For centuries, the margins of the Tibetan Plateau have been sites of cultural interaction. The frontier towns on the edge of the Plateau were meeting places for people who were known by a variety of different labels, among them those identified as Tibetans and others identified as Chinese or Han. After the so-called Peaceful Liberation of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950, the former frontier areas on the margins of Tibet were fully incorporated into the Chinese state as autonomous prefectures in four Chinese provinces: Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan. This book deals with issues of cultural survival in these areas.
The founding of the People’s Republic of China brought significant changes to all the Tibetan areas, but new policies were first carried out in the areas outside what eventually became known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR; Ch: Xizang Zizhiqu). In the late 1950s, the Tibetan monastic clergy and other landowners came under attack as all agricultural land was redistributed and subsequently turned into communes. The Cultural Revolution (1966–76) later targeted all expressions of traditional culture, including religion. Starting in 1979, in the aftermath of the Reform period, religious expressions were again permitted. This led to what many writers have termed a religious revival among Tibetans.1 However, despite policy changes initiated during the early 1980s, the articulation of Tibetan identity is still a contentious issue in China, particularly since the survival of Tibetan culture has become a key matter of disagreement between China and the rest of the international community.
The issue of cultural survival in Tibetan areas has become heavily politicized in recent years as Tibetan exiles and Tibet support groups have increasingly linked their political agendas to the protection of cultural rights in Tibet. When criticizing China’s human rights record in Tibet, they argue that Tibetans in Tibet are denied religious freedoms. They also question the ability of Chinese authorities to provide proper educational facilities for Tibetans, and many claim that the Tibetan language is being overtly suppressed in the Chinese school system. The Tibetan government-in-exile further contends: “What China terms ‘Tibetan cultural development’ boils down to the production and dissemination of literature, films, songs, etc., in praise of the new socialist Tibet and denouncing traditional Tibet as a dark, barbarous, brutal and backward society.”2 Finally, these groups argue that cultural survival should be linked to issues such as sustainable development, environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau, and ethnic and racial discrimination. They also contend that the large-scale in-migration of Han to Tibetan areas is a result of Chinese policies designed to dilute Tibetan culture by making Tibetans a minority in their own country.
Chinese authorities claim that, on the contrary, they have removed the fetters of “feudal exploitation” by emancipating Tibetan cultural and economic life. From their point of view, they have created a modern Tibetan society in which religious freedom is protected by the constitution and faith is a personal afair rather than a consequence of the theocratic rule of the Tibetan clergy. The Chinese government is also proud that it has introduced modern secular education in the Tibetan areas and views its role as one of helping Tibetans progress by providing them with technological and scientific knowledge and teaching them Chinese. Official Chinese statements further assert that the Tibetan language and literature have been protected and developed through the introduction of new technologies such as broadcasting, modern printing techniques, computer software, and fonts in Tibetan. Authorities categorically dismiss the claim that in-migration of Han to Tibetan areas or other aspects of their development policies have had detrimental efects on Tibetan society or culture. Rather, they argue that Chinese policies have tremendously improved social and cultural conditions in the Tibetan areas, especially since the beginning of the Reform era.
Two documents published in 2000 offer a clear illustration of the disagreement: a white paper from the Chinese government on the development of Tibetan culture and a response to this white paper from the Tibetan exile government. The Chinese white paper credits China’s beneficial government policies for what it describes as improvements in Tibetan culture during the last four decades and claims that “what the Dalai clique is aiming at is nothing but hampering the real development of Tibetan culture.” Comparing the “development of Tibetan culture” with the elimination of the “dictatorial system of feudal serfdom and theocracy” in medieval Europe, the paper argues that the past decades of Chinese rule have led to the emancipation and development of Tibetan society and culture:
The development of Tibetan culture in the last four decades and more has been achieved in the course of the same great social change marked by the elimination of feudal serfdom under theocracy that was even darker than the European system in the Middle Ages. With the elimination of feudal serfdom, the cultural characteristics under the old system, in which Tibetan culture was monopolized by a few serf-owners were bound to become “extinct,” and so was the old cultural autocracy marked by theocracy and the domination of the entire spectrum of socio-political life by religion, which was an inevitable outcome of both the historical and cultural development in Tibet. Because without such extinction, it would be impossible to emancipate and develop Tibetan society and culture, the ordinary Tibetan people would be unable to obtain the right of mastering and sharing the fruits of Tibet’s cultural development, and it would be impossible for them to enjoy real freedom, for their religious beliefs would not be regarded as personal afairs. However, such extinction was fatal to the Dalai Lama clique, the chief representatives of feudal serfdom, for it meant the extinction of their cultural rule. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that they clamor about the extinction of traditional Tibetan culture.3
In its response, the Tibetan exile government describes this white paper as “yet another attempt to hide China’s repressive policies of cultural genocide in Tibet”:
Tibet—a distinct nation with a rich cultural heritage—has a recorded history of over 2,000 years and, as verified by archaeological findings, a civilization dating back over 6,000 years. From very ancient times, especially since the advent of Buddhism in the seventh century, Tibet developed as an extraordinary treasure house of culture. However, since the destructive Maoist campaigns of Communist China’s “democratic reforms” began in 1958, Tibet has been reduced to a cultural wasteland, where even the survival of the Tibetan language is in question. . . . From the 1980s, Tibetan literacy and arts have enjoyed a minor revival in the hitherto cultural wasteland of Tibet, thanks to the efforts of the Tenth Panchen Lama and Tibetan patriots. Nevertheless, it must be stated that what survives today is only a fraction and reflection of what once flourished in this rich cultural reservoir on what was once the “Altar of the World.” Certainly, the traditional social structure in Tibet did not meet all the expectations and aspirations of the populace. However, this 2.5 million square kilometer nation preserved a vast treasure of culture with every spiritually minded Tibetan serving as its protector. China is the sole destroyer of this heritage. And this destruction continues. Beijing has claimed to be the political representative of Tibetans for 45 years. With the 21st century it now lays an additional claim to be the protector of Tibetan culture.4
These two important documents not only present contradictory “facts” about Tibetan culture but also differ radically in their conceptions of what Tibetan culture is or should be. One of the major points of disagreement concerns religion’s role as a marker of Tibetan identity and, from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the role religion should be allowed to play in the shaping of a modern Tibetan society. We will examine the contradictory claims of Chinese authorities and Tibetan exiles in the following chapters in order to discern their conflicting views on almost every aspect of Tibetan cultural life, particularly on religion, language, and the “development” or “preservation” of Tibetan culture.
