Studying Tibet Today: a discussion with Robbie Barnett


Robbie Barnett at the Australian Centre on China in the World

Robbie Barnett at the Australian Centre on China in the World

Robert J. Barnett is the Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York. His books include Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field (with Ronald Schwartz, 2008), Lhasa: Streets with Memories (2006) and A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Petition of the 10th Panchen Lama (1997). He has published articles on modern Tibetan history, Tibetan films and television dramas, and women and politics in Tibet, as well as on religious policies, political leadership, oral history, and exorcism rituals in contemporary Tibet. From 2000 to 2006 he ran the annual Summer Program for foreign students at Tibet University in Lhasa, as well as training projects in Tibet on ecotourism, teaching and oral culture. He is a frequent commentator on Tibet-related issues for the BBC, NPR, the New York Times and other media outlets.

In August 2014, Robbie was a guest of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), ANU, and the China Studies Centre, Sydney University. During his time in Canberra he consented to the following interview —The Editors.


Q: Could you begin by speaking a bit about how you became interested in Tibet and your journey to Modern Tibetan Studies?

A: My connection with Tibetan studies came about by chance. I was a tourist in Tibet in October 1987. I had gone there after working in Hong Kong that summer, and decided to travel overland to India. It was shortly after the area had been opened to foreign tourists, and I happened to be in the main square when a major protest took place. There was a large crowd gathered outside a police station – the police had badly beaten up some monks earlier and had taken them inside the police station. The crowd set the front of the building on fire to try to get the monks out, and the police shot several people dead. At the time, an old Tibetan lady had come up to me and said something about taking photos, so I realised that local people wanted there to be a record of what had happened. I didn’t have a camera then, but a few other tourists did, and they would take photos, and give others like me the film to carry, to increase the chance of getting them out of the square.

Later, back at the hotel, other tourists asked me and others to explain what had happened in the square, and after that we met every night, and recorded our observations. We were dedicated to the idea of just being observers, not participants, and our rules were strict: at these meetings, we wouldn’t write anything down that had not been witnessed first-hand. At the time, there were about hundred or so foreigners staying at designated hotels in Lhasa, and it became clear quite quickly that those of us who were eye-witnesses of the events that day had this tiny bit of knowledge that was of some importance. We were conscientious about not engaging in polemics or taking sides, and aimed just to record what everyone had seen. Not everyone agreed to this approach: there was a split between those of us who aimed only to be witnesses, and some who saw themselves as warriors for a cause, intrepid war photographers, or heroes in future action movie scripts that they would sell to Hollywood.

The police soon became more vigilant, and it quickly became risky for Tibetans to speak to foreigners. I and others put together a report about what we had seen and sent it out, and later, after I left, journalists began to call and ask my views about the situation in Tibet. That was strange, even a bit unhealthy, because you come to be treated as if you were an expert. I mean, I had never been to Tibet before and knew nothing at all about it. I was hardly even aware that there was a political problem there, and as a student, I had viewed Mao and his admirers as noble idealists and reformers. So to be treated as an expert on Tibetan politics was bizarre. I had assumed that there were many academic experts on the topic, but in fact there weren’t many studying Tibetan politics then. There were a few leading scholars like Melvyn Goldstein and the late Graham Clarke, but they were studying anthropology and development then, but not this kind of oppositional politics. So the press needed to create some experts who could comment, and of course it chose a white person who had been to a university in the West, who could speak in a language and a style that they were familiar with. I knew just a very little, of course much less than any Tibetan from Tibet. But they anoint you with this status, and talk to you as if you know. Bizarre.

Back in London, initially I didn’t get involved further with Tibet; I just went back to my own work. But then I started to get messages from Tibetans in Lhasa, from one in particular, who had helped me compile that first eyewitness report while I was there. These messages were information-rich – they contained news that no-one outside was aware of, and it was clear that the writers had taken significant risks in sending it. So, together with Nick Howen, another of the tourists I had met in Lhasa, I founded an organization to research and publish news about Tibet. We called it the Tibet Information Network, or TIN for short. It was based in London, far away from Tibet, but interestingly, we found that in a number of cases we were the ones telling Beijing from London what was happening in their backyard, things that they had not known.

