October 1, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

    “The Next Incarnation: The Dalai Lama and Tibet’s Future,” by Evan Osnos, appears in the current issue of The New Yorker (October 4, 2010). I read it with great interest from both a personal and a professional point of view: personal because I am Chinese and professional because I am a cultural/humanist geographer much interested in the question of culture and identity. Tibetan patriots want Tibet to be independent, Chinese patriots want Tibet to remain a part of China. The Dalai Lama opts for a middle course, which is that Tibet has more autonomy, but remain politically a part of China. Officially, China’s own position is not so different, yet it condemns the Dalai Lama as a renegade.

    Osnos’s article includes the story of a Tibetan cabdriver who drove Osnos to Taktser in Qinghai province. He is a Hollywood buff and talks learnedly about his favorites–“King Kong” and “Lord of the Rings.” The graduate of a Chinese school, the cabdriver can’t read Tibetan. Will he send his daughter to a Tibetan-language school? No. His daughter will go to a Chinese school because she will then have more opportunities in life. The cabdriver admits that China has done much to raise Tibet’s living standard, but adds that he and his ethnic brothers still want independence. I can just imagine the Chinese authorities tearing their hair as they read this account. Why? Because what the Tibetan cabdriver says can be taken right off an official government tract--until the “but” that begins the last sentence.

China is destroying Tibetan Buddhism, say the patriots. But what is Tibetan Buddhism? What was Tibetan Buddhism like, say, in 1950, when the Chinese army moved in?

    An awkward question. Anyone who has looked into the culture of Tibet prior to 1950 would have found many features that repel modern liberal taste. The Dalai Lama himself would be repelled, for, after spending many years touring the West, he is as much a modern liberal democrat as he is a Tibetan Buddhist. With his interest in democratic practices, including voting members into parliament, his suggestion that his next incarnation might be a woman, his passion for neurological science–indeed, all sciences, the Dalai Lama himself is destroying the Tibetan Buddhism he knew as a child. China’s proposal for Tibet’s modernization is hardly more radical. As for the Tibetan militants, they have hinted that, after the death of the Dalai Lama, violence might be the only way to achieve independence. Violence that sheds blood? How can that be reconciled with any form of Buddhism? Can it be that what drives the militants has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with old-fashioned nationalism and its symbols of prestige--a national flag, a national anthem, a twenty-one gun salute for the Tibetan head of state?

    The Dalai Lama worries about Inner Mongolia. It now has 6 million Mongolians and 20 million Chinese. Is today’s Inner Mongolia just a Chinese province, indistinguishable from, say, Hebei? Has Mongolian culture been wiped out? I don’t know, for I haven’t been there. But I doubt it: culture is remarkably enduring–like the coffee stain on my shirt that is still there after repeated washing. As for Tibet, the Dalai Lama says in his more optimistic mood that in 30 years, there will be 6 million Tibetans and 10 million Chinese newly converted to Buddhism, and that the movement of ideas and benefits is necessarily a two-way street, resulting in more roads for the Tibetans and more spiritual enlightenment for the Chinese, now deeply sunk in materialism. Who has the better deal?

Best wishes,



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