In trying to answer our question about the survival of Tibetan culture, we have at least been able to identify some of the controversies related to the definition of Tibetan culture and the evident problems related to studying it, whether in quantitative or qualitative terms. Clear-cut answers have not been found to even the most basic questions, such as the number of monasteries that have been reconstructed and how many Tibetan students are able to learn the Tibetan language in school. It is of course even more difficult to draw conclusions about the qualitative aspects of Tibetan cultural life. In order to deepen our understanding, it has been necessary to draw on the works of others who have done extended research on particular topics related to our study. We have also had many discussions about Tibetan culture with Tibetans currently living in and outside of China. Even so, we do not claim to have answers to the more complex and ambiguous questions, such as what motivates people to rebuild monasteries, how Tibetan children are influenced by the school system, and how people understand the Tibetan poetry or news reports they read and the cultural events in which they participate.
As described in our introduction, the concept of culture has been under intense debate within the field of anthropology and related disciplines. In the course of this debate, a number of scholars have criticized the very notion of culture, aptly questioning whether there was ever such a thing as traditional culture, the possible meaning of pure or original culture, or under which circumstances, if any, culture might remain unaffected by change. Change is no longer seen as a contradiction but as an inevitable part of the process of (re-)creating or (re)inventing culture, however the concept may be understood. It has also been pointed out that the concept of culture has had a profound impact on the ways in which people throughout the world have come to understand themselves and explain their beliefs, rituals, and customs. In fact, the very notion of cultural survival has become an important political tool for indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities who are struggling to keep their identities alive, to achieve autonomy or self-determination. This context is important to keep in mind when we discuss current conditions for Tibetan cultural survival.
Tibet support groups, the Tibetan government-in-exile, and other Tibetan refugee representatives have voiced strong criticisms of the Chinese government, accusing Chinese authorities of wantonly destroying Tibetan culture and implementing a policy of cultural genocide in Tibet. Chinese government media countered these accusations by publishing extensive reports on the development and flourishing of Tibetan culture under Communist rule and taking every opportunity to document conditions favorable to Tibetan cultural life in China. A recent white paper from the Chinese government on the development of Tibetan culture and a response to this white paper from the Tibetan exile government are striking expressions of two opposing views on the fate of Tibetan culture. Looking back to the early years of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese white paper describes the Democratic Reforms campaign as “marking the advent of a brand-new era in the social and cultural development of Tibet, [that] ended the monopoly exercised over Tibetan culture by the few upper-class feudal lamas and aristocrats, making it the common legacy for all the people of Tibet to inherit and carry on.”1 In the Tibetan exile government’s response, the reforms are seen as marking the advent of an era that has reduced Tibet to a “cultural wasteland, where even the survival of the Tibetan language is in question.”2
Realities are of course not as black and white as they appear above. On the one hand, there is little reason to celebrate the Democratic Reforms campaign, which was probably one of the greatest tragedies in recent Tibetan history. On the other hand, it would be equally incorrect to describe contemporary Tibet as a cultural wasteland, and moreover it would be unfair to all the Tibetans who have contributed to the rebuilding of religious sites, supported the use of Tibetan in the schools, and involved themselves in contemporary Tibetan literature and arts. In fact, vigorous cultural reconstruction is taking place in several important spheres in Tibetan areas today.
First, Tibetans have made great efforts to revive religious life, within and outside of the monastic communities. In the two decades since the early 1980s, Tibetans have accomplished the amazing feat of reconstructing thousands of Tibetan Buddhist and Bön monasteries, temples, and other religious sites that were originally built over a period of several centuries. The Tibetan people deserve recognition for the enormous amount of work and funds they have contributed to restoration projects, particularly if we take into account their economic and political conditions. The great majority of Tibetans have participated in this revival, and it should be understood not only as a religious revival but also as a revival of Tibetan and local identities.
Second, educated Tibetans are making a considerable effort to preserve and develop the Tibetan written language, concentrating in particular on the Tibetan literary heritage. Publishing is one of the main outlets for this type of cultural production, while textbooks for learning Tibetan language make classical as well as modern Tibetan literature known to new generations of Tibetans. There was a time, during both the Democratic Reforms period and the Cultural Revolution, when the Tibetan language was suppressed by Chinese authorities. Important changes have taken place since then. As we have seen, a substantial number of literary works in Tibetan are being published, a system of approving new terminology has been established, and Tibetan has even become a computerized language.