Q: How did you know that it was important to Beijing? Did people in the Chinese capital get in touch with you?

A: No, they didn’t communicate with us at all. But our reports on a number of occasions embarrassed them and forced them to change their narrative publically. Once, when they declared martial law in Lhasa, just a few months before Fourth June 1989, I published an article saying that there were two tanks in front of the main temple in Lhasa. Beijing refuted the story, saying it wasn’t true. So I published the serial numbers written on the tanks. Next day they changed their story. I doubt they would have denied it outright if they had known the facts; Beijing tends to be careful about doing that. You can speculate that Lhasa may not have let Beijing know. You can speculate further to say that the role of outsiders, if we have a role, is to provoke Beijing to find out what is really happening in Lhasa. Beijing at that time was more moderate and more concerned about international opinion than Lhasa, and it’s probably still the case today.

This kind of thing has happened more than once. I was at a meeting at the UN, and the Chinese delegation said that the police had never opened fire on civilians in Tibet in the 1987 protest. When I mentioned that I had been at that protest and produced photographs of police firing, the Chinese side changed its account, saying that the police had fired, but into the air, hitting civilians only by accident. I don’t think Beijing would have gotten themselves into these positions, where they had to openly reverse their story, unless its officials actually didn’t know what had happened. So I assume they were misled by their own people.

Q: Could you talk about how you began to become involved in Modern Tibetan Studies as an academic field? What are the most exciting works coming out of this new field? How do you see field as having evolved?

A: During my time at the Tibet Information Network, I had already started working with this extraordinary young Tibetan scholar, Tsering Shakya. He is now a leading professor at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, but at that time he was just a young graduate. He guided me towards the underlying questions from his perspective as an anthropologist and historian. Ron Schwartz, a Canadian sociologist who had been in Lhasa too, and who had studied Tibetan, was also fundamental to this process. Most of these deeper questions were historical, but there were also questions about society, culture and religion. The journalistic and human rights approaches are valuable, but it is hard for their proponents to go beyond the broad ideas sketched out by academic researchers, since those are based on a much more comprehensive study of their topics. As journalists, we tried to tell people what was happening in Tibetan, but we lacked basic knowledge about the social, historical and political context. For example, we could get a report saying that someone’s neighbor had been taken away by the police, there were five police cars outside and they were of this or that colour, and so on. It would feel like knowledge, but it actually wasn’t knowledge, because we had no idea what it meant. Was this a new phenomenon? Or had it been going on for decades? Why did they take him away? What constituted a crime in Tibet? Would this be a point of historical significance? What, if anything, made that information important? We don’t know anything about the other sides of the story.

As these scholars began to introduce us to larger historical questions, we began to be involved in translation. We had already started producing translations of primary materials regarding modern Tibet. I had produced a directory of leaders in Tibet over the Chinese period, collecting biographical references and other studies on these people. We went on to do more, publishing translations of contemporary literature: poetry, short stories, regulations, and government documents. And we produced a translation of the secret petition sent by the Tenth Panchen Lama to Zhou Enlai in 1962. That petition was a really significant challenge issued at the top political level, perhaps the most outspoken in Communist history, and of course it was communicated to Mao; the Panchen Lama was to spend fourteen years in custody as a result. These kinds of documents gave us the beginnings of a historical context. With that in mind, one could ask if the protests in the late 1980s were a street-level version of the same challenge, a form of irredentist nationalism, a rejection of government policy, a cultural assertion, a religious movement, or a more local, transient event, and so forth.

