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The history of Tibet and China provides a basic understanding of the core issues facing China’s invasion of Tibet. Additionally, the history of spiritual figures such as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama provide a better understanding of Tibetan values and cultural relativeness. When looking at the self-immolations in Tibet it is important to discuss the religion and way of life for this ethnic minority. When the way of life and religious freedom is threated by the colonial rule the action of setting one’s self on fire makes clearer sense to the reader. Lastly understanding that Tibet does not want to be China they want to be Tibet. The forced assimilation is oppressing the Tibetan citizens and strengthening Chinese views of “One China.” All these factors provide a justification for colonialism being a useful topic when discussing the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
Located in south-west China, Tibet has a long history in existence between the various empires and kingdoms of its past. It was in 1913 that the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet as an independent country after the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Under the Dalai Lama, Tibet had its own currency, passports, army and national flag. After the 1948 Communist revolution in China it took aim at Tibet and invaded the republic in 1950. With the People’s Republic of China in control of Tibet the 14th Dalai Lama organized a uprising against the Chinese rule in 1959. The revolt was unsuccessful and led him to flee into exile in India. Subsequently many other Tibetan citizens also fled into exile which drastically impacted the religion in Tibet. “In the whole of Tibet in the past there was a total of about 110,000 monks and nuns. Of those, 10,000 fled abroad, leaving about 100,000. After the democratic reform was concluded, the number of monks and nuns living in the monasteries was about 7,000 people, which is a reduction of 93 percent.” Not only were the spiritual members leaving by the monasteries were being destroyed as well. “Of the 2,500 monasteries which had once existed only 70 were left,” and 98-99 percent of the estimated 1,900 monasteries in Kham and Amdo were also destroyed.”
Since then the People’s Republic of China has been controlling Tibet and incorporated the province into China. Under Chinese control the Tibetan people face oppression, imprisonment, harsh punishments, human rights violations and are forced to leave their Tibetan identity behind. Historically had Tibet remained an independent country they would have been the 10th largest nation in the world. After the invasion of Tibet in 1950 China broke up the land without regard of the ethnic territories and borders. Under Chinese control, parts of Tibet have been renamed and incorporated into Chinese provinces under the People’s Republic of China. The invasion of Tibet has caused Tibetan identity and culture to come under question. There is has been Chinese immigration to Tibet with government control of language, religion, culture and identity. Some parts of Tibet now have more Chinese citizens than Tibetans. Opportunities have also decreased under the Chinese Government due to economic development favoring Chinese migrants over minority Tibetans. Prior to China’s control Tibet had a separate culture with a different language, religion and traditions but under a “One China” view those values are assimilating to a majority culture.
The Dalai Lama is a title given to a spiritual leader of the Tibetan People under a Buddhist faith. They are the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism and also play a role in governing of Tibet. The name Dalai Lama is a Mongolian title meaning “Ocean of Wisdom” and according to Buddhists beliefs the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a past Lama. The concept comes from the Gelug tradition which is one of the largest influences of Tibetan culture. Gelug tradition founded in the 14th century follows the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa who was a fifteenth-century scholar monk. “This tradition strongly emphasized the monastic system as a basis for the study and practice of Lord Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings of Sutra and Tantra.” Tsongkhapa founded the tradition not long after Palden Atisha an Indian Buddhist master visited Tibet in the 11th century. Palden Atish’s teaching can be traced all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha who was the founder of Buddhism.
The current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th monk to hold the title and he was born in 1935. He has been in exile since 1959 after Chinese invasion of Tibet. Another important Lama is Tibetan culture is the Panchen Lama. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was named the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama but only a few days after the announcement he was taken into protective custody by China and has not been seen publicly since May 17th, 1995. Shortly after the Chinese government named Gyaincain Norbu the 11th Panchen due to the disappearance of Nyima. The Tibetans and exiled Tibet government do not recognize Norbu as the Panchen. They refer to him as the “Panchen Zuma” (false Panchen) or “Gya Panchen” (Chinese Panchen).