Third, entrepreneurs and local culture brokers are manufacturing Tibetan tradition by developing a range of new cultural products for the tourist market. If Tibetan culture is becoming interesting to many Tibetan cadres, this may be due largely to its heightened sales potential. Tourism is a growing business, and local Tibetans are also eager to take part in the economic benefits it offers. This already affects their awareness of what Tibetan culture is.
Finally, Tibetan urban youth are shaping their own modern Tibetan identity based on key traditional symbols and expressing this identity through such media as popular music and visual arts, creating a kind of Tibetan urban subculture. These new cultural creations are available in most township markets in the form of audiotapes and video CDs and are particularly popular among young Tibetans. During our many long-distance car rides in Tibetan areas, we noticed that the most popular music tapes among local drivers featured Tibetan singers performing Tibetan pop songs although with mainly Chinese lyrics.3 These lyrics are immensely popular among young Tibetans and often describe Tibetan natural scenery or topics related to Tibetan cultural traditions and a search for Tibetan identity. At cultural festivals, one can experience a blend of old and new modes of expression—commercial and noncommercial, modern, self-consciously folkloric, and traditional—in which Tibetan culture is revived and celebrated by young and old.
On the negative side, Tibetans involved in these four fields of cultural reconstruction are struggling with a number of difficulties and dilemmas. The problems faced by Tibetans engaged in practicing and promoting religion are discussed in chapter 2. To sum up the main points, the reconstruction of living monasteries where ceremonies and religious study are revived has been accomplished in spite of restrictions and not because of government support. There is evidence that the authorities not only regulate the number of monks and nuns and the reconstruction of monasteries but even attempt to control the number of monks allowed to pursue curricula of Buddhist studies, the regimens of examination, and the financial affairs of the monasteries.4 Regulations also affect the recognition of tulkus and the performance of rituals and ceremonies. Whereas Chinese authorities have invested resources in the preservation and reprinting of ancient Buddhist texts, they simultaneously condemn the daily practices and beliefs of Tibetan Buddhists as superstitious and backward. During recent years, new campaigns to control the monasteries and nunneries (in particular the Patriotic Education campaign) have posed great threats to religious freedom. The religious revival of the 1980s has in effect been halted, and there are reasons to fear that the future will bring even more repression of religious practice.
As noted in chapter 4, writers and publishers of Tibetan-language works face the problem of freedom of the press. Political rhetoric is included in one way or another in most Tibetan-language publications. Perhaps more surprisingly, we also found that marketization poses problems for Tibetan-language publishing. As books and journals, including school textbooks, become increasingly expensive, Tibetan literature becomes less accessible to many potential readers. Needless to say, if people are unable to afford magazines or books, it makes little difference to them whether or not such publications are available in Tibetan. Likewise, if people do not have access to a computer or television set, it makes no difference whether software is available in Tibetan or Tibetan-language broadcasts are transmitted by satellite. Another important problem involves the limited range of topics selected for publications in Tibetan. Nonfiction materials in Tibetan concentrate on humanities topics rather than on the natural and social sciences, and this may be one of the reasons why many young Tibetans find Chinese-language publications more interesting than Tibetan ones.
The viability of Tibetan as a written language depends more than anything else on the school system. As explained in chapter 3, many Tibetan children do not attend school at all, and a large number of those who do lack the opportunity to learn their native language. This is especially the case in areas where Tibetans now constitute a minority in the population. There are many indications that the situation is worsening, owing to in-migration, marketization, insufficient funding, and educational policies that in effect reduce the availability of bilingual education. The concerns expressed by Tibetan educators are not unwarranted.