The late beginning of Modern Tibetan Studies as a field had to do with the fact that Tibet had not been open to foreign academics during China’s high Communist period. During that time, from 1950 until the early 1980s, people outside generally had the idea that Communism had destroyed Tibetan culture inside China, and that Tibetans had all been assimilated. This turned out not to be the case. But scholars of Tibet had a pre-disposition then to think this way, because they generally understood Tibetan civilization to be based on religion, and on Sanskritic and Indian traditions. Most were not equipped to study China and its influence. And as the Sanskritic and the religious sides of Tibetan culture had been repressed and almost obliterated in the Maoist era, the natural conclusion was that Tibetan culture was all gone. Tibetologists generally studied the Tibetan exile community in India instead, treating it as a time capsule that preserved the remnants of Tibetan culture.

But as Tibet was gradually opened up to foreign tourists in the 1980s, some scholars visited and realised something remarkable was happening there. A massive renaissance and rediscovery of Tibetan culture was taking place within Tibet. Either Tibetan culture had not been completely destroyed, or it was being rediscovered and disinterred. The protests that I saw in Tibet in 1987 were the political ripple of this process. When these developments came to light, Tibetologists began to reconsider their narratives. With the help of Tsering Shakya and others, many of us came to see that in the Tibetan regions in China, a totally distinct historical and cultural growth had taken place. It was different from anywhere in China, and was connected to the Tibetan past. The field of Modern Tibetan Studies grew out of that perception.

Because of this, it became of great importance for scholars of modern Tibet to study and understand China too. Tibet is in China, in the sense that it’s geographically located within China now, irrespective of how one views that, and it is administered by Chinese. Young Tibetans are more and more likely to speak Chinese. So from the start, we were part of a movement trying to think about Tibet within its current circumstances, that is, within the Chinese political and social contexts.

In 1990, Tsering Shakya and I held a conference on Modern Tibetan Studies, at SOAS, part of the University of London. This was the first conference on Modern Tibet. Among the attendees were classical Tibetan scholars who had only studied religion previously, or anthropologists who, except for one or two, had only studied Tibetan societies in exile. They all came and gave papers on modern Tibet: they applied their knowledge to the new paradigm. At that time, no sinologists in the UK would have anything to do with us, but that has changed now. It was a kind of turning point.

Q: Which universities have set up Modern Tibetan Studies since then?

A: We started giving courses in Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia in 2000, and three years later we began the Modern Tibetan Studies Program there as a formal operation. After I left the Tibet Information Network, I had been asked by Jim Seymour and Andy Nathan at Columbia to go and be a visiting scholar there, and, though some leadings scholars such as Melvyn Goldstein had been doing extensive research on modern Tibet, I found there wasn’t much teaching on the topic. So we began a teaching program to train the next generation of scholars in contemporary and Modern Tibetan Studies. We were given a major grant by the Luce Foundation in 2003 to establish the first chair at any university anywhere dedicated specifically to Modern Tibetan Studies (now held by Gray Tuttle). Interestingly, Henry Luce had been the founder of the Time Magazine, so the journalistic connection was there [not to mention a certain ideological ‘baggage’—Ed].

Soon after, Tsering Shakya was appointed to a position in Vancouver and began a program there, and David Germano at the University of Virginia started a Tibet Centre with similar interests and objectives. All our programs, I would say, seek to develop skills to study modern Tibet that is simultaneously a time and place and culture unto itself and part of the larger Chinese and international contexts. Primarily, for our students, this means knowing recent history as well as one’s own discipline, learning Chinese as well as Tibetan, and generally it means they learn both Tibetan and Chinese, unless their specific focus calls for them to study a different language alongside Tibetan, such as Sanskrit or Japanese. David and I had been able to set up and run an annual summer program for foreign students at Tibet University in 2001, a major breakthrough that exemplified this approach. But it was closed down by the Chinese side five years later; they said, after we had arrived, that the teachers were too busy. They’ve never given any other reason. It seems quite funny now, but it’s a great loss to all sides.

Now many major Tibetan studies programs have expanded their range to include modern studies, though generally more classically oriented. Paris, Cambridge, Oslo, Leipzig, Oxford and Berlin all have very prominent programs that include important studies of modern Tibet, as did Vienna for some time. Copenhagen has just started one. All these programs are what we could call integrative – that is, they all had a classical Tibetan program either in history or religion, and then widened the repertoire to include the modern period.

