Letters On Tibet

Dear Mr. French,
I appreciated your December 8 article about Tibet. An oft-ignored dilemma in the popular news about Tibet is the ever increasing influx of Han Chinese and the potential consequences – the displacement of Tibetans from jobs, the strain on natural resources, and, as you point out most notably, the cultural and religious losses. These are all frightening prospects, and I would wager that the first two are well underway. As for the issue of religion and culture, however, I offer you a different perspective.

You write that Tibet “is fighting now to retain its soul,” but I wonder who or what defines this soul that you mention. Tibetans? Foreigners? Foreign fantasies? By critiquing the process of change that is happening now in Tibet — even if it is the Han Chinese we are condemning — we risk denying Tibet agency to respond to, take part in, and benefit from such change. The popular view of Tibet’s victim status — indeed, the almost visceral attachment to it — often obscures our ability to understand its agency.
We can see examples of this agency in the very marketplaces you mention. I conducted research last summer in the shops along the Barkhor pilgrimage circuit, and while I did note some Han and Hui shop-owners, most owners are Tibetan. You write about the “invasion of commercialism” and how it asks whether “an ancient and distinctive culture steeped in religion [can] maintain its life style and identity in the face of an onslaught of Chinese bearing what Tibetans regard as godless materialism and chauvinism backed by the power of the state.” I believe that on the contrary, these shops and what may appear to be “commercialism” actually provide a way for Tibetans to cultivate and express their religious and cultural identity. Producing things “Tibetan” for both tourists and locals, these shops serve as a mechanism for articulation, forcing locals to define Tibetan identity not only for others but also for themselves. The marketplace, therefore, offers a metaphor for understanding the dialogue of interpretation constructing Tibetan identity. Tourists’ (both Western and Han) representations of Tibet are reflected in the merchandise, but also revealed are local owners’ understanding of such representations. There is tremendous power in such a dialogue, not only in cultural and religious terms, but also in economic gains.
I realize that your main point was the troubling notion of Han Chinese selling Tibetan things; I, too, find this fact disturbing, but mostly for the economic consequences, not for the minority/majority issues you suggest. I caution against drawing hard and fast lines in terms of ethnicity and power; while I acknowledge the state’s role in defining ethnicities in China (and the polarization between Han and “other”), I also, however, insist on ethnicity’s mutability, as not only the state but also Tibetans manipulate ethnicity for their own purpose. Ethnicity construction, as it develops through externally-imposed definition, ordering, and assimilation, is undoubtedly problematic, but more problematic is an acceptance of its rigidity and power. Although the state in China has certainly effected, at times, the over-simplification of ethnicity and the reduction of diversity, ethnic groups have also engaged in similar processes for instrumental purposes, indicating that the oft-perceived opposition between Han Chinese and Tibetans in China contains generalizations in itself.
If you have made it this far through my email, I thank you. I suppose I will end by stating the obvious: that the situation in Tibet is extremely complex no matter how you look at it. I am living in Beijing right now, and though I have experienced similar pangs to yours when I’ve visited Tibet and observed troubling scenes, I still miss it terribly and feel a bit out of place in “Han China.” I thank you for getting me thinking about Tibet again.
Yours sincerely,

Dear Howard W. French,
As a Tibetan, I would like to thank you for your very insightful piece on Tibet (New York Times, Demcember 8). Yes, it is true that the Tibetans are a marginalized people in their own homeland. Many Tibetan scholars from Tibet secretly say that “our people have now become second-class citizens in our own country. And, your article seem to echo this.
I would however like to point out one factual thing. The Tibetan population in the Tibet Autonomous Region is said to be 2.5 million. But half of Tibet, as you know, is outside the “TAR”. If one tabulates the Chinese statistics, the total Tibetan population, including those residing in Tibetan areas outside the “TAR”, comes to slightly less than five million. But the Tibetans say that out population is actually six million. The Chinese have carved out Tibetan sub-groups such as Monpas, Lopas and Tengpas as separate ethnic groups. That is why the population works out to be less than five million.
Thank you, once again, for your article.

Dear Mr. French,
Recommend Goldstein’s History of Modern Tibet (Univ of California Press). In my view Goldstein presents a clear sighted view of just how complex the Tibetan-Chinese situation was.
Came away from book with the belief about why America stood aside when the Chinese invaded. During WWII Tibet refused our request to set up weather stations and navigation beacons to assist air resupply operations to China from India. We lost a huge number of air crews flying the “hump”. Tibet’s refusal to help must have been a bitter pill for which revenge served cold was the answer.
Signed, a reader named Mark.

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