Contemporary Tibetan cultural politics is linked closely to the politics of ethnic and national identity. In order to understand the context for this cultural politics, we need to know something about the history of China-Tibet relations. The very concept of Tibet and the Tibetan identity has evolved through this historical relationship and has at the same time been reiterated through Chinese and Tibetan history-building projects.
For centuries, China’s ethnic minorities have encountered various civilizing projects, informed by different ideologies that were adopted in turn by Chinese authorities and European colonialists.1 These processes, described by Stevan Harrell as “cultural encounters,” are crucial to the negotiation of Han as well as Tibetan identity. Since the People’s Republic of China was established, its policies have had an especially deep impact on the expression of cultural and ethnic identities by the indigenous communities in China and on the very meaning of those identities. The revival of minority cultures in China, including Tibetan culture, should be understood in light of these and other historical circumstances. The issue of Tibetan cultural survival in China is also inextricably linked to the broader controversies and international concerns over Tibet.
This chapter outlines the background of these debates, including the history of the areas under study, which is tied to the disagreement between Tibetan exiles and Chinese authorities over the very definition of Tibet, the dispute over Tibet Major or Greater Tibet. It provides an overview of the ideological standpoint of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the ethnic minority question, CCP efforts to classify the ethnic minorities of China, and the administrative system that has been set up to govern these areas.
Chinese histories claim that Tibet has been part of China for more than a millennium and that it was “peacefully liberated” by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1950, one year after the People’s Republic of China was established. However, Tibetans who fled to India and Nepal and formed a government-in-exile under the leadership of the Dalai Lama have different views. They argue that the so-called peaceful liberation was a military invasion of an independent country.
Another contentious issue is the definition of Tibet as such. The Chinese government formally established the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as late as 1965, after the Dalai Lama had taken refuge in India in 1959. By then, the authorities had already established Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and Counties within four bordering provinces—Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan—covering an area almost the size of the TAR itself. According to national census figures, well over 2 million Tibetans, more than half of all Tibetans in China, live in these Tibetan areas outside the TAR.
The Tibetan government-in-exile holds the view that the rightful territory of Tibet encompasses all the areas recognized by China as Tibetan autonomous regions and not just the TAR. According to Tibetan exiles, “We have only to glance at the map of Asia to see Tibet clearly marked off by encircling mountain chains.” They further argue that after the PLA brought the whole of Tibet under its control, the Chinese Communists “began to pursue their colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ by dividing Tibet and distorting the facts of Tibetan history.”2
Representatives of the Chinese state are equally adamant. For instance, in one of its white papers on Tibet, the State Council argues: “The Dalai Lama clique has . . . contended that geographically Tibet extends far beyond the boundaries of today, including areas inhabited by the Tibetans in Sichuan, Qinghai, and other places, making a total population of six million. This so-called Tibet Major is merely a conspiracy hatched by imperialists in an attempt to carve up China.”3
“Tibet” is a European name. Tibetans call their country Bod (Ch: Tubo or Tubote) and commonly divide it geographically into the “three regions” (T: chol kha gsum) of Ü-Tsang, Kham (Ch: Kangba), and Amdo. Several nineteenth-century Tibetan sources refer to the three regions of Tö or Ngari, Ü-Tsang, and Domed.4 In these sources, Domed designates the lower parts of Tibet and includes Amdo and Kham. In contemporary China, however, Xizang, which is often translated into English as “Tibet,” refers solely to the territory of the TAR. The TAR covers Ngari, Ü-Tsang, and western Kham, while Amdo and eastern Kham are incorporated in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
Writers outside China sometimes make a distinction between political and ethnographic Tibet, with political Tibet being the area under the political control of the Dalai Lama on the eve of the Communist era and ethnographic Tibet consisting of the areas inhabited by Tibetans and dominated by Tibetan culture.5 Although political Tibet is commonly described as corresponding largely to the TAR, the exact boundaries of both areas usually are not identified. This is not surprising, since the nature of political control in the region before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China was very different from that of today, as were the ways in which people identified themselves. The areas outside political Tibet were the frontier areas between Tibet and China dominated by local chieftains and warlords, sometimes in a zone of conflicting interests and often outside the control of any regime.
