Archive for the Tibet Category

Spring Readings (March-April 2011)

Posted in General Anthro, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Tibet on April 26, 2011 by salul

I have sometimes been asked (on and off blog) about what I read. I recently found that reading about other colleagues’ current readings can be interesting, and even motivated me to look into a couple of books I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. So without more ado, here are five readings that I am currently going through or have just recently finished (within the past week):

Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World, London, Reaktion Books, 2005.

This is part of my current readings regarding Rapa Nui, in preparation for a follow up trip this Summer (Austral Winter) and an initial paper that I am working on regarding contemporary indigenous struggles on the island. Also part of a broader look at Eastern Polynesian history, of which I have been relatively ignorant until recently. I confess that I had initially had my doubts about the author, when I first encountered Fischer’s work via his History of the Pacific Islands, I wasn’t sure what to make of him. The History is a competent summary, but didn’t really seem to add much and fell short of the kind of innovative historical writing I have come to associate with Oceanic scholars in recent years. However, I was really impressed with his history of Rapa Nui. It is, I dare say, the most comprehensive summary of the unfolding of Rapa Nui events and periods that I have come across in a format that is readable by a general public. His sources are highly interdisciplinary, he is evidently very well acquainted with the place, people AND language (this last one matters to me). Five starts, all round.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Melbourne, Vintage, 1988.

This classic, if slightly dated, historical narrative of the convict years in Australia (1788-1868) had been waiting on my bedside table for far too long. It is now one of my secondary readings, the sort I pick up when I go out for a coffee or am simply sitting around the living room. Much to be criticised in terms of analytical depth, but I am essentially going through this as a primer on facts and processes with which I continue to be only faintly familiar (Aussie history is not my forte, period). But it is also a part of a broader, serious list of readings that I am attempting to get through in preparation for the drafting of a two-volume general history of Oceania in Spanish that I have begun to design with a coauthor (more on that later).

Eickelman and Piscatori (eds.), Muslim Travellers. Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination, Berkeley, UC Press, 1990

I’ve just finished going through this book as part of a much larger set of readings that I had to go through in relation to a collective volume, which I am editing with another two colleagues, regarding the anthropology of pilgrimage. The manuscript was submitted today (yay!), and I am now collapsing after the exhausting work of last minute editorial work. The book itself contains 14 chapters by various authors regarding pilgrimage, or associated phenomena, in different world regions, including China (2 chapters dedicated to that), Tibet (2 chapters to that), Africa (another 2 chapters), North America (5 chapters, including Mexico and USA), Korea, South Asia and the Pacific. I have singled out this particular volume from among a VERY large list which included stuff by Makhan Jha and of course Toni Huber and a bunch of other Middle Easter/South Asian/Himalayan/Tibetanist authors whose stuff I went through, because I think it is one of the few attempts at serious comparative discussion that takes pilgrimage seriously on local terms, rather than attempt to impose it as a universalistic (if wholly Judaeo-Christian) category. Consequently, it provides some important insights from which the specialist work of later scholars has been able to build up.

Books I have just begun to read:

Greg Dening, Islands and Beaches. Discourse on a Silent Land: Marquesas (1774-1880), UH Press, 1980. (hopelessly out-of-print…thank heavens for abebooks)

I just got this today, after some long searching on the net. Am all ready and eager to dive into it. I realise Dening has come in for criticism from important Oceanic historians (including by good friend Bronnie Douglas), however you gotta love his style. This will be my second, much more in-depth, reading of Islands and Beaches, and I am all looking forward to it.


J.M.G. Le Clézio, Raga. Approche du continent invisible, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2006.

I picked this up in Paris last month. I had not paid much attention to Le Clézio back in 2008 when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, even though at least a couple of his novels were set in and inspired by his Mexican sojourn. However, since he also seems to have been messing around with Vanuatu, seems like its time to see what this is all about. Am hoping I can concentrate long enough to write up a quick review for this blog in the coming weeks.

And that just about does it. During this past Easter weekend I also tried to get up to date with my LRB readings…but I’m still hopelessly three months behind.

Note (added 28 April 2011): This list doesn’t include the numerous seminar readings for this term, which currently focus on the modern history of Island South East Asia (yes, that’s not a typo; I never got used to writing it Southeast Asia anyway). And I also forgot to mention my current bedside reading, which is David Mitchell’s truly astonishing Cloud Atlas.

The destruction goes forward…

Posted in China, Tibet on April 15, 2010 by salul

I’m almost too shocked and tired to say anything cogent regarding this process. Sooner or later the rural areas were bound to be incorporated into the heavy-handed social engineering schemes that the engineer-technocrats seem to love so well.

“When will they learn?”, is all that comes to mind.

