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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Tibet, and My Time Spent There

June 12, 2008

Austin Barney, Columbia University
Columbia East Asia Review
Volume 1, Spring 2008

Once a powerful military empire,[1] Tibet is home to one of Asia's
most venerable civilizations, with a unique culture[2] and complex history.

Presently situated in the western part of the People's Republic of
China,[3] Tibet has been in news headlines recently due to the
reports of protests and crackdowns that have been taking place there.
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Tibet, like China, was under the
rule of the Manchus, who invaded and conquered China, and later
adopted Tibet as a protectorate. Following the collapse of the Qing
dynasty in 1912, Tibetan areas enjoyed a period of de-facto
independence. Central Tibet was the domain of the Dalai Lama's
government, while areas of Eastern Tibet (Kham) and Northeastern
Tibet (Amdo) were governed by regional kings, chiefs, and warlords.
In 1949, shortly after the Chinese Communist Party rose to power, the
People's Liberation Army (PLA) invaded and occupied Tibet. In 1959,
Tibetans in the capital city of Lhasa rose up against the PLA,
prompting a military backlash. At this time the Tibetan spiritual
leader, the Dalai Lama, along with tens of thousands of Tibetans,
fled into exile across the Himalayas to India, where the Tibetan
government-in-exile is now established in the town of Dharamsala.

The name "Tibet" can have different referents depending on the
context. To many Chinese citizens it refers to the Tibet Autonomous
Region (TAR) province (Xizang), which only comprises about half of
what might be called historical, or ethnic Tibet.[4] The parts of
ethnic Tibet which lie outside the TAR province are broken up into
Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAP) and Counties (TAC) in the
provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. Most of the recent
protests have been taking place in the areas lying outside of the TAR
province. The geographic distribution of ethnic Tibet corresponds
roughly to the boundaries of the Tibetan plateau, the largest
high-altitude region on earth, covering an area of approximately 1.2
million square miles with an average altitude of over 12,000 feet.
Ethnic Tibet has three major regions: Ü-Tsang (Central Tibet, in
which Lhasa is located), Kham (Eastern Tibet), and Amdo (Northeastern Tibet).

Population density on the Tibetan Plateau is very low[5] because very
little of the plateau's surface is habitable--about one percent of
the land can sustain regular agricultural activity. Harsh weather
conditions, intense erosion, and earthquakes are among the natural
obstacles to human habitation and development in Tibet. The total
population of Tibetans in cultural Tibet is at present about 5.5
million, yet the geographical area over which Tibetan settlements are
distributed is vast, comprising roughly one third of the present day
People's Republic of China. The distribution of the relatively small
Tibetan population over such a vast land area, along with the high
altitude, mountainous terrain, and other environmental factors, poses
a serious challenge to the establishment and maintenance of
infrastructure, including education.

The recent protests and crackdowns in Tibet did not occur in a
vacuum. Their causes lie both in Tibet's history as well as in
contemporary policies governing the lives of Tibetans. For example,
starting in the early 1990s, not long after violent riots erupted in
Lhasa in 1989, the Chinese government has followed a policy of
accusing the Dalai Lama of being a separatist. Outside observers say
this is an effort to undermine the religious leader's influence among
Tibetans, though the recent protests indicate that this policy has
been unsuccessful. The policy is still reinforced in Tibetan areas
through controversial 'patriotic re-education' campaigns.[6] The
recent protests are in part a reaction to this and other policies
that put restrictions on Tibetans' religious freedom, and appear to
have a variety of other negative social and cultural effects.
Retiring policies like this would be one way for the government to
ease tensions.

There are probably other factors underlying the recent protests as
well. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had a devastating impact on
Tibetan people and culture, one whose enduring influence should not
be overlooked or underestimated. In more recent times, large-scale
migration of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans into Tibetan areas
has become a source of discontent for Tibetans. The fact that
economic development in many Tibetan urban areas has benefited Han
Chinese and Chinese Muslim migrants more than it has benefited
Tibetans has further fueled ethnic tensions. Tibetans also have
grievances stemming from inadequate protection and promotion of the
Tibetan language, a wide range of educational issues, and industrial
degradation of the environment, among others.

