The Art of (China’s) Colonialism: Constructing Invisibilities in (Tibetan) History and Geography

© 2012 Dlo08

(FOR READERS: I’ve defined the following terminologies to smooth out the read:

Assumption: Representation.

Invisibility: Erasure: Silences.

Formation: as how things are formed

Discourse: narrative: discursive: polemics: writings: texts: as the mediums in which the conqueror, narrates the story of their conquest and the people they conquered, in the way they like to imagine themselves, to themselves.

Colonizer: Oppressor: Conqueror: Aggressor:  as the governance or group that is exerting power on another group.

The Orient: Colonized: Oppressed: Conquered:  as the group that the governance or more powerful group is exerting power on.)

What does an ethnographic discourse on the invisibility of a colonial empire in the 21st century look like? What does that invisibility contribute to, or rather take away from, the experiences of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet? In this post, I examine the historical and contemporary discourses on Tibet that frame Tibet as either not colonized or about human rights, which, I argue, silences Tibetan aspirations for Nationhood. Aside from contextualizing Tibetan subjectivities, I contribute to the ongoing discourse on how ethnographic narratives can re-construct the invisibility of existing colonial empires and justify their presence as a given right rather than foreign.

Map of Tibet

Map of Tibet

 Fernando Coronil problematizes maps as having:

“often served as a medium for representing the world as well as for problematizing its representation. From Jorge Luis Borges’s many mind-twisting stories involving maps, I remember the images of a map, produced under imperial command, that replicates the empire it represents. […] In this exact double of the empire’s domain, each mountain, each castle, each person, each grain of sand finds its precise copy. The map itself is thus included in the representation of the empire, leading to an infinite series of maps within maps […] Thus, history makes the map no longer accurate, or perhaps turns it into a hyperreal representation that prefigures the empire’s dissolution” (1996:52).

As a young girl, I too ran into Coronil’s “infinite series of maps within maps.”

When I was six years old, I learned how to draw the map of Tibet. In order to memorize how to draw this, I was told by my older Tibetan friend, whom I called chocho (older brother), to remember that it looked like an upside down boot. Soon I had become very good at recognizing and drawing the map without any help. Some years later in fifth grade, few of the students and I were looking at a map of the world and we were each taking turns pointing at places on the map to show where we or our ancestries were from. I remember searching for the upside down boot shaped Tibet on the map for several minutes and became distressed when I realized I could not locate Tibet. On seeing the look on my face, one of my friends asked how Tibet was spelled; after I told her, we went over the map to search again. I found Tibet, however, it was placed in a larger map of China. The part of the map that had Tibet sectioned off did not look like the upside down boot I had memorized, and it looked significantly smaller than the map I remembered drawing. When I reached home that evening, I told my father the dilemma I had run into when trying to locate Tibet and how the Tibet I saw on the map was located inside China and how it did not look like the one I remembered drawing. I told him Amdo and Kham had disappeared, and only Lhasa was visible. My father saw my confusion with a knowing grin. He told me that Amdo and Kham were still there, that they were now on the map marked as part of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan. However, his explanation was not enough for me. It did not make sense to me that Tibet was put inside China, that Amdo and Kham were now being called by Chinese names that I had never heard. This was the first time I realized that the land I called Tibet in its entirety, which included Amdo and Kham, was not recognized as such by the rest of the world and the map only proved that assertion further. “But China invaded Tibet, why do they think Tibet is part of China?” My father did not know how to respond. He told me that the rest of the world understood Tibet to be part of China and that was something other Tibetans like himself were trying to change. As I grew older, I came to realize that all Tibetans I came to know, including those from inside Tibet, had to face this question and contest it and/or contextualize it every time we introduced ourselves as Tibetan, especially those of us who trace our ancestry in Amdo and Kham.

