The wartime period between 1937 and 1945 provided an exceptional opportunity for the Guomindang state to experiment with a wide array of schemes that sought to further its nation-state project in the borderland regions of China. Under the rubric of ‘frontier reconstruction’ (bianjiang jianshe) it devised a series of plans that encompassed both the economic and cultural transformations of these regions. This paper discusses a particular scheme devised by Chinese anthropologist, Li Anzhai (1900–1985), during his stay at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labrang where he sought to transform borderland societies into a modern Chinese citizenry. A key aspect to his strategy was the mobilization of youth where trained cadres and students performed what became known as ‘frontier service’ (bianjiang fuwu) establishing a dialogue with the community's own particular demands by means of building schools, hospitals and agricultural projects. This paper argues that the notion of ‘frontier service’ and the ‘cultural reconstruction’ project propounded by Li not only sought to modernize and unify China around a distinct multicultural identity, it was also an important mobilizing force amongst sectors of wartime youth which arguably introduced young Han Chinese to a region which they had hitherto only imagined in the pre-war period.
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