Into the fray: Tibet, racism and Islamophobia

Posted in Tibet on May 24, 2008 by salul

A colleague at one of my blogs of interest recently posted an opinion regarding the oft-ignored issues of Islamophobia and ethnic Tibetan racism in respect of the March 2008 riots in Tibet.

Since I don’t want to quote his post and my subsequent response back-to-back, I will simply point those who might be interested to his original posting and reproduce my reply below:

Whew. A lot of stuff in this post, some of it spot on and worth underlining because it throws important light on an often hopelessly muddled debate.

Some of your opinions, however, are strangely misinformed, even visceral, and do a disservice to what is an otherwise important opinion.

I hope that, as one of those Tibet-related anthropologists who might be accused of ignoring the “dark side” of the issue, I can provide a constructive reply in as few words as possible.

In respect of the accuracies in your argument:

* “Tibet is neither a mono-cultural geopolitical entity, nor a one-hundred percent Buddhist country…”

Definitely true, and not represented often enough in both the mass media and a significant proportion of otherwise serious Tibet-related academic output.


* The realities of Tibetan racism and Islamophobia.

Both true points, which have been severely underreported in academic publications, not to mention public opinion, and deserve far more extensive and critical discussion than has thus far been the case.

However, the reasons for the lack of informed and critical analysis of ethnic Tibetan racism lie more squarely in the fact that the very volume and development of contemporary Tibet-based research is still severely limited, and constitutes an as-yet developing field of studies, rather than with any sort of crude attempt at hiding or ignoring uncomfortable truths.

Nevertheless, I believe you have a point, and that there is indeed an implicit bias and unacceptable silence in Tibet-related research regarding the issues of racism and Islamophobia in Tibet.


*Your assert that “religion has nothing to do with Tibetan racism, even though it is fostered and provoked by Buddhist monks”.

This is a rather misguided statement, and goes to the heart of my critique of this post, which is that you seem to be quite skilled at exhibiting the contradictions and nuances of the multi-ethnic and -denominational reality of Tibet, but do so by presenting a blanket condemnation of what you repeatedly refer to as a homogeneous and generalised class of Tibetan Buddhists and, especially monks or “lamas”, who presumably represent the majority of Tibetans in Tibet, and certainly the violent rioters of recent weeks.

In fact, if we are to nuance the analysis of this situation, rather than quote selectively from Andrew Fischer’s important scholarship and from an Aussie reporter’s wankish opinions, I would simply point to:

1) the fact that the monastic community in Tibet is not represented by any sort of organised “lamaic” class with retro-feudal interests, but rather by a heterogeneous, young, largely tolerant and mostly toothless set of disaggregated schools and groupings each of which tend to be quite restrained in their political expressions and organisational capabilities, if only because they are the most vigilantly controlled sector of Tibetan life (watched by both lay Tibetan and Han police and Party officials).

2) What you refer to, beyond the “lamas”, as “ethnic Tibetan Buddhists” becomes a sort of shadow generalisation for referring to Tibetans in Tibet.

In fact, most non-monastic Tibetans in Tibet are nominally Buddhist and, beyond their personal faith practices, mostly act and think in ways that are about as non-religious (or, if you prefer, earthly) as lay Catholics in Latin America or, indeed, a majority of Muslims across the Islamic world. The point here is that there is no such thing as an ethnic Tibetan Buddhist majority that is easily manipulated by “the monks”, or motivated by specifically Buddhist forms of race hatred.

3) Both lay Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhist monks in Chinese-occupied Tibet act and react in ways that are actually quite beyond the ability of the Dalai Lama or its Government-in-Exile to control. In this respect, to offer up the DL as easy target practice for your critique of Tibetan Islamophobia is rather pointless. Whatever his dark sides may be, what he and the broader Tibetan diaspora think and do is very distanced indeed from how Tibetans in Tibet act and think.

For the record, this is one of the most important and contentious points in Andrew Fischer’s overall work, and I believe it merits far more consideration than has been given it by many of my colleagues.

4) Finally, while you accurately differentiate between Tibetan Hui and non-ethnic Tibetan Hui, you then collapse distinctions when you report that “the Lhasa mosque” was burned down.

While there is no getting round the fact that Hui Muslims (Tibetan and non-Tibetan) were targeted in the recent riots by violent, LAY, disaffected urban Tibetan male youths, it is also true that the “Lhasa mosque” that was targeted was the more recently erected of two mosques in the historical district of Lhasa and represented, for many disaffected urban Tibetans, a symbol of the encroachment of the more recent and economically successful Hui arrivals from other Chinese provinces.

Does this justify the hatred and violence?

Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point here is that there are many complicated grievances (both grounded and fictional) behind the violence of the recent riots, which were otherwise not exclusively directed against Hui Muslims but against any non-ethnic Tibetan persons who were perceived to be the beneficiaries of the accelerated modernisation and inequality that has been pursued by local and national government officials in recent years. In short, this is very much to do with socio-economics AND racism, than with Buddhist inspired Islamophobia or puritanical fantasies of an ethnically-cleansed Tibet.