A HISTORY OF CHINESE-TIBETAN RELATIONS
In Imperial China, the world was basically divided between the “civilized” Chinese and their “uncivilized” neighbors, among whom were the nomadic peoples of the grasslands. In early Chinese records, the peoples inhabiting the plateau and mountain areas to the west of the Chinese Empire were called Tubo (Ch: Tufan) and Qiang. Records from as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) describe imperial expansion into the highlands and attacks on nomads as far west as the Amnye Machen mountain range in what is today known as Golok (Guoluo) Prefecture in the modern province of Qinghai.6 In the early sixth century, the Yarlung dynasty emerged in central Tibet, and by the eighth century it had become an empire. The “Yarlung kings” (T: btsan po) sent their soldiers into Chinese areas, attacking and occupying the Tang capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an) in 763. A settlement negotiated in 729 established boundary markers 320 li (160 kilometers) east of Siling (Xining).7 The name Bod then became associated not only with the core area around Lhoka and the Yarlung Valley in central Tibet but with the entire mountain region controlled by the Yarlung kings. After another agreement with China in 821–22, the Tibetan Empire gradually declined, as did the Tang dynasty (618–907).8 Several centuries later, at the time of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Mongolian tribes entered the northern parts of the Tibetan Plateau, but not until the seventeenth century were the north-eastern areas of today’s Qinghai incorporated into the Qing empire (1644–1911).
The years 1723–28 mark a turning point in the political history of the border areas. In 1723, Mongolians and Tibetans in the Kokonor area revolted against increased Qing control. The revolt was harshly suppressed, and the Kokonor area was incorporated into the Qing empire, which meant that taxes were paid directly to Qing officials rather than to monasteries or Mongolian overlords.9 Between 1720 and 1728, the Qing sent three armies to Lhasa and for the first time established a protectorate in Tibet. A border stone was erected at Bum La, the pass between the Drichu (Yangzi River) and the Dzachu (Mekong River), and the watershed between the two rivers demarcated the boundary.10 The areas west of the watershed were administered from Lhasa, while the territories to the east were administered by native chiefs under the supervision of the governor of Sichuan. At the present time, the border between the TAR and Sichuan follows the Drichu.
During the late eighteenth century, Qing armies were sent to save Tibet from invading Gurkha forces.11 From the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the Qing dynasty gradually lost influence in Tibet, particularly with the onset of the Opium War in 1840. In northern Amdo by the end of the nineteenth century, Qing forces controlled a corridor of land north of the Machu (Yellow River) and eastward from Xining to Gansu, in today’s Haidong Prefecture. As for the areas south of the Machu, symbolic incorporation, by way of rewarding local leaders for tribute, was reinforced with occasional military incursions.12
Despite this nominal control, there was not much evidence in the late nineteenth century of Chinese settlement in Qinghai south of the northern bend of the Machu near Xining.13 The Sun and Moon Ridge, together with the trade market at Thongkor (Huangyuan), west of Xining and east of Qinghai Lake (Tso ngön), divided the highland pastoral and agricultural areas until 1949.14 Today this line marks the border between Tsochang (Haibei) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) and Xining Municipality. The areas outside “political Tibet” were in general very remote and inaccessible, and in present-day Jyekundo (Yushu) and Golok TAPs, for instance, the state was unable even to send in postal couriers during the Republican period (1912–49).15 After the founding of the Nationalist state, Amdo came under the control of the Muslim warlord in Xining, Ma Bufang, who became notorious for his brutality.
