Skip to Main content Skip to Navigation
Directions of work or proceedings

Tibetans who Escaped the Historian's Net. Studies in the Social History of Tibetan Societies

Abstract : The present collection is the outcome of a conference, "Recapturing the Tibetans who Escaped the Historian's Net", held in Bonn on 27-28 May 2013. Most of the authors are directly associated with the project "Social History of Tibetan Societies, 17th to 20th Centuries" (see Acknowledgements). The two exceptions, Astrid Hovden and Berthe Jansen, were invited to present papers based on their current research, which addresses themes directly relevant to the topic of the conference and to the project as a whole. As the title of the conference suggests, the broad focus of interest was provided by the kinds of "people without history" that Dalrymple saw emerging from the pages of the "Mutiny letters" preserved in the Delhi's National Archives. However, the contributions to this volume are not confined to their elusive Tibetan counterparts, but include the attitude of the central government and its organs towards its subjects, and to the analysis of some of the sources materials themselves. While some of the papers are concerned with establishing a clearer understanding of the perspectives close to the Tibetan centre--that is, the Ganden Podrang government--during the period in question, the "centrist" position is balanced by papers that focus on "peripheral" areas: northeast Tibet (Amdo) and the Himalayas (the enclaves of Limi and Mustang in what is now Nepal, and also Sikkim, which was absorbed by India in 1975). As far as Central Tibet is concerned, the political culture is framed by the "conjunction of religious law and government" (chos srid zung 'brel) articulated particularly through the rule of the Lhasa-based Ganden Podrang (dGa' ldan pho brang) government (1642-1959). This political structure, with the Dalai Lama at its apex, received its final form under the overall control of the Qing imperial administration, but survived the collapse of the latter by more than four decades. The confluence of the clerical and the worldly is starkly illustrated by Berthe Jansen's presentation of the seventeenth-century guidelines (bca' yig) for 'Bras spungs, a warts-and-all document that reveals aspects of monastic life such as "infighting, immigration, corruption, and even the shooting dead of a monk". In spite of the pious formulation (chos srid zung 'brel) cited above, the religious and the secular were not always comfortable bedfellows. This is apparent from a number of accounts, such as Melvyn Goldstein's well-known study of the consolidation of clerical authority through the confiscation and acquisition of aristocratic estates (Goldstein 1973). Without contesting that this was the general trend, Peter Schwieger nuances the picture with evidence that it was not only the aristocracy but the clergy too--in this case, the bKra shis ljongs reincarnation lineage--who were susceptible to having their estates swallowed up by more powerful monastic institutions. Provision of support for monasteries was of course not a matter of choice for the inhabitants of clerical estates in Central Tibet. Through a combination of local documents and ethnographic enquiry Astrid Hovden reconstructs the history and current operation of patronage in Limi, northwest Nepal. The villages of Limi were once gifted to the monasteries as a revenue base by a local king, but over the centuries their contributions of material support and labour have become a voluntary affair that is built into the communities' structures of household obligations. In spite of a few landmark studies, the field of Tibetan law remains one of the most under-researched areas of Tibetan Studies. An important component of Tibetan legal procedures was--and in certain areas still is--the use of ordeals to establish guilt or innocence. Christoph Cüppers' investigation of sDe srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho's comments on ordeals reveals one of the probable reasons why law has not attracted more researchers--the sheer difficulty of the texts--while advancing our knowledge of the use of this procedure. Fernanda Pirie develops the notion that law-codes may have had some function other than a strictly legal one. In examining a corpus of Golok laws, she doubts the likelihood of their ever having been enforced, and considers instead the possibility of that they were produced by local chiefs to legitimise a social order. The most and systematic scholarly studies of the social system under the Ganden Podrang government are provided by the work of Melvyn Goldstein although, as anthropological studies, they naturally cover only the last period of the old Tibetan government (e.g. Goldstein 1968, 1971). Goldstein's well-defined characterisation of the socio-economic structure of "old" Tibet as a form of serfdom has provoked much criticism, much of it less well justified and documented than Goldstein's position. What these accounts lack are, on the one hand, extensive and representative philological and diplomatic analyses of archived materials, which would provide a solid basis for the examination of the whole legal, administrative and bureaucratic processes involved; and on the other, analyses of material that might offer insights into earlier periods of the Ganden Podrang. Such material has been edited and analysed extensively by Dieter Schuh, who thus established the field of diplomatics--the science of charters--within Tibetan Studies. However, the examination of such material on a larger scale as sources for a social history remains a desideratum. Studies of Tibetan history have been based almost exclusively on historiographic sources. Now that other sources are available, they too should come to form the basis of scholarly writing in order to present a more differentiated and rounded picture than we have at present. This picture can be drawn in particular by letting the primary sources speak for themselves. How vivid and fresh such a picture