It is interesting to compare the problems of Tibetans in China with those of Tibetan exiles on the Indian subcontinent who are also a minority group with limited rights. English was for many years the main language in schools in Tibetan exile settlements in India because it is the lingua franca of Indian society. It has been difficult to obtain clearance from the Indian government to change the language of instruction in Tibetan schools from English to Tibetan. Primary schools run by the Tibetan Children’s Village implemented teaching in Tibetan as early as 1985, but other Tibetan primary schools had to wait until 1994, when all schools governed by the Department of Education (DOE) of the Tibetan government-in-exile were finally allowed to use Tibetan as the language of instruction at the primary level (grades one to five). In the sixth grade, however, English continues to be the language of instruction. This is because the curriculum for Tibetan schools in India, Nepal, and Bhutan must be approved by a board of education that is recognized by each national government. Tibetan secondary schools in India, for example, use textbooks in English published by the Indian National Council for Educational Research and Training. These textbooks are based on the curriculum prescribed by the Central Board of Secondary Education in New Delhi.5
During the past decade, the Tibetan exile government developed a program to modernize the Tibetan language by inventing new words for modern technologies and appliances and has made efforts to strengthen the role of the Tibetan language in the exile community. It is obvious, however, that the use of Tibetan language is threatened by the very pressures of surviving as refugees in a foreign country. The situation for Tibetan exiles is thus similar to the situation of Tibetans in China. Whereas Tibetans in China are picking up loan words from Chinese, young Tibetans in India are picking up more and more Hindi and English loan words.6
In chapter 5, we discussed the cultural brokers of the tourist and tourism-related markets and their reliance on notions of Tibetanness as something exciting and exotic for the sale of their products, whether these products are a destination or an audio recording. This trend represents a growing commoditization of Tibetan culture that may be unavoidable but is certainly not unproblematic. As defined here, culture is inherently contested and continuously reconstructed. This implies that cultural expressions will change as different people find new reasons for defining and promoting a particular identity. Within such an understanding of culture, it is difficult to talk about the authenticity of cultural expressions. What we can say, however, is that the economic role of Tibetan cultural expressions is changing as Tibetanness becomes increasingly marketable. This process can be observed not only in China but to an even greater extent in Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal. It may in fact be considered part of a global process of commoditization of exotic ethnic cultures.7 It is still too early to grasp the implications for the understanding of Tibetan culture in local communities that are being developed for tourism, but it is clear that this process will represent a major force for change in the years to come.
Young urban Tibetans who are attempting to forge a secular Tibetan identity are also facing some dilemmas. Those who are actively involved in these attempts, such as writers and artists, may discover that they are walking a political tightrope. On the one hand, their efforts to reshape Tibetan identity may gain them the support of the authorities, who wish to promote a modern secular and preferably socialist Tibetanness. On the other hand, if they accept this support, they face criticism from Tibetan traditionalists who fail to see the need for renewing Tibetan identity and regard these modernists as somehow betraying Tibetan traditions. It appears that some Tibetan exile cultural institutions also have a vested interest in a particular notion of authentic Tibetan culture that they attempt to preserve. Clare Harris, in her book on visual arts, describes how representatives of the refugee community tend to see it as their duty to preserve the authentic Tibetan culture as it was prior to 1959, when the Dalai Lama and the first large groups of refugees left Tibet.8 Tibetan exiles often refer to 1959 as an important historical marker, and Harris claims that Tibetan artists are considered more “authentic” if they received their training before 1959. There is also an expectation that artists should remain faithful to the ancient traditions of religious art rather than experiment with new styles of painting.9
Representatives of the Tibetan exile government have similarly criticized young Tibetans within China who deviate from their view of authentic Tibetan culture. They claim that the Chinese Communists have nurtured an entirely new, socialist version of Tibetan culture in China, a campus culture that is neither Tibetan nor Chinese:
While the traditional spiritual culture is denounced as the culture of feudal lords, the campus culture is touted as the culture of the new, socialist Tibet. Although campus culture is taught from primary school to university level, it has absolutely no relevance to the reality of Tibetan society. The knowledge of this shallow campus culture may help one make a living as a poet, writer, translator, or journalist or administrative clerk under the Chinese government. But it does not empower him or her to further the development of Tibetan culture.10
This kind of criticism poses interesting questions about who should have the authority to define Tibetan culture. It nevertheless fails to acknowledge the contemporary challenges faced by young Tibetans living and working in China and the subtle ways in which they try to promote their visions of a new secular Tibetan identity without attacking religion or traditional values or necessarily praising Communism. There appears to be a conflict of perspectives, perhaps even an ideological divide, between these young urban Tibetans and members of the exile elite who dismiss the very idea of a secular Tibetanness and see themselves as the preservers of Tibetan culture at a time when that culture is being extinguished in Tibet. Conflicting views about the importance of preservation versus modernization also manifest themselves in debates within the exile community as well as among Tibetans in China. These debates are to a certain extent informed by the particular conditions for cultural expression provided by the framework of Chinese cultural and minzu policies. When Chinese authorities intervene in religious matters or limit specific cultural expressions and encourage others, this obviously influences how Tibetans come to define their culture and seek to reconstruct or preserve their Tibetanness.
PRESERVATION AND PROGRESS
Tibetan culture is by definition contested, but it is negotiated in China under specific conditions provided by the Chinese state and influenced by government policies and regulations. In other words, as Tibetans struggle to maintain and modernize Tibetan culture, they are doing so in response to the conditions created by Chinese authorities, whether they are adapting to or opposing these conditions. One might therefore argue that in the process of developing modern expressions of Tibetanness, Tibetan culture is contested and reconstructed on Chinese rather than on Tibetan terms.