With the decline of the Qing dynasty, a Nyarong chieftain, Gonpo Namgyal, initiated a military campaign to seize control of most of the local polities of Kham. The Lhasa administration sent a Tibetan army to defeat Gonpo Namgyal in 1863 and thus regained control of the areas that had been taken over by Sichuan in 1725. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, after subsequent military campaigns by Chinese armies, the states of northern Kham were under Lhasan authority with those in southern Kham (Lithang and Bathang) loosely supervised by the Qing governor-general of Sichuan.16
In 1904, the British sent troops from India to Lhasa for the purpose of forcing the Dalai Lama to negotiate a trade agreement with British India. In the same year, the Chinese undertook an incursion into Kham that lasted until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The campaign was led by Zhao Erfeng, special commissioner in charge of the Yunnan-Sichuan frontier. By 1910, most of the autonomous polities of Kham had become districts under the authority of Chinese magistrates, colonies were being established in Bathang and Dzayül, and Zhao’s troops had reached Lhasa, leading to the flight of the thirteenth Dalai Lama to India.17 In order to recruit settlers to colonies in Bathang and Dzayül, Zhao issued proclamations promising to give settlers land, cover their travel expenses, and provide oxen, plows, and seed, which they could pay for over a three-year period.18 Zhao was killed only a year later, however, and the Qing dynasty ended. The Chinese immediately lost control of Pome and Dzayül,19 while the garrisons in Kham withdrew or deserted after being attacked by Tibetan forces. Tibetan forces subsequently regained control of most of Kham. Despite the establishment of a nominal province, Xikang, in Kham during the Republican period, only nine of Zhao Erfeng’s thirty-one magistrates still existed in 1931.20
During the Simla Convention (1913–14), British, Chinese, and Tibetan officials attempted to reach an agreement on regulating the borders between British India, China, and Tibet. The final agreement was signed and ratified by Britain and Tibet but not by China.21 As proposed by the British representative, the agreement established the territories of Outer and Inner Tibet. Outer Tibet was recognized as suzerain and Inner Tibet as sovereign Chinese territory. Outer Tibet coincided approximately with what is now the TAR and Jyekundo TAP in Qinghai. Inner Tibet included what is now Dechen (Diqing) TAP in Yunnan, Kandze (Ganzi) TAP in Sichuan, Ngaba (Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, Golok TAP in Qinghai, and areas in western Qinghai north of Jyekundo TAP. The Tibetans relinquished areas north of the Amnye Machen mountain range and the Tawang district in India’s North Eastern Frontier Area region, also known as Arunachal Pradesh, and the so-called McMahon line was established. This proposed boundary between Tibet and India is a matter of dispute between China and India today.
The Simla Convention was initiated by British colonial authorities and should be understood in light of the ongoing Great Game in Central Asia, with the two great powers Russia and Britain each trying to expand its authority and China seeking to maintain its imperial influence. The last imperial dynasty in China, the Qing dynasty, had ended in 1911, and the British wanted to take advantage of unstable conditions to establish Tibet as a buffer zone in Central Asia. In order to do this, it was important to agree on the border between Tibet and China, which previously had been marked only by border stones at strategic points and never delineated on maps. In fact, fairly accurate maps of Tibet did not exist until British cartographers assembled geographical data collected by British soldiers, colonial government officials, and agents.
In looking at the history of European cartography, one can see that as Europeans began to explore and conquer, maps became scientific instead of cosmological. The same process took place in China, where modern cartography developed as an important tool of the Republican and later the Communist government. During the 1950s, Chinese authorities continued the systematic mapping of the Tibetan Plateau while defining the present-day administrative divisions and creating the current system of Tibetan autonomous areas.22 As this occurred, all Tibetan place-names were sinicized, and many villages were given completely new Chinese names.