Our aim in this book is to investigate current conditions for expressions of Tibetan culture as defined by those who are debating its preservation. The area under study comprises the Tibetan autonomous areas that lie outside what is known in China as the Tibet Autonomous Region. The study is based on fieldwork and interviews conducted in all these prefectures during the years 1998–2000. The geographic delimitation was chosen for pragmatic reasons and also because these areas are little studied, are of particular interest as Tibetan areas that have become part of Chinese-majority provinces, and constitute the margins of the Tibetan cultural area. As such, they are subject to a heavy influx of settlers, traders, and transient laborers, making cultural issues particularly salient.
Although we have tried to provide a comprehensive discussion of the prominent issues within current debates on Tibetan culture, in this book we concentrate on the revival of monastic life in Tibetan monasteries, the teaching of Tibetan language in schools, the use of Tibetan in the media and in publishing, and other expressions of Tibetan culture, primarily those that are government endorsed. In addition, we address socioeconomic issues as an important contributor to ethnic tension and as an aspect of cultural survival in its own right.
The influx of settlers, traders, and transient workers has been identified as a significant problem for the survival of Tibetan culture. Since the 1950s, Chinese authorities have been resettling Han on “reclaimed” land previously used by nomadic herders. Authorities also fenced grasslands and settled nomadic families, built roads, extracted minerals and timber, and constructed hydroelectric power plants throughout the Plateau, claiming that these programs are helping Tibetans develop. New policies implemented as part of the Develop the Western Region (Ch: Xibu Da Kaifa) campaign aim to increase the pace of this development by improving infrastructure and bringing in foreign capital to further advance the extraction of natural resources from the Tibetan Plateau and neighboring regions in western China. The results of these policies are as yet difficult to predict, but if they fail to benefit Tibetans, they will undoubtedly contribute to ethnic tension in all the Tibetan-inhabited areas.
SOME THEORETICAL ISSUES
The purpose of this project was initially defined in terms of providing information on Tibetan culture. However, the concept of culture is not as distinct today as it once was and therefore deserves some clarification. In addition to the various interpretations by Western social scientists of the term “culture,” the interpretations of Tibetans and Chinese should also be considered. The different meanings of “culture” have implications that will be investigated further in the following chapters.
Basically, two established ways of understanding culture can be identified in Western social science and popular discourses. One perspective ties culture directly to the way of life, and sometimes even the way of thinking, of a group of people. The other perspective understands culture as the expressions of a group of people, such as language and literature, architectural styles and decorations, religious ceremonies, arts and crafts, folk songs and dances, cuisine and costumes, and games and festivals, and particularly those expressions that serve to define and promote the identity of the group.
Within contemporary social science, especially in the field of anthropology, ideas of a simple relationship between society and culture have long been questioned, and the concept of ethnicity has been differentiated from that of culture. Culture is no longer a zone of shared meanings but one of disagreement and contest, and the study of culture has in many cases become the study of the politics of culture and the invention of tradition.5 To sum up a long and complex debate, the concept of culture in anthropology and related disciplines has evolved from that of something shared, or “public,” to something contested, or “unequally distributed,” and constructed, or invented.6 The very notions of culture and identity have been questioned, and a number of writers have criticized the use of the culture concept.7 The criticism includes the role of the anthropologist or ethnologist in constructing culture, defining the “other” ethnic group, maintaining that “otherness,” and making the “otherness” seem self-evident.
It has also been pointed out that many Third World elites have adopted a cultural nationalist discourse that reiterates early anthropological talk about culture as something that coincides with a particular people.8 In Chinese social science, there is a similar assumption that ethnicity is based on shared culture, or the sharing of objective cultural traits, along with shared origin. The boundaries of a culture are basically assumed to be coterminous with the boundaries of an ethnic group, and ethnography thus describes the culture of a particular group. One talks about Tibetan culture as the culture of the Tibetan people, with both “culture” and “people” referring to discrete, clearly defined entities.
Contemporary Chinese discourses on culture have certainly been influenced by ideas that can be traced back to what is now considered outdated Western social science. These ideas have also found their way into the Tibetan language. However, both Chinese and Tibetan languages left their marks on the terminology and added further meaning to the concepts we translate as culture. In the Chinese term for “culture,” wenhua, wen refers to writing and hua is a verbalizer. The term literally means to make cultured, to civilize, or to educate. One often speaks of someone who is educated by saying that he or she has wenhua. The most commonly used Tibetan term for culture, rig gnas, similarly describes someone as knowledgeable, much in the same sense as the English word “cultivated.” The kinds of knowledge indicated by the term rig gnas are the “five great fields of knowledge” (T: rig gnas chenmo nga) studied in the monasteries: language, logic, arts and crafts, medicine, and spiritual realization. However, Tibetans sometimes use another term, rig gzhung, which is more comprehensive and more abstract than rig gnas. Whereas gnas means area, place, or field, gzhung means way or path.
We have found that the term “culture” is widely used among social scientists in China, including Tibetans, and is also recognized by the general public, although the sense in which it is used often differs from that intended by the European or American social scientist. What is interesting in this context is not so much how Sino-Tibetan views differ from Euro-American ones but rather how these views give rise to different ways of understanding culture, and Tibetan culture in particular. We do not set out here to decide which characteristics or cultural markers differentiate Tibetans from other ethnic groups. Rather, our study takes as its point of departure how the label “Tibetan” is defined in practice by those who use the term in local contexts. This local usage includes a wide range of implicit and explicit definitions of Tibetanness assumed by the staff of research institutions, officials in various government departments, education professionals, and other people to whom we talked during our fieldwork. The focus is thus on the ascription and use of various signifiers or markers of Tibetan identity, such as language, literature, and oral traditions; elements of lifestyle, such as clothing and diet; typical forms of economic organization; and spirituality and religious rituals.