I first became aware of Tibet when I was about six years old, while
attending Renbrook School in West Hartford, Connecticut. At that time
a Tibetan flautist named Ngawang Khechog came to my school as a
visiting artist. Years later I learned that my maternal grandmother
had been keenly interested in Tibet since the early 1950s, and had
traveled through the region in the mid-1980s. These and other early
memories no doubt played a role in the evolution of my current
academic interest in Tibetan civilization.

In the summer of 2006, while a student at Columbia University, I
participated in an intensive Tibetan language program at the
University of Virginia (UVa). Following this, in the fall of 2006, I
went to Lhasa, TAR to study at Tibet University as part of a UVa
study abroad program. While studying at Tibet University I spent a
great deal of time exploring Lhasa, and visiting other areas of
Central Tibet, all of which had a great impact on me. Through these
experiences I came to understand that education lies at the heart of
many problems affecting Tibetans today. The problem is not merely the
lack of education, but also the type of education -- such as
Tibetan-language or Mandarin-language instruction -- and the
questionable economic benefits the education system can yield for
Tibetan students (this is a fragment, not a sentence). I met Tibetan
college students who complained that they couldn't find employment
and parents in rural areas who spoke of keeping their children at
home after primary school in order to teach them practical farming
skills. These parents felt that middle and higher education were not
worth the trouble because it was too expensive and could not
guarantee a job. Moreover, the schools in question were boarding
schools, requiring children to be away from the farm for long periods
of time. Therefore the children would not learn how to farm, making
them "useless" if they couldn't get a job. The problem seemed to lie
in the interaction of the educational and economic systems in the TAR

After the conclusion of the program in Lhasa, I returned to the U.S.
where I was inspired to choose Tibetan education as my thesis topic.
I chose this topic in the hope of better understanding the dynamics
of education in Tibet. Although I had no experience in the field of
educational studies, I felt that my efforts in this direction would
be well spent; at minimum I would expand my knowledge of the subject,
and at best my research might lead to concrete benefit for Tibetans,
perhaps even for other minority ethnic groups as well.

The following summer (2007), I worked as a research intern for the
Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (THDL),[8] an institute of UVa
dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of Tibetan cultural
media. My task for the summer: to conduct research on tourism in the
town of Balhagong, Kham for THDL's forthcoming

"Geotourism in Tibet" web portal, an extension of THDL's main web
platform intended to facilitate and promote locally engaged, socially
balanced, and environmentally as well as economically sustainable
tourism in Tibetan areas. I was not sure if I would have an
opportunity to do research on education, since I knew that there are
political sensitivities pertaining to Tibetan schools making formal
research difficult.

At the beginning of my journey, after spending a short time in
Beijing, I flew to the western Chinese city of Chengdu, in Sichuan
Province. After spending one night there, I rode a bus westward for
eight hours to the city of Dartsendo (known in Chinese as Kangding).
Dartsendo, located in a deep, forested valley and surrounded by
dramatic mountains, lies at the foot of the Tibetan plateau on the
traditional border between Kham and China. In Dartsendo I met my
co-researcher Zach Rowinski, who had already been living in Kham for
a year, working on another project for THDL. As Zach and I approached
the area where cars could be hired for journeys onto the plateau, I
tried speaking with a few Tibetans, only to realize that they could
barely understand my Lhasa dialect. Indeed, the dialect in that area
proved to be distinct from the Lhasa dialect in unexpected ways.[9]
 From that moment, with the help of Zach and others, I began learning
how I could substitute words, phrases, and pronunciations from Lhasa
dialect in order to communicate in the Kham dialect. Over the course
of the summer my interest and ability in Kham dialect grew, mainly
out of necessity—how else could I talk to people or order food?

We hired a car and drove up to the town of Balhagong, located on the
beautiful, hilly grasslands of Kham's Minyak region, in present day
Dartsendo county. This is a nomadic area, meaning that the
communities surrounding the small town are primarily nomadic herders,
rather than farmers, the other main occupation in rural Tibetan
areas. We were fortunate to stay in a gold-roofed temple complex
known as the Minyak Golden Stupa, the main residence of local lama
and philanthropist Dorje Tashi Rinpoche. Each day, Zach and I
outlined a research plan and set out with our backpacks, sunglasses,
and notebooks. Some days we went into the town to conduct hotel
research. Other times we traveled to remote monasteries in the
region, talked with the monks, and learned about the history and
significance of each monastery. We also did a lot of hiking,
including one hike to a glacial lake at the foot of the sacred
mountain Shara Latse.[10] The hike took us through a valley that
looked like a scene from the Alps, with beautiful evergreen trees,
abundant, colorful wildflowers, and massive snowcapped mountains in
the background. The lake was beautiful; turquoise in color, with a
large waterfall behind it, flowing off the side of the mountain.
However, we did see some litter near the lake, exemplary of a wider
problem we observed of waste management practices and education not
keeping pace with the influx of disposable plastic and cellophane
products that have become widely consumed following economic
development efforts.

