Religion, Politics, and Bookworms: Tibetan Libraries in China Today
Picture this: it’s mid-morning in Beijing. The fog parts to reveal the imposing concrete face of the Cultural Palace of Nationalities (The Minzu Wenhua Gong, 民族文化宫), a national museum and repository of texts in China’s minority languages. I, the bright-eyed American doctoral student, approach the security gate and introduce myself to the gateman.
After I engage in the requisite pleading and kowtowing, he tells me to wait for the man who comes out to raise the flag. The flag? Okay. I step back from the gate and wait. In about ten minutes, a man in a red windbreaker exits the security gate and begins hoisting the Chinese flag in front of the massive compound. I initiate my second round of kowtowing. He reluctantly leads me inside the security gate and then disappears. I find my way to the library circulation desk and negotiate with the librarian: because I am studying Tibetan language texts, she doesn’t want me to use their catalog. “Just tell me what you want to know,” she prompts. That’s how research works here, apparently — you come all the way to China because there is just one thing that you want to know, and it’s something she can type in a search string for you.
My visit to the Cultural Palace of Nationalities depended on the whims of a motley crew: the gateman, the flag raiser, a sketchy department head who was a little too interested in me, an accommodating but anxious scholar who copied a digital text onto my flash drive for me but only reluctantly offered his name, and five different librarians, mostly grumpy, but one of whom adored me and brought me lunch two days in a row as she watched me frantically scribble through the lunch hour. With much inconvenience on my end and on theirs, I somehow stumbled upon a rare text that I didn’t know existed, a text that played perfectly into my core thesis. It felt nothing short of miraculous.
The truth is, when working in the Tibetan libraries of China, there are all varieties of characters and coincidences on which research depends. And there are all manner of obstacles that converge to make research difficult. Some of these are random obstacles, like the mood of an employee who just wants to go on break or is too shy to speak to a foreigner. Then there are the random building closings, construction projects, holidays, hours changes, address changes, staff changes, and phone number changes. All this is part and parcel of life in China, especially the further one ventures away from Beijing into the provincial libraries and archives of the interior.
But there are other obstacles to research that are not so random. These are the institutionalized obstacles, set in motion by political, cultural, and religious forces that are predetermined to clash with the values of free inquiry. Tibetan libraries are often quarantined as “politically sensitive.” As a consequence, they are plagued by a general ignorance from the top down about the real content and value of their Tibetan collections.
The suspicion and paranoia about allowing foreigners access to Tibetan libraries in China is institutionalized, too. In Qinghai and Gansu provinces, home to sizeable minority populations, individual counties are “closed” and “opened” to foreigners on an ongoing basis depending on the local political landscape. There are no official announcements or lists of which counties are closed. You find out at the bus station, or you find out after you arrive there, or you find out after you’ve already checked into your hotel room and a frantic group of police officers knocks on your door and begs you to leave (yes, this has happened to me). Rules about “xenophobia” and “suppression of the Tibet issue” are rarely spelled out in plain terms; so, well-intentioned workers constantly have to balance their incredible instinct for hospitality with the uncertain risks of helping the wrong person do the wrong thing at the wrong time.
There are reasons for these barriers, of course. Libraries serve a fundamentally different function in the People’s Republic of China than they do in the U.S. They serve first and foremost to promote state authority. They accomplish this by controlling the flow of information (especially in minority languages) in order to secure state power and by maintaining a scholarly “face” to evoke pride in their research infrastructure and national heritage. In the context of Tibetan libraries, the government’s first priority is to control access to artifacts, not to organize or open or publicize or promote them. I am deeply grateful to the scholars and bureaucrats in China who work against this grain to support research in minority languages.
