The China Beat has had a month-long series on overlooked and recommended readings on Τibet, with noted professor Robert Barnett of Colombia University adding his own list this past weekend. It’s a good series and a great list.
Frankly, though, I’m in the midst of “Τibet fatigue,” there’s a lot of good material out there on the subject, but also a lot of crap, and the polemics and grandstanding on both sides of this emotionally-charged issue, much of it just noise without thought or blind loyalties and parochialism, remind me more of the bleachers at a Red Sox-Yankees game than learned discourse.
I do however get drawn into the same basic conversation with Han acquaintances…seemingly all the time.*
A: You teach Chinese history?
A: In Beijing? Really?
GS: Well, I teach students from American universities.**
A: Ah! (relieved) That makes sense. (Furrowed brow) What do you teach about Τibet? Do you teach your students that Τibet has ALWAYS been part of China?
A: Why not!?!?!
GS: Well, I’m not a paleontologist, so I can’t be sure about the relationship between Τibetan and Chinese dinosaurs during the Triassic through Cretaceous Periods of the Mesozoic Era…
A: You must teach The Truth about Τibet.
GS (Tongue in cheek but chagrined to be paraphrasing Harrison Ford): Archaeology is the search for fact, if you want truth, try philosophy class.
A: You must! There are so many lies told about Τibet’s history.
GS: I’m with you, brother.
A: So will you?
GS: How about if I teach that there is a PRC/Han nationalist perspective, a “Western” perspective, and a Τibetan nationalist perspective, and talk about how and why those narratives have developed over time? I can explain why all three are as much about the political and emotional needs of the present and recent past as they are about History. Then we as a class might discuss what evidence we do have and how this evidence problematizes the different narratives; after which we can attempt a critical evaluation of the extant materials and, to the best of our ability, try to reach an understanding of the historical issues at hand, while hopefully remaining aware that our own backgrounds and perspectives may influence our individual analysis. Does that work?
A: Why do you hate China so much?
*To be fair, when I’m back Stateside I get dragged into a fair number of similar conversations that usually end with me annoying some new acquaintance by bursting their bubble regarding the happy democratic Buddhist utopia that was Shangri-la/Τibet before it was crushed by evil Chinese soldiers who may or may not have (depending on whether my conversation partner is a fan of Tolkien) been dressed as orcs.
**This can sometimes diverge into another, equally annoying, conversational path. More on this later.