At Columbia, the study of modern Tibet covers the period from 1600 onwards. Tibetan history and the dynastic histories of China are to some extent interrelated, and there is now growing interest in research into Tibetan history during the Qing period, particularly as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Tibet has been little studied. Now it’s being looked at more and more.

Q: What are some of the biggest questions in the field? And what recent scholarship do you find particularly exciting?

A: I think one of the bigger challenges has been to get beyond familiar debates over the nation, nationalism, identity and colonialism to uncover issues, alliances and narratives of greater subtlety and complexity – but without abandoning our effort to engage with larger public issues of concern. Huge steps in this direction have been taken by scholars since the field emerged, and a great deal of exciting research has been carried out. The historical work of Melvyn Goldstein, Heather Stoddard, and Tsering Shakya was foundational. With their work we began to get multi-perspectival histories of modern Tibet – and of modern Tibetans. Tsering Shakya’s later work, like that of Françoise Robin and Lauran Hartley, brought us to think seriously about modern literature by Tibetans, emerging in the 1950s and beginning to flourish in the late 1970s and 1980s. In these works, we see how Tibetans sought their own modes of modernity. While these works are highly coded within a PRC literary milieu, such research led us to read beyond those particular codes, so we can to some extent get to the Tibetan voices behind them. The publication of the translation of the Panchen Lama’s secret petition, which I and Tsering worked on in 1997, mentioned earlier, was also a key moment for historians, and for a similar reason: that the highest-ranking of all Tibetan leaders working with the Communist Party had produced such a stark internal criticism required us to reinterpret and reconsider all his public statements, as well as those by other Tibetan officials. It questioned Communist historiography from within.

Another key text to have emerged is A Tibetan Revolutionary, which can be seen as an autobiography of the leading Tibetan communist, Phuntsog Wangyal, although it was written by Melvyn Goldstein and two others. It allowed us to learn how modern Tibetan history looked from the perspective of the original Tibetan Communists, revealing a mix of idealism, political passion, an unstated, highly veiled sense of betrayal – all within a form of Tibetan nationalism. This was a fundamental conceptual shift. Suddenly we were given glimpses of the world of internal debate within the Communist Party. Like literature, these works helped us discern distinctively Tibetan voices. Again, they were highly coded, but they were also full of tiny inflections that articulated experiences and concerns which we outsiders could start to learn about.

Other new perspectives came with scholars who were able to do fieldwork in Tibet, like Matthew Kapstein and David Germano’s work on contemporary religion; Andre Alexander’s work on architectural heritage; Charlene Makley’s studies of women in Amdo in north-eastern Tibet; or, Emily Yeh’s Taming Tibet. The latter is a history not of elite politicians or intellectuals, but of material production and the environment. Who was digging in the fields and producing the crops that fed the troops in Lhasa? Which Tibetans benefited from working as farmers in the era of the communes? Who is growing vegetables in the post-Communist, neo-capitalist era in Tibet? These are hugely important questions that can easily be entirely overlooked.

There are many other significant achievements in the field. The great Sinological traditions in America, Germany and Japan are beginning to bring benefit as more young Sinologists learn Tibetan, and sometimes Manchu and Mongolian, and bring their training in Chinese and Chinese Studies to the reading and translation of Tibetan texts. Gray Tuttle, for example, in his book Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China, showed that Tibetan Buddhism had become politically important in Republican China, not as an elite court priority as with the Qing, but as a strategic opportunity for Republican leaders, who saw Tibetan Buddhism as something that could be nativised and celebrated as part of the Chinese treasure house of cultures, much like what happened in post-Mao China. Benno Weiner has used Chinese documents to show how 1950s’ Communist administration in north-eastern Tibet led more or less inevitably to rebellion, and we know vastly more about Tibetan areas during the Qing and Republican periods because of work by Hsiao Ting Lin, Max Oidtmann, Bill Coleman, Scott Relyea and other China scholars.