Map of China's Tibet

Map of China’s Tibet

In my adulthood, the question I had asked when I was ten has now become more important and pressing. The self-immolations in Tibet have now climbed in the 100s and most of them have taken place in Amdo, recognized as Qinghai by those in China. As foreign and Chinese journalists, pundits, academics, and scholars record, and, therefore, re-construct additional narratives-histories on Tibet-China through the current situation unfurling in Tibet; it has become important to disturb (Foucault 1994[1966]:30) their assumption of Tibet as part of China.

In the following post, I take this assumption, this representation, seriously. Coronil states, “[u]nlike cartographers’ maps produced under imperial order, the representations I wish to examine are discursive, not graphic, and seem to be the product of invisible hands laboring independently according to standards of scholarly practice and common sense” (52). Using Coronil’s framework, I ask the following question: how did the contemporary ethnographic discourse on Tibet by non-Tibetans, specifically in the pro and anti China camps, come to assume Tibet as part of China? And how did this assumption exclude the recognition of Tibet and China as occupying a colonial relationship? This post will attempt to disturb this assumption within the postcolonial framework to locate how, when, and why, the popular discourse on Tibet has come to assume Tibet as part of China, and, therefore, not a colonized territory.

The Discursive Formation of Tibet in China’s Imagination:

Heeding Foucault’s advice, I hope to examine; who was producing this ethnographic discourse on Tibet, what types of works were they producing, how were they producing this work, and why were they producing this ethnographic discourse—what purpose was it serving?

China's Propaganda painting depicting all the "ethnic minorities"

China’s Propaganda painting depicting all the “ethnic minorities”

In a recent article in The New York Times by Xu Zhiyong, a Han Chinese lawyer and human rights advocate, Zhiyong ends his article on the self-immolations of Nangdrol and others like Namdrol, with some powerful last words:

I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom. We are victims ourselves, living in estrangement, infighting, hatred and destruction. We share this land. It’s our shared home, our shared responsibility, our shared dream — and it will be our shared deliverance” (Zhiyong 2012).

Although Zhiyong’s closing words seem to acknowledge the state-sponsored inequality and violence on Tibetans with his apology. However, with his frequent use of the word “we” he misses the point that the immolators and other Tibetans he had met on his journey were trying to convey when they told him “We are Tibetan.” Zhiyong’s “we” reminds me of Gregory’s section—who’s work contextualizes Said’s Orientalism in the US’s construction of the middle eastern-orient-Palestinian-Iraqi-Afghani-terrorists to justify and carry out its imperial projects in the middle-east—on the conflict between imagined narratives by the colonizer and the colonized played out in the colonized space-land: the Israeli’s saw themselves as fighting for the “right of homeland” as scripted in the Zionist imagination while the Palestinians saw themselves as fighting against Israeli “invaders” (2004:Ch5). Zhiyong’s use of the word “we” is employed empathetically to include Tibetans and Hans together as Chinese citizens against unequal state policies in order to “share this [Tibet] land,” this “shared home.” However, in this all-inclusive homogenized “we,” Zhiyong fails to understand that Tibetans, such as those who have immolated, do not want to be part of this “we” (Chinese) but want to be “Tibetan” instead. In fact, according to historian Tsering Shakya, “the notion of Tibet as an integral part of China is a recent invention by the Communist Party in its process of nation building” (2002). Self-immolators, such as, Ngawang Norphel on the 20th of June this year shouted pro-Independence slogans for “freedom” that are in direct conflict with Zhiyong’s “we.” Zhiyong comes to interpret the “freedom” that the “Tibetans are dying for,” to mean freedom from unequal state policies that also affect him, as a Han. He does not, however, see that the “freedom” Tibetans like Ngawang Norphel want is beyond state policies, that Tibetans from the past (uprisings in 1959, during Cultural Revolution, late 80s to early 90s, 2008) and in the present have demanded and fought for against the Chinese State. That they do not want to be China’s citizens but instead, want to be Tibetan citizens of what they see as a historically sovereign Tibet. Unfortunately then, Zhiyong’s “we” assumes the Chinese State’s official narrative on Tibet and Tibetans; that Tibet is and will always be part of China.