In China, stereotypes of what it means to be a Tibetan are created in the popular media, school textbooks, and research publications. These publicly transmitted stereotypes provide a frame of reference as people relate them to their own experiences and use them to build their own worldviews. Our study is descriptive rather than definitive in that it is based on these different ways of understanding Tibetanness and does not provide an in-depth investigation of how the stereotypes are re-created and are sometimes challenged. Although we do not specifically address the issue of what it means to be a Tibetan, we do reflect on the consequences of categorizing something as Tibetan. In this sense, we are concerned with the different ways in which the terms “Tibetan” and “culture” are understood and the implications of the label “Tibetan.” This means that for analytical purposes, we understand culture as symbolically constructed and reinvented and therefore subject to constantly changing interpretations, which means it is inherently contestable. The culture we are talking about, then, is neither a commonly held system of norms and values nor a shared structure of meanings. It is formed in debates about identity and in political processes through which government policies and even the legitimacy of the state are being challenged.
This book deals with cultural politics and contemporary debates about Chinese policies. As such, it necessarily examines those implicit definitions of culture, and those meanings of Tibetan culture in particular, that are held in common by the participants in these debates. We begin with the common ground of understandings by which certain definitions of culture have been more or less accepted although the conditions for maintaining or preserving this culture are fiercely contested. We also examine the limits of this common ground and the disagreements on what Tibetan culture actually implies or should imply.
Our goal here is not to contribute to scholarly debates or analyses of the concept of culture but to investigate the concerns of those who are debating Tibetan culture. Our working definition of culture thus reflects those meanings that are part of current debates on the preservation of Tibetan culture, and our focus is on the core issues of the debates. These include policies on religion and the conditions for continuing monastic traditions, education and the teaching of Tibetan language in schools, the cultural development work of Chinese government departments, and the economic policies that affect the maintenance of traditional subsistence lifestyles in the areas under study.
No matter how we define culture, it has become increasingly obvious that we live in a world where it is virtually impossible for any culture to survive in isolation, unaffected by economic globalization, tourism, and television broadcasting. As Richard Madsen observed, even when indigenous peoples in relatively isolated villages practice rituals and customs that have been “preserved from the past,” they can never do so with the matter-of-factness of the era before roads, telephones, and the Internet, not to mention modern methods of political control.9 While we question the notion of unchanging cultural traditions, however, it is also important to question change and examine the ways in which, at different times and under different circumstances, change takes place.
As mentioned, notions of cultural preservation are featured in the political arguments of both Tibetans in exile and Chinese authorities. In these discourses, the dilemmas of modernization and cultural change are carefully hidden. Obviously, modernization in any form entails cultural change, and whatever one’s understanding of culture, cultural survival involves a series of difficult choices, including balancing the need for modernization with the need to preserve cultural traditions. Reports on Tibetan culture issued by both the Tibetan exile government and the Chinese authorities fail to acknowledge these problems. Statements from the Tibetan government-in-exile tend simply to attack Chinese authorities for the negative efects of modernization on Tibetan culture, while statements from Chinese authorities uncritically emphasize the positive aspects of modernization. Reports from Chinese government sources typically advertise economic progress, improved healthcare facilities, industrialization, urban construction and housing development, and the building of dams and hydroelectric plants and at the same time allege that Tibetan culture has been thriving since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. They argue that both traditional and modern art forms and media have flourished and offer as examples folk-dance and opera performances, modern art exhibitions, museums, modern Tibetan literature, publishing, radio and television transmission, and scientific research on Tibetan medicine. In fact, when Chinese authorities describe how Tibetan culture is being developed, one of the most pronounced features of the alleged development is the use of new technology and “scientific methods,” which is considered wholly positive and entirely unproblematic in terms of cultural preservation. Chinese media propagate the idea that traditional Tibetan culture is essentially backward and in need of modernization, as elucidated in the Chinese white paper on Tibetan culture:
The [Tibetan] people’s modes of thinking and concepts are bound to change with the changes of the modes of production and life in Tibet. During this process, some new aspects of culture which are not contained in the traditional Tibetan culture but are essential in modern civilization have been developed, such as modern scientific and technological education and news dissemination. The fine cultural traditions with Tibetan features are being carried forward and promoted in the new age, and the decayed and backward things in the traditional culture that are not adapted to social development and people’s life are being gradually sifted out. It is a natural phenomenon in conformity with the law of cultural development, and a manifestation of the unceasing prosperity and development of Tibetan culture in the new situation. To prattle about the “extinction of Tibetan culture” due to its acquisition of the new contents of the new age and to its progress and development is in essence to demand that modern Tibetan people keep the lifestyles and cultural values of old Tibet’s feudal serfdom wholly intact. This is completely ridiculous, for it goes against the tide of progress of the times and the fundamental interests of the Tibetan people.10
The Western world is not without its own essentialist stereotypes of Tibet and Tibetans, which commonly revolve around the image of Shangri-la. The tendency to conceptualize Tibet and Tibetan lifestyles as a utopian ideal has been explained by some as a reflection of Western attitudes about our own societies and the need to find alternatives to consumerism.11 Tibetans are thus recast as a spiritual people living in harmony with nature. Such stereotypes should be countered because they are romantic and in many ways unrealistic and because they obscure the difficult challenges Tibetans face when trying to find a balance between preserving and developing their ways of life.
This problem has also been recognized by several Tibetan exile critics, such as the writer Jamyang Norbu. For instance, in an article published in the exile magazine Tibetan Review, he criticizes not only the Western media for creating Shangri-la stereotypes of Tibet but also Tibetans for re-creating those stereotypes for commercial aims. He argues that we should avoid “calling on people in underdeveloped societies to live passive, traditional and ecologically correct lifestyles—and not emulate the wasteful lifestyles of people in Western consumer societies.”12
It may be fruitful to examine the changing economic and social roles of cultural expressions and their relationship to particular ways of life under distinct natural and social conditions. We should also be aware, however, that assessments of the traditional and the modern are not value-neutral but are essentially political statements. This is the case whether modernization is defined as positive or negative and whether tradition is seen as an obstacle to development or as something precious that must be protected.
