“Otherness” and the Modern Tibetan Identity

Tibetans were once content to identify themselves by region and sect. Post-1959, the Chinese presence has stimulated a pan-Tibetan identity.

Tibetans have multiple identities. This is true M. of them as it is for the members of all other traditional, complex societies?" Under some conditions, however, a pan-Tibetan identity prevails and, under others, sub-national identities emerge among Tibetans.

Before 1950, sub-national identities based on sect or region prevailed. The former category included the Nyingma, Kargyu, Sakya, Gelukpa, and Bonpo. Regionally, Tibetans identified themselves as Khampa, Topa, Tsangpa and Amdo-wa of Kham, Toi, Tsang (Shigatse) and Amdo regions. Sectarian identity is rooted in the different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and is particularly powerful among the lamas. Regional identities and attachments to homelands (phayul) are more popular among the laity.

In practice, of course, sectarian and territorial identities may overlap and reinforce each other. In such cases, sub-national identities can be quite powerful. This combination of sectarian and territorial identity was the motive force of the Geluk and Sakya domination in Tibetan history.

But how do Tibetans differentiate themselves from non-Tibetans? Do Tibetans have an encompassing pan-Tibetan identity?

Before the politicisation of Tibetan ethnicity, "we" and "they", or Tibetan and non-Tibetan, was a Buddhist differentiation between believers, and non-believers, phyipa and nangpa. However, since the Chinese takeover in 1959, there has been a growing consciousness, particularly among "urban" Tibetans, about a pan-Tibetan identity that sharply differentiates itself from rgya-rigs or rgya-mi — the Chinese Han. The "in-group" is increasingly identified as bodpa or bog-rigs.

Feeling 'Tibetan'

Perhaps because "ethnic" politics is, practically banned in-Tibet, this writer has seen no comprehensive description of the sectarian or regional identities being articulated within Tibet. But there seems to be considerable evidence of "we" and "they" differentiation vis-a-vis the Chinese/Han, at all levels of society, as- is immediately apparent to Western and Asian visitors. This is corroborated by the post-1959 ethnic tensions in Tibet that have cut across ethnic lines. It is not too difficult to construct the major sociological components of Tibetan identity, with a comparative knowledge of Chinese and Tibetan cultures.

Although hardly articulated or politicised before 1959, most of the ingredients of a pan-Tibetan identity are inherent in the structure of Tibetan civilisation. As we know, most ethnic identities in the non-Western world are nothing but politicised cultural identities.

Geography defined Tibet´s boundaries and separated it from its neighbours, including China. Elite consciousness of Tibetan territoriality was evident as early as 8th Century AD, when a Sino-Tibetan treaty declared, "Tibetans are happy in Tibet and Ch inese in Chin a; and neither should trespass the other´s territory…"

Confucian and Lamaist social structures and civic cultures differ vastly, just as Chinese and Tibeto-Burman languages and literature are distinct from each other. Traditional economic activities in China and Tibet are also very different. If the Chinese peasantry has essentially a rice-growing economy, the lifestyle of Tibetans is shaped by a nomadic and barley-growing economy. Two separate ways of life  emerged over the centuries.

But to the soul-searching sections of the, Tibetan populace, the defining characteristic and the core of Tibetan identity appears to be the lamaist culture which is so radically different from the culture of the "dominant generalised other" — the Chinese. This appears so as the Tibetans glance through the significant aspects of Tibetan historical achievement as a distinct race. They are inevitably driven to the various Tibetan traditions of Buddhism as the ultimate source of their pan-Tibetan identity, reinforced by other shared commonalities such as written language, territoriality and lifestyle.

If the secular-minded reader thinks the lamaist dimension of Tibetan cultural identity is being exaggerated, let me explain. Tibetan as a classical language suitable today for serious academic study in major Western universities is largely a creation of lama-scholars going back to the 8th century AD. Similarly, classical Tibetan literature worthy of academic pursuit and world recognition was possible only through the serious and important contributions by lamas. Consequently, apart from some early Tibetan kings, most of the Tibetan culture-heroes are lama-scholars such as Milarepa, Sakya Pandita, Longchen Rabjampa, Tsongkhapa, and others. In short, the history of Tibetan civilisation is a history of lamas, before whom the other actors appear mundane and insignificant.

