Category Archives: Tibet

Where Religion Preserves Language

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 181-182:

‘Many young Dai can’t read our language and don’t really understand our culture or Buddhism. A lot of Dai people can speak Dai, but they don’t teach it in normal school any more so you have to become a monk to learn how to read and write it,’ said Zhang Wei. As in Tibet, the monasteries have become the only place in Banna where locals can get an education in their native language. But unlike Tibet, and in another sign of the Dai’s success in convincing the CCP of their essential affability, novices in Banna are allowed to participate in the regular school system as well.

‘You can study Dai here in the morning and go to normal school in the afternoon,’ said Zhang Wei. He believed that was behind the recent rise in the number of monks. ‘A lot of young Dai were put off becoming monks because they thought it was a hard life and what they learned wasn’t useful in the outside world,’ he told me. ‘Now it’s not as strict a life as before. When I was a young novice, the teachers would beat you if you disobeyed them. But we’re not allowed to do that any more.’

Less welcome has been the diminishing of Banna’s role as a key centre of Buddhist learning for Dai people across South-east Asia, a result of the devastation wrought on Banna’s monasteries during the Cultural Revolution. Large numbers of monks fled across the frontiers, while villagers buried scriptures and icons in the jungle so the Red Guards couldn’t destroy them. Many of the temples have since been restored, but Wat Pajay’s status as a spiritual university has been superseded by monasteries outside Banna.

‘Before the Cultural Revolution, Thai and Burmese and Lao monks came to Wat Pajay to study. Now, we go to Thailand and other places. It’s a complete change,’ said Zhang Wei. Fluid borders mean Banna’s monks can visit monasteries in Myanmar and Laos unofficially. But the Dai’s position as a model minority makes getting permission to go abroad far easier than it is for Tibetans or Uighurs. Zhang Wei had already spent a year in Yangon, as well as three in Singapore.

Wat Pajay’s links with overseas monasteries are a crucial element of the cultural and religious networks that tie the Dai of different countries to each other. Da Fosi is an irrelevance in that scheme; its imposition on Jinghong just another instance of Dai culture being appropriated by the Han for the purposes of tourism. And, inevitably, pretty Dai women act as the guides there. But out in greater Dailand, in Banna’s villages and across the borders, the Dai are quietly getting on with worshipping their way, while keeping their language and traditions alive.

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Filed under Burma, China, education, language, Laos, migration, nationalism, religion, Thailand, Tibet

Joys of Travel in Tibet

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 132:

From here on, we were in the real Wild West. After Lhatse, there are no more conventional hotels, just shared rooms with dirty, damp beds, concrete floors and no heating. The electricity comes and goes and showers are scarce; in most settlements the only way to wash is with a thermos of hot water. During my time in Ngari, I got to shower just once and grew used to matted hair, a week’s worth of stubble and clothes stained with mud and dust. Smoking furiously in the pit toilets in an effort to disguise their stink became second nature.

Only the food defeated me. China’s cuisines are as diverse as its people and most are superb. Tibet is the exception. Tsampa, thugpa (a noodle soup) and momo (yak-meat dumplings) are the principal national dishes, all accompanied by endless glasses of yak-butter tea. Every morning, Tenzin and the driver Lopa would happily pull out the cloth bags which contained their tsampa, before mixing it with butter tea or water and, sometimes, yak cheese. It was a breakfast I tried just once, and the remorseless meals of momo and thugpa soon began to pall.

I had been spoiled for choice in Lhasa, where there are Nepali places and Tibetan ones that cater to westerners; the finest meal I ate in Tibet was a spicy yak-meat pizza with a yak-cheese base. I was able to vary my diet in Gyantse and Shigatse too, thanks to the restaurants run by migrants from Sichuan. Eating Chinese food induced feelings of guilt, given the way Han culture is encroaching in Tibet, but I blamed Tibetan chefs for their lack of innovation rather than admit my own hypocrisy.