Q: You have talked about how modern Tibetan has been studied in relation to China. Has there also been research on modern Tibet in relation to India?

A: There has been an important production of English-language studies of India-Tibet interactions, which often use English-language sources in the British colonial archive. This is a valuable slice of colonial history, a counter-point to the Chinese views of that time. But it’s also limited: there is hardly any Tibetan voice in these archives. As for post-colonial India and Nepal, the remarkable thing is how little study of Tibet there has been. There is some classical Sanskrit-based study of Tibetan texts, important work on the Raj materials, and a great deal of commentary by military analysts about border issues, but beyond these, we have little. Now more Indian scholars are studying China, so hopefully the number studying Tibet will rise as well. This is an extraordinary phenomenon: academic studies do not follow geography, and scholars don’t necessarily study their neighbours; in fact, in this case, they are all but invisible. They follow lines of empire, or capital, or power, or something else. The whole story of academic missions and objectives is one of obliterations, ideology, funding, preferences, status – it’s very political, and the effects it has on how people think about places are so powerful. The idea that Tibet is a remote, backward, or otherworldly place – whatever versions of that you have, communist or modernist – is a reflection of the manipulation of narratives, though often unintended, that reflect and produce the kind of biases preferred within particular societies and discourses.

Q: Are there now more Tibetan young scholars working on Modern Tibet?

A: Tibetans have only recently entered Western academia, apart from those like Samten Karmay, Loden Dagyab and Dawa Norbu who studied and later taught in Western or Indian universities from the 1960s, and Tsering Shakya in the 1980s. An important development has been those young Tibetans brought up in the West who studied Chinese as well as Tibetan literature or society and who are near-fluent in Chinese, usually women, such as Yangdon Dhondup formerly at SOAS and Tashi Rabgey at Harvard. The work of Tibetans brought up in China who later trained in West is exceptionally striking, such as that of the historian Yudru Tsomo, who did her doctorate at Harvard. There has also been a group of Tibetan students coming out of a former English-language program at Qinghai Normal University in Xining who have gone on to work at NGOs or to study at universities in the US, such as Duke, Brandeis and Reed. And some young students from the exile community in India have now entered PhD programs at top universities in the US, including Yale, Columbia and Cornell, also a very promising development.

Q: In your public lecture a few days ago, you talked about the dispute on Tibet as a problem not so hard to describe but hard to solve. You pointed out that language was one of the main hurdles in overcoming the problem. Could you elaborate?

A: Language and ritual are fundamental issues in politics, however bitter or intense a conflict is. They can, I think, be more important than we often realise. Chinese officials often tell you privately that you have to understand how to speak and how to behave correctly in order to talk with them, a claim commonly made if one party in a dialogue is or wants to be more powerful than the other. People often say that the emphasis on banqueting and drinking when doing business in China is an example of this kind of ritual requirement. In thinking about the Tibetan issue, I think it’s important to pay attention to these rituals, performances, linguistic codes, or whatever we call these diplomatic procedures. There has been too little attention to this aspect of the China-Tibetan dispute, and it has become one of the hindrances to progress.

To put it simply, the Chinese and the exile Tibetan sides practice incompatible forms of diplomacy. Technically, the Chinese approach is strategic, meaning that it seeks to achieve a given outcome at any cost, while the Tibetan side uses what has been called a ‘communicative’ mode, which tries to produce consensus through reasoned argument and concession. The Tibetan mode of speaking, such as appeals to human rights, is very effective with the liberal West but antagonises Chinese officials and their public; it’s almost designed to do that. The Chinese approach works well with its domestic audience, but provokes Tibetans and their allies. In theory, this problem could be improved quite easily, simply by developing different forms of speech. That’s quite hard to do in practice, but a lot of other gains can come from it: it’s more significant than at first appears. The exile Tibetan leaders, for example, tend to frame their public language as if addressing Westerners. Their current leaders, except for one, don’t even know Chinese. But if they decided that their primary audience was Chinese, the changes would be more than just linguistic. It would entail a major conceptual and strategic shift.