The Dalai Lama is seen as an enemy of the state because he is central to Tibetan culture which threatens the idea of “One China.” Ethnic Tibetan citizens want to be recognized as separate ethnicity from the People’s Republic of China. “The Chinese government wants me to say that for many centuries Tibet has been part of China. Even if I make that statement, many people would just laugh. And my statement will not change past history. History is history.”
The Tibetan population practices a way of living that is unique to their culture and ethnic background. They have a nomadic tradition that few people know about. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s highest and largest Plateau. It had been home for many Tibetan nomads for centuries but has also been subject to strict control and enforcement by Chinese authorities. The threats to their way of life have posed a challenge to century old traditions. “Tibetan nomads’ traditional way of life faces challenges including political pressures, forced resettlement by the Chinese government, climate change and rapid modernization.” The Chinese government is destroying their way of life by moving more than two million nomads from their land and into new urbanized buildings. In a 2017 article by The International Campaign for Tibet they talk about the change in their traditional way of life, “On the Tibetan plateau, Qinghai province was the first to advance official PRC policies of nomad settlement, which give the authorities greater administrative control over people’s movements and lifestyles. “Tens of thousands of Tibetan pastoralists have been compelled to slaughter their livestock and move into newly built housing colonies in or near towns, abandoning their traditional way of life.” The Chinese government is benefiting financially from the remote region due to “Large-scale mining in copper, gold, silver, chromium and lithium.”
Many Tibetan herders have begun to appeal the new policies saying, “Taking away citizens’ rights to pastureland is against the constitution, against national and local laws, and a major cause of damage to People’s’ livelihood and way of life.” The appeal is rare due to the risk of being imprisoned, tortured, or killed for speaking out against the government. The ban on their traditional grounds directly impacts their values and unique ethnic traditions. A Tibetan man was interviewed about the government’s use of the land and explained how culturally the land embodies his religion and values. “Tibetans do not learn the value of the earth through science but through our religion and the way our ancestors protected our land over thousands of years. Destruction of the land, the mining of sacred mountains and holy lakes, are more than pollution and destruction of the environment. It is a violation of our tradition, religious beliefs and the destruction of our forefathers’ legacy.” Moving them from their land and into newly built houses near towns is forcing them to assimilate to the majority Chinese culture. The government does not see the land as a cultural factor but simply an economic culture that aids in their agenda of “One China.”
The 25 cluster of languages descended from Old Tibetan known as; Tibetic Languages are spoken throughout China, India and Pakistan. The 25 languages include about a dozen major dialect clusters and another dozen minor dialect clusters. The most common Tibetic language is Standard Tibetan or “Lhasa Tibetan.” It is an official language of the Tibet Autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. It is estimated that 8 million people speak Tibetic Languages worldwide with about 1.2 million speaking Standard Tibetan.
Tibetan is separate from Chinese languages and uses a different alphabet and script. After the invasion of Tibet Chinese has replaced it as the official language in schools and business. Due to college entrance exams being taught in Chinese many young Tibetans are no longer literate in Tibetan. Primary and secondary education is taught in Mandarin which continues this trend of forced assimilation. For Tibetan people to be successful they need to know speak the official language of China and therefore sacrifice their own culture and language. As a result there have been public figures like Khenpo Kartse a respected monk who is well known for his work to preserve Tibetan language and culture. Even with the risk of being arrested or punished by Chinese authorities Kartse held local language teaching classes. Unfortunately, on December 6, 2013 Kartse was detained and sentence behind closed doors. Although he was recently released after serving a 2.5-year sentence there are reports that he was mistreated while incarcerated. The International campaign for Tibet reported that “There was concern for his health in custody as medical problems that were known before his detention went untreated, he was kept in a cold cell and had inadequate food.”
