Research conducted in Tibet is precious in any age, since that land is not easily accessible even in the best of times. Today, as access becomes ever more difficult—especially for foreign researchers—analysis based on research on the ground is invaluable. Theresia Hofer had both the enterprising spirit and good fortune to be able to conduct “officially official” research in 2003 and “officially unofficial” research in 2006–7 while studying Tibetan language at Tibet University and serving as a consultant with a medical project conducted by the Swiss Red Cross.
Research carried out in areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region remote from the capital city of Lhasa is doubly precious, partly because rural areas are difficult to reach and partly because there is little material available on many areas. Hofer has the linguistic skills and deep cultural knowledge to be able to interview and collect documents in Shigatse Town and in Ngamring and Lhatse Counties, and her personal acquaintance with several rural, urban, and monastic physicians gave her entry to observe how they cared for their patients.
Research on medicine in Tibet is rare, since Tibetan medicine is less familiar to outsiders than the Chinese or Ayurvedic systems. Research on medicine as it is practiced among the common people is especially valuable, since there is almost no documentation in languages other than Tibetan and since age-old practices passed down within local family traditions are in danger of disappearing, even as the Chinese regime governing Tibet promotes preservation and “modernization” of the traditions of the Mentsikhang (Institute of Medicine and Astrology) and Tibetan medicine hospitals.
The Medical Houses explored in this book are houses both in the physical sense of structures where a doctor holds consultations and prescribes and prepares medications and in the metaphorical sense of enduring social groups, based primarily on kinship ties, that pass on the texts and clinical expertise on which diagnosis and treatment are based. Hofer became acquainted with the members of several of these houses, located mostly in rural areas, listened to their house histories and personal stories, examined their treasured medical texts with them, and sat in on their consultations.
And what a story these houses have to tell! Like so many stories about Tibet and Tibetans, it begins with an idealized past before the 1959 revolt against Chinese rule, when the doctors practiced their art without political interference; then moves to their suppression and personal suffering in the early years of the Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966; continues to their cautious revival beginning in the 1970s, even before Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang’s famous visit to Tibet in 1980; and finally brings us to their immersion in the whirlwind of modernization that began to overtake the region after the turn of the millennium.
We are not sure just what has happened to western Tibet’s Medical Houses since the Lhasa demonstrations of 2008. The Chinese regime has continually tightened policies, increased surveillance and “patriotic education,” and reduced opportunities for Tibetan-language learning, while at the same time pursuing reckless economic development, developing hydroelectric power and mining, promoting immigration (though mostly to Lhasa) by the Han (China’s ethnic majority), and encouraging tourism not just to see the breathtaking scenery but to learn an official, bowdlerized version of Tibetan culture minus the “problematic” parts of the religion—that is, the connection between religion and the state. Will the children of the Medical Houses carry on their knowledge and practice? Whatever the future holds, Theresia Hofer has given us an insightful account of what they were like and how they endured through years of revolution and reform, hinting that they may well adapt and flourish in the current age of renewed repression.
SUMMER SOLSTICE, 2017