The larger point I am suggesting is that China and the Tibetan government in exile actually have little distance between them on paper. Of course both sides have vastly different histories and agendas, but in political negotiations, those are of secondary importance: what matters is which formal terms both sides are prepared to accept under normal political conditions. In this sense, whatever the deep layers of distrust between the two leaderships, they are not far apart: both agree on Tibetan autonomy. They just differ on what that should entail. So, as analysts, we can say that the Tibet dispute is not at all like that over Palestine, because there is little violence so far and there is a significant potential for resolution.

So why is this dispute not yet resolved? Of course, everything depends on political will, particularly on the Chinese side. That’s understandable: China faces significant risks. What might go wrong if it lets the Dalai Lama come back? Can it afford to make concessions and give real autonomy? Even if a Chinese leader wishes to make changes, he has this huge oil tanker of a bureaucracy to maneuver, so changing course may not be easy. And, of course, there are also obstacles on the Tibetan side. But, looked at from a broader historical perspective, that’s not the immediate problem. The two sides need to decide on a basic issue: what’s the effective way to speak about their issues.

They need to resolve this issue soon if they want to avoid it spiralling into serious conflict again. Like the violence in Xinjiang at the moment – the deterioration there could almost certainly have been avoided. In Tibet, the current aggravated situation is a result of major policy mistakes in the Jiang Zemin era, particularly in 1992-1994, I think there’s really little dispute about that. Without those, Beijing could have easily kept the Tibet issue close to the relatively mild level of the 1980s. It will only get harder to find any kind of resolution if they don’t make the effort to do that now.

Q: What do you think is the role of international observers and scholars in resolving the Tibet issue? As we talked about earlier, an independent observer’s position is very hard to attain even for academics, as the academic field is also influenced by particular structures of power.

A: There is no independent position; none of us are independent, strictly speaking. But it is important to have a plethora of voices. So I think the role of outsiders is to bring different voices to the fore, and to force, trick or seduce people to listen to voices that they don’t otherwise hear. I don’t mean the voices of outsiders – we hear more than enough of foreign experts telling others what to do – but the opposite: other voices from within the Chinese and Tibetan communities, ones that don’t communicate in English. Can we bring to the table what these different voices are saying? We all know, for example, the Chinese experience of domination by Western colonial powers, the long war with Japan, and then the Cold War. And we are familiar with the idea that criticism of China’s Tibet policy in international media can sound to Chinese listeners like a restating of that history of humiliation and so can stimulate certain forms of nationalism. But there are many other strains of thought and types of response within that community. Outside observers have a role in identifying other voices involved in the issue, those that also convey relevant messages, but in different framings.

What are the Tibetan voices? There is the voice of the Dalai Lama, and that of his exile government. Those two may differ from each other. There are also voices of those exiles who oppose them, and a very large number who are strong supporters, but for different reasons and in different ways. Then there are voices of Tibetans living inside Tibet, who are some thirty times greater in number than the population in exile, and whose focus may be on other pressing issues. They are clearly the priority. Among them are voices from various intellectual traditions. We tend to select intellectuals that speak the languages we are familiar with, like humanism, but we have to train ourselves to listen to those who think within the Marxist, Buddhist and other traditions too. And there are also many voices that are much harder to hear: the atavistic voices of violent resistance, the voices of those who self-immolate, and so on. There have been attempts to explain and articulate these, including the driving ideas behind self-immolation, but it’s very hard to do. We should still try.

The outsider at the moment can help to bring out some of those voices that the mainstream media on each side do not hear. At the same time, we need to continually re-shape and refine the various frameworks in our own societies for thinking about issues like the Tibet-China dispute, to reflect that wider range of experiences and views, to help break logjams and to encourage new ideas, additional participants and dialogue. The world doesn’t need another conflict, particularly one that has the potential to be readily resolved. In this way I think outsiders can help nudge the process forward.