THE “TIBET QUESTION”
The questions of how to define Tibet and which areas to include as Tibetan are an aspect of the broader controversy over the status of Tibet in international law. The roots of this controversy go back at least to the days of the British Empire and the Great Game in Central Asia, but it was not until 1950, when the PLA marched through Kham on its way to “liberate” Tibet that the question of Tibet’s status as a sovereign state actually gained relevance. This was due not only to the military power of the PLA and the expansionism of the Communist Chinese rulers but also to the new significance of the concept of statehood engendered by the recently established United Nations (UN).
In October 1950, the PLA crossed the Drichu and defeated the strategically important city of Chamdo. Chinese radio broadcasts announced that the “peaceful liberation of Tibet” had begun. Tibetan leaders in Lhasa realized that Tibet was finally being invaded, and in desperation, they turned to the West—Great Britain, the United States, and the United Nations—for help.
The United Nations responded by debating whether to present the invasion of Tibet to the UN General Assembly. The British Foreign Office initiated a legal inquiry into whether Tibet was eligible to appeal to the United Nations, since the UN Charter stipulates that the appealing party must be a state. The foreign office concluded that Tibetan autonomy was sufficiently well established to consider Tibet a state as defined by the UN Charter. Nevertheless, in the UN debate that followed, the British representative recommended that no action be taken, arguing that they “did not know exactly what was going on in Tibet, nor was the legal position of the country very clear.”23 There are several reasons for this apparent contradiction on the part of Great Britain. First, the British had decided to allow the newly independent India to take the lead in formulating policies toward its neighbors. The British thus would have supported a resolution against China on the Tibet issue if India had initiated such a resolution; however, India was under strong pressure from China not to do so.24 Second, Britain feared that a resolution against China could be enforced only by armed action, which neither Britain nor the United States was prepared to undertake. The result would have been a loss of prestige for the United Nations.25
While these debates were taking place in Europe and the United States, the PLA invaded Kham and advanced toward Lhasa. After all their requests for assistance had been denied, the Dalai Lama and his government had no other option than to negotiate with the Chinese. Under the leadership of the governor of Chamdo, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, a Tibetan envoy went to Beijing to open a dialogue with the Chinese government. In May 1951, the Tibetan delegates signed the so-called Seventeen-Point Agreement on the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.26 The agreement stated that the existing Tibetan political system, including the status and functions of the Dalai Lama, would remain unaltered, that religious freedom would be protected and the income of the monasteries would remain unchanged, and that the spoken and written language and the education of Tibetans would be developed “step by step in accordance with the actual conditions in Tibet.” It also declared that the local government of Tibet should actively assist the PLA in its efforts to enter Tibet and “consolidate the national defenses.”27
Despite the fact that the Seventeen-Point Agreement was extorted from the Tibetans under military pressure, the international community considered the issue of Tibet’s status to be basically settled. The Tibetan leadership had apparently accepted Tibet’s status as a Chinese province, leaving little to discuss. However, when the Dalai Lama officially denounced the agreement upon arriving in India in 1959, the status of Tibet again became an international issue. It became clear that if Tibet were recognized as having been an independent state in 1949, the Chinese Communist action was then an invasion and occupation of a foreign territory and not an internal Chinese affair. Moreover, the invasion would violate the section of the UN Charter prohibiting the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. In order to gain support, the government-in-exile thus had to convince the world that Tibet had been a legitimate state according to the accepted definition: having a permanent population, a delimited territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.
The attempt to apply the criteria of modern statehood to the pre-1950 situation in Tibet has served to complicate the issue rather than bring it closer to a solution. Before 1950, Tibetan Buddhism essentially defined the political unit of Tibet. Tibet was the religious land, the polity based on and legitimized by religion as expressed in the concept of “king as protector and patron of religion” (T: chos rgyal) and the “dual religious and secular system of government” (T: chos srid gnyis ldan). In Amdo and Kham in particular, the larger monasteries were not only important religious and trade centers but also administrative centers. The political system was epitomized by the crucial status of the Dalai Lama as political leader and, in his sacred role, protector deity of Tibet. It is not certain, however, that the political unit thus defined by religion was understood as a state in the present-day sense of the word, nor were the boundaries of this political unit clearly demarcated. In Tibet, as in Benedict Anderson’s “dynastic realm,”28 populations were subjects, not citizens, the ruler derived his legitimacy from divinity, not from populations, and political units were defined by their centers, not by legally established borders.
