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