reverence for the lamas who must sometimes intervene in quarrels between clans over pasture rights. This combination of community solidarity and extensive, outspread mobility is now transformed, not by communism and the reach of state power, but by frontier capitalism. It is the women who lose out, Emilia Sulek says. The men make and keep the money, race around on motorbikes, get drunk, are seldom home except in the yartsa season. Otherwise, they do nothing. The women receive little, but their customary skills of cheese making, spinning, tent weaving, calf rearing and ethnoveterinary knowledge are now redundant, with little new purpose or opportunity outside the house. But they must still milk the animals, raise the children, churn the butter, and cook meals for the entire “family” gathered to obsessively weed the fragile fungus out of the grass.
This debauch can go on forever, the nomads believe. Why not? It was back in the 1980s that the newly rich of China discovered traditional medicines that had once been available only to the emperor and his court. Now the secret of their longevity and potency could be had by all who could pay.
To those who protest that all the digging degrades the grasslands the nomads scoff, saying the thousands of holes in every pasture are small, and insignificant. Only when things get right out of hand does the state step in, as when the nomads of Nangchen county, a poorer area, took their feuding with Yushu to a point where the army had to come in and impose order. Otherwise, everything is negotiable. Even the nomad who greedily added 360 diggers to his family, and had his land confiscated, can wait till the dust settles and renegotiate its return. The regulatory regime ensures it is the landholders who get paid, not the local government as before. All is well, rent seeking opportunities stretch endlessly, demand for yartsa is unending. Attempts at synthesizing its active ingredients in the laboratory have not so far succeeded. It is all good.
BETWEEN THE TIGER ABOVE AND THE ABYSS BELOW, WHAT TO DO BUT PICK YARTSA?
What few nomads see coming is the inception of state power, in its most disciplinary form, into even these remote grasslands. China’s policy, since 2003, is that nomads in the area designated as “China’s Number One Water Tower”, in the headwaters of both the Yangtze and Yellow River catchments, must vacate their pasturelands to revegetate degrading areas and thus protect China’s watersheds. This policy, called tuimu huancao, removing animals to grow more grass, is increasingly removing entire nomadic populations to new concrete barracks, often far from ancestral pastures, with nomads often required to sell all their animals. In many cases, the newly settled nomads must sign contracts that threaten to expel them from their new housing if they keep any livestock, and their land use certificates are cancelled, leaving them without assets, security, or livelihoods. This resettlement, or “ecological migration” as it is officially called, is accelerating, even if the nomads used to being in control do not lose agency overnight. Sometimes nomads manage to get back to their land, to keep a few animals, to pay off a few officials to look the other way, to parcel out their herd to those who are yet to be removed.
So the yartsa lords of Golok, as recently as 2010, see no danger to their opulent indolence. The good times continue to roll, the yartsa continue to erect their phallic fruit. Chinese policies on resettlement are distant, incomprehensible and meaningless. Their accelerated entry into modernity has taught them that eveything has a price, everything is negotiable, so if the government comes, it too can be bought.
They may be right, but if directives come from the distant central leaders in Beijing, everything could change. He 2010 Yushu earthquake has become an opportunity for massive central intervention to rebuild Yushu town with all the characteristics of Chinese modernity, sweeping aside Tibetan lanes and shrines, earthquake friendly mud walled courtyard houses and temples, for straight boulevards and concrete structures that seemed so modern and in a moment became the tombs of thousands. In dramatically expanding Yushu town size, nomadic land is being lost, and nomad resettlement is intensifying.
DIGGERS AND DEALERS: CAPITALISM 101 ON THE GRASSLANDS
How much longer will the yartsa millionaires of Golok be able to extract rent from diggers? When will their exclusive right to land be nullified at a stroke, and enforced by a party state determined to impose its will on nature and on unruly nomads? When will the diggers become the possessors of the grasslands, once the present owners are removed? When will the Peoples Armed Police run national writ through the yartsa grasslands, emptying the land of Tibetans, only to open it to the diggers, while proclaiming eveything is now protected and is under treatment to rehabilitate degradation? In Golok Prefecture there are already many resettlement areas where nomads are gone, the countryside depopulated, open to whoever can pay off local officials anew, to enter, for gold mining, or yartsa digging.
