TIBET - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

TIBET. As part of the People’s Republic of China, Tibet is situated in the western part of the country and is known as the “roof of the world,” a nickname that comes from the majestic Himalayan mountains and the high altitude of the region. The Chinese word Zang (Tibet/Tibetan) generally refers to two entities: the first is the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which covers what is historically known as U-Zang or central Tibet; the second is U-Zang plus Amdo and Kham in Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces, where ethnic Tibetans also live. The Tibetan cultural influence stretches also to Sikkim and Ladkh in present-day India as well as Bhutan and Nepal. What constitutes Tibet is a hotly debated issue between the Chinese government and the Tibetan government in exile, which was set up in Dharamsala, India, in 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers fled Tibet after a failed revolt against the Chinese Communists. To Tibetan exiles, Tibet encompasses all Tibetan cultural spheres, excluding the communities in Bhutan, India, and Nepal; to the Chinese government, Tibet means the Tibetan Autonomous Region, while the Tibetan communities in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan are given autonomous status under the jurisdiction of the named provinces.

Tibet has a long and rich history. Songtsan Gampo (617—650) was the first Tibetan leader to unite the different warring tribes into one of the most powerful kingdoms in Asia and established a centralized government in Lhasa. During his reign, Buddhism took root in Tibet and replaced the indigenous religion, the Bön. In the reign of Lang Dharma (815—843), the Bön made a brief and bloody comeback, resulting in widespread persecutions of Buddhists. In 846, when Lang Dharma was assassinated, the Tibetan kingdom disintegrated into an assortment of principalities headed by various nobilities of the old kingdom. For the next four centuries Tibet remained divided, until the 13th century when the Mongol empire extended its influence and control to Tibet.

During the centuries of political instability in Tibet, Buddhism, however, had the opportunity to recover and grow. Various sects emerged, Nyingma (the ancient sect), Kagyu (the oral sect), and most important, Sakya (the grey earth sect), whose fifth-generation master, Phagpa (1235—1280), became the spiritual teacher of Kublai Khan (1215—1294), the ruler of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279—1368). With the support and protection of Kublai Khan, Phagpa and Sakya rose to the top of political power in all of Tibet. Phagpa is also credited with having invented the Mongolian written language. The Ming (1368—1644), which succeeded the Yuan, generally administered Tibet in a similar fashion as the Mongols, adopting a policy that emphasized a respect for its religion and a reliance on conferring honorary titles and other appeasement measures to keep Tibet nominally within the empire.

In the Qing dynasty (1644—1911), the Manchu rulers tightened their grip on Tibet through several measures that included incorporating Amdo and eastern Kham into neighboring Chinese provinces, installing a resident commissioner to Lhasa, and supporting Guluk (the way of virtue or the yellow hat sect) in the feud among various Tibetan Buddhist sects, requiring that the reincarnations of its major lamas, including the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, be approved by the central government in Beijing, a practice that began in the reign of Qianlong Emperor (1711—1799). Despite these interventionist measures, the Manchus by and large allowed Tibet to remain an autonomous entity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tibet was unwittingly dragged into the “Great Game,” a power struggle among Great Britain, Russia, and China. In 1904, a British army led by Colonel Francis Younghusband invaded Lhasa with the pretext that Russia was increasing its influence in Tibet. The British succeeded in annexing to British India 90,000 square kilometers of traditional Tibetan territory in southern Tibet, which is in the present-day Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, while recognizing Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.

The Guluk school, with its emphasis on the Vinaya and scholarly pursuits, was funded by Tsongkhapa (1357—1419), whose legacy continues into the modern age. From the time when Qianlong decreed the supremacy of the Guluk sect to the Chinese Communist takeover in the 1950s, Tibet had a system of theocracy in which all political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of the clergy and the aristocracy it supported. In the late 1950s, the Chinese government instituted socialism and Tibet was fully brought under the centralized rule of Beijing, forcing the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers to flee in 1959 to India, where they set up the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala. The political standoff between the Chinese government and the Tibetan exile government is yet to be resolved.

While there was a great deal of interest in Tibet in the West, shown in the many travelogues, memoirs, and fictional accounts written by missionaries, adventurists, scientists, military officers, and spies disguised as pilgrims or businessmen, Tibet, curiously, did not register in the literary imagination of the Chinese, except for a handful of cases. All that changed in the early 1980s, when Beijing started recruiting college graduates to work in Tibet as government officials and professionals. The move attracted people with wanderlust from Chinese cities, looking for exotic life and adventure. Tibet became the ultimate destination for aspiring writers and artists who would later depict their experience in literature and paintings. Following this wave, Tibetan writers who had received a Chinese education began to write about their own culture in the Chinese language, which eventually led to the creation of a new narrative literature written in Tibetan. Traditionally, Tibetan literature consists of Buddhist tales translated from Sanskrit texts as well as a rich body of oral legends and chronicles, the most famous of which is the Tale of Gesar, said to be the longest epic in the world. The new Tibetan literature, which is still in its infancy, attempts to reflect Tibetan life in a realistic manner while taking inspiration from its rich heritage of oral and religious literature.

Influenced by magic realism of Latin America, Chinese fiction from Tibet explores the mysteries of its culture in a multitude of styles. Ma Yuan, an avant-garde writer, treats Tibet as a background against which to unfold his experiments in storytelling; Tashi Dawa mixes history with legends; Ah Lai deals with some of the major events in modern history that affected Tibetans living in western Sichuan; Fan Wen traces the spiritual and religious paths of eastern Tibet; Ma Lihua chronicles Tibet’s social and economic changes. Chinese literature from Tibet unfolds a brilliant canvas, rich with colors and textures, occupying a major spot in the literary imagination of contemporary China. See also BI SHUMIN; MA JIAN; METSO; SEBO; WOESER; YA GELING; YANG LIAN; YANG ZHIJUN; YANGDON.