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Teaching Τibet and “The Truth”

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?

GS: Yes.

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?

GS: No.

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.

14 Comments on Teaching Τibet and “The Truth”

  1. Hehe, very amusing. Do you get this line of questioning over other topics as well?

  2. man, what a headache. at least it’s not a conversation about grades, though.

    another irony is that in the great scope of chinese history, tibet very rarely plays much of an important role. other than the tibetans’ sacking of chang’an in the tang, i guess.

    i suppose it wouldn’t be productive to argue that china is just a part of greater mongolia. once you conquer a patch of land, you get dibs for eternity, and retroactively, right?

  3. I am so with you. I get these questions and when I respond by saying the whole thing is incredibly complicated and I lack the knowledge/background to have an opinion on it, people ususally respond by trying to get my “real views” out of me. These are my real views. It is hugely complicated and, like virtually everything else, it isn’t clearcut. It is amazing to me though how many people can have such vehement/naive views one way or the other, without having any real clue about any of it.

  4. JB,

    I do, Taiwan is another hot topic, but given recent events and the fact that Tbt is such a hugely divisive issue, it’s the most frequent focus of such conversations.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Wu Ming,

    Except that Chinggis Khaan was Chinese and so the Yuan Dynasty=China, now, then, and forever.

    It helps if you say it with the wide-eyed certitude of a Sarah Palin…takes the edge off.

  6. Dan,

    Thanks for chiming in. Complexity, nuance, and multiple perspectives on complicated questions all seem in short supply these days. Sad, really.

  7. “A: You must teach The Truth about Τibet.”

    If I had a Euro for every time a (Chinese) university colleague/student/on-campus Party rep had thrown that demand into the ring…

    Despite the appalling lack of meaningful discourse on the issue, a state-controlled media, and a laughable (but nonetheless effective)government propaganda campaign, I still find myself baffled at just how deeply entrenched today’s student body are in their government’s mindset.

    Unless, that is, as your qualification implies, one happens to be talking to a non-Han citizen.

    I agree that the debate between the ‘free Tibet’ crowd and the Han nationalist tribe can become very boring, but I also feel that the folly of the former is more likely to come under self-analysis than the blinkered attitude of the latter.

    For this reason, when China issues silly white papers like last week’s, I feel there is a need to set aside our Tibetan ennui and respond. Here’s the link to the CD article:

    I don’t advise anyone waste a day reading the whole thing – the first page sets the tone.

  8. if chinggis was chinese, that was one hell of a civil war.

  9. Stuart:

    Thanks for the link and while I would agree that the “Free Tibet” crowd falls more into the “ill-informed” category rather than “hard wired,” it doesn’t make the conversation any easier.

    Wu Ming:

    My point exactly. Odd how poorly it’s received though when brought up in certain social settings.

  10. DavidofSanGabriel // October 13, 2008 at 1:52 am //

    Yes, Tibet has always been part of China. “Always” is defined here as a time period beginning at some point after the year 763 CE, when evil, revisionist historians claim that the supposed “army” of Tibet allegedly sacked the Tang capital of Chang’an.

  11. Ttry imitating Jack Nicholson from a A Few Good Men instead.

    “You can’t handle the truth!”

    Then start an argument with them over the American Civil War between the slave states and the non-slave states had nothing to do with slavery.

  12. I have often thought, using Chinese Nationalist standards, China had a stronger claim on Korea than Tibet ( a response I often give with a condused look when this line of reasoning comes up).

  13. Hehe… My boss in Changsha was known to say that Korea lost China…

  14. A: You must! There are so many lies told about Τibet’s history.

    GS: I’m with you, brother.

    You could have a whole conversation about this topic… and agree with everything they say… but still be in completely different camps. Hilarious.

    About the SOX… always next year. Oh well.

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