Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The cultural annihilation of Tibet

The image of young Tibetans during the recent revolt assaulting Chinese people, attacking Chinese buildings and burning Chinese automobiles from video clips that leaked out the news blackout around Tibet represents a very real resentment against all things Chinese. It is just not that China rules Tibet but that all things Tibetan are slowly but steadily being destroyed.

The Chinese have exported into Tibet not only their goods and materials but people. The majority of those living in Lhasa are not longer Tibetan but Chinese. Chinese has become the official language replacing the Tibetan dialects. Only in the rural areas of Tibet do the natives maintain a majority but, as Ian Buruma points out, Tibetan culture and language in rural areas is no more likely to survive Chinese modernization than that of the Apaches in the U.S.

Ian Buruma examines the cultural annihilation of Tibet in the L.A. Times:
Are the Tibetans doomed to go the way of the American Indians? Will they be reduced to being little more than a tourist attraction, peddling cheap mementos of what was once a great culture? In Tibet itself, that sad fate is looking more and more likely. And the Olympic year is already soured by the way the Chinese government is trying to suppress resistance to just that fate.

The Chinese have much to answer for, but the end of Tibet is not just a matter of semi-colonial oppression. It is often forgotten that many Tibetans, especially educated people in the larger towns, were so keen to modernize their society in the mid-20th century that they saw the Chinese communists as allies against rule by monks and serf-owning landlords. The Dalai Lama himself, in the early 1950s, was impressed by Chinese reforms and wrote poems praising Chairman Mao.

Alas, instead of reforming Tibetan society and culture, the Chinese communists wrecked it. Religion was crushed in the name of Marxist secularism. Monasteries and temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (often with the help of Tibetan Red Guards). Nomads were forced into concrete settlements. Tibetan arts were frozen into folkloric emblems of an officially promoted "minority culture." And the Dalai Lama and his entourage were forced to flee to India.

Such destruction was not peculiar to Tibet. The wrecking of tradition and forced cultural regimentation took place everywhere in China. In some respects, the Tibetans were treated less ruthlessly than the majority of Chinese. Nor was the challenge to Tibetan uniqueness only typical of the communists. Gen. Chiang Kai-shek declared in 1946 that the Tibetans were Chinese, and he certainly would not have granted them independence if his Nationalists had won the civil war.

If Tibetan Buddhism has been severely damaged, Chinese communism has barely survived the ravages of the 20th century. But capitalist development in China has been even more devastating to Tibetan tradition. Like many modern imperialist powers, China claims legitimacy for its policies by pointing to the material benefits. After decades of destruction and neglect, Tibet has benefited from enormous amounts of Chinese money and energy to modernize the country. The Tibetans cannot complain that they have been left behind in China's transformation from a Third World wreck to a marvel of supercharged urban development.

Along the way, regional identity, cultural diversity and traditional arts and customs have been buried under concrete, steel and glass all over China. And all Chinese are gasping in the same polluted air. But at least the Han Chinese can feel pride in the revival of their national fortunes. They can bask in the resurgence of Chinese power and material wealth. The Tibetans can share this feeling only to the extent that they become fully Chinese. If not, they can only lament the loss of their identity.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that he does not seek independence for his homeland. However, as long as Tibet remains part of China, it is hard to see how its distinct cultural identity can survive. The human and material forces against it are overwhelming. There are too few Tibetans and too many Chinese.

Outside Tibet, however, it is a different story. If the Chinese are responsible for extinguishing the old way of life inside Tibet, they may have been unintentionally responsible for keeping it alive outside. By forcing the Dalai Lama into exile, they have ensured the establishment of a highly traditional Tibetan diaspora society that might well survive at a level that would have been unlikely even in an independent Tibet. Diaspora cultures thrive on nostalgic dreams of return. Traditions are jealously guarded, like precious heirlooms, to be passed on as long as those dreams persist. Who is to say that they will never come true? The Jews managed to hang on to theirs for more than 2,000 years.

You can read the entire piece here.


MB Williams said...

"Are the Tibetans doomed to go the way of the American Indians? Will they be reduced to being little more than a tourist attraction, peddling cheap mementos of what was once a great culture?"

You approve of this piece of tripe? We Indians are barely human, eh? Sad shadows of our former selves. Did you realize Frank Baum used the same argument to justify complete extermination of North American Indians - even wrote an editorial on the subject.

Sisyphus said...

On the contrary, point of Buruma's piece is a protest against the cultural destruction of Tibet. The example he used for purposes of comparison, which I think is valid, is the destruction of the cultures of various native Americans after their lands were taken by non-native settlers.