“May these Annals of the Kökhnuur, as related above, be like the full moon just as it rises, and may all the deeds of some lamas, kings and ministers, and the common people of the three – China, Tibet, and Mongolia – be like the white light that spreads through openings in the most beautiful rainbow clouds moving slowly….”
Oral-history projects in the Tibetan areas of China face the challenge of dealing with a highly contested history and a sensitive political context that raises numerous ethical questions. At the same time, this particular situation makes them compelling. This paper looks at some examples of local cadres, heads of monasteries and village elders who were a driving force in the reconstruction of the Tibetan social and cultural fabric in the 1980s and 1990s. These are people who had experienced Tibet before its radical reshaping through the Democratic Reforms of 1959, survived the Cultural Revolution and, after 1978, led their communities in their endeavours of reviving Tibetan traditions and promoting local welfare. This generation of political and religious leaders has now largely disappeared from the active scene. Their personal involvement, often above and beyond their official roles, has been crucial in the shaping of contemporary Tibet. However, Chinese official narratives and those of Tibetan exile – for opposite reasons – tend to neglect or misrepresent their contribution. This paper shows how the collecting of life histories and personal accounts makes it possible to reconstruct a 'history from below', otherwise consigned to oblivion. At the same time it provides some telling examples of how leaders negotiated the shifting boundary between the religious and the secular while trying to reconcile the moral authority of the past with a modernist vision of society. An engagement with oral history may thus provide some insights into the current tensions within the emerging Tibetan civil society that straddles a difficult pathway between the tenets of Chinese socialism and deeply engrained Buddhist morality.
In this paper I follow the social life of the Tibetan books belonging to the Younghusband-Waddell collection. I show how books as literary artefacts can transform from ritual objects into loot, into commodities and into academic treasures and how books can have agency over people, creating networks and shaping identities. Exploring connections between books and people, I look at colonial collecting, Orientalist scholarship and imperial visions from an unusual perspective in which the social life and cultural biography of people and things intertwine and mutually define each other. By following the trajectory of these literary artefacts, I show how their traces left in letters, minutes and acquisition documents give insight into the functioning of academic institutions and their relationship to imperial governing structures and individual aspirations. In particular, I outline the lives of a group of scholars who were involved with this collection in different capacities and whose deeds are unevenly known. This adds a new perspective to the study of this period, which has so far been largely focused on the deeds of key individuals and the political and military setting in which they operated. Finally, I show how the books of this collection have continued to exercise their attraction and moral pressure on twenty-first-century scholars, both Tibetan and international, linking them through digital technology and cyberspace.
This paper looks at the Samding Dorje Phagmo as an example of a minority nationality cadre who has been appointed to high positions in the Chinese administration in the name of her ethnicity, religious role and gender. Like most cadres who were co-opted from traditional elites she is unique because of her historical profile and role, but she embodies practices that are widespread among Tibetan cadres. Historically the Samding Dorje Phagmo was an important religious institution, established in the fifteenth century as the reincarnation of the tantric goddess Vajravārāhī. In the 1950s the 12th Dorje Phagmo was included among the members of the local religious elite by the newly-established Chinese rule. She is currently the Vice-president of the National People's Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region and a member of the National People's Political Consultative Conference. She is therefore one of the more senior Tibetan cadres and one whose career has been most long-lived. Her political practice shows that the contemporary Sino-Tibetan relationship is not always a clear-cut one of domination and resistance, or secular communist suppression of Buddhist beliefs and practices, but full of paradoxes.