I was born in Amdo Rebkong, Tibet. I choose the phrase “I was born…” on purpose in contrast to “I’m from Tibet’ or “I’m from Qinghai province” because the former provides a specific location and meaning of my historical background for the readers. Saying “I’m from Qinghai province” emphasizes the Chinese political demarcation that can dominate discourse on Tibetans’ birthplace and origin, especially amongst young Tibetans inside Tibet. If a young Tibetan from Tibet is being asked about their birthplace and origin in Tibet, they will likely say that they are from Qinghai (青海), Sichuan (四川), Gansu (甘肃) or Yunnan (云南). I would say that this is still quite pervasive amongst young Tibetans from Amdo and Kham. However, it doesn’t mean that they’re not aware of Tibetan history and their cultural background when referring to their birthplace and origin. Colonial education and integration have been shaping their mentality implicitly. I think we sometimes need to pay close attention to these seemingly trivial details about Tibet.
Having said that, when approaching the concept of Tibet, we are in the conversation with someone’s—this could be collective too—experience, memory, and imagination of Tibet. In exile, there are Tibetans who have never been to Tibet but their idea of it is communicated, narrated, and constructed through their imaginations. Unlike them, I left Tibet for India after finishing middle school and have lived in various countries since then. The geography, the community, and the Tibetans I grew up with are always present in my memory. But my memory of my country itself is almost two decades old despite my regular interactions with my family, relatives and friends inside Tibet. I sometimes call it a distant memory, for my memory of Tibet has many gaps and silences. Alongside the imagination and the memory, the experience of living inside Tibet or the recent experience of leaving Tibet behind is another aspect when approaching Tibet.
I often notice the discourse of authority and authenticity amongst the language of imagination, memory, and experience in Tibetan communities in exile. The latter—those who have living experience of Tibet—think that Tibet should be understood merely through experience. In other words, those who have the experience believe that they have greater authority and more authentic views of Tibet. I regard this attitude as both problematic and simplistic. Maybe sometimes, our imagination is as powerful as the experience of knowing Tibet. We therefore shouldn’t put one understanding above another. Rather, imagination, memory, and experience are all great vehicles in approaching Tibet. The more vehicles we have, the better— the more diverse— understanding we can have about Tibet.
Tibet also means many things to us. The meaning and scope of Tibet encompass the historical Tibet, the cultural Tibet, the political Tibet and so on. The historical Tibet could be the constitution of the three regions (ཆོལ་ཁ་གསུམ)—I strongly discourage Tibetans to use the term ‘province’—of Tibet including Utsang, Kham, and Amdo. That said, many Tibetan historical texts refer Tibet to its upper part as the three rings of Ngari, the middle part as four horns of Utsang and the lower part as the six ranges of Dokham. The cultural Tibet could include the Himalayan regions—beyond Tibet— where communities still use classical Tibetan, share Tibetan artistic traditions, and practice Tibetan Bon and Buddhist rituals. The political Tibet is a particular administrative unit of the contemporary People’s Republic of China, the Tibet Autonomous Region legitimized by Chinese government. Thus, I don’t think there is a definite demarcation of Tibet because we can look at it from geographical and linguistic aspect as well. My point is that the meaning of Tibet is diverse and rich in its multiplicity, constituted in different times and spaces—we thus shouldn’t reduce it to a single meaning. I think amongst the diverse meanings of Tibet, we are also able to find the flexibility and freedom in narrating Tibetan discourse at large.
Language is another major component of diversity. As many of us understand and celebrate, the Tibetan communities inside and outside Tibet are linguistically diverse—we shouldn’t insist and pretend that every Tibetan speaks Tibetan language. There are young Tibetans who only speak Chinese—my nephew is one of them and their population is on the rise—unfortunately. In the West, we can easily notice young Tibetans speaking just English or other foreign languages despite their Tibetan cultural background. That said, Tibetans who only speak Tibetan have less exposure to other cultures and knowledge unlike their multilingual counterparts. Furthermore, Tibetan dialectical communities are much more diverse than the language groups if carefully researched. Simply put, because of the reality of linguistic diversity that Tibetans experience and encounter under various circumstances, Tibetans have different perspectives and expectations towards Tibetan politics, identity, culture, and its future. I think we should embrace the beauty and quality of linguistic diversity instead of politicizing it—our Tibetan language preservation attitude should be liberal, open, and inclusive.