In China, ethnic minorities are often depicted as backward and in need of help from the central government to develop. The basic view of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is that widespread religious belief among many of the minorities is an impediment to progress and, at best, an obstacle to be overcome. In addition to this ideological standpoint, the CCP fears the rise of Tibetan religious institutions as focal points of Tibetan separatism. As described in policy guidelines such as Document 19 (1982), the Party has maintained that the tendency to believe in religion will diminish gradually as people achieve a higher standard of living and economic prosperity takes hold. However, the importance of religion in Tibetan areas does not seem to have diminished but rather has increased since the beginning of the Reform era. Similar trends are also evident among other religions and spiritual movements in China, such as Islam and the Falun Gong movement. This has caused Chinese leaders to tighten control over institutionalized religion all over China, including the Tibetan areas. Contrary to the guidelines described above, Chinese authorities repeatedly used force against religious communities during the 1990s, implementing Patriotic Education to suppress “separatism” in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries and cracking down on the Falun Gong movement beginning in 1999.
Is there really a contradiction between economic progress and religious revival? In the so-called developed world, many people are in fact returning to religion and spirituality to find a deeper sense of meaning in their lives. A number of people have found this sense of meaning in Tibetan Buddhism, and some of them have even contributed to the revival of Tibetan monasteries and nunneries in China. One of the reasons authorities regard religious revival as a threat may be that it provides a moral alternative to the ideology of the current regime. However, ethical choices and value judgments cannot be changed by the use of force and ideological pressure. This will only strengthen the resistance of many Tibetans toward government policies and reinforce the role of religion as a marker of Tibetan identity. Moreover, as long as Chinese authorities intervene in religious affairs for political purposes, it should come as no surprise that Tibetans and other minorities will use religion as a political tool.
Regardless of whether Chinese authorities continue their campaigns against religion, local Tibetan communities will have to consider the appropriate numbers of monks and nuns in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries. Chinese authorities could influence the size of the Tibetan clergy by increasing funding for schools in Tibetan areas, making these schools less expensive, and revising the curriculum in primary and secondary schools so that basic education is relevant to the needs of Tibetans.11 Education in Tibetan, made available at all levels and with a wider selection of courses, could give all Tibetan children the opportunity to learn Tibetan. This would not only provide a good alternative for parents who would otherwise send their children to the monasteries but also make public education much more attractive, ensure the future viability of the Tibetan language, and improve Tibetans’ capacity to take care of their own affairs.
Chinese authorities have made efforts to redefine Tibetan culture as non-Buddhist and have allowed if not actively supported a wide range of secular cultural expressions. This can only be understood as a conscious political strategy to secularize Tibetan culture. This strategy is in line with the CCP view of religion as an essentially detrimental social force and with associated modernist notions of the need to fight superstition and backwardness in order to achieve progress and scientific development. Yet the Tibetan language has clearly become a language for publishing special interest books within the arts and humanities, particularly in what might broadly be called Tibetan cultural studies. Books in Tibetan on natural science subjects are few and far between. The selection of subjects taught in Tibetan in colleges and universities reflects the same bias. Consequently, the Tibetan language has become irrelevant for the very development efforts Chinese authorities wish to promote, and Tibetans who want to participate in developing their economy must do so in Chinese. This is not only a problem for the viability of the Tibetan language but also represents a serious obstacle for development efforts in Tibetan areas.
The image of Tibetan culture as the culture of the grasslands corresponds very well with the CCP view of Tibetan culture as a secular culture of the people. This image may however represent more than just a secularization of Tibetanness. It raises important questions about cultural survival that go beyond the celebration of traditional festivals, the publication of poetry in Tibetan, and the broadcast of ethnic song and dance performances. Although young educated Tibetans still see the Tibetan language and the revival of religious life as important to the survival of Tibetan culture, there is a growing recognition that issues such as land rights and environmental degradation may be even more crucial.
Chinese legislation protects the rights of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in China to develop their own culture and upholds the principle of autonomy for minorities. A different and much less promising picture emerges, however, if we look at the actual rights this autonomy allows. Unfortunately, in contemporary China, minorities do not have distinct rights to natural resources or even the power to make decisions about the very land on which they live.
If Tibetans were given the chance to manage their own resources, they might not keep their traditional lifestyles unchanged, but they would have to find their own balance between preservation and progress. For the sake of future generations, they need sustainable development that preserves the fragile Plateau environment and also creates prosperity.