Sunday, 28 February 2010

Tibetan-Han mix more complex than it seems

Tibet’s politics may have grabbed headlines for decades, but the relationship between Tibetans and the dominant Han is far more complex than public arguments suggest.

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Guanyu 道 said...

Tibetan-Han mix more complex than it seems

Reuters in Tongren
27 February 2010

Tibet’s politics may have grabbed headlines for decades, but the relationship between Tibetans and the dominant Han is far more complex than public arguments suggest.

The two peoples share a long attachment to Buddhism that Communist rule has never managed to kill. The nation’s economic boom has also opened previously hard-to-reach Tibetan areas to Han visitors, leading to a mingling of cultures.

Tibetans in at least one area with looser political restrictions than Tibet proper say their argument with the government in Beijing does not extend to all Chinese, and that some policies may even help bring the Tibetans together.

All this belies the tense ties between Beijing and exiled Tibetans, and the harsh stances of supporters of both sides that have been in the news after last week’s meeting between US President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. Deeply religious Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama as a living Buddha, as do some Han, despite Beijing’s frequent lambasting of him as a separatist who espouses violence. These Han do not see that as a contradiction, especially those who visit Tongren, a heavily Tibetan region in the arid, mountainous Qinghai province, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935.

“He is the holiest of them all. My heart jumps a beat whenever I see his picture. He is the most important of all the living Buddhas,” said Xiao Li, a Han from Jiangsu and a fervent Buddhist.

“Of course, even living Buddhas make mistakes,” she said when asked about the Dalai Lama’s frequent overseas trips, the ones the central government gets so angry about. “We are all human, and it does not change my respect for him.”

Some of Tongren’s Tibetans are equally able to separate their bitterness about official religious policies, which they feel trample on their freedom to follow their chosen leader and spiritual path, and their feelings about Han. “I do not think that the views of the Chinese government necessarily represent those of all the Han race. I don’t think that all of them are bad people. Some are very good,” said monk Tedan, who like many Tibetans goes by only one name.

Buddhism in Tibet and the rest of China dates back more than 1,700 years and was introduced from India.

Though there are no official figures, some Chinese surveys put the number of practising Buddhists in the country near 100 million, including Tibetans, Han, Mongolians and a few other ethnic minorities such as the Dai. There are perhaps as many Muslims and Christians.

The Communist Party has had an uneasy relationship with religion, despite a constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, fanatical Red Guards smashed temples, churches and mosques.

Those policies have mellowed considerably in recent years, with the party seeing religion as an important force for social stability even if it continues to control appointment of senior religious figures.

One monk, who has faced repeated police questioning for illegally travelling to India to study at a religious college run under the auspices of the Dalai Lama, said he counted many Han from Beijing and Shanghai among his students. “They are looking for meaning in their lives and find that we as Tibetan Buddhists can give it to them,” he said. “We help them understand the scriptures.”

Qinghai’s Tibetans say they have far more leeway to practise their religion than those living in what is formally called the Tibet Autonomous Region. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are openly displayed at major temples in a way unthinkable in Tibet.

At Lunar New Year celebrations last week, monks at one monastery carried out a complex ceremony complete with ornate, embroidered silk costumes that culminated in the unfurling of a giant image of the Buddha on a nearby hillside. It attracted a small crowd of Han tourists, who marvelled at the religious devotion.

Guanyu 道 said...

“They have far more complex emotions than we do,” said Fan Liqing from Guangdong, watching a procession of vermillion-clad monks. “I think we can learn a lot from our Tibetan compatriots. They must be doing something right.”

Signs of official mistrust of Tongren’s Tibetans are never far away, even if the security forces have kept a low profile. A large army barracks sits on the outskirts of the city, not far from one of the main temples, ready to respond to any trouble, as they did when serious anti-Han violence erupted across Tibetan areas in March 2008.

Such obvious reminders of who is really in control sit uncomfortably with Tongren’s residents.

Beijing says its rule over the Tibetans has brought development - from roads and hospitals to schools and economic opportunity - to an area once racked by poverty and still far less developed than the coastal regions. Its critics counter that Han are the main beneficiaries of the government investment and that change comes at the cost of traditional culture and language.

But even some of the most proudly Tibetan citizens in Tongren grudgingly admit Beijing’s efforts have improved some aspects of everyday life. In some cases they have also helped unite a people fragmented by the harsh terrain.

A man who travels widely as a tour guide said the promotion of Putonghua in education had brought some Tibetans closer. “We have three different dialects in Tibetan, and they are not easily mutually comprehensible,” he said. “We Tibetans have lived so spread out from each other we knew little of each other’s existence and could not talk even when we did meet. I now speak [Putonghua] to Tibetans who don’t understand my dialect, and it’s been a real unifier.”