Saturday, November 28, 2009


"Das Wirbeltier schaut sich unvermittelt um und sieht im retrospektiven Bild der Lichtjahrsnacht den rätselhaften Schwanz der Sippe.

Erst jetzt hat der geheimnisvolle Weg sein Ziel erreicht, und das Ziel ist das Bewusstsein um den langen Weg zum Ziel.

Wir können nur in die Hände klatschen, Extremitäten, die wir dem Konto für den Erbschatz der Sippe gutschreiben können."

Jostein Gaarder: Maya. Das Manifest, Karo 6

Vor langer langer Zeit habe ich mit einer Freundin aus mythischer Vorzeit begonnen diese 52 Sprüche auswendig zu lernen. Leider bin ich nie über die Hälfte hinaus gekommen, und sie musste schon früher aufgeben. Doch schon mit der Hälfte an Sprüchen hat das Aufsagen beim Patiencelegen viel Spaß gemacht.

Ich vermisse oft die Vergangenheit, und frage mich fast genauso oft, ob ich das tun sollte. Denn die Vergangenheit, zumindest diese Vergangenheit, hatte (entgegen āryadevas Behauptung) ein wirkliches Ende. Es gibt einen Punkt, an dem sich genügend Beteiligte einer Vergangenheit genügend stark verändert haben damit diese Vergangenheit zu einem Ende kommt. Und doch bleibt sie weiter an mir haften und ich frage mich, wie es für die anderen Beteiligten ist.

अतिक्रांतस्य नास्त्यादिरंतो 'नागतस्य च।
केन ते दृ*श्यते योगो वियोगश्च चिरापि न।।

”Es gibt keinen Anfang der Vergangenheit und kein Ende der Zukunft,
warum schaust du auf das Beisammensein und nicht auf die Trennung, auch wenn sie lang ist?”

āryadeva: catuḥśataka, Kapitel 1, Vers 21 nach Karen Lane mit möglicher Rekonstruktion der zweiten Strophe durch Anne MacDonald

Friday, November 13, 2009


As I was leaving the institute, today, a young woman approached me on the corridor. She explained making short interviews for a Chinese newspaper (her being an Austrian) and had come to our institute because of the question being: “Tibet: Independence yes or no?”. …She probably couldn’t have chosen a more difficult question to answer just like that, standing on the corridor. Even pramana (Buddhist logic) might have been a subject easier to explain.

Tibetan independence is, in fact, a topic hardly discussed at our institute (at least not in classes) but obviously of high interest to anybody occupied with the subject of tibetology (and a number of sinologists too, for that matter).

So, what are my thoughts on Tibetan independence; what is my point in this ongoing and politically heated discussion? It is a subject I have been thinking about and reviewing quite a lot recently. Partly because of my growing interest in Tibet’s historical situation during the first half of the 20th century (along with interesting figures such as dge ‘dun chos ‘phel) and partly because of my advance into sinology and thus the history of China in the 20th century. That is not to say the older Tibetan (and Chinese) history isn’t as important in the whole discussion, of course.

As I biked home after giving my little statement on the topic, a million things came to my mind and I wish I had asked for her name and email address, so I could write them to her (and correct some of my mistakes… it is friday after all). So now I’m writing some thoughts here, to get them off my mind.

To me, the topic of Tibetan independence is clearest the farther you go back in time. In the times of the great Tibetan empire under the rule of kings, the country did not only reach its biggest expansion but also quite probably had the most active contact (be it in war, trade, or else) with it’s neighbours. A glance at Silk Road history in the region of today’s 新疆 (Xinjiang), most of all roughly in Tang Dynasty times, shows clearly how much influence the Tibetan kings waged on those far away lands and kingdoms, Khotan, Miran, Loulan, Dunhuang… the list is long. Heather Stoddard, among others, speaks of the "Doring” (rdo ring) in discussing dge ‘dun chos ‘phel. These “long stones” seem to have existed not only in Tibet (specifically Lhasa) but also Chang’an. The famous doring of Lhasa, standing in front of the Jhokhang temple’s main entrance is engraved bilingually in Tibetan and Chinese with the 821-822 peace treaty between Tibet and China. Not that this treaty had any long-lasting effect, but nevertheless it shows the active political relations between two countries. Also, in discussion about dge ‘dun chos ‘phel, I stumpled about the mchod rten dkar po, “white Chörtens (Stupas)” that were set up as markers of the Tibetan borders (to Bhutan, India, Nepal, but also China and others) and found, for example, at the Kokonor.