None of the world’s governments has officially recognized Tibet as an independent nation, but there is currently a broadly held international view of Tibet as an oppressed country under Chinese domination.29 A number of state leaders have called for a dialogue between the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Chinese government. Chinese leaders have claimed that they will meet with the Dalai Lama and his representatives as soon as he stops calling for independence and announces that Tibet is part of China. However, even though the Dalai Lama has stated repeatedly, since launching the Strasbourg Proposal in the European Parliament in 1988, that he is no longer striving for Tibetan independence but is instead seeking what he has termed “real autonomy” within the Chinese state, Chinese authorities still refuse to enter into formal negotiations. Through the Chinese press, they continue to condemn the Dalai Lama for leading a “clique of separatists who are relentlessly trying to split China.”30
Whereas the Tibet issue has been dominated by historicist arguments, in recent years the importance and validity of historical evidence concerning Tibet’s legal status have been called into question. After all, ideas of legitimate government and the responsibilities of the state have evolved only within recent decades, and it is during this period that Tibet support groups and Tibetan exiles began to criticize China’s human rights record in Tibet and revealed serious cases of politically motivated persecution and systematic suppression of dissent. They also exposed widespread poverty and illiteracy among Tibetans, pointed out China’s failure to protect the environment, and noted that exploitation of nonrenewable resources on the Tibetan Plateau has not benefited Tibetans. Finally, they brought to center stage of the debate the problems of large-scale in-migration to Tibetan areas, ethnic discrimination, and “cultural genocide.” The Dalai Lama and others have called for a referendum on the status of Tibet among Tibetans within and outside China and insisted that the Tibetan people have the right to decide their own destiny, including their system of government and political affiliation.
THE CONCEPT OF MINZU AND THE IDENTIFICATION OF “NATIONALITIES”
China’s system of autonomous areas rests on the concept of “ethnic groups” (Ch: minzu) and the understanding that specific discernible areas of China are inhabited largely by ethnic minorities that are distinguishable from the majority Han population by distinct, shared cultural traits. The Chinese term minzu can mean the inhabitants of a country or the different ethnic groups within a country. The term Zhonghua minzu, which refers to the Chinese nation, relies on the first sense of the term and was introduced as a concept by Chinese Nationalists seeking to overthrow the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty at the end of the nineteenth century.31 In common parlance, the second sense of minzu has become equivalent to “minority groups.” “Ethnology” or “minority studies” is translated as minzuxue, derived from the Japanese minzokugaku.32 One of the basic tenets of Chinese Marxist social science is the idea of stages of social forms, in which “minority ethnic groups” represent less advanced stages in the evolutionary system. The supposed primitiveness of the minorities typically is contrasted with the modernity of the Han ethnic group. As a consequence, the “more advanced” Han are seen as responsible for helping their less fortunate compatriots to develop.
This “mission to civilize the natives” should be all too familiar from the justifications offered for European colonialism.33 The roots of Chinese minority studies, so closely connected to political ideology, can in fact be found in Europe and the United States. Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society and Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology were among the first sociological works translated into Chinese in the first years of the twentieth century.34 Morgan’s theory of social evolution subsequently became the cornerstone of Chinese ethnology.35
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese ethnographers were faced with the task of redefining the concept of ethnic minority in Communist terms and identifying the ethnic minorities of the new nation. Joseph Stalin’s theory of national identity and Friedrich Engels’s reworking of Morgan in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State were of theoretical importance.36 The “minzu identification project” (Ch: minzu shibie) was initiated in the early 1950s when local groups were invited to submit applications for the status of minzu, resulting in more than 400 applications.37 Teams of researchers began fieldwork and detailed studies in 1953. By 1965, a total of fifty-four minority ethnic groups were officially recognized.38 Researchers used criteria defined by Stalin to determine minzu status: a common language, a common territory, a common economy, and a common psychological nature manifested in a common culture.