In addition to issues of modernization and cultural survival, one should also consider the politics of culture itself. In speeches and news reports, Tibetan culture has been systematically put to ideological use by Chinese authorities. For instance, in 1996, Tibetan culture was declared non-Buddhist by the CCP secretary in Tibet Chen Kuiyuan. The secretary gave a speech describing Buddhism as a foreign culture and praising the song “Emancipated Serfs Are Singing” as an example of healthy and useful national culture.13 One of the most interesting points made by the Tibetan exile government in its answer to the Chinese white paper is that the Chinese government is promoting a new socialist Tibetan culture that portrays traditional Tibetan society as “dark, barbarous, and backward.” According to the Tibetan government-in-exile, this has resulted in the development of two cultures, “the traditional spiritual culture of Tibet and the communist-nurtured ‘campus culture,’ which is neither Tibetan nor Chinese.” Furthermore, the knowledge of this shallow campus culture may help a person make a living as a poet, writer, translator, journalist, or administrative clerk under the Chinese government, but “it does not empower him or her to further the development of Tibetan culture.”14 We will return to this issue in the following chapters.
In the course of developing and refining our project methodology, it was necessary to take a critical look at the complexities of cultural survival, and of culture as a contested concept, and find operational ways of dealing with our topic. With the quantifiable data, we thus confined our investigation to some relatively easily defined aspects of what might be termed “cultural production” rather than trying to study culture as such. This selection in itself assumes a particular understanding of culture. Specifically, it gives prominence to the importance of language and religion. However, we based much of our analysis on a more inclusive understanding of culture, emphasizing the strong connections between cultural expressions and culture as a way of life. In this view, culture includes livelihoods and means of subsistence. Cultural survival depends on the sustainability of these means of subsistence, which are linked to the natural and social conditions essential for their existence. This does not mean that livelihoods remain unchanged, only that the conditions required for their practice must continue to exist.
In Western countries, a popular contemporary image of Tibetan culture is that of the “vanishing civilization.” According to the Tibetan exile researcher Tsering Shakya, “The politics of Tibet have been reduced to the question of the survival of a civilization, which is on Death Row. It is no longer a question of whether it can be revived or saved. The implicit assumption is that it cannot be saved; commentators are busily writing a ‘Requiem for Tibet’ and predictions of ‘The Last Dalai Lama.’ Therefore, the politics of Tibet are seen as how to preserve a dying civilization, whether it is better to preserve it in jam jars or museums.”15
When culture must be preserved in a museum, is it still “authentic” culture? Who judges the authenticity of Tibetan culture? Does it matter whether a Tibetan—or a Han, or a Western academic—does the documenting, collects the samples, and sets up the exhibits? What about the different opinions among Tibetans about what it means to be a Tibetan today? Whose opinions are most valid? And if we define Tibetan culture as a way of life, who has the right to tell Tibetans that they should preserve that way of life? These are some of the disquieting questions that must be posed, although the answers may be difficult, if not impossible, to find.
ISSUES AT STAKE
The revival of Tibetan monasteries and the use of the Tibetan language have been the focus of much of the debate about Tibetan culture, in China as well as internationally. Religion and language are widely acknowledged by Tibetans, both within and outside China, as essential aspects of Tibetan culture. Tibetan Buddhist literary heritage, traditions, and institutions are commonly regarded as the core of Tibetan civilization. The rush to rebuild monasteries and revive religious traditions since the early 1980s is thus a matter not only of personal conviction but of asserting and strengthening group identity. While the Tibetan language is seen as an important medium for the transmission of Buddhist teachings, the preservation and development of the Tibetan language is also regarded as significant in its own right, as a vital aspect of cultural survival. The suppression of Tibetan religion and language that took place during the Democratic Reforms of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), and the new understanding of ethnic identity introduced through China’s minority policies have contributed to the recognition of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan language as principal markers of Tibetan identity.
In this study, we investigate the issue of monastic reconstruction in terms of the number of monasteries and nunneries that have been restored since the period before the first CCP campaigns and how many monks and nuns have joined these monasteries and nunneries. We also examine possible restrictions on the restoration of monasteries and the admittance of monks and nuns. Government funding for the restoration of monasteries has been widely publicized, but who has actually provided the funds for rebuilding monasteries and supporting monks and nuns, and under what circumstances does the state contribute to monastic reconstruction or financial support for clerics?
Tulkus (reincarnated lamas) are highly revered by Tibetan Buddhists and thus play a key role in all Tibetan areas. They are in many ways the keepers of Tibetan cultural traditions. For the government, tulkus are important as respected informal leaders of Tibetan communities and potential mediators between the authorities and the Tibetan people at large. For these reasons, tulkus are often appointed to the People’s Congress or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC) at all administrative levels, are made leading members of the Buddhist Association, or even enter the ranks of government officials. Consequently, the process of recognition and approval of new tulkus is strictly regulated by the authorities in charge of religious affairs. A major issue thus concerns official mechanisms of controlling the tulkus and absorbing them into state institutions. To determine whether there are restrictions on the restoration of tulku lineages, we analyzed the number of tulkus today as compared to their numbers in the 1950s.
One of the critical issues regarding the practice of religion is the contemporary limitation on religious freedom. What are the limits for lay Tibetans, and how are monasteries controlled? The revival of monastic life is not just a question of reconstructing monastery buildings and admitting new monks. It also includes the revival of religious ceremonies, crafts such as butter sculpture and mandala making, religious music and performing arts, painting, astrology and divination, medical practice, woodblock printing, and various branches of Buddhist studies and practices. Have government regulations influenced the revival of monastic life? What have been the general conditions for the revival of religious traditions after twenty years of disruption?
For some Tibetans, monastic education is a compelling alternative to the state educational system, which implicitly transmits ideas of the cultural inferiority of ethnic minorities. Monastic education is a source of pride for Tibetans who value what they understand as their own cultural heritage. Yet, many educated clerics promote secular as well as religious education. Monastic leaders and tulkus have established foundations to provide financial support to local schools and even to build private schools that combine religious and secular education. Whereas Chinese media often emphasize the contradictions between religious practice and economic progress in Tibetan areas, and by extension the conflict between monasteries and schooling, there are important links between monastic and secular education.
In addressing the topic of public education, we focus on both the teaching of Tibetan and the use of Tibetan as the language of instruction in schools for Tibetan children. The availability of such teaching is in itself a complex issue and includes not only whether there are schools teaching Tibetan or in Tibetan but also the cost of schooling, admittance procedures and examination requirements, access to boarding, living conditions in dormitories, and the quality of teachers. We further assess the extent to which these schools are actually within reach of Tibetan children. Interrelated issues are the perceived use of education by parents, career opportunities after graduation, and problems faced by students who attended schools that teach in Tibetan when they reach higher levels of the educational system.
