Tibetan culture under Chinese rule

Tibetan culture under Chinese rule

Tibet declared independence from China in 1913, after which the Dalai Lama continued to act as both the religious head of Tibetan’s Buddhist populace and as the political head of this de facto independent nation. This unique characteristic of Tibet was the culmination of the intertwining of religion and politics in the country’s history after the introduction of Buddhism. With such a weaving of politics and religion, a significant change in one necessarily will alter the other and in turn, the culture as a whole. This connection is evident with the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the subsequent rule of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China which maintains control of the area today. Historical claims to the land of Tibet aside, it has become apparent that since this latest invasion major cultural shifts are occurring in the area. The Chinese have brought in modern schools and hospitals, abolished serfdom, and instituted popular land reform. However, the modernization efforts have also resulted in virtually destroying the region’s rich heritage, such as the destruction of the vast majority of Buddhist monasteries during the cultural revolution, and repression of Buddhism in general by the communist government.

Manifestations in Contemporary China

Tibetans are well-represented in contemporary Chinese culture. Tibetan singers are particularly known for their strong vocal abilities, which many attribute to the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau. Tseten Dolma () rose to fame in the 1960s for her music-and-dance suite "The East is Red" (). Kelsang Metok (格桑梅朵) is a popular singer who combines traditional Tibetan songs with elements of Chinese and Western pop. Phurbu Namgyal (Pubajia or 蒲巴甲) was the 2006 winner of Haonaner, the Chinese version of American Idol. In 2006, he starred in Sherwood Hu's "Prince of the Himalayas", an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, set in ancient Tibet and featuring an all-Tibetan cast.

"", is a film made by National Geographic about a Chinese reporter that goes to Tibet to report on the issue involving the endangerment of Tibetan Antelope. It won numerous awards at home and abroad.

Centralization of Government

Lhasa, the capitial of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), has been the theoretical capital of Tibet through most of its history. But before the modern era, this rule was tenuous at best. Most of Tibet was controlled by local rulers and who also wielded questionable and fleeting power. This lax system of rule in Tibet allowed for the creation and fruition of shamanic traditions, Tantric practices, and the importance of the lama. Under Chinese control, capable of maintaining a strict central government, this interplay of local traditions and their loose affiliations is removed, lessoning the influence of lamas and raising skepticism towards Tantric practices.


Popular accusation of deliberate Chinese effort to extinguish Tibetan language has been disputed by several prominent scholars. Barry Sautman noted that Cquote|92-94% of ethnic Tibetans speak Tibetan. The only exception is places in Qinghai and Amdo where the Tibetan population is very small compared with the broader population. Instruction in primary school is pretty universally in Tibetan. Chinese is bilingual from secondary school onward. All middle schools in the TAR also teach Tibetan. In Lhasa there are about equal time given to Chinese, Tibetan, and English. In contrast, Soutman said, Cquote|Tibetan exile leaders in India used English as the sole language until 1994 and only became bilingual in 1994. Schools in Tibet promote the Tibetan language more than Indian schools do in ethnic Tibetan areas--in Ladakh, India, instruction is in Urdu, with a high dropout rate from Tibetans, but India is never accused of cultural genocide against Tibetans. [ [http://www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=2732 How Repressive Is the Chinese Government in Tibet?] ]

Tibetologist Elliot Sperling has also noted that Cquote|within certain limits in the PRC does make efforts to accommodate Tibetan cultural expression and Cquote|the cultural activity taking place all over the Tibetan plateau cannot be ignored. [Elliot Sperling, Exile and Dissent: The Historical and Cultural Context, in TIBET SINCE 1950: SILENCE, PRISON, OR EXILE 31-36 (Melissa Harris & Sydney Jones eds., 2000).]

However, since Han Chinese is the language of government and many of the businesses, Tibetans who do not speak Mandarin Chinese, the official language of China, are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in the market place.