Whatever the definition of culture, one can obviously find very pronounced cultural differences within the borders of China. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the characterization of ethnic markers and the categorization of ethnic groups were undertaken by ethnologists working in state-sponsored academic institutions. Some of the most influential construction of ethnic culture has thus taken place in institutes and academies that are carrying out ethnographic research. During the first decades of the People’s Republic of China, ethnographic research was conducted almost exclusively by Han scholars, but this began to change in the 1980s, when Tibetan and other minority students and researchers gained access to resources through various academic institutions.39 There is now an educated Tibetan elite of cadres, professional artists, writers, and scholars who are engaged in Tibetan studies, albeit within the disciplinary and ideological framework outlined by policy makers.40
Ironically, the minzu identification project, together with the preferential policies accorded minorities, may in some cases have reinforced ethnic identities that were almost forgotten.41 In addition, in a number of cases people complained that they were denied a separate ethnic identity and, in their opinion, wrongly classified with an unrelated group. Others charged that separate identities were created for people who feel that they actually belong to a single group.42
One can find examples of both situations among Tibetans. In Yunnan, the Pumi were given status as a separate ethnic group, whereas, across the border in Sichuan, the Premi (alternative spelling, Prmi) are classified as “Tibetans” (Ch: Zangzu). In both provinces, some of these people disagreed about the way in which they were classified as ethnic minorities.43 In Sichuan, a number of so-called subgroups of Tibetans were recognized, such as the Ersu, Ergong, Duoxu, Zaba, Nameze, Se’er, Hu’ya, and Jiarong (T: rgyal rong). Among the groups in Sichuan previously known by the Chinese as xifan (western barbarians), only the Qiang were given separate minority status, while all the others were classified as Tibetans. Some insisted that all these subgroups are Tibetans, and even the separate identity of the Qiang was denied. In Gansu and Qinghai, the status of the Tu was also debated. At issue was the question of whether the Tu is a distinct ethnic group with its own identity or another subgroup of Tibetans or Mongolians. In a number of cases, Tu from particular villages argued that they were wrongly classified. For instance, near Rebkong (Tongren), we came across a village that was classified as Tu in the 1950s, although the villagers themselves claimed they were Tibetans. They declared that they speak Tibetan, dress Tibetan, eat Tibetan, are Buddhists, and are unable to understand the language spoken in other Tu villages in Qinghai.
Instead of trying to judge the correct way in which to classify people, it is interesting to note the kinds of arguments used in the debates and what seems to be at stake for those who participate. As one of the main criteria of ethnic minority defined by Stalin, languages have received a great deal of attention from Chinese scholars. Minority languages are classified in subgroups, branches, groups, and language families. The Pumi language, for instance, is classified as belonging to the Qiang subgroup of the Jiarong-Drung branch of the northern group of the Tibeto-Burman language family.44
Scholars disagree on a method of classifying Tibeto-Burman languages and especially on distinguishing languages from dialects. For instance, one source notes that many Tibetans in Sichuan speak languages other than Tibetan. Of a total of 308,467 Tibetans in Ngaba Prefecture in 1982, 153,000 reportedly use the Tibetan Amdo dialect, 91,000 use the Jiarong language, 41,000 use the Qiang language, 11,000 use the Ergong language, 4,000 use the Baima language, and 8,000 use Chinese.45 The same source describes Ergong and Baima as recently confirmed languages. According to a Chinese government white paper, ten ethnic groups in China use thirteen written languages that have been “created or improved with the help of the government,” including the Miao, Naxi, Lisu, Hani, Va, Dong, Jingpo, and Tu languages.46 Both the Tu and Qiang languages have been developed into scripts using Roman letters.47 Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences created the Tu script as late as the 1980s. It was officially acknowledged in 1986 by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and is reportedly used primarily in Gönlung (Huzhu) Tu Autonomous County, in Haidong Prefecture.48 The problem of classifying languages is of more than academic interest. In fact, Chinese authorities are often guided by ideological considerations when defining a language, as opposed to a dialect, and choosing an alphabet for a previously unwritten language.49 One such consideration may be the desire to obscure the resemblance between different dialects or languages, which would affect the classification of ethnic groups as either subgroups or separate ethnic groups.
