Tibet: A Cultural Tragedy


The Tibetans are a minority nationality with a long history dating back to the 6th century. Throughout Tibetan history, their relationship with China has changed and evolved. The Tibetans are one of the many recognized nationalities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) today, however, this was not always the case. This article will explore Tibet’s culture and its recent demise. China has been threatening Tibet’s culture in several key ways: education, political system, religion, identity, laws, and repressive policies.  

In order to understand how Tibet’s culture has been in danger of disappearing it is important to understand that the Tibetan minority has distinctive characteristics which separate themselves from the other ethnic groups within China.

Tibet is situated in the southwest of China and borders India, with a landscape characterized by the Himalayas and vast prairies. This makes Tibet a very unusual place, because Lhasa – the capital – lies 1200 feet above sea level. The unique geological characteristics of Tibet affect the agriculture, the economy, and even the physical characteristics of the population, giving the population a strong sense of national identity. Tibetans also do not live exclusively in Tibet: significant minorities also inhabit other provinces, such as Sichuan and Qinghai, as well as Northern India. Tibet is also linguistically diverse, however most of the population speaks Tibetan.

Tibetans have been defined by key historical characteristics, with a long history dominated by their shared religion, Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism permeates every aspect of Tibetan society: art, dance, literature, medicine, even politics, as well as social and economic aspects. This religion has had a wide-reaching and long-lasting impact on the region. For the majority of their history the Tibetan government consisted of Buddhist monks and religious leaders, with the Dalai Lama at its head assuming the highest position of political and religious leadership. In the eyes of the Tibetan people the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of a deity and should have a central role in government.

The reassertion of sovereignty over Tibet by the PRC has had significant consequences for education within Tibet. China has imposed a new educational system on Tibet. While the previous Tibetan educational system took a religious approach, now the nationality colleges have become the only acceptable institution for higher learning, [and] Tibetan monastery education [has been] reduced to naught.[1] The imposed materials often only take the Han nationalities version of identity, language, borders, sovereignty, and history of the multi-national Chinese territory into account. National learning no longer allows for the inclusion of Tibetan culture; Tibetan culture is in danger of disappearing.  

Furthermore, Tibet’s political system has been impacted by the PRC. While prior to the Chinese invasion in 1950 Tibet had religion and politics combined embodied by the Dalai Lama, this has not remained the case. The “Chinese have repeatedly targeted religion during their rule”[2] and have therefore failed in keeping their promise to respect and protect the Tibetans’ religious beliefs and customs. Destruction of monasteries has further contributed to the cultural decimation and has led to significant social unrest such as the events of The March 2008 incident in Tibet[3] This incident was a series of protests and demonstrations by most importantly monks and nuns over the Chinese government’s treatment and persecutions of Tibetans.

Tibet’s culture, thus, has been threatened by the involvement of China through policies on education, changes in the political system and by policies that don’t respect religious beliefs and customs. In this paragraph the other key way of how China has been threatening Tibetan culture will be discussed:  how China targeted Tibetan identity.  The PRC designed policies to encourage Han Chinese migration to Tibet to exert soft power. “The PRC creates modern cities, transportation, and changes the media in their minority nationalities territories. This impacts close relationships and interdependency in villages, clans that disappeared with the process of urbanization.”[4] However, the urban population might not have a problem with these plans, because it creates economic opportunities for some. For these plans from the PRC, monasteries need to be destroyed threatening Tibetan identity. An example of a policy in Tibet that destroys monasteries and encourages Han Chinese migration is the completion of the high-speed rail link from Beijing to Tibet. This policy threatens Tibetan identity destroying monasteries and encourages a further inflow of Han Chinese, damaging the region’s distinctive cultural life.

