Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tibet is Not a “Cultural Experience”

The following guest post is by "Chiwa," a western woman who hopefully will become a regular contributor.

In college classrooms around the country, professors and administrators insist that Tibetan organizations (like their particular branches of Students for a Free Tibet) are not "aggressive" or "hostile", that they focus on "spreading awareness of the issues" and Tibetan culture rather than Tibetan politics.

Of course, it's really difficult to paint an accurate picture of what the "issues" are in Tibet when focusing on things like prayer flags, moos and the smiling, friendly face of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The word “Tibet” is, at its very nature, a polarizing word. “Tibet,” as the People’s Republic of China allows it to exist, is known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or TAR. The TAR was created in 1965.

The word "Tibet" is, at its very nature, a polarized word. "Tibet," as the People's Republic of China allows it to exist, is known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or TAR. The TAR was created in 1965.

In this illustration by the BBC, the Tibetan Autonomous Region is the very light beige area. The green line, extending into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and parts of Gansu and Yunnan, is often referred to as “historical” Tibet. In these areas, the vast majority of people are “ethnically” Tibetan.

In this illustration, the Chinese provinces are given alternate (and rightful) names— a majority of what is known as Qinghai is actually the Tibetan province of Amdo, and the Tibetan province of Kham exists in the Chinese province of Sichuan.

When the Yushu earthquake occurred in 2010 (om mani padme hum), there were many facts that were wrongly reported by the Western media—including the mislabeling of the victims as "Chinese."

The earthquake originated in what is known as the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where, according to the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Statistics Bureau in 2005, 97.25% of the population is Tibetan, with the next largest ethnic group being Han at 2.56%. The vast majority of the victims were not Chinese—they were Tibetan (Khampa).

It’s hard to claim that you’re “spreading awareness about the issues” when the issues aren’t even being discussed. Another year passes and “Seven Years in Tibet” is screened again instead of more revolutionary material, such as Dhondup Wangchen’s film “Leaving Fear Behind”, for which he is still imprisoned.

Violently splitting Tibetan culture from Tibetan politics and the history of the Chinese invasion in order to make the truth taste a little sweeter, the tragedy a little less brutal, is an injustice. Maybe we think that if we don’t aggressively pursue the issue, we are more likely to arouse new supporters—and I will buy this to a certain extent, because the issues of Tibet are vast. The crimes committed against the Tibetan people are not merely religious or political in nature; their lifestyles are being forcibly changed, their land is being destroyed, and in exile they face numerous issues ranging from health issues to language and cultural barriers.

I’m not interested in a “cultural experience.” Stop trying to raise awareness about the culture, stop trying to keep the Tibetan culture alive—if you’re not a Tibetan, it is not your culture to save. We should be working with them, rather than touting their culture as something unique and on the verge of extinction so we should hurry up and see it while it lasts.

Painting Tibet as a “cultural experience” is serious erasure. The image of Tibet may never recover, if college administrators (and others) do everything in their power to deny the fact that “Tibet” is a political issue at its very heart.

“Twenty years ago, when the public didn’t know the first thing about Tibet, we used to pray and dream that somehow Tibet would become a household word. If people knew the truth, we believed, they would come forth and intervene. Tibet would be saved. Now Tibet was indeed a household word, but China had imposed its will, transformed it. Beyond our worst nightmares.” (one of the women in Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History by Canyon Sam)


  1. It seems that in the context of Tibet, talking about "cultural preservation" is sometimes used as an excuse for not addressing the political reality of Tibet's occupation. It is politically easy for people to express support for Tibet's "unique culture" but they think difficult to support Tibet, as that would require taking a stand on an issue.

    Talking about Tibet without at least acknowledging the nature of Tibet's occupation is to deny Tibetans their legitimacy. It is to politely ignore the violent history that led to greater Tibetan awareness coming to the West in the first place.

    I once visited a meditation center in New England as they were preparing for a big Tibetan new year's celebration. They were more than happy to call it "Losar" on their posters and hang Tibetan-inspired imagery all around, but were oblivious and ignorant to the reality that Tibetans were not celebrating Losar that year, it was a time of mourning for those lost in the 2008 uprising.

  2. I was in India in 2009 and witnessed how the community I was staying with cut out a lot of their usual Losar celebrations in honor of those involved in the uprising the previous year. Most of the Tibetans I talked with felt this was appropriate, but several of my friends thought we should have still celebrated, since it would be a way of "not allowing the Chinese to win, to beat Tibetans down." On the other hand, I know a lot of foreigners were really upset about not getting an "authentic" Losar experience, which was very upsetting to hear because it was obvious they just wanted to party and not respect what was happening in Tibet and the tragedy.

    I think a lot of college administrators and professors are fearful of taking a stance against China, especially at my alma mater, which has a very large and increasing influx of Chinese exchange students, a new institute just for Chinese studies, etc. To take a political and public stance might have an effect on their relations, and could lead to a decrease in funding, etc.

  3. No Losar was a deliberate movement of protest by Tibetans in Tibet. In early 2009 the Chinese government was desperate to show Tibet as calm in the aftermath of the crackdown and the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of March 10, 1959. In 2009, China wanted Tibetans to celebrate Losar. It was a grassroots movement that started in Tibet, how can they force people to celebrate?

    As for non-Tibetans that are upset they don't get to experience "authentic" Losar, that seems problematic. On one hand, I see the point of not getting to experience an important and popular holiday in the way it is usually celebrated. But on the other hand, Tibetan culture does not exist so that foreigners can "experience" it.

    I agree that many college administrators are fearful of taking a stance against China. The outcome may be a marginalization of the Tibetan student population and Tibet supporters, in the face of larger numbers of Chinese students with more institutional support. How can this be addressed by the schools?

  4. I am not an expert on Tibetan culture, but I live and work in the Tibetan exile community (the same community "Chiwa" visited).
    I am here to promote Tibetan cultural awareness, but not in the way it is referred to in the article/previous comments.
    I am here to bring awareness to the culture as it is currently lived by the community, not as something static which should be "experienced" before it dies.

    Tibetan culture is changing rapidly. In Tibet because of the (forced) influence of "modernization" by Han Chinese. In the exile communities in India (& elsewhere) because of the influence of the Indian cultures Tibetans have been settled among & the influx of western tourists.

    I work to promote awareness of the response of the exile community to events inside Tibet. I cover activism, but I also showcase aspects of Tibetan Buddhism & daily life...because people (particularly the roughly 90% who know NOTHING abt Tibetan culture OR politics) need to know what Tibetans are fighting to preserve.

    As a side note: Losar 2011 was the first year since the 2008 protests that the exile community celebrated w/no restrictions.
    Since then, many renewed protests inside Tibet have resulted in tougher crackdowns on Tibetan communities, so it remains to be seen what Losar 2012 will be like.
    I firmly believe that any visitor to a Tibetan exile community should be made aware that however they see it celebrated, it is the same way the Tibetans are confined to...and respect that.

    If you want a historical experience, go to a museum or watch a film. That is also important.

    But if you want reality, come to McleodGanj, talk to former political prisoners or refugees who walked across the Himalayas for 22 days with no shoes, learn about the current protests and human rights oppression in Tibet, etc etc


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