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Tibetan Culture- Its Uniqueness
It was the centre of the sky, the middle of the earth and the heart of the country. An enclosure of glaciers; head of all rivers. High mountain, pure earth, an excellent country. A place where wise men are born heroes, where custom are perfected, where horses grow swift. 12
1. To understand Tibet lets analyse its culture vis a vis china and other cultures. Before this a basic question is to be answered as to what is a "national culture"? A nation is more than a state, which is more than a tribe, which is more than a clan, which is more than a family. Therefore it s a pyramid with family at the base and nation at the apex, the nation follows a culture which aptly can be called as the national culture. Before we analyse the Tibetan culture and religion we must keep in mind the fact that Tibet though now a part of China, earlier, proclaimed itself to be an independent nation. The Chinese influence on the way of life and especially the national culture has though been increasing but the distinctness of Tibetan culture can not be over emphasised. Firstly let s analyse the Tibetan culture against the Chinese point by point.
(a) Territory. No sizeable Chinese populations have settled in the ethnic Tibetan area in the great triangle Kumbum - Chamdo - Ladakh at any time in the recorded history of either nation (without taking into account the ongoing influx of Chinese settlers to change the demography of the region as has been news casted for last few years). A working border was established between the two warring Tang Empire (Chinese) and the Yarlung Empire (Tibetans) running east of Chamdo and Derge up toward Lanchou (Lanzhou). From China came occasional invasions by warlord armies both of Mongol s and Manchu troops in the earlier 13th and 18th centuries, respectively - sporadic diplomatic missions, a few merchants for trade and visiting religious representatives. There were no "Chinatowns" in any Tibetan city and no hardly any sizeable chunk of Chinese population. This has of course changed over the century especially after the invasion of Tibet by communist China: there are now 7.5 million Chinese settlers in Tibet, excluding army garrisons. Briefly in historical terms, they may be considered as colonists or expansionists and in no position as to preserve or anchor a common culture.13
(b) Language. Tibetan is quite distinct from Chinese. It s near to Sanskrit due to similar structure. Tibetan is also near to Chinese, Hindi, Nepali and to some extent Mongolian. It used to belong to the "Tibeto-Burman" family, although recently some linguists have taken up the label "Sino-Tibetan" (to include Sinic, Daic, Bodic (Tibetan) and Burmic, with the first two and the last two forming distinct subfamilies), expressing the Chinese influence. These terminologies do not alter the fundamental difference in the languages. Chinese is written in ideograms and is monosyllabic, non-inflected and tonal. Tibetan is written in an alphabet and is polysyllabic, is inflected with case, declension and gender structures adapted from Sanskrit, and is not semantically tonal. Though Tibet has been a part of china for last 50 years but still a mere handful of the present Chinese can speak fluent Tibetan, whereas younger generation of Tibetans have been forced to learn colloquial Chinese even from primary education.14
(c) Religion. Religion is equally important and influential in Tibetan society. Over the ages the overarching influence of Buddhism on Tibetans and that of Confucianism and Taoism on Chinese happened. Though Buddhism still remained a common thread. Even in terms of Buddhism, Tantrism is central to Tibetan Buddhism, but only represents a small movement in Chinese Buddhism. Most Chinese Buddhists to this day donot subscribe to Tantric ideas, considering it a "debased" form of Buddhism. Therefore in a religious analysis very little is common between the two, another major teaching difference is that whereas Confucianism teaches that an individual can give up ones life to keep up the religious ethos the Tibetans are not subscribes to this thought. The Mongols and Manchus were different in this respect, and that is why the famous "priest-patron" relationship was formed between Sakyapa Lamas and Mongol emperors in the 13th century, and between Gelukpa Dalai Lamas and Manchu emperors in the 17th century. Though Chinese are in Tibet for last 50 years but this is actually too less time for communism to influence the strong following of Buddhism in Tibet. Even in thre past relationships were seldom formed between Tibetan lamas and Chinese emperors during the 900 years of the Song and Ming dynasties combined. The Chinese influence also has been kept at bay due to the supreme control of the Dalai Lama and the influence of religion on the day to day administrative activities of the Tibetans.
