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? It depends who you ask. Although the People’s Republic of China (PRC) recognizes the rights of Indigenous people by voting in favor of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 (UN General Assembly 2008), they also claim there are no indigenous populations in China. Instead, Tibetans are categorized as minzu (ethnic minority) under the PRC. In popular print media, Tibetans have been framed by non-Tibetan photographers, writers, or journalists as indigenous. But what about Tibetans? Do they identify as Indigenous?
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.
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.
So, who was Diki Tsering? Why is she known as “the great mother” in contemporary Tibetan society? I consider this question through the engagement of her autobiography, Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother’s Autobiography (2000), alongside other secondary sources. In the following, I begin first by giving a short overview of her autobiography, followed by an analysis regarding the text’s authorship and voice. Second, I engage how this autobiography is structured to consider who it was written for and why. Third, I consider Diki Tsering’s changing gendered roles alongside her comments regarding gender in her autobiography to contemplate whether she considered all gendered roles in negative light. And finally, I conclude with thoughts regarding aspects of Diki Tsering’s life that is rarely engaged or left out and compare her alongside other female figures I have engaged thus far.
Sonam Peldren was a religious figure from fourteenth-century Tibet. She was the daughter of a nomad. She had no special status, nor had she been trained or recognized by religious authorities during her time alive. She was recorded as not having received formal education and being illiterate. Yet, following her death, she became recognized in her community as the emanation of Dorje Pakmo. Unlike Tare Lhamo, Sonam Peldren lacked the social standing through which she could affirm her religious identity. However, despite such lack in status, Sonam Peldren is affirmed following her death through the efforts of her spiritual community.
Samding Dorje Phagmo is the first lineage that was initiated and led by a Tibetan woman named Chokyi Dronma in fifteen century Tibet (2007: 1). This lineage continues to exist in present day Tibet. “She was listed among the highest-ranking reincarnation at the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and recognized by the Tibetan government and acknowledged by the Qing emperor” writes Hildegard Diemberger. Thus, engaging this historic figure becomes important in situating Tibetan religious approaches to gender.
As discussed in previous chapters of Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet, Holly Gayley stresses how Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche saw their religious engagement and activities in tandem with reviving Tibetan Buddhist culture following the destruction of the Chinese-led Culture Revolution.Before Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche began their activities in reviving Tibetan Buddhism during the 1980s and 1990s together as a tantric couple, they began their official courtship through letters in the 1970s. These letters from the 1970s played a crucial role, argues Gayley, in shaping the couple’s future activities that came to fruition later. The following chapters engage these letters closely to consider how the couple came to view one another and their future together as a tantric couple through Indigenous and Buddhist idiom.
This is a continuation of my project to engage historic female figures of Tibet. Tare Lhamo is especially interesting because she was born before China’s invasion of Tibet, she lived through the invasion, followed by Culture Revolution until its end, and was part of the religious cohort in Tibet who began reviving Tibetan Buddhism from the destruction of Culture Revolution. She becomes an important figure to consider when we think about different subjectivities of Tibetan women in Tibetan history. I hope you’ll find the following analysis useful.
Carole McGranahan’s Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War is an ethnography of heartbreak (2010). A heartbreak that began with the loss of Tibet. Every time I read this book, I am reminded of people from my childhood who were of the generation that was raised in Tibet but later died in exile. The same people who would share stories of Tibet prior to its invasion. These stories often began with joy, but would end abruptly with sadness—a sadness I did not understand as a child, but was taught about and grew familiar with as I grew older. This sadness, heartbreak, is captured and historicized in this book.