When will the power of Beijing manifest in this obscure district? It is entirely possible that the publication of this article could reveal the embarrassing absence of the state and inadvertently trigger China’s civilising mission, in full force. Sometimes it doesn’t take much for the disciplinary state to instantiate itself in the areas it had been most indifferent to. The elusively liminal suddenly are made marginal.
If the new rich of Golok find they are required to leave their land, publicly declared to be voluntary ecological migrants, they will find their failure to save, during the boom years, especially painful. If, like so many already, they find themselves fringe dwellers of modernity, in a concrete ghetto with few services, no vocational training, no more capital, no prospects, unable to go back or go forward, they will regret their free spending days which seemed to never end.
Or they may be lucky, able to sell not only their animals but also their glass fronted new houses, and buy in town, perhaps living with or near their grown up children who have already taken up urban life. But transferring their legal status from rural to urban may continue to be hard, heir urban existence not fully legal, the threat of removal always possible. The great transformation, as Karl Polanyi suggested, from use to exchange economy, from subsistence and barter to an entirely monetised, urban, commercial economy has already happened, in a few years. From what Marx called the primitive communism of the pastoralists to the full throttle capitalism of yartsa land rent farming, happened so fast. It could all be lost just as fast, if China decides, at national level, that it is all rather unseemly, uncivilised and has no role for the state except as protector of the most local of interests.
The role of state disciplinary power has actually shrunk, even in the first decade of the 21st century, on the yartsa pasture lands. Until 2002, the regulatory regime banned outsiders altogether, and the revenue from the limited permits that were issued was collected not by the nomad land owners but by the local government, and its herders’ association, to be spent on civic improvements such as roads, bridges, power lines or on fencing allocated pastures, or housing for the poor. It was the nomads, who gained nothing from the permit regime, who swept this aside in their rush to riches behind the protective barrier of the new rule allowing only diggers with family ties to land owners to gain access. The nomads captured the state, in order to capture easy rents.
One might speculate that the fortunes being made, both by diggers and dealers, both Tibetans and Chinese, as well as Chinese Muslims, are so great, the state has decided it is best to discreetly step aside and let the market rip. This is certainly what happens elsewhere in China where entrepreneurs have energetically seized the initiative and the state is satisfied with accepting a cut, at each stage of the commodity chain, for granting permissions, providing finance, or looking the other way. Why would the state seek to extend its reach when wealth is accumulating, fulfilling the promise of the past three decades of reform? If the yartsa trade were to be regulated, or restricted in the interests of long term sustainability, the state would find itself opposed not only by Tibetan pasture land owners but by powerful Chinese vested interests, in the cities as well as in remote TCM market towns.
This may be another example of “when the farmers changed China”, with authority acquiescing in what was already a fait accompli effected by the energetic yartsa trade. If government has yielded to the market, even to the extent of foregoing tax revenue that would be collectable in a regulated yartsa traffic, it has yielded gracefully. In TAR, according to the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Centre, the same exclusive digging rights for landholders is actually a deliberate strategy for improving rural incomes and achieving an orderly market. “As Chinese Caterpillar Fungus, with its soaring prices, has become an important source of income for farmers and herdsmen, the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region soon promulgated regulations that grant the right to pick Chinese caterpillar Fungus to local farmers and herdsmen. The regulation not only protected the resource and immediate interests of farmers and herdsmen, but also ensured that the Fungus was picked in an orderly manner.”
In reality, this ensures disorderly, rapacious rentseeking and fortune hunting, but on paper all seems well. Maybe this will suffice in future; it would not be the first time local Tibetan communities have tamed the state and enlisted it to enforce local interests.