"ethnic minorities" performing infront of the Potala, Lhasa, Tibet

“ethnic minorities” performing infront of the Potala, Lhasa, Tibet

Zhiyong’s conflict in understanding Tibetan assertion of being “Tibetan” in contrast to his Chinese citizen “we,” and my conflict, as a ten year old, in not understanding why everyone, except for Tibetan, seemed to assume Tibet to be part of China, resonates with what Achille Mbembe’s called “Colonial Entanglement” in Dennison’s Colonial Entanglement (2012). As described, “Achille Mbembe defines colonial entanglement as including ‘the coercion to which people are subjected,…a whole cluster of re-orderings of society, culture, and identity, and a series of recent changes in the way power is exercised and rationalized.” Pushing against what she sees as the ‘discrepancy between prescription and practice’ in many colonial histories, […] where even the most personal of moments are fraught with debates over political discourses” (7). But how did this conflict of understanding and/or confusion arise in the first place? In other words, how did Zhiyong, along with most of China’s population and the contemporary narrative on Tibet inside and outside China, come to envision Tibet as part of China? To disturb Zhiyong’s notion of Tibet as “our shared home,” I turn to interrogate the “effects of ethnographic discourse” on Tibet produced starting from the time of the Qing dynasty (Steinmetz 2007:xix).

Qing and Nationalist Empire:

When talking about the historical and political relationship between Tibet and China, most scholars on both pro and anti China sides of the spectrum point to the Qing dynasty (from 1905 to 1911) to historically frame the beginning of the contemporary political conflict between Lhasa and Qing administrations (Shakya 1999:xxii). According to historian Tsomu, Qing administration’s desire to control Lhasa’s administration, and, therefore, Tibet, was prompted by the impending threat of Western imperialism (2012:3). The Qing administration became increasingly insecure as its neighboring countries and kingdoms became colonies under various European empires. The threat of Western powers penetrating its own territories, according to Ho, prompted the Qing administration’s interest in incorporating Tibet and securing its “frontiers” (Ho 2008:210-46). This insecurity was furthered by the British invasion in 1904 (Tsomu 2012:3. Harris 2012) and the rise of Nyarong Gonpo Namgyal’s power in Kham (19) (see Woeser for more on Nyarong Gonpo). According to Tsomu, in order to take “effective control over Lhasa” the Qing needed to first secure its dominance over the border province, Kham (4). Here we find the motive for why the Qing wanted to take control of Kham, and, therefore, Lhasa: insecurities about Western imperialism.

"Western-Imperialism" propaganda art-wrok

“Western-Imperialism” against China propaganda art-wrok

Although the Khampas opposed the Lhasa administration’s authority, they united under the 13th Dalai Lama’s call to “defend Buddhism” against the Qing in 1912 (5). However, the Nationalist (also called Kuomintang) revolution that broke out across the Qing Empire ended Qing threat in Kham and, therefore, Lhasa, resulting in the 13th Dalai Lama’s declaration of Tibet as an Independent nation (5). The threat of Han-domination, however, did not end with the Qing. After the Nationalist party came to power (from 1912 to 1949) following the fall of the Qing, the Nationalists took up where the Qing had left off with Kham. Along with military attempts to take control of Kham, the Nationalists implemented a textual strategy to incorporate Kham “into China’s national imagination and understood as a core territory of the new China” (5). According to Tsomu, “[d]uring this period, there was a new effort to translate works [on Tibet] by Western authors” while producing their own works to 1) write Kham and, therefore, Tibet into China’s national history, and therefore, Chinese imagination,  and 2) support claims of western imperial interest in Tibet, while simultaneously justifying their presence in Tibet (6). Here we find how the Nationalists planned to make Tibet part of China’s national and historical imagination: (re)production of ethnographic discourse on Tibet.

