Lecture at UCLA on Chinese Colonialism in Tibet

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The following is video of a lecture I gave at UCLA’s (University of Los Angeles) Asia Pacific Center November 5, 2021, 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (Pacific Time).

Decolonizing ‘Tibetan’ Studies: Empire, Ethnicity, and Rethinking Sovereignty

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Who are Tibetans? How have they been framed as objects for study across time? For earlier Western academics and the audiences who read their work, Tibetans were a people largely defined by religious beliefs and institutions. In this presentation, I argue that this emphasis in early Tibetan Studies set a precedent for sidelining Tibetan sovereignty as a central concern in both scholarship and in real world politics, a trend which continues to impact the field and Tibetan lives today. While researchers were interested in understanding the structural authority and functions of the sovereign, their Orientalizing renderings often sidelined analysis of Tibet’s geopolitical history and developments in central Asia as an empire and nation. This deprioritizing necessarily ignores the rich body of Indigenous history transmitted through literary production and oral traditions produced by Tibetans for Tibetan audiences that dates back centuries. A chronological examination of scholarly productions on Tibet undertaken predominantly by Western scholars reveals the making of Tibetan Studies as a Western academic subject based on ideas and interpretations of Tibetans by Westerners. Similarly, modern Chinese scholarship on Tibet has been heavily influenced by Orientalist Western traditions. Both demonstrate the importance of acknowledging histories of representation.

Modern Secularist vs. Religious Fanatic: Goldstein’s reading of Tibet, a review by Nicole Willock

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What does a modernist secularist reading of recent Tibetan history look like? How does such readings reinforce notions of Tibetans as religious fanatics or barbaric? Nicole Willock (2011) takes a stab at these questions in her review of Melvyn Goldstein’s (2007, 2009) history of Tibet. While she acknowledges his contributions, she also highlights the limitations of such a framing. Pointing out how such lens tend to reify notions of Tibetans as either modern or not-modern. One way of remedying this, according to Willock, is to engage Tibetans themselves, who engaged in practices of translations both past and present. This highlights how Tibetans were and continue to be agentive in translating and negotiating new terms such political and cultural moments spawned.  

The Discursive Art of China’s Colonialism: Reconfiguring Tibetan and State Identities

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How do present forms of colonialisms persist in what is presumed to be the ‘post’ colonial era? One-way colonialism persists in the current era is through the state’s ‘modification’ of its identity according to Indigenous studies scholar Glen Coulthard (2014). Scholars of Empire studies have long stressed how the colonial state constructs its own identity in the process of constructing the identities of its colony and subjects (Cooper and Stoler 1997, Stoler 2010). In this article, I consider this question through the framework of Tibet and China and ask, how is China’s current relationship to Tibet understood as state and subject, rather than colonizer and colonized? In the following, I suggest this in part has to do with how Tibetans are understood to be ‘Chinese’ in the present moment. Through a careful examination of China’s different and successive government’s discursive and rhetorical mechanisms, I explore how Tibetan identity is reinvented and state identity modified to construct Tibet in China’s national imagination as part of China. Such reconfiguration of identities, which centers the history of Tibet’s development through Chinese frameworks rather than Tibetan ones, function to counter and erase past and ongoing histories of Tibetan nationalism that continually challenge China’s sovereign claims over Tibet. The discursive ramification of such state-produced historical erasures and identity reconfigurations is that it allows modern nation states such as China to operationalize systematic colonialisms in its colonies while distancing itself from its colonial identity. This is how present forms of colonialisms under new modern orders continue to function anew in what is presumed to be the ‘post’ colonial era.

Joy, Erin, and Tatiana: to my Cambridge girls who nurtured me

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My childhood social landscape was filled with black and white children, with a handful of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese students. As a Tibetan, I couldn’t figure out where I belonged. But for Joy, Erin, and Tatiana, it was easy. I belonged with them. And through their nurturing friendships a multi-racial Cambridge steeped in black history and culture became home.

