The View from Tibet

Prayer flags, Yangbajing, Tibet, 2004. (Andrew Smeall/Asia Society)

Co-sponsored by Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations

NEW YORK, April 24, 2008 – Two of the world's best-informed authorities on Tibetan history and culture spoke at an evening forum that placed the recent turmoil in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and nearby provinces in the context of the Tibetan worldview.

The conversation opened with Matthew Kapstein's explanation of the Buddhist monastery's central position in Tibetan identity over the past millennium. Even as commerce has challenged Buddhism's centrality, Kapstein noted, "the economic opportunities that are opening up are being occupied by migrants from central and eastern China, and the Tibetans in many cases feel themselves somewhat disenfranchised ... with the result that the religious tradition as a center of identity is in fact inadvertently reinforced by the process of modernization." Elliot Sperling agreed, remarking that in the Tibetan world, religion takes on an added significance as a marker that defines Tibetans from Chinese.

Kapstein and Sperling addressed historical questions of the Tibetan world's interaction with Han China, the debate over the existence of a Tibetan nation, as well as the Chinese account of Tibet's liberation.

The two scholars also provided some insight into the recent conflict outside of Lhasa, where the major recent news stories have centered, with a discussion of eastern Tibet, outside of the Autonomous Region, in the provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai. Authorities in those eastern provinces have treated Tibetan affairs as a local issue, interpreting Beijing's directives in a way that led to more liberal policies towards Tibetan culture, and hence allowing for greater cultural renewal. Many of the recent protests have been in these eastern regions where a stronger manifestation of Tibetan identity has been possible.

The evening closed with a discussion of the complex relationship between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. According to Kapstein, in spite of that relationship's complexity the debate surrounding it remains destructively polarized as "independence vs. squash splittism." Before the recent conflicts in eastern Tibet, forward-thinking Tibetans and NGOs were making space for a nuanced middle ground, advancing economic, education, and cultural affairs. For Kapstein, the suppression of “all of those voices that had been operating in-between” is the tragic consequence of this polarization.

Matthew Kapstein, Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies, The University of Chicago Divinity School
Elliot Sperling, Associate Professor of Tibetan Studies, Indiana University

Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director, Asia Society Center on US-China Relations

Listen to the complete program (1 hr., 30 min.)