A core problem concerns the balance between Tibetan and Chinese in bilingual schools and which language is used in teaching. Although many educators argue that Tibetan students who are taught in Tibetan achieve far better results than do those who are taught in Chinese, others emphasize the problems these students face when they continue their studies in Chinese. The extent of failure among Tibetan students who compete in exams with native speakers of standard Chinese (Mandarin) is an important factor to consider. There has been ongoing discussion among educators in China as to whether it is better for Tibetan children to learn Chinese from the beginning of their schooling or to be taught in Tibetan. Among those who favor teaching in Tibetan, some have argued for extending the approach to higher levels of education and expanding the use of Tibetan to more subjects and fields of study.
The explicit role of education in China is to promote the idea of a unified motherland and develop patriotic citizens. By infusing such ideals as patriotism and love for the motherland and placing a heavy emphasis on Chinese values and traditions, schools may be contributing to the assimilation of ethnic minorities. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine how the Tibetan language could survive, as a viable written language at least, without being taught in these same schools. In the face of these realities, the educational system plays a highly ambiguous role in terms of its influence on Tibetan culture.
Fieldwork for this study included making systematic observations on-site, photographing sites, gathering information through informal communication, and developing contacts with local research institutions engaged in Tibetan studies. We carried out research in twenty-five counties covering all the Tibetan areas under study and collected primary source materials such as lists of religious sites, county history publications, statistics on education, and samples of teaching materials from schools, bookstores, and publishing houses.16 Key interviews were semi-structured and open and were conducted with county, prefectural, and provincial government officials, schoolteachers, religious and educational specialists, school and university staff, researchers and staff of cultural institutions, monastic leaders, and monks and nuns. Other interviews were unstructured. We conducted approximately ninety interviews with government officials in various departments and units and at least as many other key interviews.
For our investigation of the rebuilding of religious sites and the practice of religion, we visited about forty monasteries and nunneries and numerous other religious sites. We interviewed local community experts on the history of religious sites in the area and obtained information on the historical background and current situation at each site. Claims were verified through systematic observation of religious practice, and standardized questions assured that comparable data were gathered. We interviewed officials in local religious affairs departments and others involved in implementing religious policies. County and prefectural “local histories” (Ch: difangzhi) also provided basic information about the number of monks and the geographic distribution of monasteries and religious sites in each county. The data from these and other written sources were compared with corresponding data gathered on-site, from interviews with officials in the religious affairs departments, and from documents acquired from these departments.
For our research into education in Tibetan, we visited a total of forty-five schools and colleges, interviewed teachers, administrators, and educational specialists, and observed educational practice where possible. We collected samples of teaching materials, school curricula, and other relevant written materials. Assessments include official educational programs as well as locally managed grassroots educational facilities designed and run by local Tibetans. We visited schools at all levels (primary, middle, vocational, college, and university), including boarding schools in herding areas and village primary schools in agricultural areas; most were visited without prior notice. Statistical data were collected in interviews with leaders of the prefecture education departments and include detailed information on the total numbers of schools and students and the numbers of bilingual schools and students at all levels, by county. Interviews with local school staff supplemented the figures provided by government officials and gave us more detailed information about the actual situation.
We used two basic types of literary sources: works in the field of minority studies and works that draw on statistical materials. Some remarks must first be made about “minority studies” or “ethnology” (Ch: minzuxue) in China. Ethnology is institutionally and intellectually tied to the practice of “nationalities work” and minority policy.17 The discipline still leans heavily toward Marxist evolutionist theory, rooted in the works of Friedrich Engels and Lewis Henry Morgan.18 Issues such as the negotiation of identity, cultural commoditization and globalization, the social construction of culture and ethnicity, and the politics of historical and ethnographic writing have so far been more or less ignored. This means that the theoretical approach of Chinese scholars differs markedly from contemporary Western approaches.
Even more can be said about the use of official Chinese statistics. During fieldwork, we were told that government officials in China commonly have three or four documents on each topic, for various uses, which give widely disparate figures. The credibility of these documents is rarely checked by outside agencies. In some cases, officials may not even be aware of which document contains the correct information. By all accounts, Chinese statistical materials are notoriously unreliable. As Graham Clarke pointed out, China has a system of administration that depends on local interpretation and implementation of central commands and initiatives.19 In most areas of China aside from the eastern seaboard, this includes survey work. Furthermore, direct lateral linkages among counties or provinces are weak, there is no independent cross-checking for accuracy, and the primary allegiance of officials who carry out data collection is to the local administration.
As a result of these and other inadequacies in surveying and data collection, statistics generally are riddled with errors. Politically motivated distortions could make data on production and income levels particularly unreliable. Common survey errors include discrepancies in the use of terminology and interpretation of categories, reclassification of categories over time, obvious data entry errors, inaccuracies and inconsistencies in recording, mistakes in aggregation and simple calculation, and sampling biases.
We tried to counteract some of these problems by linking wider statistics to case studies. One strategy we used in interviews was to repeat the same questions at all administrative levels and then compare the figures supplied by the different levels. Prefectural figures were compared to county figures, and county figures to figures collected at a particular site. This strategy at least revealed those figures that were clearly unreliable. A question remains, however, as to which of the different figures are more accurate. When figures are exactly the same for two levels, this may indicate either that they are accurate or that they have been drawn from the same source.20
One might ask, then, if Chinese official statistics are so unreliable, why refer to them at all? First, we unfortunately did not have the resources necessary to collect all of our statistical data. Second, there are no independent statistics available. Third, in order to confirm or contradict supposed facts, the facts must first be available, which means that further research on these areas will benefit from any baseline reference data, if only for the sake of replication. The data presented here are, as of this writing, not easily obtained outside of China, at least for researchers who do not read Chinese. It is therefore an additional aim of this volume to make basic data on these under-researched areas more widely available. Finally, even unreliable statistics can be useful, if read with an understanding of which distortions to expect. For instance, since China introduced compulsory nine-year education, we know that the goal for any government education bureau is to have 100 percent of school-age children attending school. If an education bureau reports a rate of 85 percent school attendance, we should expect the actual figure to be no more than or anywhere below 85 percent. Thus, the data presented here should not be understood as factual but should be read with these considerations in mind.