I don’t know if this long comment helps. I hope it does. I find myself in agreement with some of your points, and thank you for raising the bar in respect of the seriousness with which we should discuss these issues (by contrast, I find my own blogging on the subject to be quite lukewarm, and am determined to be sharper about it in the future).

But I also think you should be more careful about how you go about arguing the case against Islamophobia in an otherwise multi-layered context which needs less, and not more, stereotyping on both sides.

Tibet Update: Much smoke and mirrors, but little clarity while the suffering continues

Posted in Tibet on May 10, 2008 by salul

Tibet Flag

It has been far too long since I wrote a post, and even longer since I wrote about Tibet. Considering all that has happened since I last posted on this topic, I think it’s time for an update.

On one hand, I think that the relatively comfortable position that I took earlier regarding the need for a reasoned debate is looking a bit waffly, in the face of the rather brutish and unproductive attitude that the hardline faction at the highest levels of the Chinese government – and an influential majority of its nouveau riche Han urbanites – have taken throughout the past few weeks.

How best to summarise the events of the past month?

On one hand, there has been a vicious and continuing official Chinese government strategy (orchestrated, it has to be stressed, by powerful hardliners, and not the entire government per se) of giving free rein to the xenophobic nationalist sentiment of its (purportedly) middle class and educated “angry youth” while demonising the Dalai Lama and unleashing severely repressive measures on its Tibetan population.

So far, so bad. By which I mean that I am not necessarily saying anything that has not already been widely reported.

However, as I began to settle into a depressing daily routine of surfing for the latest on Tibet, I came across various stories that deeply unsettled me. In particular, I ran into this story in the Chinese media regarding a supposed declaration of loyalty to the Chinese, and repudiation of the DL, by Pasang Wangdu, one of Tibet’s foremost academics, and a very dear friend. Pawang-la was the first Tibetan I ever met, in Cambridge, and was my very first teacher of the Tibetan language. He is a giant among Tibetan historians, a critical thinker of the highest level and a decent man. To learn that Pawang-la would have been forced (undoubtedly forced) to go public with such a goonish declaration as the one that was reproduced in the Guangming Daily (which, incidentally, is known to be widely read by academics and intellectuals across China) is just ludicrous and chilling.

If this is even just a minor part of what the Chinese government implies when it euphemistically speaks of “patriotic re-education” (also referred to more recently as “anti-secession education”) , then I am afraid that I am beginning to shift my previously nuanced stance towards how best to approach the Tibet situation. The depressing truth is that China has time on its side, and knows it, and is therefore deploying a long-term strategy of eroding the relevance of monastic activism and religion in the everyday lives of Tibetans while continuing to stall any meaningful dialogue with an interlocutor that it sees as completely unpalatable (for an insightful explanation of said strategy see this interview with Robbie Barnett that was taped shortly before the Lhasa riots broke out).

In the meantime, several different strands of thought regarding how best to react to China have continued to emerge from various quarters, of which I will include only three or four exemplars here for the sake of brevity. Pankaj Mishra has argued the case for the fact that Tibetan resentment has more to do with the ravages of socio-economic inequality and top-down modernisation, while Andrew Fischer has continued to push his argument in respect of the fact that the international pro-Tibet movements do not necessarily speak for Tibetans in Tibet and may, in fact, be doing more damage than good by taking a hard line against China . Just for the record, while I still largely agree with Andrew, I do believe he needs to flesh out his argument a little, and that in any case it does not alter the fact that events on the ground are grim.

In turn, John Pomfret has weighed in by taking the opposite argument in the sense that the best strategy that the international community can take is to apply continuing pressure on China. I am not so sure about this rationale, but the argument is shared by a substantial proportion of people, and merits at least some attention.

Finally, when I began to tire of sifting through the multifarious reflections of the many opinionologists who believe themselves qualified to utter authoritative statements on Tibet, I came across a slightly more distant but insightful analysis by George Friedman of Strategic Forecasting Inc.

While I get the feeling that Friedman is doing what analysts do best – which is to evaluate reality from a slightly detached realpolitik stance, I nevertheless learned a couple of interesting facts from this piece, which otherwise helps to put certain basic facts back on the table, such as what the actual strategic value of Tibet might look like from a Chinese perspective. Which helps to dispel the confusion sown by the rather shrill but simplistic accusations which are sometimes leveled at the PRC in terms of its engaging in cultural genocide and other such obfuscating nonsense which does nothing to provide a better perspective about the various realities on the ground.

EDIT: I recently came across this opinion piece and found it interesting and relevant enough (among many many others) to include it here for further reading.