Who is a Pure Tibetan? Identity, Intergenerational History, and Trauma in Exile

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How do Tibetans themselves conceptualize being Tibetan? Here, I explore this question through an ethnographic illustration of recent public discussions between Tibetans online, and the kinds of reactions these exchanges provoke. Their discussions were often about purity—what makes someone a pure Tibetan? Purity was needed, argued many, to preserve the Tibetan identity. For Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, preservation was a project that Tibetans collectively began after the Chinese invasion. Many saw purity as necessary to promote the project of cultural and identity preservation in colonized Tibet and exile-diaspora. Purity offered possibilities for survival and continuity of the culture. But what does this purity look like?

Are Tibetans Indigenous?

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“Are Tibetans Indigenous? It depends who you ask. While Tibetans exposed to Indigenous sovereignty movements such as Idle No More and NoDAPL identify with indigeneity currently, the term was officially rejected decades earlier by the Tibetan apparatus in diaspora. Drawing on recent scholarship by Indigenous scholars, indigeneity as a term was a colonial construct. It was through this racial construction that the settler state proliferated the domination of Indigenous lands and bodies. However, many Indigenous organizers argue that the recent use of the term in mobilizing political solidarity across the globe against imperial-setter colonial-capitalist-governmentality has made the word too essential to abandon all together. Instead, Indigenous scholars have proposed ways of rethinking indigeneity that is decolonial. My paper draws on this scholarship to examine why Tibetans refused to identify as indigenous before yet claim it now. Using an historical approach, I examine the kinds of political stakes that were at risk in claiming the terminology earlier versus now. And why current redefinition of the word appeals to a younger generation of Tibetans growing up exposed to Indigenous movements in North America.”

Secularism, Purity, and the need for Unity: Learning from Srin, King Yeshe O, and Secular Leadership in Amdo Labrang

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Over the last few months, conversations taking place on Tibetan social media consisted of topics regarding secular modernity, concepts of Tibetan purity, and by the seeming lack of interest in turning to lived Tibetan histories as a way to engage these topics. To be fair, I noticed some participants try to actually stress Tibetan histories to acknowledge that these topics are nothing new when viewed through our historical framework as a people, and also how these concerns can be engaged using our own historical knowledges as lessons. In agreement with these concerns, I’ve dug up an old essay from 2015 that looks at Tibetan histories across time, space, place, and figures that were dealing with notions of Pan-Tibetan identities and governmentalities, with the restructuring and mixture of old and new traditions, and with notions of the secular and the religious, all of which take place in different places and times across the Tibetan plateau.

Registration Open For Tibetans of Mixed Heritage Conference, October 9-13, Join Us in Dharamsala!

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Hi everyone! This post is a special shout out to Tibetans of Mixed Heritage and friends. After successful gatherings in London, Zurich and New York, the Mixed Tibetans team are pleased to announce… Continue reading

Decolonial & Intersectional Interventions against (Neo)Liberal Feminism: Reflections on Tibetan Feminisms

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Over the course of few years, the Tibetan diaspora has seen a sharp rise in the number of Tibetan women who claim a feminist identity. What is Tibetan feminism, and how did it emerge? In the following, I track the rise of Tibetan feminism through the development of an online initiative called Tibetan Feminist Collective (TFC) based mostly in the west. Although TFC does not represent the diverse viewpoints of all women who identify as Tibetan and feminist, their version of feminism nonetheless becomes important to engage due to the initiative’s choice in leading and representing discussions regarding Tibetan feminism in Tibetan and non-Tibetan cyber and/or real worlds. Even though I use TFC as a Tibetan example of neoliberal feminism, they are not the only ones influenced by it. Other Tibetan women (alongside their male peers) not affiliated with TFC are also engaging neoliberal ideologies in shaping their individual pathways towards favorable professional outcomes that benefit themselves alone. Today we live in a world where the commodification of identities and activism, thanks to neoliberal ideologies, are so pervasive. Thus, it is important to think critically about the way neoliberalism shapes feminism (and other frameworks), and compromises their liberatory potential.