2. Tibetans are wholly dedicated to Buddhism and are therefore unique on the planet ina certain way. Dharma is all in all and controls their day to day life. Their culture has been slowly transformed over the 1200-year period from early 7th century to the great 5th Dalai Lama (early 17th century) from a normally ethno-centric, war-liking, tribal culture to a more docile Buddhicized, spiritual, peaceful culture. Essentially, the religion influence has unilaterally disarmed them over the ages. One can also conclude that their material development has been systematically neglected in favour of their spiritual development though it is the doing of their religious heads essentially. For ages, the major head in the budget of the national government has been the support of the religion, studies and the practices of the monks and nuns. The wheel was seldom used for transport, but mainly for generating prayers, the energy of OM MANI PADME HUM through the hands of monks and common folks. Their rulers were followers of compassion, triumphing over dynastic blood lineages a true picture replication of Ashoka the great after the bloody battle of Kalinga. Tibetan culture thus aptly represents Buddhism's most sustained experiment of transforming a martial race into a docile race living in a peaceful social environment. The present Dalai Lama and his successors are furthering the completion of this herculean transformation effort. But with the advent of industrialisation and modern education there are pockets of anti Dalai Lama thought prevalent in the present Tibetan society.
3. Tibetan Art15. The influence of religion on Tibetan art is evident and Tibetan art may be referred to as religious in nature, a form of art. the sculptors and painters are often monks, the Tibetan culture hardly boasts of any eminent painter or any famous work of art. There is a high dependence on ritual texts which depicts pictorial representation of religious acts. Yama, The Lord of Death, is revered in Tibet as the guardian of spiritual practice, and was revered even before the conversion of Tibet from Bon to Buddhism in the 40th century. Yama is the essence of religious paintings and they represent deity s meanings and functional demands. Thangka paintings, a Chinese scroll-painting with Nepalese, Kashmiri and Central Asian style paintings appeared around the 11th century both rectangular and painted on cotton or linen. The painting is framed in colorful silk broadcades so as to ensure that the image did not fade.
4. Cuisine16. The most important crop is barley. The Cuisine of Tibet is quite distinct from that of its neighbours, since only a few crops (not including rice) grow at such high altitude. Dough made from barley flour, called tsampa, is the staple food of Tibet. Meat dishes are likely to be yak, goat, or mutton, often dried, or cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes. Mustard seed is cultivated in Tibet, and therefore features heavily in its cuisine.
5. Tibetan Calendar17. The Tibetan calendar depicts the influence of nature on Tibetan culture, it is the lunisolar calendar, similar to Hindu and Hebrew calendar, that is, the Tibetan year is composed of 12/13 lunar months, each beginning and ending with a new moon. A thirteenth month is added approximately every three years to equate it to the solar year. The months have no names, but are referred to by their numbers except the fourth month which is called the saka dawa. The Tibetan New Year celebration is Losar. Each year is associated with an animal and an element. The animals alternate in the order, hare dragon snake horse goat rooster dog pig- mouse- bull tiger. The elements alternate in the following order: fire earth- iron- water- wood.
6. Tibetan Architecture18. The Tibetan architecture depicts a categoric influence by a number of forms including Indian influence, Buddhist influence and the climatic influence. Chronologically if we analyse then the erstwhile forts got slowly transformed into monasteries, the erstwhile relevance of dominating ground got converted into nearness to heavens above, thereby bringing out the increasing influence of Buddhism. The Buddhist Prayer wheel, along with two deer or dragons near every Gompa in Tibet , the design of the Tibetan Chortens which can vary, from roundish walls in Kham to squarish, four-sided walls in Ladakh. The most unusual feature of Tibetan architecture is that many of the houses and monasteries are built on elevated, sunny sites facing the south, and are often made out a mixture of rocks, wood, cement and earth. Little fuel is available for heat or lighting, so flat roofs are built to conserve heat, and multiple windows are constructed to let in sunlight.
7. Music of Tibet19. The music of Tibet reflects the cultural heritage of the trans-Himalayan region, centered in Tibet. Tibetan music is religious music, reflecting the profound influence of Tibetan Buddhism on the culture. Tibetan music often involves chanting in Tibetan or Sanskrit, as an integral part of the religion. These chants are complex, often recitations of sacred texts or in celebration of various festivals.
8. Literature. Literary creation in Tibet is rich and varied. There is a rich ancient tradition of lay Tibetan literature includes dance scripts, poetry, short stories, epics and plays whereas there is abundant literary works by monks which are near to religious thought process. Some of these have been translated into Western languages but translation of archaic works is difficult. Perhaps the best known categories of Tibetan literature are the epic stories - particularly the famous Gesar epic.