Blindsight, the movie

Posted in Tibet on April 9, 2008 by salul


I apologise for the relatively slow output of the past week. I have several topics waiting to be posted about, not least a serious news update about the developing Olympic Torch protests. I’ve simply been too busy, though, and it may have to wait another couple of days before I get down to some serious updating.

However, I simply had to publish a quick post in support of Blindsight, a new documentary film based on the true story of how several blind Tibetan children, in the company of their mentor, Sabriye Tenberken, and Erik Weihenmeyer, a highly experienced blind mountain climber, managed to climb up Lhakpa-ri, a 6,000 mt peak situated close to the north face of Chomolangma (Everest), hence on the Tibetan side of the Himalayan border.


At 6k, that qualifies for “high altitude” mountaineering. ‘Nuff said.

(That there is me striking the inevitable pose at Rongbuk Monastery, a few klicks to the fore of Everest North…mostly hidden by clouds in this pic).


Sabriye and her partner Paul Kronenberg are the founders and admins of the amazing NGO Braille Without Borders. I have not yet ranted about my cynicism towards most things to do with international aid and development…but for now I’ll just say that BWB is, in my opinion, one of the most uniquely successful NGOs operating in Lhasa…and believe me, I do not say that lightly.


Mausse class

(at left: students from “Mouse”, i.e. beginners, class at the Centre in Lhasa, photo by BWB)

My connection here? In late 2003 I worked briefly for Sabriye and Paul, when they needed an evaluation report for their Rehabilitation and Training Centre for the Blind in Tibet (based in Lhasa). It was as a result of that experience that I really became a total fanboy of these guys, and their amazing pupils and teachers.

But why go on reading me? Visit some of their sites and judge for yourselves, here and here.

Sonam and Nyima

Sonam & Nyima (photo by BWB)

Meanwhile, in Xinjiang…

Posted in Tibet on April 6, 2008 by salul

For a few days now I have been thinking of writing a follow-up piece to my recent comments regarding Tibet, mostly as a reply to people in the Savage Minds blog who seemed either curious or displeased that I did not make my own insights into the Tibetan issue a bit more clear.

At this point, I may or may not do so. This blog, after all, is intended to be of an anthropological bent, in the main, and I feel that banging on about Tibet will simply make the overall content of my infrequent posts more political than anthro in nature.

However, I recently ran into this uplifting reminder of the situation in East Turkestan, otherwise known as Xinjiang, and this related essay, and realised that I really should try to put in at least a brief post regarding Xinjiang. Once again, as with Tibet, I feel that I have little to add in terms of specifics. The situation in Xinjiang is, to my mind, clearly far worse than it is in Tibet. Has been for a long, long time, and the amnesia that has been habitually practised in respect of Xinjiang in Western circles is truly astonishing, and is begging for greater engagement, both scholarly and humanitarian/activist.

I intend to visit Xinjiang in the not too distant future. For the time being, and in relation to the strange ways in which politics and repression are often related across the broader regions of Western China I found this comment – by a reader with the alias of monotony who responded to Cumming’s essay – to be quite telling of the turn for the worst that politics has been taking in Tibet for the past two or three years:

“I agree that Zhang Qingli was the worst thing that could have happened to Xinjiang, and now he’s in charge of Tibet and look what’s happening there. His repressive policies just serve to radicalise the minorities. His “wolf in monk’s habit” comment to describe the Dalai Lama is just embarrassing. I can’t believe they gave him the Tibet job. Where he goes next will tell us which way the party authorities are really leaning.” 

Breve entrevista sobre el Tibet en el Canal 11 de México

Posted in Tibet on April 3, 2008 by salul

Para aquellos hispanoparlantes que se asoman ocasionalmente a este blog, incluyo una liga para mirar

una breve entrevista que me hizo Gabriela Calzada en el noticiario matutino del Canal 11 el pasado lunes 31 de marzo.

Confieso que me apabulló la torpeza de mis respuestas a las primeras dos preguntas. Pero ni modo. Por algo se empieza (es mi primera entrevista de tv en vivo) y creo que eventualmente se pudo salvar el asunto. Ya dirán ustedes si mejor me retiro a una cueva o me vuelvo a poner al tiro cuando lleguen los bárbaros medios a llamar a la puerta.

Bromas aparte, es importante reiterar que mi experiencia como tibetólogo es incipiente y secundaria a mi trabajo como antropólogo de Oceanía, por lo que no me considero experto ni mucho menos. Pero en el país de los ciegos el tuerto es rey, y cuando la situación internacional pone de relieve un tema que se vuelve atractivo para los medios , a veces se dan estas situaciones.


EDIT: The link above is no longer functional. Sorry folks, I’ll have to see if I can dredge up this interview file from somewhere else.