Organizer and Chair: Charles F. McKhann, Whitman College
Discussant: Tom Grunfeld, State University of New York
Anthropological and historical research on Tibeto Burman peoples-the second largest language family in the world-suffers from a false polarization in Western academia. Scholars working on the Nepal/India and the China/Central Asia sides of the Tibetan plateau are accustomed to participating in separate regional discourses, dominated by Hindu and Han studies, respectively. This panel represents a move to rethink this separation by examining common patterns in Tibeto Burman religious traditions from Kashmir to Kunming.
The project of constituting a Tibet centered Tibeto Burman studies would not be possible without the opening of the People's Republic of China to foreign ethnologists in the past decade. Recent fieldwork among Tibeto Burman peoples in western China has produced a number of studies (most still unpublished) which, when viewed against the more developed literature on peoples along the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau (especially Nepal), raise new questions about broader cultural patterns and regional histories. Nearly all Tibeto Burman societies possess syncretic religious traditions which emphasize to varying degrees shamanism, Buddhism, ancestor worship, and the worship of natural features and processes. Three of the papers (Adams on Sherpa, Harrell on Prmi and Mosuo, and McKhann on Naxi) look at the historical influence of Tibetan Buddhist feudal theocratic institutions on smaller, neighboring Tibeto Burman peoples. Lipman's paper on Muslim Tibetans in Qinghai considers the reverse process, challenging the common notion that "being Buddhist" is an index of "being Tibetan."
Stevan Harrell, University of Washington
The Prmi (who are called Pumi in Yunnan and called Zang, or 'Tibetans' in Sichuan) and the Mosuo (who are called Mosuo, but considered a branch of the Naxi, in Yunnan, and called Meng, or Mongolian, in Sichuan) are ethnolinguistic groups resident for several centuries in the Sichuan-Yunnan border region. In recent centuries, Prmi and Mosuo in this region have practiced Tibetan Buddhism, maintaining altars in their homes and often sending sons to become monks. Local monasteries have maintained strong links with institutions in Tibet, particularly those of the Gelugpa, or "yellow" sect.
Tibetan Buddhist practices are, however, not the only religious activities of these people; they also have a number of folk rituals unrelated to Buddhism. Until recent decades, some of these rituals were led by local priests, known as data among the Mosuo and as dingba or hangui among the Prmi. Despite the predominance of Buddhism, there has been an effort on the part of Chinese ethnologists and local scholars to promote the study of these "native" religions and to de emphasize the role of Buddhism in Prmi and Mosuo society, particularly in Yunnan, where neither of these peoples is classified as Mongolian or Tibetan.
This paper explores the complex ethnic and political discourse which seeks to deny the hegemonic role of Tibet in the religious and social history of the Pumi and Mosuo in Yunnan, and to compare the situation there to the case of Sichuan, where links with Tibet, at least, are permitted or even encouraged, given the fact that Prmi in Sichuan are officially classified as Tibetans.
Charles F. McKhann, Whitman College
This paper attempts to trace the structural and historical relations between the rituals performed by Naxi priests (dongbas) and the Bönist and Buddhist traditions in neighboring Tibet. Even as it drew on them for its own particularly Tibetan qualities, Buddhism's rise to political prominence in Tibet witnessed the marginalization of indigenous Tibetan shamanist, Bönist, and ancestor worship traditions. One of the major difficulties confronting scholars hoping to recover the logic of these earlier systems is that the social and political conditions of their existence were so radically altered under the Buddhist theocracy. Inhabiting a region directly adjacent to the Kham district of southeastern Tibet, the Naxi have for centuries maintained close relations (sometimes friendly, sometimes adversarial) with the more powerful Tibetan state. Hosts to several Karma pa monasteries, yet themselves never converted to Buddhism, the Naxi people practice a form of religion-usually called "Dongba religion," after it's ritual specialists-whose origins have much in common with Tibetan "folk" religion, yet whose structures and practices more clearly reveal their grounding in social relations.
Vincanne Adams, Princeton University
This work describes expressions of Tibetan religions at Tibet's southern frontiers among the well studied Sherpas of highland Nepal. Two rituals are explored: one is performed by a shaman to repel an earth deity (called sa bdag) and enable a young family to build a home, and one is performed by monks as a healing event (called shir nying bdud slog) intended to both repel spirit entities and teach the patron about being Buddhist. The Sherpas support institutions which derive from the Tibetan rnying ma pa schools of Buddhism, the earliest schools of practice in Tibet, despite the late arrival of Sherpas' own institutions in the Khumbu region of Nepal where they now live as emigrants from Tibet who arrived nearly 500 years ago. Their shamanic practices are similar to those found both in historic Tibet and throughout the Nepal high Himalayas. The presentation briefly explores what can be said of historical expansions of Tibetan religions in the hinterland by looking at both form and practice of these rituals. It aims to reconsider a Tibetan or Tibeto Burman culture area of Inner Asia, which has historically been divided for geopolitical reasons between East Asia and South Asia, rather than being seen as a cultural center of its own from which "expansionary and civilizing" projects have emanated. The data are based on two years of fieldwork begun in 1982 and again in 1986 87 among the Sherpas.
Jonathan Lipman, Mount Holyoke College
The Gansu Qinghai frontier region, where four civilizations meet, has produced a great wealth of ethnic and cultural syntheses. Members of the Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian, and Turkic cultures, speakers of many variants of all four languages, have been mixing and matching, both culturally and genetically, for centuries in this wonderfully heterogenous geographical context. The permutations include the Tibetan Muslims of Kaligang, a group obviously Tibetan in language and material life but converted to Islam in the 18th century. This paper will take as its core the limited ethnographic data available on these people-classified within the Hui "minority nationality" by the People's Republic of China in comparison to other Muslim groups of the region. The Tuomao, Bonan (Baoan), and Salar, though not culturally Tibetan, have all absorbed elements of Tibetan language and culture from their neighbors, as have many Qinghai Chinese, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The analysis will focus on the nature of frontiers and the cultural changes which take place there.
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