After the reassertion of sovereignty over Tibet by the PRC in 1950, new laws have had significant consequences for the Tibetans’ view of their history on the Dalai Lama’s role in politics. Tibet’s relationship with human rights has shifted since the reassertion of sovereignty over Tibet by the PRC. With new laws that were implemented by the Chinese government that have led to reports of human rights abuses. The Chinese government used poor treatment of Tibetan people to exert cultural cleansing. By the mid-1950’s the Chinese had already started to enforce their unique methods, such as thamzing, in order to exert social and political control over Tibet. Thamzing was a means of political ‘re-education’ that aimed to make Tibetans aware of the supposed oppression they were subject to before the Chinese invasion.

Repressive policies by the PRC are not only causing cultural cleansing today, these policies date back to 1966: the start of the Cultural Revolution. In the period from 1966 to 1976 the Chinese tried to eliminate traditional culture and society; today these are associated with the Cultural Revolution, a mass movement inspired by Mao. In Tibet it represented an attack not only on inequality but also on any expression of identity that was not Chinese. Tibetan clothes and customs were outlawed, cultural artifacts, temples, and non-Marxist books were destroyed, religion was forbidden, and those with social status were denigrated in public rallies. Many committed suicide, thousands were imprisoned, and others were persecuted to death. In 1978 this policy was recognized as an error and was replaced by liberalization and the open door.[5]

Modern China includes a variety of national groups such as the Tibetans and has inherited the massive territories of the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China. However, a main problem in China’s relationship with Tibet is that China wants to promote a singular version of its history without including the history of Tibet. Therefore, Tibetan culture identity, language, borders, ethnicity, and education are not part of the history that is being spread by the PRC through policies on, for example, national learning. Rediscovering the plurality of Chinese culture throughout history would be a new approach to defining Chinese history, and to improving the relationship between China and the Tibetan people. Chinese culture is not a singular culture but a community of various peoples with the Han culture at its core.

The PRC has four key incentives in retaining Tibet. The first and most significant reason is that Tibet is rich in natural resources that are crucial for China’s economic and industrial expansion. Secondly, Tibet’s uranium deposits provide the resources for China’s expanding nuclear power programme. Thirdly, the Himalayan mountain range provides more security and a military advantage. Tibet is the Chinese anchor to the Himalayas, therefore, it is a strategically important area. Finally, Tibet provides economic growth benefits for Chinese businesses, workers. China wants to invests into Tibet as part of its wide-ranging economic development plan for Western China.

China has an incentive to bring Tibetan culture in danger in order to gain more control over Tibet. The exclusion of Tibetan culture in national learning policies, can be used as a means of propaganda to exert control over Tibet. This national learning policy can keep the people from rising up against China in the long term. The national education can determine how young Tibetans will view the PCR depending on what the PCR writes in the learning materials. Another incentive from China to make Tibetan identity, culture, religious habits, and monasteries, disappear is the following: China wants Tibetans to be more loyal to Chinese politics and ideas instead of Tibetans to be more loyal to Tibet and the religious political leader: the Dalai Lama.

Over the past few decades there has been a decrease in the repressive policies perpetrated against the Tibetan people. The PRC is moving away from extremely repressive policies and is moving more into the direction of soft power. Exerting soft power over Tibet through policies that can hurt Tibetan culture will probably not disappear in the near future. Soft power is an effective means of the PRC to maintain control over Tibet. However, powerful NGO’s or social media platforms could play an increasingly important role in conserving culture in Tibet or in bringing parts of Tibetan culture back.

[1] Zhang, Y. 1991, Effects of policy changes on college enrollment of minority students in China, 1949-1989, Harvard University, p. 55. 

[2] Ardley, The Tibetan Independence Movement, p. 6.

[3] Lixiong, Wang, Lingxi Kong, and Tianle Chang. “Roadmap of Tibetan Independence.” China Perspectives 3 (79) (2009): 74-79. Web, p. 3.

[4] Ge Zhaoguang, What Is China?: Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, History, p.118.

[5] Barnett, R., 2006. Lhasa : Streets with Memories / Robert Barnett.,pp.xxv-.xxvi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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