Although dialect differences are sometimes exaggerated, they may create serious problems for the teaching of Tibetan and other minority languages in schools. We were told in several counties in Sichuan, for example, that the vast dialect differences created difficulties for bilingual education, since local Tibetan pupils had problems understanding the Central Tibetan they were taught by their teachers.50 In both Kandze and Ngaba Prefectures, we were told that some Tibetan dialects were so different that they were mutually unintelligible.51 Yet, we also encountered cases in which such language differences seemed to have little effect on the teaching of Tibetan. For instance, in Qinghai we paid a visit to a school at which Tibetan was the language of instruction and all the students were classified as Tu. Apparently, these students were satisfied with the use of Tibetan in their school. When we asked about the differences between the Tu and Tibetan languages, we were told, “Tu people have their own language, but it’s like a dialect of Amdo Tibetan.” Interestingly, other sources describe the Tu language as a Mongolian language. The Tu people we interviewed in this case may represent another example of “wrongly classified” people, which adds to the confusion. As suggested above, defining a particular spoken language as a dialect or a separate language is an extremely difficult task with obvious political consequences and is therefore very often controversial.
The claim that Baima is a separate language, for instance, is tied to a dispute over whether the Baima or “Dagpo” (T: dwags po) constitute their own ethnic group or are, as now classified, Tibetans. Janet Upton provides us with an illuminating description of this controversy in her presentation of the Tibetan scholar Muge Samten’s writings on the Dagpo.52 The case of the Dagpo was reopened in the late 1970s. A team of researchers from the Institute of Nationalities Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Sichuan Province Ethnic Affairs Commission, Sichuan University, and Sichuan Provincial Museum conducted on-site investigations in Pingwu and Namphel (Nanping) Counties in 1978 and 1979 in order to determine whether the Dagpo constitute a unique ethnic group, perhaps as descendants of the Di, or are a subgroup of Tibetans, “Baima Tibetans” (Ch: Baima Zangzu or Baima Zangren). In their subsequent reports, the researchers suggested that the Dagpo are not Tibetans but are instead a unique ethnic group. However, Muge Samten later argued in several articles that the Dagpo are Tibetans, disagreeing with the researchers’ claim that the language, customs, means of production, religious traditions, eating habits, dress, architecture, and social organization of the Dagpo differ from those of the Tibetans. In addition, he asserted that classical Tibetan annals and genealogies such as The Great Tibetan Genealogy (T: Bod kyi rus mdzod chen mo), The Brocade Genealogy (T: Rus mdzod za ’og ma), and Assorted Genealogies (T: Rus mdzod thor bu) describe the Dagpo and a number of other Tibetan subgroups as descendants of Tibetan armies sent to the border areas during the reigns of the eighth- and ninth-century Tibetan kings Songtsan Gampo (T: srong btsan sgam po), Tri Song (T: khri srong), and Tri Ral (T: khri ral). As for the name “Baima,” Muge Samten stated that it is a local rendering of the Tibetan bod dmag (Tibetan soldier). He similarly called the Pumi bod mi (Tibetan people), arguing that there are even some who are “diligently planning to make Muli [County] a non-Tibetan [county].”53
What is interesting about these arguments is not only the way in which linguistics and classical Tibetan histories are employed as evidence but also the consequences implied—the loss of territory designated as Tibetan. At stake here is the definition of territories as well as peoples and the fear of losing autonomous status and its associated privileges. Whereas at least some members of the subgroups objected to being called Tibetans, others saw the reopening of cases in the late 1970s as yet another attack by the Chinese state on a Tibetan identity that had already been severely fractured in the preceding twenty years of social and political upheaval.54 For these people, there is obviously much more to be gained from being recognized as members of one of China’s largest ethnic groups than from achieving a separate, less significant minority identity.