Two main methods were used on-site: observation and interviews. Observation is not always as simple as it seems. Efficient observation depends on the experience and background knowledge of the researcher. This background knowledge can also create blind spots. One expects to see something, and as a result, that is what one sees. Taking this logic to an extreme, it is possible to say that one cannot claim to know something just because one has observed it. Interviews also presented a range of difficulties. Although one of the authors is fluent in Chinese and the other has studied Central Tibetan, the great majority of interviews required some degree of interpretation. This was especially significant when interviews were conducted in a Tibetan dialect (Khamba or Amdo-ke) or a local dialect of Chinese. Even with good interpretation, answers to seemingly simple questions, such as “How many monks are in this monastery?” or “How many rooms are in this school?” may be inaccurate. For example, we once spent more than two hours interviewing a monk in a monastery. Our first question concerned the number of monks in the monastery, and we were given an apparently straightforward answer: five monks. After completing a long list of other questions, we spent some time discussing the ritual calendar of the monastery. At that point, it became clear that we had come in the middle of the summer holidays, when most of the monks were at home with their families. We went back to the first question about the number of monks and finally managed to find out that the number of monks ordinarily staying at the monastery was about eighty. In addition to interpretation problems, there is the obvious problem of accuracy in responses. Most people are rarely compelled to be totally accurate and cannot be expected to provide precise information, especially hard figures.
Even simple questions about religious and minority issues were highly sensitive matters. This is why we never asked people for their names or other personal information. Although officials rarely accompanied us on our visits to religious sites, we did not interview monks or nuns if officials were present. Visits to monasteries and many schools were made without prior notice, and most school visits were unaccompanied. We traveled with a letter of introduction from our host institute, the Institute of Nationalities Studies (INS), a department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and were accompanied on fieldtrips by an INS researcher who acted as our guide and translator. Despite this, since most sites had never received foreign researchers before, many of those interviewed were obviously ambivalent, and some may have felt uncomfortable disclosing information to foreigners. It is difficult even for a Chinese citizen to obtain information from the Chinese bureaucracy, since officials usually do not see it as a responsibility to provide information to the general public. There is simply no precedent for openness.
Among the most basic data we wanted to gather were the number of monasteries that have been rebuilt and the number of monks, nuns, and tulkus today as compared to the early 1950s. Although we consulted a number of Chinese sources, our most important sources are our own interviews. We interviewed officials in the religious affairs departments in most of the prefecture governments and in many counties.21 In addition, we visited a number of monasteries and interviewed monks in most of them. We interviewed officials at the provincial government level in Sichuan and Qinghai for the purpose of obtaining overall figures.22 We further cross-checked this information with written sources and with our own findings from the same areas. On Gansu and Qinghai, our main written source is Pu Wencheng’s work on Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the two provinces, which lists and briefly describes more than 800 Tibetan monasteries.23 This book also lists the Tibetan name of every monastery. Another source is Ran Guangrong’s book on Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in China, which gives a general overview of the Tibetan autonomous areas of the four provinces and includes chapters on the TAR and Inner Mongolia.24 We also used other available monographs and compilations about specific areas, such as Dechen (Diqing), Golok (Guoluo), and Kandze (Ganzi).25 Finally, we looked for relevant information in a large number of prefecture and county histories published during the 1990s.
Our main English-language source has been Steven D. Marshall’s and Susette Ternent Cooke’s study Tibet Outside the TAR. This extensive survey is a very good source of detailed background information on most of the counties we researched, although it has some significant geographical gaps and lacks substantial information on religious or educational institutions. In addition, since the authors worked undercover, the type of data to which they had access is very different from our material. We hope our study will update and complement their work.
During our research, we encountered a number of challenges. For instance, it was extremely difficult to estimate how many monasteries existed in the areas under study before destruction of religious sites began in the late 1950s. The names of monasteries in Tibetan and in Chinese are often completely different, which makes it difficult to use old Tibetan sources such as those kept by the Tibetan government-in-exile. Published sources in Chinese, which tend to use the Chinese names of monasteries, do provide information on the current situation. Among the various Chinese sources, however, several give substantially different figures, on both former and current numbers of monasteries, nunneries, monks, nuns, and tulkus.
Authorities in charge of religious affairs keep a detailed account of different categories of monks, but these categories may not be identically defined. Historical records often describe different categories of “religious personnel” (Ch: zongjiao renyuan), such as tulku, geshe (monk who has acquired the highest degree in the Gelugpa study program), abbot (khenpo), lama, and draba (monk). When different sources list past and current figures, the definitions of categories may differ, and categories may therefore be confused. In addition, it is often unclear which categories are included in the total figures.
Various sources also define monks and nuns differently. Written sources often provide detailed information on the numbers of monks, ordained monks, lamas, monks with a geshe degree, abbots, tulkus, etc., without noting which of these are counted as monks. This makes it difficult to know whether the numbers should be combined. Some sources use the term “religious personnel” without noting how many of these are considered monks. Should monks in Tibetan Buddhist traditions such as Nyingmapa, which allows monks to marry, be defined as monks? “Practitioners of magic” (T: ngagpa) may or may not be counted as monks, since they usually dress like monks but are permitted to marry. And if a monastery is defined as a place where monks live, are religious professionals considered monks when they live in a monastery? We noted particularly contradictory information on the numbers of Nyingmapa monks and monasteries.
It is worth mentioning that prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, 10–50 percent of all monks were known to live outside monasteries.26 Some were itinerant storytellers, and some monks and, more commonly, nuns lived at home as dependents of the head of household. It is unclear whether the percentages cited above include ngagpa, who even today roam the countryside telling fortunes. In several of our interviews, we were given information on “private monks and nuns,” “monks and nuns living at home,” and “traveling monks and nuns.” These individuals were occasionally included in the statistics on monks and nuns. We suspect that some of these monks and nuns were not accepted at or were expelled from monasteries and nunneries. However, some of them may be living outside monasteries and nunneries for the same reasons as in former times. It is difficult to know how monks and nuns are registered and statistics are gathered, and how the procedures differ from one area to the next. The number of monks and nuns who live outside of monasteries today, permanently or temporarily, is particularly unclear.