In Tibetan exile communities, regional identity is discouraged, marginalized, and often arrested. For instance, in our exile schools, we are not taught regional history, culture, festivals, and such. Rather, the idea of oneness—one Tibetan history, one Tibetan culture, one Tibetan language—including political views is systematically celebrated and promoted in every institute of Tibetan society. I think the whole issue of the current political polarization amongst Tibetans in exile is largely associated with the lack of acknowledgement and respecting diverse political views. Therefore, under the umbrella of mainstream political hegemony, regional identity and different political views exist in a liminal space.
I believe the internal political fractions and divisions sprout and spread out when the language of diversity is entirely removed from the political landscape. Therefore, the dilemma, ambiguity, and conflict amongst Tibetans when choosing a political stand—either Rangzen or Middleway—are the product of the complete lack of diverse political views. That said, I suggest, moving forward, we should have the courage, openness, and vision to embrace the language of diversity for Tibet and its future. Whether one is a scholar working on Tibet or a politician or activist fighting for Tibet cause or an ordinary Tibetan loving Tibet, diversity is the most prominent vehicle to understand Tibet, its richness and versatility.
5 thoughts on “Diversity, The Future of Tibet”
Excellent article ! Thank you for the post.
The fate of the Nation of Tibet changed completely on 23 May, 1951. After 1959, there is only Imagine Tibet. Imagine Tibet includes Political Tibet, Culture Tibet, Ethnic Tibet, Exile Tibet, Chinese Tibet & so forth. Political Tibet is TAR, which is a de facto independent state comprising the western half of the Tibetan Plateau from 1911-1950. This is supposed to be a Country with a name “Tibet”. Historical Tibetan regions of Kham & Amdo we’re controlled by Chinese warlords under Komingtang/Republic of China from 1911-1949. Kham & Amdo were Cultural & Ethic Tibet. Ladakh(ལ་དྭགས), Spiti(྄སྤྱི་སྡེ་), Sikkim(འབྲས་ལྗོངས།), Tawang(ཏ་དབང་) in India, Dolpo(དོལ་པོ་), Upper Mustang(སྨོནཋང) in Nepal, Baltistan(ལྦལ་ཊི) in Pakistan & Bhutan 🇧🇹(འབྲུག་) are all qualify under Ethnic & Cultural Tibet. These all Kingdom are part of Tibetan Empire, before that most are part of Zhang Zhung. They all are Tibetic speaker, write in Tibetan script, follow Bon & Tibetan Buddhism. King of Ladakh & Spiti is direct decent of Tibetan Empire, King of Bhutan came from Kham, Tibet & King of Sikkim came from Kham Miyak. If these land were annexed by China, they will be Tibetan then, though these are still part of Tibetan civilization. Some village in Northern Nepal like Limi Valley used to be part of Tibet until 1959, many came under Nepal after 1961 border treaty. These people still only speak Tibetan. Tawang in India is part of Tibet, British annexed this Tibetan territory in 1914 Simla Accord. While on the other hand, we had far away places like Amdo Labrang in Gansu or Kham Gyalthang in Yunnan, which are thousand miles from Lhasa & still count as Tibet. As far as རུས་དང་སྐད་ is concerned, Pure Tibetans are found only in High Himalayas rather than Chinese controlled Tibet. As a result, not only Imagined Tibet, they are many form of Tibetan. Chinese Tibetan (Kham&Amdo), U-Zang Tibetan, Indian Tibetan(Ladakh,Spiti,Tawang), Pakistani Tibetan(Balti), Burmese Tibetan, Bhutanese Tibetan, Nepalese Tibetan(Dolpo, Sherpa, Upper Mustang), Tibetan Diaspora/Refugee (After 1959, in South Asia, Americas, Europe), New Arrival Tibetan(གསར་འབྱོར་), Settlement Tibetan(གཞི་ཆགས་). Also Tibetan plateau is so vast, some places in Tibet are so extreme from each other like Purang(Ngari), Ngawa(Amdo) Or Gyalthang, Miyak or Gyarong. Legacy of the Tibetan Empire made the roof of world with almost same culture, religion, writing & even language. But distant places across Tibet do have distinct dialect like any other language in the world. French, Chinese, Japanese all had so many dialect. They all standardized the language. Tibet had unable to standardized its language because of the loss of political independence on 23 May, 1951.
Very well written and well laid out, we need more voices like this. The world Tibetans inhabit in every corner of the world is a diverse world in large part and diversity and inclusion have been the talk of the town for sometime. We need to stop clinging to a monolith Tibet and start acknowledging the multitude expressions of Tibet as imagined and lived.
Thank you for your kind words. Much appreciated. My thoughts exactly! We should embrace the beauty of diversity inherent within us. Thinking of absolute identity would further hinder us from building a commonly shared future.