At that time, Ren Naiqiqiang, funded by government authorities (11), was one of the leading contributors to the construction of Chinese discourse on Kham (6). Ren’s work on Tibet, and others he influenced, reproduced the orientalist (Said 1978) framing of Khampas, and, therefore, Tibetans; as “primitive” and in need of “civilizing” from the translated works of early orientalist western writers on Tibet (Tsomu 2012:10-1). His discursive work on the Khampas placed them in China’s primitive past, as a civilization left behind in China’s primitive history, that needed the Nationalist State’s help to “modernize” Tibetans to bring them on par with the rest of China’s civilization (Trouillot 1991. Tsomu 2012:16). The purpose of the ethnographic discourse produced at the time in framing Tibetans as Chinese (through the construction of Tibetans in China’s historical past) helped to explain and justify the Nationalists presence in Tibet and the construction of Tibetans as “primitive” helped to justify the Nationalists projects in Tibet (for more on this topic, see Woeser’s “The Hero Propagated by Nationalists” and “The Xinhai Revolution And Tibet”).

Ren also surveyed and constructed his own “standard Map of Kham” to serve as part of the project of “incorporating the Kham regions into the Chinese national imagination” (15). These same maps were later used “as blueprints […] by the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] to advance [in]to Tibet” (15). The Peoples Republic of China (PRC, from 1949 to present) not only employed the same maps and ethnographic discourse on Tibet to justify their invasion-colonization, but also reproduced the same (racist) evolutionary ideological framing of Tibetans as primitives-savages in need of their modernizing-civilizing projects to justify PRC’s presence in Tibet. The (racist) ideological framing of the Tibetans that the PRC has inherited from the British-Qing-Nationalist-era (Stoler & McGranahan 2007:25) seems to have reproduced and solidified in how the PRC construct and continue to construct the socio-political-economic-cultural “native policies” on Tibetans.

Going through the historical genealogy of how the ethnographic discourse on Tibet was constructed—Qing, Nationalist, and PRC, drawing from earlier works by western Orientalists—helps to explain why the map I encountered in fifth grade placed Tibet inside China, and why Zhiyong imagines the Tibetans and Hans as “we,” and, therefore, Tibetan-Chinese, not just Tibetan.

This historical genealogy also reasserts Steinmetz’s emphasis that “the colonized were not the authors of their own native policy, even if they sometimes revised it or selectively reinforced certain parts of it,” instead; these policies were constructed and asserted by the colonial State (2007:xix). However, the contemporary discourse on Tibet (both pro and anti-Tibet) fails to frame Tibet in the continuing discourse in pre and post colonial framework, instead, it has become further fixed in the dichotomized discourse between humanitarianism or China’s right to rising national power placed against Western domination (Sautman 2003). (I define contemporary notions of humanitarianism as, a globalized-homogenized concept of human rights that blur and deny particularity to indigenous peoples of different background’s historical-political-individual experiences). This dichotomized discourse further discourages any discussion on Tibet’s political right to sovereignty, including individual agency to resist China’s policies (Yeh 2009), and ignores China’s colonial role in Tibet and its socio-economic-political empire aspirations in Asia, Africa, and South America (McGranahan 2007). So, what are the discursive formations that prevent Tibet from being placed in a colonial framework with China?

Tibet in Modern Discursive Imagination:

The other night, I was talking to a friend from outside my discipline. He asked me what I was working on, and I replied “something on colonialism.” Puzzled, he retorted, “but I thought colonialism was over a long time back.” When I questioned him further on what he meant, he pointed to how former European colonies were no longer under colonization. I point to this example because colonization is often generally assumed to be specific to Europe and, therefore, over (Stoler & McGranahan 2007). This is not an assumption that only my friend makes, but is normalized in the popular discourse, especially in the scholarship by the Left (Chomsky 2012). The problem with this reductive logic, however, is that it fails to acknowledge past existing forms of empires with colonies that were not exclusively European (i.e. Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian, African, Egyptian, etc.). This is also problematic because it centers the history of the world, even about empires, on Europe. In addition, this logic also ignores contemporary forms of colonialisms (i.e. Palestine, Tibet, East Turkestan, Hawaii, Kashmir etc.) and imperialisms (i.e. US-EU exerting power in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, to name a few, China’s ventures in Africa, Asia, and South America). However, it is important to historically contextualize how this assumption, in particular to Tibet, came to be.