But after the fall of the rule of kings, the topic of Tibetan independence seems to get more and more difficult to answer clearly. Over the course of time, Chinese influence in Tibet grew (for example with the post and influence of the ambans). From the Chinese point of view, Tibet (successively) albeit slowly became part of the emperor’s influence and thus, theoretically, a tributary state. The Tibetan view of this was, of course, different and over time it is clear that the Chinese influence gradually diminished again until it had almost faded by the beginning of the 20th century.

The beginning of the 20th century truly was a period of great hope and chance for Tibet. The 13th, and afterwards even the 14th Dalai Lama had great plans for reformation and renewal of the country, organisations were forming in and without connection to movements in China, and so forth. In 1910, Chinese troops made their way to Lhasa but were defeated (the 13th Dalai Lama had taken temporary refuge in India). In 1911/12, the Qing Dynasty fell and together with that many of it’s more remote or tributary provinces declared independence. In 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet’s independence (as did Mongolia; just recently the original of a document has been found in which Mongolia and Tibet assure each other’s independence as states having freed themselves from the oppression of the Qing Dynasty) which sadly was hardly recognise by other states around the world.

The reactions to 1911/12 over the whole of China and it’s periphery are very interesting, in themselves. As was typical for the end of Chinese Dynasties, tributary and remote provinces and countries declared their independence from the court, which in turn further weakened the court’s power and caused it fall. Throughout Chinese history, this has happened times and times again, but it must be clear, too, that this was always followed by a new dynasty arising and incorporating those far regions, again. Thus, a proclamation of independence from 1912 is difficult to judge, considering the overall political situation and dynamics in east Asia at that time.

1927, after the establishing of the Nanjing government, 蔣介石 (Chiang Kai-shek) proposed the separation of Tibet into three regions (Amdo and Kham had already been largely unconnected to the Lhasa-governed central Tibet for a longer time) which was administratively completed by 1936 with the establishing of the regions Xikang (parts of Kham) and Qinghai (Amdo).

Even after that, though, there were still strong Tibetan movements for reform, for independence or for cooperation with the Chinese (communists). The Tibetan Improvement Party, for example, was formed 1939 in Kalimpong, India, or the world’s first Tibetan Newspaper, the Melong, based in Kalimpong, kept trying to shake Tibet out of it’s long and blind slumber of conservative ignorance.

Finally, the conservative system resisted change and closed its eyes to the danger approaching swiftly. It was Tibetans, finally, who built roads for the “liberating” Chinese tanks…

In conclusion, I have no side in this discussion. Tibetan independence keeps being an incredibly difficult subject, partly caused by the fact that there still is too little scientific discussion of new Tibetan history that would have to take account of all the surrounding factors and influences. What is clear, though, is how incredibly political this whole issue has become. The Chinese (CCP) on the one hand and the (exile) Tibetans on the other both almost always approach this from a very subjective perspective. A Tibetan not wishing for Tibetan independence would be “betraying his cultural heritage”, a Chinese not following the party’s (hard)line on Tibet will be silenced with the same charges – betrayal of the motherland, political splittism.

One thing, though, must be noted without doubt: the situation as it is now, in Tibet, is wrong. Without discussing independence of real autonomy, the every day violations of human rights, martial law and cultural genocide planned on a large scale are delicts that many future generations will have to take responsibility and find answers for, either way.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

University woes

This semester, I’m attending a class on a subject I’m very interested in: The Silk Road. And even though the course’s scope is formally limited to the “Western Regions” (西域), the area largely confined to the Tarim Basin and today’s Xinjiang, all the other parts of the Silk Road and the countries it bound together can hardly be left unmentioned.

