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Writing the Self: Tibetan Technologies of Subjectivity and Power
Organizer: Carole McGranahan, University of Colorado
Chair: Bryan J. Cuevas, Florida State University
Discussant: Tsering Shakya, University of British Columbia, Canada
What sort of selves are written and to what ends? For several centuries, Tibetans have generated autobiographies for religious, historic, and literary purposes, but the authors of these works were overwhelmingly religious and lay elites. Following the Chinese annexation in the 1950s, life history has become an extremely widespread practice in both Tibet and in exile, as well as in both oral and written forms. Content, author, and audience of these works have also shifted, such that what could somehow be considered a homogeneous literary genre until then must now be completely reassessed. This panel gathers specialists in religion, history, philology, and anthropology to consider autobiographical accounts ranging from the 17th century to the present day, produced under various political regimes, at their very center or from their margins, in order to examine the continuities and discontinuities of the models Tibetans use to construct subjectivity. In line with changes in Tibet, including ongoing Tibetan dialogues with broader notions of being and selfhood (such as debates within Buddhism, nationalism, and postmodernism), we collectively explore conceptions of personhood in Tibet and the significance of their mediums of expression. To what extent, for example, is the Tibetan sense of self tied to social status and Buddhist philosophy? What notions of agency and action are tied into writing, or reading or listening to, an autobiography? And, finally, how is personal identity embedded in shifting cultural and social processes such as national and religious imaginings?
The Medical Autobiography of a Scholar-Statesman in Central Tibet, 1703
Kurtis R. Schaeffer, University of Virginia
Sangyé Gyatso (1653-1705) was among the most prolific writers of biography in Tibetan history, as well as of works on the arts and sciences (traditionally listed as fine arts, medicine, grammar, logic, and the "interior art" of Buddhism). Educated in Lhasa and groomed for leadership at the Dalai Lama’s court, as ruler of Central Tibet from 1679 to 1701 Sangyé Gyatso dedicated much of his literary corpus to extolling the Fifth and Sixth Dalai Lamas’ (1617-1682 and 1683-1706, respectively) enlightened rule over Tibet—a biographical project prompted with certain political self-interest. He took every chance in his biographical writing to link his own identity as both political leader and intellectual to those of the Dalai Lamas, yet he curiously never composed a separate autobiography. His most extensive autobiographical remarks occur in his 1703 history of medicine, where he places himself at the end of a long tradition of medicine and evokes his lifelong fascination with the arts and sciences—from pretending rocks were medicinal substances as a small child to founding the court medical college during the last years of his rule. He praises his medical activities as no less than public works dedicated to the development of Tibetan culture as a whole. This paper analyizes the rhetoric of Sangyé Gyatso’s self-portrait, noting especially his shrewd use of classical Indian Buddhist resources to construct his image as an intellectual benevolently using his position as head of state to enrich Tibetan civilization far beyond the confices of Buddhist thought and practice.
Self as a Faithful Public Servant: Secular Autobiography in Eighteenth-Century Tibet
Lauran R. Hartley, Independent Scholar
Studies of pre-modern Tibetan auto/biography have thus far focused on the life-writings of esteemed Buddhist teachers. Written in 1762, The Autobiography of a Cabinet Minister (Tib. Bka’ blon rtogs brjod) offers an intriguing case-study for comparative purposes. The work is particularly interesting in that its author, Dokharwa Tsering Wangyal (Mdo mkhar ba Tshe ring dbang rgyal, 1697-1763), witnessed first-hand a critical period of Tibetan history during which Tibetan, Mongolian and Manchu interests vied for power. Moreover, he is author of what was been deemed "Tibet’s first novel." In his autobiography, Tsering Wangyal describes his role in key diplomatic and political events, in which he took part for many years as right-hand man to (and biographer of) Polanay (Pho-lha-nas), who virtually ruled Tibet from 1728 until his death in 1747. Such accounts are interspersed with descriptions of deep sorrow at his father’s death, the simple but elegant wedding of his son, and signs of depression in his later years. Not unlike the accounts of contemporary statesmen, this autobiography reveals the interstices of public and private life. The work represents not only a historical inscription, but a technology of self – and I shall argue for mainly hereditary purposes. The author presents, not a confession, but the Senecan account of an administrator, a faithful public servant. In my conclusion, I shall explore the question of whether his is the only instance of such secular life-writing at the time.
Boiling Water for Tea: Life History and Testimony in the Tibetan Refugee
Carole McGranahan, University of Colorado
Life history has long been the domain of the elite within Tibetan society. Auto/biographies were neither written by nor for ordinary Tibetans; unlike oral epics or local genealogies, they were not a part of everyday life for most Tibetans. Immediately striking, therefore, is the fact that life history is a key genre of individual and community expression within the Tibetan refugee world. In both instances, life history is recognized as not merely a telling of one’s story, but a telling to and for specific audiences and goals. Life histories are told as political testimony, as historical fact, as personal reflection, and as evidence of participation in the national Tibetan community. How and why has this new genre taken hold so quickly? What are the processes through which life histories may be told as national histories? Politics is certainly one component of the answer—the loss of country generates a collective longing and struggle for home commonly found among exile communities—but is not the entire story. Instead, by focusing on Tibetan-language narratives, I argue that this new turn to life history reveals efforts by ordinary, non-elite Tibetans to participate in and shape national community in new—and not always welcome—ways. As such, life histories are not just efforts to "Free Tibet" or recruit Western supporters to the cause as they are sometimes seen (especially in the case of English-language narratives), but are often complicated debates about desired subject positions and politics within the Tibetan community itself.
From Tibet to Exile, and Back to China
Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, Harvard University
Since the Chinese take-over, first-person narratives have played a significant role in the local and international politics of representing Tibetan history, society and culture, past and present. As much in Tibet as in exile, though with different rhetoric and mediums, accounts of personal experience have been held as evidence to counter the other side’s claims, and also, in the case of Tibet, as effective tools of control over individuals, in the form of (spoken or written) public demonstrations of loyalty to the PRC state. The published autobiographies in Tibetan in the post 1950s period have thus branched off in two main genres across this geographic-political divide: a state-sponsored set of texts framed by the communist form of self-criticism or thought-training on one side, and numerous life-stories inspired mostly by Western models on the other (at least for lay writers). Interestingly, the autobiography of Lobsang Tenzin, written in Lhasa, but published in two versions in 2004, in Northern India and in Beijing, crosses over the line: it shows the marks of both styles of writing. The author was born in 1916, worked as a government employee, fled in 1959 to exile, where he became a well-known cultural and administrative figure. He went back to Lhasa in 1980, where he still lives. This paper intends to compare both versions of his narrative, and examine the extent to which the different framing of his story for targeted audiences reveals or not differentiated notions of selfhood.