In 1949, as the PRC began to advance from its borders into Kham, World War II had come to an end and the former colonies of European colonization outside of Tibet and China were experiencing decolonization (180). As a result, according to McGranahan, “[d]isavowal of imperial status” at that time was becoming “de rigueur” (176). Although imperial status was going out of style, it did not mean empires disappeared; they simply went “underground” (180). As McGranahan argues, contemporary forms of imperial projects simply changed their tune by condemning old forms of domination associated with European colonialism, while functioning anew under “national languages of defense, development, and global responsibility” (176). For the U.S., its domination during the Cold War functioned under political intervention through Cold War discourse to free other parts of the world through democratization (i.e. Parts of South America, Congo, Philippines, parts of the Caribbean islands) while claiming to champion anti-colonial efforts (186).

U.S. propanada poster during Cold War

U.S. propaganda poster during Cold War

According to McGranahan, “[i]f [the era of] Decolonization discouraged colonialism as a specific form of imperialism, it ironically opened the world to other forms of similar domination” (175). During this time, the PRC was able to carry out colonial domination of Tibet while taking full advantage of the “moment of decolonization” (186). The PRC’s promotion of itself as anti-capitalist and anti-western imperialism during this era of decolonization was also useful in their efforts to keep other nations that Tibetan officials were lobbying (Shakya 1999:52,59,221) from directly intervening on behalf of Tibet (at the U.N. for example). In the present context, the PRC’s accusation of western interest in Tibet as motivated by the West’s aspiration to exert its imperial domination to keep a rising China down (Hillman 2009. Sautman 2012) is employed effectively enough to keep most of the popular discourse in the West from directly acknowledging Tibet as a colonized space. This is not to deny the West (in particular, the U.S.) as an imperial power in the present, but rather, to acknowledge that this narrative is used to move the focus away from Tibet’s colonization and its right to political sovereignty, to a narrative about western domination over China: It avoids talking about Tibet.

Anti-CNN protest by Chinese Nationalists during 2008

Anti-CNN protest by Chinese Nationalists during 2008

As previously argued, the PRC inherited its theoretical framing and narrative of itself as developing Tibet to modernize the Tibetans from their undeveloped-backwardness from its predecessors, the narrative, however, has now evolved to frame itself in the humanitarian discourse: one about helping the Tibetans develop, in order to modernize. Their discursive method has also advanced at home and abroad to include—along with additional types of texts—movies, images, music, plays, and cartoons to further embed Tibet-ans in China’s historical imagination and narrative (Norbu 2010. Zeitchik & Landreth 2012). Still, how could China be colonial when it grants Tibetans citizenship, something that classical-European colonization denied its colonial subjects?

It is true that China allows all Tibetans the right to Chinese citizenship but “citizenship does not rule out colonization” (188). The citizenship that China offers may suggest political inclusivity for Tibetans (Zhiyong’s “we”), it does, however, come with limited features (strict policies targeting Tibetan language and spiritual institutions) that does not acknowledge nor accommodate the Tibetan self-identification. The “characteristics of contemporary Chinese imperialism [in Tibet] include accumulation, territorial expansion, direct rule, military intervention, and the simultaneous cultivation of inclusive and exclusive categories of national belonging” (180).


Film poster for “Serf”. Produced by August First Studio in 1963. From Woeser’s article in High Peaks Pure Earth.

The denial of China as a colonial power in Tibet on both sides of the camp (pro and anti-China) directly and indirectly supports China’s narrative attempts to cover up its relationship to Tibet as colonial. The problem with these narratives, and the popular discourses that imitate its form, takes away, as argued by Yeh, the different individual experiences and agencies of Tibetans who are experiencing China’s colonization directly by those inside Tibet (2009) and indirectly by those who have escaped into exile, and/or facing transnational experience-displacement in host nations.


