Reflections on the Complexities of Tibet

"Tibet" is the broad cultural or civilizational region in the middle of Asia - located to the north of the Himalayan mountain range on the Tibetan plateau and partly to its immediate south - which since its seventh century inception has been inhabited primarily by a people with a strong sense of unity deriving from the sense of a shared past, destiny, origin narratives, language (or language family), literary language, values, and practices, despite the extreme diversity that divides them and can also localize their identity to a single village or valley. That strong sense of unity thus exists hand-in-hand with an exceptionally strong sense of regional and local identity, and the cultural diversity found amongst these communities is every bit as striking and remarkable as the environmental diversity of the plateau, which ranges from high altitude grasslands to almost sub-tropical jungle.

Cultural Diversity in Tibet & the Problem of Names

The English word "Tibet", and the corresponding ancient Tibetan word "bö" (bod), are well-known rubrics with complex patterns of historical use. This short discussion is quite inadequate, but attempts to offer at least a starting point for thinking about a difficult and contentious issue that demands extensive research, discussion, and debate. In addition, it is not merely a scholarly issue, but also one with political implications and can thus easily provoke  emotional responses. Non-Tibetans, as well as some contemporary Tibetans (especially those from the diaspora), often now assume that "Tibet" and "Tibetan" reflect an unproblematic means of referring to a unitary people in the Tibetan language as grounded in the words "bö" and "böpa" (bod pa). Unfortunately, this is not the case. My interest is in examining the adequacy or inadequacy of Tibetan-language terms that have expressed in historical times, and/or in contemporary times, the strong sense of people living on the Tibetan plateau, and in some areas immediately south of it, that they belong to a common people with shared past, destiny, origin narratives, language (or language family), literary language, values, and practices, despite the extreme diversity that divides them and can also localize their identity to a single village or valley. In one way or another, and to varying degrees, this has been true ever since the early seventh century founding of the Tibetan Empire. 

This broad cultural region, regardless of its political fate or divisions in any given century, for better or worse is usually  labeled  as "Tibet" or "bö". The difficulties of this name begin with the fact that "Tibet" in English is not used in the same ways that its Tibetan equivalent, bö, is used - and yet we typically assume that they are completely equivalent.  In addition, regardless of language, we tend to use the term in shifting ways without full acknowledgment of the changing terms of reference.  Firstly, there is a confusion between political and cultural references, a frequent problem when people assume that the clarity of modern nation state divisions applies to the complexities of political and cultural divisions prior to the twenty-first century. Secondly,  within Tibetan communities, the words "bö", "böpa", and various permutations are used with various degrees of narrowness and breadth of scope depending on the context. In English, at least, this problem has often been addressed by attempts to add a qualifier to the term, leading to the expression "Cultural Tibet" or "Greater Tibet", the latter of which is also well known to many contemporary Tibetans as "bö chenpo" (bod chen po). In addition, there are such terms as the "Tibetan people" (bö mi, bod mi), or "Tibetan subjects" (bö bangmi, bod 'bangs mi), which can in some contexts be attempts to produce a rubric which anyone who feels they belong to that felt sense of cultural communality might embrace.

In terms of confusion between the political and the cultural, the Tibetan people as a communal or cultural identity originated in the seventh century with the political rise of the Tibetan empire. The Empire began in Central Tibet, south of Lhasa (lha sa), but rapidly expanded all across the plateau to become one of the great empires of the world at the time.  It then gradually disintegrated in the ninth century, leaving behind a huge region of people with a common language family, literary language, and sense of unified practices, descent, and destiny, though their original imperial political unity was never again to be recaptured.  The "Ganden Palace" (dga' ldan pho brang) polity nominally led by the Dalai Lama emanations from the seventeenth century onwards was the most successful and extensive attempt to establish a broad political unity, but even it was far smaller than the extent of culturally Tibetan regions that was the persisting legacy of those ancient imperial achievements. In contemporary times, Tibetan communities  - not even considering the new disapora that has so remarkably established itself around the world since the 1950s - can be found in significant numbers not simply in China, which has incorporated the vast majority of contemporary Tibet since 1959, but also in northern Nepal, eastern Pakistan, and parts of Northern India. In addition, Bhutan, which has successfully emerged as a vibrant modern nation state of its own, is also part of a historical continuity with the Tibetan plateau, though it has successfully transited into its own autonomous national and hence cultural identity, much as European peoples long ago emerged with distinctive unified political and cultural identities. 

In terms of confusion about internal cultural regions within the broader area of Cultural Tibet, Tibetans have very strong regional identities that go hand in hand with their unique local languages, architecture, clothing, histories, and many other traditions. A simple way that Tibetans talk about their internal cultural regions is to refer to three great regions - Utsang (dbus gtsang) in the West, Kham (khams) in the East, and Amdo (a mdo) in the Northeast - though in fact the situation is far more complex than that.  Yet even in those larger regions, putting aside the issue of the artificial nature of these categories, people are far more likely to refer to themselves in terms of that local identity over their general Tibetaness in conversation - thus residents of Kham will now refer to themselves as "khampa" (khams pa) rather  than "böpa", while residents of Amdo refer to themselves as "Amdowa" (a mdo ba).   Böpa,  or "Tibetan" (though the switch from Tibetan to English is far from unproblematic here, since English speaking Tibetans would not use the word "Tibetan" at all as other Tibetans might use the word böpa) is a term then used in turn more generally to signify Tibetans to their west, namely in Ütsang. Despite this, in a context in which the comparison is with themselves to other ethnic groups, they may very well use the term böpa to refer to themselves in a more embracing manner, or might use another form of the word, such as bömi.

It also is essential to not disregard the literary context, and the many ways in which literary texts from across the plateau written in literary Tibetan refer to the common identity of the peoples and communities living throughout these regions. We need to examine the profuse ways that Tibetan literature evokes and labels this felt communality, and the much less problematic use of such terms as "bö" or "bömi" therein to refer to peoples and communities across the plateau, regardless of other cultural divisions.

It should also be noted that China divides the Tibetan communities that it administers into five administrative regions, or provinces: Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan.  As such, Tibetans from other regions will generally refer to the TAR as "bö", although within the TAR, one will often find Tibetans referring to Tibetans in Lhasa or the surrounding regions as "böpa" in contrast to themselves, based upon cultural perceptions. The complexity of usage of these terms is thus endless. That said, this complexity should in no way be understood as indicating that Tibetans lack a strong sense of unity across the plateau, but rather they point to the exceptional internal cultural diversity of Tibet, and the equally exceptional strong regional sense of identity. This pattern can go right down to individual valleys or even villages, where the same pattern of the oscillating use of terms for self-identification is often repeated not for böpa, but for the regional rubrics in contrast to much more local terms of identity. While this might be seen as the fault lines of weakness in Tibetan culture, it also points to strength for those who believe cultural diversity and healthy local traditions are a better source of a more profound and vital unity than homogeneity.


The preceding comments are offered as provisional thoughts, not for citation. This article can and will be changed at a moment's notice. Considerable research must be done on the historical and literary record, as well as on people's contemporary speaking practices, before these issues can be addressed with any real credibility. So please accept this as an attempt to facilitate discussion, and not an authoritative essay pretending to have any more knowledge than its author possesses - which is unfortunately little.