The Chinese bureaucracy and CCP policies are not the only factors at play in making research in Tibetan libraries challenging. Language difference matters, and technological obstacles to searching and cataloguing texts bilingually thwart many a librarian. At Qinghai Nationalities University (hint: “Nationalities” means it was founded to serve as a research center for minority cultures and languages), the main library staff doesn’t have the technology or the language acumen to catalog the Tibetan department’s student theses. I once spent an entire afternoon sorting through an office piled high with graduate theses because no one had catalogued or organized them. When I didn’t find the text I was looking for, to my great dismay the department secretary opened a second office piled high with more theses, many of them repeat copies of texts I had already scoured and half-heartedly tried to organize. On the last pile, in the third office I searched, I found the text I wanted. Persistence is key, even in the face of absurd odds.
Aside from the language issue, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition comes with its own baggage on how to control and transmit book-knowledge. The storage of texts in monastery libraries is colored by a devotion to texts as sacred objects, or more literally, a devotion to texts as monks. The books are wrapped in cloth called a “sash” and lay people “invite” the scriptures to come bless their homes or fields as if the books were lamas themselves. Needless to say, even with the small identifying tags on the ends of the wrapped cloth bundles, such an arrangement makes the material preservation, scholarly use, and accounting of texts in Tibetan Buddhist monastery libraries more than difficult.
Ironically for a religion in which texts are literally worshipped, Tibetan Buddhists do not always treat texts “well” according to western bibliographical standards. Entries in Tibetan library catalogs seldom differentiate among specific editions of texts, because truth is truth is truth… right? Even modern-day Tibetan language publications show a startling lack of citations, stemming from the assumption that tradition should be respected, not interrogated. I know this reality would make some of the great bibliographers of Tibet’s past (and present) shudder in disbelief.
Finally, there is still an old-school mentality, nurtured by the tantric Buddhist tradition, that one needs initiation into a text or practice by a qualified master, who then allows one to progress slowly, in stages, through a prescribed program of learning. I heard the story of one scholar who wasn’t taken seriously by a monk she visited because she couldn’t recite the beginning formulas that his novice monks had to memorize. “You don’t know anything about Buddhism,” he told one of the foremost scholars of Tibetan Buddhism in the U.S.! This kind of insider chauvinism — even though it is an understandable response to the appropriation of minority culture by other interests — hurts the prospects for producing and disseminating knowledge about the Tibetan tradition, which helps no one.
When it comes to Tibetan libraries in China, bookworms—that is, the actual insects who feast on the scholar’s sacra—are the least of our worries. But facing these very real cultural, political, and religious obstacles to research can present us with opportunities for creative adaptation and progress. I close with an optimistic litany of suggestions, a call to appreciate and engage the sometimes laughable complexities of our research environment. After all, isn’t this why we love studying Tibet?
- Know the hierarchical status of each person, place, and text that you’re working with. If you can show appropriate decorum and respect where it’s expected, you will be more successful. And you might learn something deeper about the culture you’re supposed to be an “expert” in.
- Know the hierarchical status of yourself. Find the right balance between humility and a professional attitude that will garner you attention and acceptance.
- Know the political sensitivity level. Assuage the fears and suspicions of helpless government workers as much as you can, by smiling, avoiding a focus on “Tibetan” issues, and thinking carefully through the feasibility and safety of your work. Participate in the local rituals of acquaintance and growing trust (this usually ranges from drinking tea together to drinking baijiu, the terrible local liquor that is on all of our research résumés).
- Share. Share catalogs, outlines, texts, contacts, and skills. Share work-in-progress (blogs are a great way to do this). Share with your western colleagues, and share especially with students and researchers in the local communities in China where you work.
- Educate local librarians and archivists on the real content and value of the materials you’re working with. Expand the discourse on these materials beyond “politically sensitive” and appeal to broader categories of knowledge that non-Tibetans can appreciate. If someone studying the history of science, or the calligraphic arts, or environmental architecture uses Tibetan sources and tells the librarians on site about her work, then she makes a small contribution toward the future of these texts and the future of Tibetan libraries in China.
Department of Religious Studies
University of Virginia
Image: A Tibetan monk in the printery at Labrang Monastery, Gansu Province. Image by Christina Kilby.
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