9. The Culture of China20 is one of the world's oldest, complex cultures which has its origin from the Han dynasty, meaning the milky way in ancient Chinese. The area in which the culture is dominant covers a large geographical region in eastern Asia with customs and traditions varying greatly between towns21, cities and provinces. There are 56 distinct ethnic groups in China. In terms of numbers, however, the pre-eminent ethnic group is the Han Chinese. Throughout history, many groups have been assimilated into neighbouring ethnicities or have disappeared without a trace. At the same time, many within the Han identity have maintained distinct linguistic and regional cultural traditions.
10. Values. The social values of the society are derived from Confucianism and Taoism22. Infact the Chinese values differ from Tibetan values in being more orthodox and fanatic. Reincarnation and other rebirth concept is a reminder of the connection between real-life and the after-life. In Chinese business culture, the concept of guanxi, indicating the primacy of relations over rules, has been well documented.
11. Social Structure of China23. Since the olden period of the five emperors, some form of Chinese Monarch has been the main ruler above all. Different periods of history have different names for the various positions within society. Conceptually each imperial or feudal period is similar, with the government and military officials ranking high in the hierarchy, and the rest of the population under regular Chinese law. Since the late Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC 256 BC), traditional Chinese society was organized into a hierarchic system of socio-economic classes known as the four occupations.
12. Language24. The first 4,000 years of spoken Chinese encompassed both Old Chinese and Middle Chinese, after which it began to split into various dialects and languages about 1,000 years ago. In the Ming Dynasty standard Mandarin was nationalized. Even so, it was only in the Chinese era in the 1900s when there was any noticeable result in promoting a common language in china. The ancient written standard was Classical Chinese. It was used for thousands of years, but was mostly reserved for scholars and intellectuals.
13. Mythology and Spirituality25. Chinese religion was originally oriented to worshipping the supreme god Shang Di during the Xia and Shang dynasties. The Zhou dynasty oriented it to worshipping the broader concept of heaven26. A large part of Chinese culture is based on the notion that a spiritual world exists. Countless ways of divination have helped answer questions, even serving as an alternate to medicine. Old Folk songs have helped fill the gap for things that cannot be explained. There is often a blurred line between myth, religion and unexplained phenomenon. While many deities are part of the tradition, some of the most recognized holy figures include Guan Yin, Buddha and the Jade emperor. Many of the stories have since evolved into Chinese Holidays.
14. Literature27. Chinese literature began with record keeping and forecast on the Oracle Bones. The extensive collection of books that have been conserved since the Zhou Dynasty demonstrate demonstrate the high level of intellect at that time. Indeed, the era of that time is often looked to as the golden age of Chinese cultural development. The Five Cardinal Points are the foundation for almost all major studies. Concepts covered within the classical texts present a wide range of subjects including astronomy, poetry, calendar, astrology ,celestial bodies and many others.
15. Music28. Ling lui was the founder of Chinese music with the oldest written song being the Solitary Orchid. The Chinese music dates back to the era of Chinese civilization with documents and artefacts providing evidence of a well-developed musical culture as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC). The Chinese traditional music is generally played with solo instruments. Some of the oldest written music is of the Confucius period.
16. Arts29. Fine arts included five disciples of music, paintings, sculpture, architecture and drama with both forms including performing and visual art. Different forms of art have swayed under the influence of great philosophers, teachers, religious figures and even political figures. Chinese art encompasses all facets of fine art, folk art and performance art. Porcelain pottery was one of the first forms of art in the Palaeolithic period. Chinese paintings became highly appreciated art in court circles encompassing a wide variety of Shan shui with specialized styles such as Ming Dynasty painting.
17. Buddhism made its entry into Tibet between the 7th and 11th centuries AD prior to that the Tibetans were nature worshippers and the religion was called Bon. The combination of two gave birth to a powerful national faith which suited the Tibetan psyche. The Buddhist creed of total non-violence also transformed the martial Tibetan race into a docile society. Now the impact of Chinese is increasing it is evident that there were no Chinatowns in erstwhile Tibet, the same are now there since 1959, this is the most important factor in decimating the uniqueness of Tibetan culture in most of the forms described above. It can safely be said that Tibetan culture is unique and not similar to Chinese but the Chinese concept of melting it with Han culture is an overall attempt to firm their grip on the Tibetan land.