Those meals were a distant memory now. The higher we climbed, the worse the food got. For much of the time, only basic fried rice or thugpa was on offer. Fruit became scarcer and much more expensive. Along with vegetables, it has to be transported down [highway] 219 from Xinjiang, and it is common in Ngari to see Uighurs selling bruised apples from the back of a truck. Even yak meat is hard to find, as the animals are slaughtered only at a certain time of the year and the meat has to last for months.

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A Eurasian Crossroads Now in China

The latest issue (a year late!) of China Review International (Project MUSE subscription required) contains a review by Thomas Barfield of a book that sounds interesting: James A. Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Here are a few excerpts from the review.

As befits a key link in the international Silk Route in premodern times, the region’s people proved historically open to new ideas and opportunities. Some of these opportunities were thrust upon them. The territory constituting today’s Xinjiang appears never to have been unified politically except under the rule of outsiders. These outsiders were strikingly diverse, coming as they did at different times from every surrounding territory. From the east, the Han and Tang dynasties vied with the northern Mongolian steppe-based Xiongnu, Turk, and Uighur nomad empires for influence and political control. The Tibetan Empire on its southern flank also extended its rule over the region at various times during the seventh through the ninth centuries. The west was not entirely absent in these struggles either. The Sogdian city-states of Central Asia had great influence over their eastern cousins in the Tang dynasty, and during the eleventh century the Turkish Qara Khanids, based in Bukhara, became the dominant regional power. They were displaced at the beginning of the twelfth century by royal Manchurian refugees of the Liao dynasty from North China who reestablished themselves there as the Qara Khitai. Although neither Turks nor Muslims, the Qara Khitai proved successful rulers until they were finally ousted by the Mongols in 1218. Chinese influence (even if by way of a Manchurian people) was then notably absent from the region for the next five hundred years. The oases and neighboring steppe zones fell under different post-Mongol successor states until the Qing dynasty captured the area in 1757….

Despite local complaints about unfair taxation, the court bureaucrats in Beijing were well aware that the Qing colonial administration and military garrisons in Xinjiang constituted a money pit that swallowed up revenue from other parts of China.

The structural fragility of China’s position in Central Asia became clear in 1864, when a series of successful local rebellions spread from one oasis to another so rapidly that Qing control vanished entirely in a matter of months. Yaqub Beg, an adventurer from Kokand (recently annexed by Czarist Russia) took advantage of the situation to establish an independent emirate and opened diplomatic ties with British India, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. The Qing court was divided about whether Xinjiang merited the huge expense required to recover it. There was established precedent in China for writing off the remote western region a dead loss: both the Han and Tang dynasties had done so when their power waned and the Ming dynasty never went there in the first place. There were also other demands on the treasury made by officials who saw the modernization of China’s military as a higher priority than funding a risky colonial war. Millward’s analysis of how the Qing dynasty’s preoccupation with maintaining its inner Asian frontier intact demonstrates that Xinjiang loomed far larger in importance for them than for dynasties of Han Chinese origin. In the event, after deciding to fund a military campaign, the Qing struck it lucky. Yaqub Beg died unexpectedly in 1877, and his emirate collapsed. Qing forces quickly reoccupied Xinjiang without facing a serious battle.

It is at this point that the Qing incorporated Xinjiang directly into China as a province. Millward shows that the resulting reorganization of the local government along Chinese lines, plus the cost of garrison troops, made its continued occupation of the region even more costly, asserting it to be an underestimated factor in China’s failure to compete effectively with the Western powers and Japan at the turn of the century. The reorganization also placed ethnic Han Chinese influenced by anti-Manchu nationalism in provincial leadership positions. This had negative consequences for the Qing since they fomented rebellion against the dynasty, but a long-term positive consequences for China. Such officials, small minorities in a distant land, were keen to ensure that the province remained a part of China after the Qing was replaced by a republic in 1911. These Chinese governors (“warlords,” more pejoratively) gave lip service to the Republic of China in Nanking and did as they pleased in Xinjiang. Millward’s descriptions of their political machinations and murders show them as strikingly ruthless and practical, unhindered by any set of Confucian values. What the republic got in return was the continued right to claim Xinjiang as a Chinese province—no small prize since other inner-Asian territories eventually broke their ties with China: Mongolia under Russian protection, Manchuria by Japanese annexation, and Tibet through de facto self-rule.

