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Featured Graduate Student: Ting Hui Lau

February 6, 2018

I am a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology. My work combines psychological and medical anthropology to understand the complex effects of state power on marginalized communities.

For my dissertation research, I conducted two years of fieldwork among the Lisu in the Nu River Valley of Southwest China on the border of Tibet and Myanmar—part of the Southeast Asian borderland region known as Zomia. In addition to farming alongside Lisu in mountain villages, I followed them on their seasonal search for work in urban areas.

My dissertation is an ethnographic study of how this community grapples with the dual imperial legacies of Chinese state colonialism and Christian missionization. I show how Lisu strive to assert creative autonomy even as they struggle to come to terms with the traumas of recent decades—famine, community violence, and forced sterilization. I argue that the Chinese state and the Lisu engage in mutual misrecognition, binding themselves together in webs of paranoia and complicity.

My research contributes to understanding the effects of China’s massive development and infrastructure project—the One Belt One Road Initiative—on the Zomia region.

More broadly, I contribute to understanding how small-scale agrarian communities respond to rapid social change in China, Southeast Asia, and beyond.


Ting Hui Lau is a Ph.D. candidate in sociocultural anthropology. Her research interests include trauma and social change, death and dreaming, mobility and identity, history and memory, and China and Southeast Asia. She is currently conducting her dissertation fieldwork in Southwest China with support from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Lau’s Ph.D. research, which is supervised by Professor Magnus Fiskesjӧ, examines the life world of the Lisu, an ethnic and religious minority on the China–Burma border. Lau’s research brings her from remote mountain villages to urban factories and migrant ghettoes. While in the Lisu homeland, she lives full time in Lisu villages and participates in everyday activities, including farming and rearing livestock. Lau also travels with her Lisu friends on their search for education and temporary work in the cities. Sharing in these diverse activities, she examines how Lisu dreams, stories, humor, and religion form a cultural reserve for dealing with these turbulent times of breakneck development. Her research is relevant to understanding how small-scale agrarian communities grapple with state power and social change in China, Southeast Asia, and beyond. 

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