Emilia Roza Sulek's picture
Affiliated Fellow
Emilia Roza Sulek

(1 October - 31 December 2015 and 1 August - 31 December 2016)

My research is devoted to the phenomenon of a regional economic boom based upon trade in caterpillar fungus observed in the Tibetan pastoral region of Golok, Qinghai Province, north-eastern Tibetan plateau. Its ongoing socio-economic consequences for the pastoral society in Golok were the topic of my doctoral dissertation, completed at Humboldt University in Berlin. At the IIAS, I will develop my dissertation into a monograph. In this monograph, I reassess the status of Tibetan pastoralists, showing them for the first time as active agents of change', transforming their worlds on the basis of this new-found prosperity. 

The trade in caterpillar fungus in China witnessed a spectacular rise in popularity after the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 2000s, it had already become a real economic boom compared also to a “gold rush” phenomenon. Wild harvesting and sale of caterpillar fungus, this expensive medicinal resource and luxury gift item heavily marketed on the Chinese market, became the main source of income for rural populations on the Tibetan plateau, and a magnet attracting migrants from other parts of China who wanted to try their luck in this “caterpillar fungus rush”. In regions such as Golok, a whole new economy based on this resource emerged with multiple streams of income and almost unlimited employment opportunities. The cash income that it brought into the pockets of the pastoralists has no precedent in the recorded economic history of Golok, whose population had previously been dependent upon subsistence production in a very cash poor environment. 

My research asks important questions of this phenomenon: what are the pastoralists doing with the money they earn from caterpillar fungus economy, and what is this money doing to them? In order to collect the data necessary to answer these questions, I conducted long-term anthropological fieldwork, in which I implemented a mixed multi-methods approach with surveys, in-depth qualitative interviews and direct participant observation. This research revealed that pastoralists in Golok not only earn their major income from the collection and sale of caterpillar fungus as well as from other traded services that emerged together with this economic boom, but also use the profits to transform their lives and environments in novel ways. The complex character of this transformation, ranging from changes in pastoral production to infrastructural investments that the pastoralists undertake, is analysed in minute detail in my dissertation. The pastoralists, as pictured in this study, appear as active agents of change who used the opportunities afforded to them by this economic boom to accomplish their own goals. By so doing, they demonstrated human agency and creative skills often neglected in studies devoted to Tibetan pastoral societies of China. 

During my fellowship at the IIAS, I will work on transforming my dissertation into a book manuscript, in order to submit it for publication with a distinguished academic press in 2016.


  • Tibetan Studies
  • Social Anthropology

Country of origin


Period of stay at IIAS

01/08/2016 to 31/12/2016

Research topic

The “caterpillar fungus boom” and its socio-economic consequences for Tibetan pastoral society in Golok, Qinghai Province, China

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