THE REACH OF THE STATE
But the fast fortune era could come to an end, for many possible reasons. China might decide the wild west yartsa boom is an embarrassment. It might decide that the resource is being over-exploited and the millions of small holes dug in the turf to extract the fungus –which is up to five inches long- threaten pasture sustainability, especially in areas where safguarding China’s water catchments is top policy priority.
If, in the current phase of recentralisation of Beijing’s power, there is a move to directly control the yartsa trade, it could not only remove the exclusive access rights for Tibetan landholders but go further, and remove the Tibetan landholders altogether. This is exactly what is happening, on an increasing scale, in many areas, all part of established policies such as tuimu huancao, closing pasture to grow grassland wilderness.
The fortune hunting of the nomads of Golok and other yartsa-rich areas could come to a sudden end. Excluding nomads, requiring them to become “ecological migrants” sacrificing their lands and herds for the national good, would not mean the end of the yartsa trade. The booming demand could be filled by others. There are now many Chinese experienced in yartsa digging on nomad land, who, year after year, have presented themselves as relatives of local nomad families, paid their rent and recouped it by assiduously digging.
If China decided to assert greater authority over these remote areas and resettle the nomads, it would be all too easy to do so in the name of biodiversity conservation, watershed protection, rational land use management, orderly marketing, rangeland rehabilitation and scientific development. The nomads who captured the state, at a local level, in order to capture rent, may come to regret spending their fortunes on cars, motorbikes, alcohol and multiple houses to accommodate their huge number of relatives who come visiting in the yartsa month. They could lose everything, as have nomads in nearby areas, as shengtai yimin, ecological migration, becomes compulsory for more and more nomads.
If railways are built right through the best yartsa lands, as would be the case with a rail line connecting Chengdu in Sichuan to Gormo in Qinghai (and on to Korla in Xinjiang), it would not be hard to find occupants for the flashy new houses built by nomads for lowland Chinese who are already registered as “relatives” of the nomads. The yartsa industry could undergo a phase of consolidation, even vertical integration, as lowland distributors and marketers seek to add value by taking over the first stages of the trade, the actual digging out of erect funguses from the earth of eastern Tibet. This is often what happens in the business cycle, and in China it is often encouraged by the state, keen to see a few big players emerge rather than a chaotic jumble of small and poorly regulated producers.
There was a time, until very recently, when nomads were indispensable, since they alone knew how and where and when to find the yartsa and gently prise it intact from the grassland. Now the nomads have made themselves redundant. A vertically integrated yartsa trade, part of the global TCM industry, dominated by a few big companies, would be obliged to pay taxes and the gifts, favours and banquets required of them by the party-state. The yartsa trade would pay its rent, not to Tibetan landholders but to central leaders.
Like gold, yartsa is by weight extraordinarily valuable and, like gold, easy to transport. A railway is not required. But regular access by rail to the high pastures would make it much easier to cut out intermediaries, enabling city-based yartsa marketers to extend control up the commodity chain. Rail access could make a much bigger difference to the Tibetan mushroom trade, since the forest mushrooms valued by rich Chinese and Japanese gourmets do lose quality after being picked, and speeding product to market makes for a big difference in price.
Now the state may strike back, alarmed at the thought it has yielded control, determined to impose once more its mission to raise the low human quality of the nomads, removing them, to grow more grass.
 Kate Xiao Zhou, How the Farmers Changed China: Power of the People, Westview Press, 1996
 China Tibetology Research Centre, Report on the Economic and Social Development of Tibet, Foreign Languages Press, 2009, 69
Emilia Sulek’s research can be found in CONTEMPORARY VISIONS IN TIBETAN STUDIES: Proceedings of the First International Seminar of Young Tibetologists, Edited by Brandon Dotson, Kalsang Norbu Gurung, Georgios Halkias and Tim Myatt, Serindia, 2009