Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Question of Tibet

In my previous JYAN letter, I addressed how China’s holistic thinking can be used as a model for religious understanding. While China’s holistic thinking does allow the seamless interflow of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, its views on the holistic “share” of human rights can actually restrict the religious beliefs of China’s other 56 minority groups.

In November, I was able to experience the culture of one of these minority groups when I traveled to Jiuzhaigou County, an area in the northern Sichuan province heavily influenced by the Tibetan autonomous region. On one occasion, we attended a Tibetan evening festival complete with Yak butter tea and performances of traditional Tibetan songs. The dinner was designed for Chinese tourists, so they mainly sang revolutionary songs from the Mao Ze-dong era. These songs seemed out of place next to what I had learned about the tension between Tibet and mainland China.

I later noticed a picture of the Dalai Lama hidden behinds the colorful cupboards of the dining room, giving some merit to my original skepticism about the intensions of their songs. They draped the Dalai Lama’s photo in a yellow cloth to signify their devotion and respect but hid it out of view. With such strong support for the Tibetan spiritual and political leader, how could they also passionately sing revolutionary songs in support of the Chinese government? Amid such deep historical tensions, it is tricky to tell whether or not their songs were sung merely to escape religious persecution or because they truly felt content with the government.

In the US, we hear a lot about tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, particularly because of The United States’ fragile position in the issue, but we rarely hear about the tension between Tibet and mainland China. Perhaps the lack of discussion stems from wanting to avoid the tension that in many instances is more serious and more complicated than tension with Taiwan. But the serious potential for conflict begs me to ask what the roots of this tension are and whether or not it will ever cease.

Both Tibetans and the Chinese look back at history to justify their respective positions about whether or not Tibet belongs to mainland China. Tibet points at the Tibetan empire’s invasion of China in the 9th century to indicate that Tibet was always historically separate from China. China points to Tibet’s refusal to sign a treaty separate from China’s agreement with the British in 1904. Despite these disputes, an inkling of hope to resolve their different perspectives came with the Tibetan-Chinese signing of the Seventeen Points treaty in 1951. The two parties agreed that Tibet was officially a region in China and that apart from defense and diplomacy, the Dalai Lama would continue to administer the Tibetan regional government. Throughout the 1950s, the Dalai Lama and Mao were quite cordial. But in after China’s radical campaign for collectivization in 1959, riots broke out in Tibet. The Dalai Lama had to make a decision whether to cooperate with the official Chinese government or to support his own people.

He chose to flee.

Expelled in India ever since, the Dalai Lama has led the “Tibetan Government in Exile” until his recent renouncement of the title. Although his decision seems to suggest Tibet’s surrender to the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama’s decision is actually advantageous to the future of the region. As the Dalai Lama reaches his 80s, China is prepared to strategically choose a successor that can undercut Tibet’s efforts for greater autonomy. Giving up some power of the Dalai Lama’s power, however, takes away the extent of influence this successor could potentially use to coerce the Tibetan people to fully accept the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama’s choice to instead remain as a focal point for religious and cultural autonomy in the region suggests that he still plans to strive for gain greater autonomy in the future. His potential success and China’s subsequent reaction will be telling for other minority groups wishing to achieve the same religious freedom under a government that at times takes its idea of “holistic human rights” to the extreme.

Google translate glitch?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Guest Post

While in Shanghai, participating in the JYAN program (see posts here and here) has inspired me to look at China from a religious perspective. But my sister has also encouraged me to look at China from a culinary perspective. A while ago, I wrote some notes to her about my "foodie" experiences here - today, you can see a modified post on her "Healthy Purpose" blog.

Thank you to my sister for her never-ending knowledge on the subject and for everything she teaches me about world culture through the eyes of a chef. See you soon!

Not sure how these two are related, but...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Turkey with a Side of Dumplings

I was handling home-sickness well until Thanksgiving hit. Attending class like a normal day, I imagined my mom putting the turkey in the oven and dreamed of my school friends on planes and trains headed for home. They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here in China – how was I to find the holiday spirit?

Although absent from my family table, I knew I still had many things to be grateful for. My close friend from Georgetown had finished her study abroad program early and flew from Australia to explore Shanghai with me. Luckily she was still here during Thanksgiving, so we were able to be each other’s family at the university’s Thanksgiving buffet dinner. My host dad accompanied us to the dinner, and while he opted for the shrimp dumplings and Chinese mixed noodles, I enjoyed his reaction when he tried turkey and cranberry sauce for the first time.

Even though I was not able to spend Thanksgiving in the US, I was fortunate to share it with my Chinese family and new friends. Being their first host student, my host family had never celebrated Thanksgiving. My stories of watching the Macy’s Day Parade while preparing food and saying what you are grateful for around the dinner table intrigued them – they had never heard of such traditions before. Sharing my culture with them was the greatest gift I could give this holiday season. The next morning when my mom rushed me awake to show me news clips of the parade, I could see they how much they were trying to make me feel at home. This is truly what family is for.

While I longed for my American family during Thanksgiving, I know that I’ll be thinking about my host family on Christmas. There will be no lotus cakes to accompany the Christmas ham, nor tea to follow dinner. But I will have these memories and new Chinese traditions which I can now share with my American family.

Happy Holidays.

"Handicap Bathroom," is that so hard to translate?