Tibet ‘not recognised enough’ for its scholarly traditions

An openness to other cultures has long characterised a country often considered exotically remote, says Tibetan scholar as Dalai Lama visits UK

September 15, 2015
Exiled Tibetan protesters riding on motorbike
Source: Reuters
No backwater: the country was ‘a crossroads for several great civilisations’

A Tibetan scholar has called for an end to the “Shangri-La-sation” of his country.

Lobsang Yongdan lived for 10 years – from the age of 12 to 22 – as a Buddhist monk in northeastern Tibet, where he gained a deep grounding in classical Tibetan texts. He studied political science in the US before going on to the University of Cambridge for an MPhil and then a PhD in social anthropology. He is now working on a project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on Tibetan printing technology and book culture.

Speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of the Dalai Lama’s nine-day visit to the UK, which includes events in Oxford and Cambridge and a talk at London’s O2 arena, Dr Yongdan praised his commitment to promoting the cause of Buddhism and science.

“That is a tradition which has existed for 200 years,” he said. “Most scholars think that Tibetans didn’t know anything about European cosmology and geography – maybe some tiny fragments, but nothing systematic.” Yet his own research has decisively disproved the notion that Tibet was a backward and isolated land, with no interest in what was going on in the wider world.

Dr Yongdan’s PhD focused on a leading Tibetan lama called Btsan po (1789-1839), who travelled from his monastery to Beijing and became a spiritual adviser to the Qing emperor. In 1830, he published a book called The Detailed Description of the World, although only the parts relating to Tibet have ever been translated into English.

What the rest reveals, however, is that Btsan po had extensive contacts with European scholars and diplomats, Jesuit and Russian missionaries, and even consulted some of the books donated to the imperial library by Lord Macartney’s first British diplomatic mission to China in 1793. The section of the Description dealing with Europe contains much information about place names, agriculture and the weather (although it dismisses the English as an “ill-mannered people” who drink too much).

More generally, what Dr Yongdan discovered was that “Tibetans were very active, right back to the 17th century, in learning European science. That applies to geography, medicine and astronomy.” The country was “a crossroads for several great civilisations” and devoted great efforts to translating Indian philosophical texts, often preserving those whose originals had got lost.

It suited both the British and the Chinese authorities to claim that Tibetans were an isolated and “primitive” people to whom they were bringing civilisation and modernity. Yet Western academics, in Dr Yongdan’s view, have also put far too much stress on “how Tibetans are different from others”, rather than treating them as “a normal society with a huge literary tradition, interested in travelling and curious about the world”.

This “Shangri-La-sation project”, he added, “is not a Tibetan creation” – and hardly helpful for those hoping to understand the country.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: Tibet’s scholarly habits ‘ignored’

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