Prior to exile, Tibetan kinship alliances had tended to function along biological/affinal (clan) and regional (hometown) lines. As I show in this historical and ethnographic essay, the conditions of exile also worked to configure new kinship ties along national lines—communities in exile became family to each other, and in turn, the nation itself was imagined as family.
In exile, schools became key sites in which these novel forms of kinship and belonging were cultivated. In 1960, the Dalai Lama’s administration opened nurseries for children in exile that later became boarding schools (Dalai Lama 1991). Students from this school eventually became adults who sustained the next phase of exile for Tibetans escaping the policies of the Cultural Revolution that were imposed upon Tibet. Today, there are over 70 Tibetan refugee schools in Nepal and India that have graduated over 25,000 students. These educational institutions, which were developed, run, and attended by Tibetans, both sustained and fostered new forms of solidarity and citizenship that in turn bolstered the project of sovereignty-in-exile.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.