The current system of registering monks creates other ambiguities. Since the authorities are trying to maintain strict control over the numbers of monks, detailed accounts are kept, using a number of different categories. Whereas traditionally monks never retired, today monks above a certain age “retire” (Ch: tuixiu), although they may continue to live in the monastery. If retired monks are living in monasteries, it is unclear what their retirement means except that they are no longer counted as monks in official statistics. Similarly, one must be at least eighteen years old to become a monk or a nun. Those under this age are sometimes not reported or are reported as other than monks or nuns. As one county government official explained: “Those under the minimum age are there to help elderly monks or to learn a craft.” It is sometimes unclear whether monks under the age of eighteen are even included in the statistics. Another problem was brought to our attention by local government officials in charge of keeping records of monks and nuns. These officials complained that their job was made more difficult when monks are registered in a monastery in their county but are living in a monastery in a different county. The monastery where the monk is actually residing would of course have similar problems in deciding how to account for him.
At present, authorities in charge of religious affairs set quotas for the acceptance of monks and nuns into monasteries or nunneries. These quotas are very often exceeded, and when officials are asked about the number of monks or nuns in a monastery or nunnery, they sometimes give the quota figure rather than the actual figure. The figures collected by the prefectures and provinces are based on reports from each county, and we learned in local interviews that the religious affairs departments keep at least two accounts of the number of monks. One figure represents the number of monks living permanently in each monastery, and the other indicates the quota of monks allowed to reside permanently in the monastery. These two figures often vary greatly, and it is not always clear which figure is being presented. Visits to local monasteries revealed further complications. We visited monasteries with up to 100 percent more resident religious personnel than were reported by local authorities.
The same statistical problems apply to nuns. In addition, we regret the shortage of exact information on nuns available from any sources, written or oral, from many of the areas we visited. Little was known about the number of nuns in the 1950s, and the impression we gained from interviews with county governments is that there may be more nuns than are reported by the prefectural governments. This is probably due to the large number of nuns living outside nunneries. For instance, in Derge (Dege) County, authorities in charge of religious affairs informed us that the county currently had only one nunnery with 23 nuns. In addition, we were told, approximately 300 were practicing as nuns but living at home. These 300 were not included in the statistics. If the situation is similar in other counties, statistical figures for nuns are even more problematic than those for monks.
Statistics on tulkus are even more complicated. One problem is that tulkus often live outside their original monasteries or even outside the country. In addition, tulkus may not be monks, and some sources classify tulkus as monks while others do not. When counting tulkus, some count lineages (both living and deceased tulkus), whereas some count only the living. In some instances, only officially accepted tulkus are counted, and they may be but a fraction of the tulkus who are recognized within monasteries and local communities. Our information indicates that there may be a substantial number of these “self-appointed” (Ch: zi ren ding de) tulkus, as they were termed in one of our interviews.
As simple as it may seem, counting monasteries is a difficult matter. In some interviews, authorities in charge of religious affairs identified inconsistent definitions of a monastery as the reason for the smaller number of monasteries at present compared to before 1958. Authorities explained that some old records of monasteries might have included household shrines and small temples for the mountain gods, offering sites where buildings of any kind had been constructed, tulku residences, and so forth. We were further told that the government now uses a much narrower definition, with “monastery” designating a place where monks reside, and describes other places of worship as “religious sites” (Ch: zongjiao huodongchang or zongjiao huodongdian). Despite these claims, authorities in some areas reported that there were more monasteries in the late 1990s than in the 1950s. In these cases, there was no mention of changing definitions at all. It is obviously very difficult to judge whether the reported redefinition of the term “monastery” is really a problem for record-keeping or is instead a convenient excuse for the authorities.
Of course, old records might be inaccurate in a number of ways. For instance, the three great Lhasa monasteries—Ganden, Sera, and Drepung—had ideal numbers of monks (Ganden, 3,300; Sera, 5,500; and Drepung, 7,700). The true number of monks may have once resembled these figures but would naturally have fluctuated. Other monasteries may also have reported such ideal figures, which could well have found their way into historical records. Another source of confusion might be the identification of some monasteries as “branch monasteries” (T: dgon lag) and some as mother monasteries.27 It is not inconceivable that records of monasteries may occasionally have counted only the mother monastery. The monks in branch monasteries may also have been counted as belonging to the mother monastery. Today, however, monasteries are officially regarded as equal in rank, although the distinctions are still very much alive in the minds of local people.
Rebuilding a monastery and accepting monks require government permission. In a number of cases, monasteries were rebuilt without permission because people became tired of waiting. These illegal monasteries are sometimes not counted in official statistics simply because officials are reluctant to admit they exist. Ironically, this results in figures on restored monasteries that are too low. Finally, there are great variations in the way people define “restored” or “reconstructed,” which might cover any action from complete reconstruction to a few minor repairs.
In researching education, we were interested in knowing how many Tibetan children have the opportunity to learn Tibetan and how many are taught with Tibetan as the language of instruction. We wanted to know the number of Tibetan children who actually attend school. The question of school attendance is politically sensitive, since the central government has decided that nine years of education should be compulsory throughout China. In some of the areas under study, even a three-year education was unavailable to a majority of school-age children, and in counties where herding is the predominant livelihood, we found that official enrollment rates were as low as 28 percent. Despite this, in other counties with very similar conditions, government officials reported enrollment rates as high as 90 percent.
Local governments sometimes receive funding from higher levels of government based on student enrollment and may offer incentives to parents to enroll their children or sanction them if they fail to do so. In addition, although enrollment and attendance are two different matters, local officials may apply the terms “entrance rate” (Ch: ruxuelü) or “enrollment” in different ways, for example, to refer to the number of children registered in school compared to the school-age children in the area, the number of school-age children who attend school regularly, or the number of school-age children who complete primary school, defined as either four or six years of schooling. Due to these and other problems, accurate information on school attendance is very difficult to find.