There is nothing new about regional identities within the Tibetan areas. Dawa Norbu, a political scientist who grew up in Tibet, remarked on the prevalence of subnational identities in Tibet before 1950 and the growing consciousness of a pan-Tibetan identity:
Regionally, Tibetans identified themselves as Khampa, Topa, Tsangpa and Amdo-wa of Kham, Toi, Tsang (Shigatse) and Amdo regions54 But how do Tibetans differentiate themselves from non-Tibetans? Do Tibetans have an encompassing pan-Tibetan identity? Before the politicization of Tibetan ethnicity, “we” and “they,” or Tibetan and non-Tibetan, was a Buddhist differentiation between believers and non-believers, phyipa and nangpa. However, since the Chinese takeover in 1959, there has been a growing consciousness, particularly among “urban” Tibetans, about a pan-Tibetan identity that sharply differentiates itself from rgya-rigs or rgya-mi—the Chinese/Han. The “in-group” is increasingly identified as bodpa or bod-rigs.55
Many scholars maintain that religion has been the main marker of Tibetan identity.56 According to Dawa Norbu, the politicization of Tibetan ethnicity means that regional and other subnational identities have given way to the more encompassing Tibetan identity. He also argues that differences between Buddhist and Bönpo have increasingly been deemphasized. Religion certainly took on new meaning as an ethnic marker for Tibetans after the devastation of the Democratic Reforms campaign in the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. In addition, other criteria such as language, territory, and livelihood are understood by most Tibetans to be important ethnic markers.
Ethnic identities are multivalent and contingent. Several scholars have explained that minority identities in China are not merely passively accepted or denied by those who are classified but consciously employed in many ways and for different purposes.57 Identities are being simultaneously negotiated and actively re-created.58 Representation of minority ethnic groups is an important issue, considering the stereotypes found in official discourse on minorities.59 However, the very practice of classifying ethnic minorities and the ideological premises, often referred to as scientific, on which the classification is based, seem to be exempt from negotiation. The connection between peoples and territories, and in this way between minority ethnic groups and autonomous administrative areas, is one such premise.
Contested or not, today every citizen of China is designated as belonging to a particular ethnic group. Population censuses provide detailed information on the demography of autonomous areas, and personal identity cards note each individual’s ethnic affiliation.60 In school, children learn about the special characteristics of their ethnic group while they are taught what it means to be a patriotic citizen of the motherland. The ideals of patriotism and the unity of the minzu are among the most explicit messages conveyed by the school curriculum. The implicit message is as powerful, in that it establishes a hegemonic view of both the categorization of people and the delimitation of territories in China.
The history of China-Tibet relations is complex, as is the question of the meaning of Tibetan identity. Needless to say, it is beyond the scope of this book to give a comprehensive account of either of these issues. Some important topics, such as the consequences for Tibetan identity of successive Chinese “civilizing projects,” have received only very brief mention.61 Nevertheless, it should be clear from the discussions above that Tibetan culture and Tibetan identities are not established entities that are available for us to find and document. Rather, they are undergoing a continuous process of negotiation and reconstruction. What is more, despite the fact that we question certain ways of categorizing persons in our discussions, these and the other categories we employ in our study were inevitably reinvented by the study itself. Tibetan culture is negotiated not only by Tibetans and Han but through the use of the categories Tibetan and Han, in the acceptance of certain definitions of culture, and by the definition of certain objects of study as relevant to an investigation of Tibetan cultural survival.