based on archival material can be is demonstrated by Peter Blickle's study on the history of serfdom and freedom in southwest Germany (Blickle 2003). The importance of documents for our understanding of the lives of the Tibetan peasantry in pre-1951 Tibet is illustrated by the opening article in this collection. Discussions about this group have too often been reduced to an ideological and sterile debate on whether or not mi ser should be classified as serfs. Jeannine Bischoff's overview of Tibetan documents edited and published in the past forty years suggests a wealth of details in the interaction between different social groups, such as mi ser and their lords, mi ser and the central government in appealing against the excesses of their lords, as well as among mi ser themselves. These are the kinds of sources that provide fascinating and welcome contours to the otherwise flat landscape of Tibetan social life that is available to us. If the Tibetan peasantry has largely escaped the historian's net, so too has practically the entire middle level of Tibetan society, to such a degree that its very existence has often been denied by writers. This astonishing lacuna, Alice Travers suggests, is the result of "a tendency to impose a medieval reading on Tibetan society and history... [that] stresses the binary opposition between farmers and landlords and tends to obliterate nuances and groups who are external to this opposition". Travers' contribution is one of the few published attempts to foreground the existence of such an "intermediate group" - merchants, the non-monastic intelligentsia and others - who had a prominent but largely unacknowledged role in Tibetan society. The influence of the Qing administration on Tibet's socio-economic system has been almost totally neglected from the Tibetological perspective. The only monograph in this regard is Dabringhaus' study on the Amban Song Yun (1752-1835) and his efforts to reform the Tibetan administration, tax system and military as well as controlling governmental expenditure and improving the life of Tibetan peasants. Dabringhaus' valuable study is based on source material in Chinese, especially the writings of Song Yun himself. Her landmark study can now be complemented by investigations based on primary sources in other relevant languages. Such sources, especially in Tibetan, as well as certain trilingual works in Tibetan, Mongolian and Manchu, are available among the archival material collected so far. They also include Tibetan versions of the ideas Song Yun presented to the Tibetan government. A matter that is generally overlooked when dealing with relations between Tibet and the Qing central authority is the medium of communication. Clearly, a crucial role was played by translators, but this group, too, has remained largely invisible in the writings of historians. The vicissitudes of the translation process between Manchu and Tibetan, and the possible identity of the mysterious translators themselves, are the subject of Fabienne Jagou's article. As Kalsang Norbu Gurung points out, the function of the Qing Ambans was not always very clear, but the focus of his contribution, the Ten-Point Edict drawn up by the abovementioned Song Yun, is testimony both to the reforming zeal of this remarkable figure and also a precious record of the parlous state of social conditions in Tibet at the time. Gurung's study anticipates a full-length translation and annotation of the Tibetan version of this important resource. Liu Yuxuan's paper underscores the importance of official Qing documents for the social history of Tibet. Of the many gazetteers of Tibet that were produced during this era, the most important--for the detail it provides about Tibet's social conditions and especially the Gorkha wars of 1788-1792--was the Weizang tongzhi. Liu's contribution focuses on the structure of this gazetteer, and addresses the uncertainties surrounding its authorship. While the Himalayan areas also felt the presence of the Ganden Podrang to varying degrees, they enjoyed a substantial measure of autonomy, or else fell within the orbit of other powers. The rise of the Ganden Podrang coincided with the establishment of Sikkim's independence from Tibet; Mustang, for its part, came under the sway of Jumla and, after the late 18th century, of the Gorkhas, within the emerging state of Nepal. The rich archival collections preserved in these areas offer an invaluable resource for the examination of institutions and processes analogous to those that are known from Central Tibet. The Sikkimese covenant (gan rgya) of 1830 that forms the subject of Saul Mullard's contribution is ostensibly concerned with a problem that beset Tibet's rulers at various period: the vexed issue of tax fugitives, and how to retrieve them. But as is often the case, the document carries a subtext that addresses broader concerns relating to tensions between the political centre and the periphery, as well as between the ruler and members of the country's elite. Notoriously, the voices of subordinate groups generally go unheard, and even when they are documented it is almost invariably through the filter of the official record. In the concluding contribution, Charles Ramble presents certain archives of southern Mustang that provide a rare example of "hidden transcripts" (in James Scott's phrase): the discussions and resolutions of subordinate communities who recorded the strategies they adopted against their oppressors in documents that they kept concealed from outside view.
Document type :
Directions of work or proceedings
Complete list of metadata
Contributor : Alice Travers <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, January 21, 2014 - 1:29:21 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, May 20, 2021 - 3:13:19 AM


  • HAL Id : hal-00933955, version 1


Charles Ramble, Peter Schwieger, Alice Travers. Tibetans who Escaped the Historian's Net. Studies in the Social History of Tibetan Societies. Vajra Publications, pp.255, 2013. ⟨hal-00933955⟩



Record views