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Filed under Central Asia, China, Mongolia, nationalism, religion, Russia, Tibet, Turkey

Cathedral Bell Diplomacy in Armenia and Tibet

A lengthy post on a new blog, Tibeto-Logic, by a serious scholar of Tibet begins with unexpected tales of cathedral bell diplomacy in mountain realms of Central Asia in centuries past.

In the heart of Armenia, both corporeal and spiritual, stands the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, about 1700 years old, and founded on a still more ancient fire altar. Although not so well known to the world at large, it is a very holy place for Armenian Christians, more or less equivalent to the Vatican for Roman Catholics or the Jokhang for Tibetan Buddhists. Inside a tower attached to the Cathedral is a large bell with a Tibetan inscription. I haven’t yet been able to see a photograph of the letters, but hope to before long. It isn’t certain when the bell came to Armenia, but it is at least possible that it was supplied at the time the bell towers were built. The main bell tower was finished in 1657 by the Catholicos Yakob, and was further decorated in 1664. Soon after, in 1682, three further bell towers were added by Catholicos Eliazar. I’m told the Tibetan bell was still there last summer.

In the heart of the old city of Lhasa still today lies the Buddhist ‘Cathedral’ known as the Jokhang. Carbon datings have apparently confirmed that the main wooden structure of the Jokhang really does date back to its founding in the first half of the 7th century during the reign of Emperor Songtsen Gampo, who died in 649 give or take a year. As strange as this might sound, there is or was a Christian bell, minus its clapper, hanging in the vestibule of the Jokhang, although at the moment it may lie in storage. It was left as a relic of the Capuchin missionaries, who kept a chapel in Lhasa during the first half of the 18th century.

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Can Buddhists Get Some … Satisfaction?

In the wealthy world, the pervasive sense of lack drives people to worship at the oddest shrines, and to seek a solution to their formless malaise in bogus shamanism, crystal therapy, hands-free massage, rebirthing, sun salutations, flotation and pesticide-free food. Some people abandon the search for a transcendent explanation quickly, settling on materialism as an alternative, while others continue it for a lifetime. The process of being born and raised within the rituals of an established religion, which has been automatic for most people through the whole of human history, becomes rarer with each year that passes. For many people in rich countries, the certainties of earlier generations now seem implausible, especially the theories and dogmas of revealed religions.

For me, Tibetan Buddhism was a workable approach. Leaving the Roman Catholic faith of my childhood was not hard. It had long seemed less than credible, although its rituals could be reassuring and I liked the emphasis on moral inquiry. But the creator god, the conjuring of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the ban on contraception, the promotion of Christ’s sexless mother as an example to women, the harassment of dissident clergy, the thought that ex cathedra pronouncements by the Pope should be taken seriously—all of these things had pushed me away from my inherited faith.

Buddhism appeared to create contentment among its followers, and reincarnation seemed a fair explanation of what happened to the spirit after death. So my admiration was partially utilitarian: it felt good to be around Tibetans, and if their religion brought good to them, it was worth pursuing. The outward aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the celibate male hierarchy running the show, were what I found least appealing, although I still respected the Dalai Lama. It was the Buddhist explanation of life, the universe and everything that drew me, rather than the ritual or the theology.