The language of instruction is a less politically sensitive question but may be difficult to determine for other reasons. One of the officials we interviewed, a former teacher, provided the following illuminating description: “The teachers are bilingual and the pupils sometimes even have two sets of books, one in Chinese and one in Tibetan. Sometimes the teachers write on the blackboard in Chinese and explain in Tibetan; in other situations they might teach in Tibetan and explain in Chinese. Homework might be given in Tibetan, but exams can be taken in either language.”
This seems to be the practice in many of the areas we visited. It is obviously difficult, even for the teachers, to decide exactly what the language of instruction is. School staff and officials define this differently. In addition, we visited schools classified as Tibetan language that had parallel classes in each grade taught in Tibetan and in Chinese. In some of these schools, only one third of the pupils were taught in Tibetan.
As with monasteries, defining a school is not as easy as one might expect. We were told that the number of schools in a county was unclear, since officials did not know whether to include teaching stations or “point schools” (Ch: dianxiao), which may not have permanent buildings at all. We were told of one school that held class in a dry riverbed, where pupils sat on rocks, and of another that conducted teaching in the “prayer house” (T: mani khang). School hours and days may also be irregular, and as officials do not go out to inspect very often, they may not know how many of the schools are functioning on a regular basis. Many point schools are bilingual, which then makes the number of bilingual schools uncertain. Along with the unclear definition of a school, our sources often were also not sure about whom to count as a student or a teacher. For instance, during interviews, we sometimes realized that preschool pupils might be included in the total number of students and that administrative staff might have been counted as teachers.
Since all schools in China should (and the great majority do) teach Chinese, we have defined a bilingual school as one where two languages are taught, for our purposes, Tibetan and Chinese. This is also the common understanding of the term among educators and officials in charge of education. However, some officials tend to be imprecise and equate “minority education” (Ch: minzuban) with “bilingual” (Ch: shuangyu) education. In minority areas, “minzu schools” (Ch: minzu xuexiao) are intended to provide educational opportunities especially for ethnic minority students, but this does not mean that all students in such schools are necessarily ethnic minorities. In one case, we were informed that the definition of a minzu school was that at least 65 percent of the students belong to a minority ethnic group. In other cases, we were told that even fewer of the students in such schools actually are minority students. In addition, it is very common for minzu schools to teach only Chinese, and we found a number of cases in which minzu schools in Tibetan areas did not teach Tibetan at all.
As mentioned above, government officials tend to exaggerate enrollment rates, including at bilingual schools, which means that attendance figures might also be too high. Another serious problem is a tendency to exaggerate the number of bilingual schools. In addition, a school’s classification as bilingual gives no indication of how many students are taught Tibetan or the number of hours per week they study Tibetan. During fieldwork, we came across schools in which Tibetan was taught only above the fourth grade or only to an experimental class. In these schools, the pupils were studying Tibetan two to four hours a week, while Chinese was taught up to eleven hours a week.
Another problem is the lack of specific data on the percentage of students who are Tibetans. On the one hand, as noted above, Han students sometimes attend minzu schools in quite large numbers, and there are also strong indications that Han children generally attend school more frequently than do Tibetan children, particularly above the primary school level. On the other hand, Han are more restricted by the “planned reproduction policy” (Ch: jihua shengyu), commonly known as the one-child policy, than are Tibetans and other minorities, who are usually allowed more than one child. In the case of parents employed by the government, the limit is generally two children, whereas farmers and herders are usually allowed up to three children. Because we relied solely on demographic figures, we unfortunately were not able to take these added factors into account.
The demographic figures cited in this book are drawn primarily from national censuses, which are considered the most accurate sources. The most recent national census was conducted in November 2000, but the source material for this book is based on the latest census data available at the time of writing, the 1990 national census. Although more than ten years have passed since then and the population has increased, we mainly need to know the percentage of Tibetans living in an area, not the actual number. As many critics have pointed out, however, this is exactly where official statistics may be the most unreliable because of inconsistencies in who is and is not counted as residing in a particular area when the census is taken. Among the groups not counted, Han are believed to constitute the great majority. The most important groups not counted in the national census are members of the armed forces and temporary migrants, defined as those living in a locality for less than a year and continuously absent from their place of registered residence. We also included demographic information from the 1990 census for the sake of comparing different areas according to ethnic composition and discerning variations in conditions for the reconstruction of monasteries and the teaching of Tibetan in schools. We have thus tried to substantiate the effects of Han versus Tibetan majorities in the population.28
USE OF TERMINOLOGY
As already mentioned, we use the term “bilingual school” to refer to a school where Chinese and a minority language are taught. Both the terms minzu zhongxue (minzu middle school) and Zangwen zhongxue (Tibetan middle school) were used by some of our sources to refer to bilingual middle schools as opposed to “standard middle schools” (Ch: putong zhongxue). The difference between the terms appears to be that minzu schools are for minority students, in this case Tibetans, although they are often taught in Chinese with Tibetan language as an additional subject, while Tibetan schools use Tibetan as the language of instruction. We use the terms “minzu school” and “Tibetan school” as they are used by our sources but note that different criteria for each are applied from place to place.
Minzu in Chinese generally refers to “minority ethnic groups” (Ch: shaoshu minzu). This is explained in more detail in chapter 1. When we use the term minzu in this study, it is drawn directly from a particular source and follows the usage of that source. When we refer to these minority ethnic groups in our own discussions, we prefer to use the term “ethnic minority” or “minority.” The use of the term “minority” in reference to Tibetans has been protested by some who see it as inappropriate for political reasons. As used in this study, the word “minority” is not politically motivated but merely expresses that the particular ethnic group is in the minority in a county, prefecture, province, or China as a whole. In other cases, however, Tibetans are the majority group within an area and are then referred to as the Tibetan majority.
We have chosen to refer to the Chinese majority population as “Han,” although this is also a politically charged term. Some might accuse us of transmitting the view that the Han are only one of many Chinese peoples and that all ethnic minorities are equally Chinese. The term “Han” also creates the impression that there is such a thing as a homogenous Chinese nation, effectively disguising large variations within the majority Chinese population in terms of language, way of life, customs, and religious traditions.29 Several scholars have in fact noted that the term “Han minzu” is a recent invention,30 although it emphasizes the connections between the present-day inhabitants of China and their ancestors in the ancient Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).31 Despite these disagreements, we use the term “Han” as it is used in China today, to categorize the majority of Chinese who are not recognized as members of a minority ethnic group.