The TAR has the lowest population density among China's province-level administrative regions, mostly due to its mountainous and harsh geographical features. As of 2000, 92.8% of the population are ethnic Tibetans, while Han Chinese comprise 6.1% of the population. In Lhasa, the capital of TAR, Hans made up 17%, far less than what many activists have claimed.

This tableDepartment of Population, Social, Science and Technology Statistics of the National Bureau of Statistics of China (国家统计局人口和社会科技统计司) and Department of Economic Development of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission of China (国家民族事务委员会经济发展司), eds. "Tabulation on Nationalities of 2000 Population Census of China" (《2000年人口普查中国民族人口资料》). 2 vols. Beijing: Nationalities Publishing House (民族出版社), 2003 (ISBN 7-105-05425-5).] includes all Tibetan autonomous entities in the People's Republic of China, plus Xining PLC and Haidong P. The latter two are included to complete the figures for Qinghai province, and also because they are claimed as parts of Greater Tibet by the Government of Tibet in exile.

P = Prefecture;

Excludes members of the People's Liberation Army in active service.

Han settlers in the cities have steadily increased since then. But a preliminary analysis of the 2005 mini-census shows only modest increase in Han population in TAR from 2000-2005 and little change in eastern Tibet. Barry Sautman accused pro-independence forces for wanting the Tibetan areas cleansed of Han and that the Dalai Lama consistently misrepresents the present situation as one of a Han majority. The Tibetan countryside, where three-fourths of the population lives, has very few non-Tibetans. [http://www.blackandwhitecat.org/2008/04/01/separatism-and-tibet Protests in Tibet and Separatism: the Olympics and Beyond]

Sautman also argued that the settlers Cquote|are not personally subsidized by the state; although like urban Tibetans, they are indirectly subsidized by infrastructure development that favors the towns. Some 85% of Han who migrate to Tibet to establish businesses fail; they generally leave within two to three years. Those who survive economically offer competition to local Tibetan business people, but a comprehensive study in Lhasa has shown that non-Tibetans have pioneered small and medium enterprise sectors that some Tibetans have later entered and made use of their local knowledge to prosper.

Tibetans are not simply an underclass; there is a substantial Tibetan middle class, based in government service, tourism, commerce, and small-scale manufacturing/ transportation. There are also many unemployed or under-employed Tibetans, but almost no unemployed or underemployed Han because those who cannot find work leave.

Dissemination into Western Culture

Under the Chinese rule of Tibet, many lamas fled the country along with other refugees. The absence of many of these highly trained lamas reduces the quality and influence of Buddhism in Tibet. While most of the country are still devout followers of Buddhism, this lack of human resources means that there is a greater increase of superficial or only basic teaching of Tibetan Buddhism available. These lamas have spread Tibetan Buddhism to other areas of the world, with many gaining followings. These new practitioners, however, come from many modernized countries that are skeptical of the cultural background of shamanism and Tantric practices in their teachings. This leads to an increased marketing of Tibetan symbols without the knowledge of their meaning.

Dalai Lama Succession

Another drastic change in Tibetan culture may come with the death of the 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is seen as the highest lama of the Gelug order and the Panchen Lama as the penultimate lama. After the 10th Panchen Lama's death, monks from the Panchen Lama's monastery and the Dalai Lama had named a successor, Gendün Chökyi Nyima, who was not recognized by the Chinese government. Instead, after conducting a by the Golden Urn which did not include Gendün Chökyi Nyima's name, the Chinese government had supported another boy, Gyaincain Norbu, as the 11th Panchen Lama [ [http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=ft2199n7f4&chunk.id=d0e1759&toc.id=d0e1759&brand=ucpress&query=goldstein The Snow Lion and the Dragon, by Melvyn C. Goldstein] ] . The Panchen Lama often provides important consultation toward the finding of the reincarnated Dalai Lama. Recognizing that the Chinese government will likely involve itself in the search for his successor if that search is done in Tibet, the current Dalai Lama has said that he may instead choose to be reincarnated from within the Tibetan exile community in India.


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