Such a cultural perception of Tibetan identity is borne out by the post-Mao developments in Tibet The Dalai Lama´s fact-finding delegations to Tibet in the early 1980s brought out-film footage which show Tibetan youth, born after 1959, prostrating in a traditional religious manner before religious objects brought by the Dharamsala party. Tourists have witnessed enthusiastic participation by Tibetan youth in the renovation of monasteries and temples across Tibet.

Because the post-1959 generation was totally deprived of religious upbringing and socialisation, its religious behaviour must be interpreted in terms of affirmation of identity. Tibetan youth exhibit religious behaviour not because they are pious, like their parents, but because they believe that is the authentic way of being ´Tibetan" and being different from the Chinese. In this regard, the leading role played by monks and nuns in the 1987 and 19S8 pro-independence demonstrations in Lhasa is also noteworthy.

There is truth in the psychological definition of identity. The assertion of identity is made possible by the presence of a "generalised other". That is, there can be no self-conscious projection of ethnic or any other kind of identity without the generalised other. For Tibetans, the Chinese have assumed this function. Their "otherness" in Tibet provokes the assertion of Tibetan identity and the we/they differentiation.

Whatever may be the veracity of Chinese historical and legal claims over Tibet, it is a fact that any Chinese presence, before 1950, was confined to Lhasa. Ordinary Tibetans would never have seen the Han people. Their influx into Tibet since 1950, and especially after 1959, has been unprecedented.

The otherness of the Han in Tibet is accentuated by their domination of Tibet´s political, economic and cultural life. The Han monopolise the state power structure behind the scene, have greater access to education and job opportunities within Tibet, control the country´s natural resources, and so on. The new city of Lhasa is occupied by Chinese, while Tibetans are confined to the old quarter. A Western teacher at Tibet University recalls how in her classroom Tibetan students used to sit in one row and Chinese students in the "other" row. That there is ethnic polarisation is clear.

Beijing´s policy of national integration and assimilation has engendered polarisation against the Chinese and the politicisation of Tibetan ethnicity. In particular, during radical phases such as the Cultural Revolution, Chinese policy sought not only to communise, but Han-ise Tibetans through force-feeding of Chinese language, education and culture. Even communism is propagated in Tibet via Maoist interpretation and Chinese idiom.

The Chinese or Han dimension of the exported Communist Revolution in Tibet cannot be denied. Chinese culture and language are forced upon Tibetans under the auspices of Marxism. This Hanisation belittles and questions Tibetan ethnic identity, thereby engendering an identity crisis among the Tibetans. They ask themselves: Are we Chinese as the Han cadres claim? Or are we different? If we are different, then how do we assert our identity?

The 1987 and l988 demonstrations in Lhasa may be seen as the early manifestations of this assertion of ethnic identity by politically conscious Tibetans. At the same time, such events also reveal a legitimation crisis faced by the Chinese rulers in Tibet.

With the appearance of the generalised "other" since 1950, sectarian and regional identities have assumed a passive, secondary role in Tibet. In their place, a vaguely-felt pan-Tibetan identity has arisen, particularly in the main towns.

Ethnic identity must be understood functionally, and its primary function is to achieve the greatest degree of differentiation from the generalised "other". In this sense, ethnic identity is an aggregation of ethnic variables such as tradition, culture, language and race. Which of these variables may be emphasised more than the others depends on the nature of the group against whom the differentiation has to be drawn and ethnic boundaries erected. In Tibet, the accent so far has been on lamaist culture, language and race — and in that order.

Norbu is Associate Professor of Central Asian Studies atJawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His latest book is Culture and the Politics of Third World Nationalism (Routledge, 1992).

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