High perspectives

By Chuck Chiang Source:Global Times Published: 2014-9-2 21:38:01

Challenges of preserving Tibetan religion and culture in a rapidly modernizing China

Dancers dressed in traditional Tibetan costumes perform in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region in 2012. Photo: CFP

Cultural preservation is a touchy subject in Tibet.

As with China and the world beyond, Tibet increasingly faces the pressures of modernization and the influence of the global economy.

In China, for example, Beijing's own historic hutong neighborhoods have largely fallen to the wrecking ball in the city's rapid transformation. Although officials have enacted strict bylaws protecting the patches that remain, many locals still lament the loss of the historic, less-hurried pace and communal atmosphere.

Tibet's situation is more sensitive because its unique culture is also under the influence from Han culture.

Buddhism still strong 

A big part of Tibet's cultural backbone is Tibetan Buddhism. My brief visit was not enough to explore in depth how it is being preserved, but clearly Buddhism's role in Tibetan hearts hasn't diminished. Every home we visited, whether rural or urban, had a substantial Buddhist hall for private prayers and worship. People universally identified themselves as Buddhists belonging to a variety of sects.

The famed Jokhang Temple in Lhasa's central Barkhor Square was awash with worshippers on the day we visited. Even though it was the low season for pilgrimage, monk Nima Ciren said there were still at least 5,000 worshippers lining up at the temple each day, waiting to offer their homemade yak butter to the monks and Buddhist figures. On a busy day, the crowds can be four times as big, he said.

"Tibet remains a region with a very heavy religious flavor," Ciren said. "We get so many worshippers that we really have to organize the temple in such a way as to facilitate everyone who comes to worship."

The temple was also crowded with tourists — officials said they are working on putting daily limits on the number of visitors allowed for non-religious purposes. Ciren said the tourist numbers are so great in summer months that he, as a guide, has to do his prayers and religious duties late at night and early in the morning.

Outside Barkhor Square, worshippers are conducting their prayer rituals, which include kneeling and prostrating themselves, in public.

Most of the tourists we saw during our two days in Lhasa were Chinese, both of Han and other ethnicities. Many businesses in Barkhor Square had Tibetan vendors, with a few Han people. Store signs throughout Lhasa had both Tibetan and Chinese characters.

Language protection 

Language preservation appears to be the backbone of local authorities' strategy for cultural protection.

Schools in Tibet are free from kindergarten to Grade 12, and government officials subsidize rural students to come to urban centers to receive education. At the Nyingchi Guangdong Examination School, 504 pupils — about two thirds are ethnic Tibetans — study in 15 classrooms equipped with state-of-the-art classrooms with interactive digital blackboards. Tibetan students study Tibetan, Chinese and English from the beginning, and many are from rural areas far away from Bayi township, the centre of Nyingchi. Room and board is provided at no cost to enrolling students, officials said.

The school carries the name of Guangdong Province because it was built with the financial aid of that provincial government. There are a number of structures carrying names of donating provinces.

Some 400 kilometers away, Lhasa's Tibet University is leading an effort to computerize the Tibetan language, according to school officials. Professor Gesang Duoji showed off universal digital coding developed at the school, both as a plug-in for existing Microsoft Windows OS and as a Linux-based cross-platform system. Duoji said the standard has already been adopted by the likes of Apple and can be seen in language software around the world.

"This is extraordinarily important for both preserving the language, which has hundreds of years of history, and moving it into the current digital world," Duoji said of the program.

There are also a growing number of museums in Tibet celebrating the region, although it was obvious these institutions were newly founded and would need some fine-tuning for Western tourists.

The Southeastern Tibetan Museum in Nyingchi, which welcomed 200,000 visitors since opening in late 2010, contained some fascinating exhibits — including a massive "sand painting" which took six master monks to create. But tourists would have to speak either Tibetan or Putonghua to appreciate it, since the facility  lacks any type of English signage.

Jimy Wangtso, director-general of Lhasa's Government Information Office, said he has heard criticism about the autonomous region's cultural preservation efforts from the West. But he added he is confident that, if outsiders came to see Tibet as it is today, the situation will speak for itself.

"Tibet is still overwhelmingly Tibetan," Wangtso said, noting 80 percent of government officials are ethnic Tibetan, and the Tibetan language remains the most-widely spoken language by a large margin.

"People need to understand that culture is not something that sits in isolation, away from interaction with others. Cultures constantly interact and influence one another; that's the case here. And there are many aspects of Tibetan and Han culture that match up well with each other."

Part of China 

During our visit to Beijing's Yonghe Lama Temple, we saw the seats from which the two Tibetan religious leaders, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, held court during their visit to the city in the early 1950s. Two large chairs adorn the temple's main hall; on Panchen's chair, a picture of Choekyi Gyaltsen, the 10th Panchen Lama, sits gazing upon the hundreds of visitors crowding the hall.

In Dalai's chair, the space is empty.

"He is a very international figure, and he has been mostly a political figure who continues to espouse Tibet independence. As long as he holds these views, it will be very hard for the central government and him to reconcile," said Li Decheng, a professor at the China Tibetology Research Centre.

"You have to look where he is coming from," said Zhang Yun, also of the Research Centre. "He describes Tibet as an independent country in the 1920s, but that's fundamentally different from fact. Even during the Kuomingtang government period (1912-49) when the central government was weak, China never gave up its claim on Tibet as part of China."

Wangtso said "an accurate representation of Tibet today can be found within Tibet's borders," and he is confident the current realities on the ground is more convincing.

"With all due respect to (the Dalai Lama), he has been away from Tibet for 50-plus years," he said. "I don't think he understands what's happening here. We believe the best way forward for us, as Tibetans, is to talk to Westerners and let them see it in person. We are confident that will speak for itself."

This article originally ran in The Vancouver Sun on August 5 and was then edited by the Global Times.

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