In concluding, I have explored the historical and contemporary ethnographic genealogy of both pro and anti China narratives to show how they re-construct the invisibility of China’s visible colonization of Tibet and assist in justifying and hiding the physical colonization in Tibet. Not recognizing China’s on going physical colonization in Tibet, as argued, is part of the reason why the conversations on Tibet gets (sometimes strategically) locked into a narrative about China’s right to National growth by pro-China narrators or Tibetan’s right to human rights by pro-Tibet narrators, rather then a narrative that includes Tibet’s right to sovereignty. Both sides of the conversation directly and indirectly help to cover-up the existing realities of what colonization has done and continue to do in Tibet. It is part of the reason why Tibet, according to the world map, no longer exists. Though the subjectivities of Tibetans inside and outside are different, my own personal narrative as a Tibetan exile reflects this erasure, this silence, on Tibet’s colonization. This erasure affects all Tibetans regardless of background.

This invisibility also leads to the confusion that prompted George W. Bush to ask “Why do they hate us?” out loud after September 11th(Gregory 2007:20), or Zhiyong to ask “do you [Tibetans] hate the Hans?” to the Tibetans he met inside, or the Israeli to ask “Why do Palestinians hate us?” after another bombing in Israel. Further, I have attempted to show the discursive formation of how the colonizer subdues and narrates the story of its conquest to itself and others, through the employment of, what Said described as, “the Orient [in this case, Tibetans] needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-created by scholars, soldiers, and judges who disinterred forgotten languages, histories, races and cultures in order to posit them—beyond the modern Oriental’s ken—as the true classical Orient that could be used to judge and rule the modern Orient” (92). In problematizing the discourse regarding China’s relationship with Tibet as colonial, I hope my work has further revealed the reality of Tibet as that of a colonized space. In addition, I hope my work contributes to the ongoing intellectual discussion on the different ways in which contemporary forms of imperial and colonial formations are justified and allowed to exist. My work is also an appeal for Tibetans to continue asserting and contextualizing Tibet as a colonized territory in any mediums thinkable because saying it repeatedly makes this truth come to life.

Works Cites:

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Coronil, Fernando. 1996.  “Towards Post-Imperial Geohistoric Categories,” Cultural Anthropology 11(1): 51-87.

Harris, C. E. 2012. The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet. University of Chicago Press.

Ho, Dahpon David. 2008. “The men who would not be amban and the one who would: four frontline officials and Qing Tibet policy, 1905-1911.” Modern China 34, 2 (Apr.):210-45. 1905-1911

Dennison, Jean. 2012. Colonial Entanglement: Constituting a Twenty-First Century Osage Nation. University of North Carolina Press.

Hillman, Ben. 2009. “50 Years On, What Do We Know about Tibet?” East Asia Forum. The East Asian Bureau of Economic Research (EABER) and the South Asian Bureau of Economic Research (SABER)., 16 Mar. 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2012. <;.

Foucault, Michel. 1994[1966]. “Introduction,” in The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Vintage. Pp. 1-39.

Gregory, Derek. 2004. The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony, in Colonial Entanglement: Constituting a Twenty-First Century Osage Nation: 66.

McGranahan, Carole. 2007. “Empire Out-of-Bounds: Tibet in the Era of Decolonization,” in Imperial Formations, Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, pp. 187-227.

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Sautman, Barry. 2003. “Cultural genocide and Tibet.” Tex. Int’l LJ, 38, 173.

Steinmetz, George. 2007. Devil’s Handwriting : Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura, and Carole McGranahan. 2007. “Introduction: Refiguring Imperial Terrains.” in Imperial Formations: 3-42.

Triouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1991. “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness,” in Richard G. Fox, Recapturing Anthropology. Santa Fe: SAR Press, pp. 17-44.

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Zeitchik, Steven, and Jonathan Landreth. 2012. “Hollywood Gripped by Pressure System from China.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 12 June 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2012. <,0,7403326.story&gt;.

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