This great “highway” of cultural, economical, spiritual and linguistic exchange connecting places as far from each other as Nara, in Japan, and Damascus at the Mediterranean sea fascinates me greatly. The lecture’s title is “A journey to the Western Regions. Art and Archeology of the Silk Road”, it is being held by Erika Forte of the department of art history Vienna and mainly focuses on the time of greatest activity along the Silk Road in that region, being between Han and Tang Dynasty times (roughly 3rd – 8th cent. a.d.).

When in the first lecture miss Forte explained she means her course to be, apart from two introductory lessons, be held on the basis of student presentations, my heart sank. Student presentations are something I don’t hold in much high regard since we all are merely striving for knowledge, while the teacher most often has so much more knowledge to give.

Also, student presentations are a time when the unprofessional and often unscientific behaviour and methodology of students gets exposed maybe the most easily. Thus, our first lesson of student presentations has left me quite disappointed and a little annoyed.

Be it the young Chinese boasting in his booming voice about how Xuan Zang was the greatest of the Chinese Buddhist Pilgrims who went over the Silk Road to India, solely basing his presentation on information gathered from Buddhist sources and publications, taking every myth and religious exaggeration for unquestioned truth, or the apparent Inability of people not specifically studying Indology to at least more or less correctly pronounce words like Sanskrit or Nālandā Vihār. Thus teachers can almost ruin a very interesting topic by almost completely giving it into the hands of the students.

Of course, I know I am being harsh in my judgement and high in my expectations, but this is, after all, the university. And that is another thing that has been on my mind of late. These days, the university of Vienna is “burning”, meaning student protests have erupted, auditoriums occupied, and the like. Students in other parts of Austria have joined in and even in Berlin students are talking about joining out of solidarity.

While I do not oppose protesting, and agree with a number of the issues being discussed (like gender equality, anti-discrimination, better funding of institutes and personnel, etc), I find some of the most loudly voiced slogans of these protests rather ridiculous. It isn’t very clever or educated protesting against the re-establishing of student fees with slogans like “Education is a basic human right”, living in a very developed country with a very thorough school system. University education must be seen for what it is: an exclusive science. Certainly, this cannot be called a “basic human right” and thus be demanded as available freely to anyone – in a country, where you pay for your child’s kindergarden! Where is the “basic”, there?

A feeling that has grown inside me over the course of my studies is that so many people at the university in fact would be better off not being students. With that, I don’t want to label them inferior in any way, but everyone has own talents and abilities and let’s face it, university is and should be tough learning. These people are at the university studying something they might or might not be interested in because both expectations of their family and our culture are forcing them to. Doing an apprenticeship is regarded the lower choice and studying the key to every high and well paid job.

This unrealistic and ridiculous trend shows itself well in the recent adoption of the so called “Bologna System” by all European universities. This system, being essentially the bachelor-master system, seems heavily dictated by the economy, streamlined to churn out people with easily classifiable skills, unified for the international market. The curricula, now rigidly structured, dictate the student what he or she has to study and leave very little freedom of pursuing own interests and finding a field of specialisation. Selecting one of five available masters at our institute doesn’t quite seem like specialising, does it?

Parallel, introductory phases have been introduced. These, most often limited to the first semester, mean you have a certain number of classes you must all pass in order to be allowed to go on studying in the following semester. Should you fail any of the required classes, you’ll have to wait and try again in the next round (note that most of those classes have 2 or 3 successive exams, giving you lots of chance to better your marks). Similarly, the new university law (which was the cause of the current protests) also gives institutes the possibility of filtering the students admitted to their studies in any way they find suitable (that might be exams, grade point average, etc). With courses like journalism, law or medicine sometimes being overrun by foreign students (mostly Germans fleeing from the grad point average limited universities at home) this seems rather realistic and badly needed than unfair and evil. Testing the fresh students’ dedication for a subject and their overall ability of studying also seems rather beneficial to them, in my opinion. Better to find out you might not be so ideally qualified for a subject in the first semester than somehow dragging along for years until you finally abandon it or fail.

Maybe, if students were un-trendy and anti-social individuals again, all these problems would be solved easily.