The travel and field research that Zach and I undertook brought us
into contact with schools in the Balhagong area. These encounters
were usually casual, but valuable nonetheless. For example, we were
invited into the Xikang Welfare School for the celebration of Dorje
Tashi Rinpoche's birthday. This was rare because the school, a
boarding primary and middle school for orphans, typically does not
let outsiders in without permission. While inside the school, we
played basketball and ping-pong with students, walked through their
library, and chatted with students and teachers. This experience gave
me a glimpse, however brief, into the school's social life, academic
program, and administration. It also made me realize what a delicate
balance schools in Tibetan areas must maintain between local Tibetan
cultural influences and government educational requirements. For
example, daily activities for students included traditional Tibetan
singing and dancing, but also the viewing of a mandatory video[11] on
Han Chinese cultural history. I asked if there was a daily video on
Tibetan cultural history, and I was told there was not.

Through this experience I gained an appreciation for Kham, its
people, lifestyle, and language. Spending time in Kham also gave me a
framework against which I could compare my previous experiences in
Lhasa and Amdo, thereby giving me a broader picture of life in
different places across the Tibetan plateau. At the time of writing,
it is unclear when foreign travelers will be allowed back into these
areas. It is my hope that the Chinese government will open a dialogue
with the Dalai Lama and his representatives to work toward a
sustainable solution for the Tibetan people, whether in the TAR
province or in the TAPs and TACs in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and
Yunnan; a solution that gives Tibetans the ability to ensure the
protection of their cultural and social identities, as well as the
environment and human rights.

1 The Tibetan empire (7th-9th centuries) was established by the
Yarlung dynasty from Southern Tibet and grew to rival that of Tang
China. Tibet (or Tufan as it was known to the Tang) conquered a vast
area, encompassing the Tibetan Plateau, Himalaya, and parts of modern
day India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and China. At one point the
Tibetan army even seized the ancient Chinese capital of Chang-an
(Xian), abandoning it shortly thereafter. See also Mathew T.
Kapstein, The Tibetans (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).
2 Tibetan culture draws on indigenous traditions, Indian Buddhist
traditions, and other cultural influences. Tibet has its own language
and alphabet which are distinct from Chinese language and characters.
3 Some parts of cultural Tibet now lie in Nepal, Sikkim (India),
Ladakh (India), and other areas outside of China
4 Historical, or ethnic Tibet covers virtually all of the Tibetan
Plateau as well as the Himalaya, corresponding roughly to the
boundaries of the Tibetan empire. See also footnote one.
5 The Tibetan Plateau's population density is about three to four
people per square mile.
6. "Patriotic re-education" is the name of a policy enforced in
Tibetan areas requiring Tibetans to undergo intensive sessions of
political indoctrination, including forced public denunciations of
the Dalai Lama. This policy has contributed significantly to the
anger and resentment expressed in the recent protests.
7. The push for economic development has encouraged the adoption of
Chinese as the medium of education for Tibetan children, and a
neglect of Tibetan language curriculum. Unfortunately, Tibetan
children educated in Chinese-language schools still face serious
difficulties when trying to get jobs.
9. While the spoken dialects of Tibetan differ from one another in
varying degrees, the written script and classical literary language
are more or less the same in all Tibetan areas, a legacy of the
Tibetan empire. See also footnote one.
10. In Tibetan culture, mythology, teachings of Buddhism, and Bon
(the Tibetan pre-Buddhist religion), local deities and other entities
are often infused into the landscape itself. See also Toni Huber,
Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture (India. Paljor
Publications, 2002).
11. The multi-part video features a teacher of Han Chinese ethnicity
who gives lessons about Chinese cultural history.
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