I was also drawn by the central principle that suffering is universal and pleasure is transient. In secular Western thought, an expectation of permanent satisfaction has become deeply ingrained, and is an important cause of the prevailing discontent. People believe that they can expect fair treatment from life. The idea that loss, death and suffering are to be expected has become obsolete, and a relatively minor trauma can provoke great emotional upset. The Buddha taught in the First of the Four Noble Truths that “discontentment, unhappiness and disappointment are universal … all the things we desire and cherish, not least our own lives, must eventually come to an end.” The Second Noble Truth states that suffering is caused by desire, and that the immediate satisfaction of desire brings only illusory, passing pleasure. By surrendering the self and attempting to break down the delusions of desire, ignorance and hatred, it is possible to find freedom from suffering, and to attain a state of liberation. This free state of mind should be our aspiration. The Dalai Lama has gone as far as to say that “the very purpose of our life is happiness.”

SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 24-25

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Mao’s Cadre of the Living Dead in Tibet

Although most exiles would consider Tibetan members of the Party to be merely collaborators, I felt that their position was more complex. Some, at least, were working within the system as away of defending the interests of Tibet. They were not altruists; it was a pragmatic and sometimes cynical decision, a career choice that brought them material benefits. But in the course of doing their job, they tried to develop and defend their homeland. Many were openly resentful that the key decisions about the running of Tibet were taken in Beijing, and that the Party Secretaryship, the top job, had never been held by a Tibetan.

The younger Tibetans who worked in the government did not seem very different from their Chinese counterparts in education or ambition. The generation that intrigued me was the next one up, people aged around fifty or sixty, who had been elevated on Mao’s instructions in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, solely on the basis of having a good “serf” background. Little was known about these officials, except that they would usually have been active Red Guards, and were installed in positions of authority in the late 1960s for ideological reasons, as part of the backlash against the old aristocracy. They were sometimes seen on state television, walking in and out of meeting rooms, but were rarely heard to speak. They had no popular power base, and no profile as individuals. Their importance lay in what they represented: impeccable, old-style proletarian credentials and open reliance on Beijing. Among Tibetans in Lhasa, this generation of cadres was perceived as ruthless, aggressive and stupid, and viewed with scorn and fear.

They were to be avoided, but I found myself among them, by chance, without realising what was happening. The men were paunchy bureaucrats in brown suits, v-neck jerseys, ties and soft shoes, and the women were dressed in skirts or chubas. Many of them wore dark glasses. They all looked drunk. These officials disliked the idea of me, a stranger and a foreigner, in their midst. I was not drinking alcohol, but they decided that I should have a glass of chang, or barley beer. I refused politely. They said it was the custom. I was caught in a crowd. One of the men grabbed the back of my head and shoved it forward, while another pushed a glass against my lips and poured liquid down my face and clothes. I wriggled free. They grabbed me and began again, this time with a glass of fruit spirit, angry now at being opposed. Some Chinese cadres intervened and extricated me, and we moved to another part of the park.

The Chinese were acutely embarrassed by what had happened, and apologetic about the disrespectful behaviour of their colleagues. I was shocked, but they were not. “Our Tibetan brothers always behave in this way, it is part of their culture,” they said with a smile—the Chinese smile of awkwardness and shame. I had never come across Tibetans like this before. Boisterous drinking and singing are popular Tibetan hobbies, part of the culture, but the difference here was the aggression, expressed towards a guest. The Chinese, from a younger generation than my Tibetan coercers, wore a look of pained apology, as if they were caught in a social trap from which there was no escape. They seemed to see the Tibetan cadres—who were tied to Mao and the damage he had done, with their immobile political position stemming from the chaotic aftermath of the Cultural Revolution—as Frankenstein’s monsters who had to be tolerated.

The Tibetan cadres reminded me of the “living dead” of pre-Buddhist Tibet. In the old times, when a king died, his loyal ministers and servants would move to a secluded place near his tomb. They were not permitted to be seen or spoken to by outsiders. Food and offerings would be left for them at the tomb, with a horn being blown by the living to warn them of their arrival. If a wandering yak or sheep happened to reach them, the living dead would brand it with a special mark, and it would be slaughtered and returned to them, unseen. Their separation from normal society continued until all of them had died.

These men and women were Mao’s living dead.

SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 153-155

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Roots of Tibet’s Modern Military Incompetence

The optimistic view of [Tibet’s] military incompetence would be that it came from instinctive pacifism. Martin Scorsese’s 1997 movie Kundun, a beautifully crafted piece of Dalaidolatry, opens with the claim that “Tibetans have practised non-violence for over a thousand years.” The Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman, has similarly depicted Tibet as a land of “psychonauts,” where “the cool-revolutionary counter-culture” entered the mainstream. Tibet was “a laboratory for the enlightenment movement to create its model society,” replete with “pacifist monks and nuns spending their days in learning, meditation, and creativity.” Helped by the teachings of the Buddha, the country had developed “industrial-strength mass monasteries in which individuals conquered their innermost energies and transformed their world into a buddhaverse.”

The idea is appealing, but unreal. The Dalai Lamas rode to political power on the back of the military might of the Mongols. Tibet’s history, like the history of any country, is full of war, gore and male domination, even if revenge slaughter never became as popular as in neighbouring lands. As late as May 1947, the footballer Reting Rinpoche was punished for insurrection by having a silk scarf stuffed down his throat, or his testicles crushed, or being poisoned with yellow pills, depending on which version you prefer. Tibet’s lack of initiative in the 1930s came from the loss of focus and ambition caused by extended reliance on the mediation and patronage of outsiders. As the historian Owen Lattimore has written, “the tributary or feudatory status of Tibet” began when the Sakya sect submitted to Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century: “Politically, the supreme pontiffs of Tibet have from the beginning acted as the agents of one or another alien overlord.”

So, while the newly discovered Fourteenth Dalai Lama grew to adulthood and Mao’s Communist rebels edged closer to victory in China’s civil war, the Tibetan government remained rudderless, unsure how to proceed. The three great monasteries—Drepung, Sera and Ganden—continued to be a powerful bulwark of tradition, opposing the very idea of change and progress. As an unnamed British diplomat noted in 1940, “Tibet’s military weakness is a danger to her continued independence, if ever the Chinese should have time and energy to spare to attempt once more to establish their domination over the country.”

Most of the reforms attempted by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama during his lifetime had failed. Ambitious modernising initiatives such as the creation of paramilitary units and secular schools, where football might be played, were overturned by the entrenched conservatism of the monastic establishment. When the army did turn out on parade, it was not for rifle-shooting or machine-gun practice; rather, the soldiers concentrated on the maintenance of decorum, tradition and precedent. Each year, on the penultimate day of the Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival, a military review was held at Drabchi.

This was Tibet, alone, reliving its glorious past. Symbolically, it was the days of empire that counted. During the Monlam Chenmo, a pair of Tibetan aristocrats would be temporarily awarded the Mongol title of Yaso, making them commanders of the two wings of the ancient army. Dressed in stupendous brocade robes trimmed with fur, supported by noble attendants, in the decade in which Salvador Dali gave a lecture in a diving-suit in London, they would watch the cavalry turn out in scraps of ancient chain-mail and peacock feathers, each horseman carrying a quiver of five plumed arrows. At their head rode two standard bearers holding tall lances and painted banners, wearing cherished helmets, possibly dating to the eighth century, with the name of Allah inscribed on the front in gold filigree.

The Arab influence, from the days long before Tibet became the forbidden land of European invention, was not forgotten by Tibetans. The past lived. During the early ninth century, soldiers of the Tibetan empire had harassed Muslim forces in Central Asia, and laid siege to Samarkand. Correspondingly, Arab troops, stirred by the spread of Islam, had captured parts of Kashmir and Wakhan, and taken the Tibetan general (“the commander of the cavalry of al-Tubbat,” they recorded) and his horsemen back to Baghdad where they could be paraded in triumph, like downed airmen during the Gulf War.

Martial influence travelled in all directions, with Chinese and Arab sources reporting the superiority of early Tibetan armour. A Tang historian noted the quality of the weaponry of a joint Turkic-Tibetan army in the early eighth century.

SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 101-102

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