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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A review of A Tibetan Buddhist Polymath in Modern China

February 5, 2012

How have religion, modernity, and nationality been shaped by Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? A Tibetan Buddhist Polymath in Modern China delves into this question through the life and work of a key intellectual figure, the Sixth Tséten Zhapdrung Jikmé Rikpé Lodrö (1910-1985) of Amdo. Nicole Willock’s groundbreaking study spans the crucial periods before and during the Communist takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, as well as the Cultural Revolution and its wake. Adroitly following her subject as he negotiates between Tibetan- and Chinese-language sources and discourses, Willock marks a fresh wave of sophisticated research that attends to place, language, and institutions in the making of religion in modern Tibet.

Before immersing us in the world of Tséten Zhapdrung, Willock sets forth the problematics to be addressed. Competing, politicized discourses either reify traditional Buddhist Tibet as a utopian alternative to modernity, or depict Tibet as a feudal society in need of modernization. Both obstruct the complexities of Sino-Tibetan interaction. Building on Talal Asad’s work on constructions of religion and the secular state—as well as recent work on religious and cultural revival in the PRC that challenge dichotomies such as tradition/modernity, China/Tibet—Willock clears space for adaptation, accommodation, and agency as dynamic elements of discursive formation.

Each chapter focuses on one of Tséten Zhapdrung’s multiple identities and how it figured into the making of “Tibet” and “Buddhism” within the PRC. Chapter One, “A Tibetan,” demonstrates how Tséten Zhapdrung, born of mixed Han-Tibetan descent, delineated his Tibetan identity through language, customs, and territory. While these markers of identity accorded with state-sanctioned discourse on ethnic identification (Ch. minzu shibie), Tséten Zhapdrung also explicated the ethnonym “Tibetan” (Tib. bod kyi rigs) and related terms by drawing from Tibetan-language discourses and epistemologies such as origin myths, Buddhist concepts, and ethno-geographic terms. Moreover, he “creatively interpreted the nationalities policy,” weaving ethnic markers into his family history to underscore the cultural and social contingency of identity formation (p. 32).

Chapter Two, “An Incarnate Lama,” investigates how Tséten Zhapdrung both supported and advocated reforms of the trülku system. Willock provides a detailed account of the founding of Tséten Monastery and its associated incarnation lineages. In the early 1980s, Tséten Zhapdrung recommended that trülku should be recognized as teenagers rather than young children, taking into account their intelligence and moral character. His special emphasis on education re-affirmed the authority of Buddhist monastic centers as centers of civilization distinct from the organization of the Chinese nation-state. Willock further shows how Tséten Zhapdrung rhetorically linked his Amdo monasteries—as well as Amdo dialects and lineages—with those of central Tibet, and thus “conjured a different set of space” relying on Tibetan history and culture rather than state boundaries and narratives (p. 113).

The significance of Tséten Zhapdrung’s monastic education becomes increasingly apparent in the remaining chapters. Willock documents his scholastic training in Chapter Three, “A Scholar,” highlighting the importance he placed on “education” (Tib. yon tan) beyond rote liturgical memorization. His emergence as an admired savant drew widespread attention, from the praise of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to government employment as a translator of the PRC constitution and Mao Zedong’s collected writings. As an established scholar weighing in on the study of astronomy, he “relied on the authority of Buddhist commentarial tradition, and simultaneously used his authority within this tradition to engage with the discourse of science,” thus accommodating new forms of knowledge within Tibetan scholasticism (p. 163).

Chapter Four, “A Translator,” revisits the discursive terrain of state language, nationalities, and religion through Tséten Zhapdrung’s translation work. Drawing from Lydia Liu’s conception of translingual practice, Willock argues that Tséten Zhapdrung fostered an exchange of knowledge between Tibetan and Chinese linguistic and cultural worlds. He and his fellow translators wrestled with terms such as “the people” (Ch. renmin) and the complex minzu (“nation/nationality/ethnic group”), allowing for the coining of Tibetan neologisms while remaining sensitive to the nuances of etymology, connotation, and word ordering in Tibetan. In addition to his efforts to develop and standardize modern Tibetan language, Tséten Zhapdrung also strove to educate Chinese-language readers about Tibetan Buddhism, critiquing such ill-conceived terms as “Lamaism” (Ch. lamajiao).

Chapter Five, “A Monk, A Hero,” examines Tséten Zhapdrung’s imprisonment from 1965 to 1976 and autobiographical writing. Writing about the Cultural Revolution in Buddhist terms, through poetry he compared Mao Zedong to Langdarma, the infamous ninth-century suppresser of Buddhism. As for incarceration, he interpreted this in terms of negative karma and the opportunity to cultivate religious practice. Willock poignantly conveys how Tséten Zhapdrung resisted state control through a life narrative that affirmed Buddhist survival and mastery in the face of destruction and attempted conversion.

Chapter Six, “A Teacher,” follows his subsequent career at Northwest Nationalities University in Lanzhou (1979-1985) and his efforts to revitalize Tibetan culture. Monastic scholars such as Tséten Zhapdrung effectively created Tibetan studies as an academic discipline in the PRC by integrating aspects of “monastic curriculum… into secular state-sponsored nationalities institutes” (p. 227). Promoting a pan-regional sense of Tibetan identity through teaching classical poetics, he trained a small group of students including Pema Bhum, who have become leading Tibetan intellectuals of their generation. In addition, he took pains to reconstruct monasteries and give Dharma teachings throughout Amdo.

Tséten Zhapdrung set forth conceptions of Buddhism, modernity, and Tibetan identity that continue to inform discourse in the PRC and beyond. Willock’s finely textured, interdisciplinary project is valuable for both Sinologists and Tibetologists interested in identity formation, institutional discourse and its discontents, monastic intellectuals and education, local histories of Amdo/Qinghai, and Tibetan literary history, especially poetics and autobiography. A much-needed corrective to simplistic rhetoric about Tibet “before” and “after” 1959 and the Cultural Revolution, it successfully reconceives modern Tibetan history in terms of transitions and ongoing discursive formations rather than radical breaks and inevitable decline. One may anticipate Willock’s book to be a major milestone in the study of religion, modernity, and language and literature in Tibet and the PRC.

Nancy G. Lin
Dartmouth College
Department of Religion

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