Beijing, 5 May (ZXS) -- Has Tibet's traditional culture "weakened" after rapid modernization?

Colin Mackerras is an Australian sinologist and a member of the Commonwealth Academy of Humanities

Over the past 35 years, I have visited the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and Tibet-related areas in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, and studied Tibetan history and contemporary Tibet. Of course, this does not mean that I have an accurate understanding of all aspects of Tibet, but it does provide a good basis for my comments on the current situation in Tibet.

Western media often view and talk about Tibet-related topics from a negative perspective. China is often described as "invading Tibet," "suppressing," and "eroding" Tibetan religion and culture, and otherwise "violating human rights." The Western world regards the 14th Dalai Lama as a star, giving him the status of a demigod; He is regarded as a symbol of Tibet and has the right to speak on behalf of Tibet. Many also believe that the Dalai Lama has the right to return to Tibet under the conditions he set and to restore the authority he once had there.

I think this view is extremely wrong and dangerous. Tibet is part of Chinese territory, and this fact will not change in the future. I recognize that the history of Tibet is complex and rich, but my research has convinced me that China's sovereignty over Tibet is legitimate and legitimate. There is no doubt that the international community has affirmed this.

Yumai, a border village in Tibet, hung the national flag to welcome the National Day. Photo by Tashi Baima

Today I would like to talk about issues in the field of culture. Many Western reports speak of China's "repression" of Tibetan religion, language, lifestyle, architecture, and art. In his 1996 speech at the British Parliament House, the Dalai Lama even claimed that China had committed "cultural genocide" in Tibet. Since then, he and others have made this claim many times.

The Tibetan Buddhist College ushered in the new semester and students waited for classes to begin. Photo by Zhao Lang

I think this statement is absurd, irrational and malicious, based on two points:

First, China's policies explicitly support the traditional culture of ethnic minorities;

Second, during my visit to Tibet, I witnessed many aspects of traditional culture that show the revitalization of traditional culture, including the Tibetan language, costumes, architecture, and art. It seems to me that Tibetan Buddhism and other forms of traditional religion have indeed been preserved and are alive.

Tibet Chubu Monastery Jumping to welcome the Tibetan New Year. Photo by Li Lin

Modernization in Tibet

Although Tibet is still relatively economically backward compared to most of China's provinces, it has undergone a rapid process of modernization. This has also had an impact on many aspects of life in the region, particularly with regard to social development, living standards and popular mindsets.

In May 2021, the Information Office of China's State Council released a white paper titled "Tibet's Peaceful Liberation, Prosperity and Development." The document provides detailed facts to support the argument that Tibet has modernized rapidly in recent years. Here I will only repeat what I consider to be particularly important: absolute poverty has been completely eradicated in Tibet, as in the rest of China. Tibet's GDP has increased nearly 5,1951 times from 1 million yuan in 29 to more than 2020 billion yuan in 1900, and infrastructure and living standards have also improved significantly. Life expectancy in Tibet increased from 1500.1951 years in 35 to 5.2019 years in 71.

Group photo of the "four generations in the same household" of families who have been lifted out of poverty and become rich in the agricultural and pastoral areas of Xietongmen County, Shigatse City, Tibet. Photo by Gongsang Ram

Under the influence of modernization, Tibetans have become more secular and prefer to have access to more modern art, film, television, and radio from home and abroad. The Internet has become more ubiquitous. The white paper clearly states that Tibet now has its own television and radio stations. Improved infrastructure has created the conditions for more ideas and goods to flow in.

In Shaqiong Village, Chayu County, Nyingchi, Tibet, villager Di Long has more than 200 million fans on short video social platforms and is an "Internet celebrity". The picture shows Dillon recording short videos with his mobile phone to accumulate promotional materials. Photo by Jiang Feibo

In terms of education, Tibet has grown from almost zero public education to a net primary school enrolment rate of more than 99.9 percent, and significant progress has been made in higher levels of education.

But I would like to emphasize that in this process of rapid modernization, traditional culture has been preserved through official policies and survived to a surprising and impressive degree. We can call this process "preserving traditional culture in the midst of change".

The survival of traditional culture

I would like to emphasize two points regarding the survival of traditional Tibetan culture.

First of all, the protection of traditional culture is official policy, and the white paper lists "cultural protection" as one of the development policies adopted in the TAR (as well as improving education, health, industrial development, etc.). Needless to say, Tibetan culture is being preserved, as the Chinese media has often reiterated. However, as mentioned above, Western media continue to report that China is "suppressing" Tibetan culture and that Tibetans and other ethnic minorities are being "assimilated" and that their culture is being "eroded."

My point is that Chinese culture encompasses the culture of China's ethnic minorities. When President Xi Jinping visited Tibet in July 2021, Xinhua reported: "Xi Jinping inspected Barkhor Street on foot, walked into specialty commodity stores, and inquired about the development of tourism, cultural and creative industries, and the protection of Tibetan cultural heritage." The report included photographs showing him at Drepung Monastery, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries not only in Lhasa, but in all of Tibet.

A Buddhist exhibition was held at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet, and monks recorded it with their mobile phones. Photo by He Penglei

We can see the monks coming out to welcome him, smiling on their faces. It's hard to see that they are suffering from "cultural repression." Frankly, the cold interpretation of so-called "cultural assimilation" is absurd and unfair.

Secondly, I would like to quote from my personal experience.

When I visited the Tibet-related region of Qinghai in 2011, I watched a very traditional Chama dance performance in a village near Tongren City. I noticed the following features.

Chama dance performance of Qinghai colleagues. Photo by Maclin

The scene of the Chama dance performance of Qinghai colleagues. Photo by Maclin

1. The performance lasted all day and was sponsored by the local party committee.

2. The dance takes place in a large square outside the village temple, and the dancers are mainly monks.

3. The whole village came out to watch, and men and women sat separately.

4. Performances are free, but people can make voluntary contributions.

5. The content of the performance is about the struggle between good and evil, and the ultimate victory of good over evil. These imagery are conveyed mainly through the masks of the dancers.

I would also like to mention one of my experiences watching traditional Tibetan opera in Lhasa. Interestingly, it was not a scheduled itinerary. At that time, I heard music that I liked very much from my residence, so I went out to see it. There is a traditional tent where the performance takes place, and the performance takes place in it. The tent was packed with people, and the audience looked almost entirely Tibetans. They were friendly to me, but overall, they just let me enjoy the show alone, perhaps surprised by the appearance of a solo foreigner.

The Tibet Autonomous Region Qunyi Museum (District Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center) held a graduation ceremony for the free and open regular class in Lhasa, and the children's Tibetan opera class performed. Photo by Gonggalai Song

I have concluded from my observations and research that traditional Tibetan culture is preserved and alive with the support of Chinese state policy.

Needless to say, as mentioned earlier, modernization has changed not only the economy, but also lifestyles and mindsets. Whether in China or elsewhere, experience shows that in modern countries, traditions are weakening and people perceive traditions differently than in the past; Young people tend to be more accustomed to modernity than older people.

With the advancement of modernization, the cultural development of Tibet will accelerate, but the traditional culture of the Tibetan people will definitely not disappear in the future. (End)

About the author:

Colin Mackerras is an Australian sinologist and a member of the Commonwealth Academy of Humanities in Australia, an honorary professor at Griffith University, Australia, and a chair professor at Chinese Minmin University. Marklin has written extensively about China and Chinese culture, especially about China's ethnic minorities. His masterpieces include China's Ethnic Minorities and Globalization, published in 2003. Machlin received the Chinese Government Friendship Award in 2014.