Many Tibetan Buddhist’s dedicate their life to the belief and take part in religious customs every day. Peoples Republic of China wants to control and limit the practice to weaken Tibetan identity. One of the world’s largest and most important Institute of Tibetan Buddhism is under threat from the Chinese government. Located in Sichuan, Larung Gar Buddhist Academy has had communist party officials to to manage the institute. This is coming after the center has already faced multiple demolitions and orders to reduce the population of Buddhists living there. The reduction in size took place over several months where the center was demolished which included the use of explosions. The government ordered the population to go from 10,000 to 5,000 as they enforced stricter religious freedom laws. “The administrative takeover of Larung Gar by Party official shows that the government’s aim was not merely to reduce numbers at the settlement,” says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Chinese authorities are also imposing pervasive control and surveillance over every level of activity within religious communities.” In addition Monks and Nuns who were expelled from Larung Gar are required to take part in patriotic re-education programs, “The rehabilitation of those displaced monks and nuns requires the study of Chinese policy and regulations regarding Tibet”.
Several Tibetan monks and nuns have taken part in self-immolation in the form of setting themselves on fire to protest the oppressive rule of the Chinese government. They are calling for freedom and respect of human rights. Since March of 2009 more than 150 people have set themselves on fire in protest with some being as young as 15 years old. In November 2013 and young monk named Tsering Gyal set himself on fire and told his friends a powerful message regarding the self-immolations. He was quoted saying “Today I self-immolated for reunion of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet. My only wish for you is to be united and to work for the preservation of Tibetan language and tradition. If we do these things, Tibetans will be reunited.” Tsering Gyal was willing to set himself on fire for the preservation of his culture and Tibetan identity. Another young monk named Sonam Topgyal left a letter before his self-immolation. His letter stated that the oppressive Chinese government is wiping away their existence by silencing their culture, religion and traditions which strips them of everything they are. The letter read, “Chinese authorities repress [Tibetans] with their violent and brutal law, by demolishing our religion, tradition and culture and causing environmental devastation. Meanwhile, people absolutely have no freedom of expression nor can they convey their grievances.” They cannot grieve the loss of their self because the way in which they grieve has been taken away from them.
The Chinese government response has been parallel to the already available propaganda against protesters. There is no viable concern from the government about the well-being of Tibetans setting themselves on fire but instead they are using security forces and punishments for protesters families and communities. The few protesters who survived their self-immolation have been detained by the government and little is known about their condition or whereabouts. The lack of concern by Chinese government brings into question the regard of minority life. These are human beings willing to die and an extremely painful way in hopes that people will understand their frustration and despair.
The People’s Republic of China is made up of a multitude of ethnic minorities. Under the current government the notion of “One China” or a “Single Unitary Chinese Nation” is painting a picture of China as one country regardless of ethnic minorities or lack of cultural homogeneity. It is more important to the government that the people believe in the idea of “one-china” then the reality of no cultural homogeneity. Within colonialism you have a group of people that are taking over the territory of another and then imposing their culture on them. Regarding Tibet, China’s invasion and control of the land is perpetrating colonial values. China forced Tibet to assimilate to majority Han Chinese culture by imposing Mandarin Chinese as the official language of Tibet. Secondly, we see that the central relationship between the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture challenges the central rule under the one china concept. Under One China you have Central Rule but places like Tibet who culturally value spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama more so than government threatens cultural homogeneity. Lastly, we see colonial rule with Nomadic Tibetans and the ban from pastureland. For generations it was tradition for Nomadic Tibetans to move around raising livestock. It was a way of life and livelihood. By banning them from that land the Chinese government is stripping them of their culture and traditions. Additionally, in doing so they are forcing them to assimilate to majority Han Chinese culture.
Confucianism is a philosophical system used to set expectations about the correct behaviors of the individual and the society. Family is central to the idea of collective punishment. If the family was internally harmonious then society in theory should follow suit. The relativity of Confucianism and Collective Punishment is seen within the punishments of the self-immolation family members. The family members of Tibetan Nuns and Monks who set themselves on fire were punished and held accountable for the behaviors and actions of their perpetrators regardless of involvement.
When looking at the history, Dalai Lama, traditional way of life, forced assimilation, language, Religion, and Self-Immolations we can understand how key terms such as one china, single unitary Chinese, central rule, Confucianism and collective Punishment we can see the connection to colonialism. The relationship between Tibet and the People’s Republic of China connect to the concepts of colonialism such as oppression, forced assimilation and political control.
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