Studying ’Tibetans’ or ’Tibetan’ studies?

The 8th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies took place between July 25 and 31, 1998, in Bloomington, Indiana, in the United States. Thirty-six years ago, a Conference on Tibet took place in the Italian town of Bellagio. That conference, held from July 2 to 8, 1962, was attended by 15 Western and Japanese Tibetologists. A comparative study of the two meetings reveals the extent of development in the field of Tibetan studies.

Compared to the 15 attendees in the 1962 meeting, the 1998 Indiana meeting attracted nearly 200 scholars. In 1962 Tibetan scholars (the current president of the Association of Tibetan Studies, Samten Karmay, being one of them) were regarded more as raw materials rather than finished products and merely served as sources of information which were then packaged by Western and other scholars. In the Indiana conference, 33 participants were Tibetan (17 of them in fact came from Tibet).

The ’general opinion’ of the 1962 conference, reported by Turell V Wylie, was that “Tibetan culture has no chance of survival in Tibet proper where change is being made by force, and it will not long survive the acculturation process in other countries.” The latter, I assume, is a nice way of saying that Tibetans in exile will not be able to preserve our culture. Indiana has proved Bellagio wrong on both counts. While Tibetans inside Tibet have shown tremendous resilience in the face of challenge, those in exile have shown the world that Tibetan culture, although aged, is living and well, thank you.

However, Indiana revealed a few other challenges. First, although there was increased recognition of ’Tibetan’ scholars, the assumption appears to be that you have to be involved with ’modern’ academic institutions to be considered a scholar. There was hardly a participant from the traditional Tibetan monastic institutions. Were invitations issued to them?

Secondly, the seminar was not open to the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. I would have thought that the Association would have gladly seized the opportunity to relay to the Tibetan people issues which concern them. After all, Tibetan studies is about a still living people.

There is an interesting footnote to this. In the light of the media ban, it appears that one of the radio stations asked some people to observe (most likely so that they can broaden their horizon and be able to provide better service to the Tibetan listeners). The response was negative: only scholars who present papers were being invited as delegates, and no one else. I do not know whether the response given by this member of the organising committee was a collective decision or his own personal action.

I later learn that there indeed were observers, even if they were not called as such. Out of the nearly 200 participants, only 150 or so presented papers. Also, among the delegates was an official from Chinese United Front Works Department whose sole qualification appears to be his ability to monitor the delegation from Tibet rather than displaying any scholarship.

Who said the academic world is free from biased actions?

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