From Shepherd to Anthropologist

By GELEG   2018-07-10 23:09:22

AS one of the first batch of Tibetan masters students after the reform and opening-up was carried out and the first Tibetan to obtain a PhD degree in anthropology, many of my compatriots see me as the pride of the hometown. However, in reality this has bothered me for a long time because I personally think I do not have special skills or talents. I just benefited a lot from the new era characterized by the reform and opening-up.  

Keeping Pace with a New Era

I was born in Garze County of Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province.  A journalist once described me as “a Tibetologist that grew from a boy of a serfs’ family on a long and winding path. Every blade of grass in the Tibetan-inhabited region is linked to him as it is significant to his life. All the joy and pain of his life that he has experienced there sheds light into the darkest corners of his heart.”

Before the democratic reform which was carried out in the 1950s, my parents were both serfs. At that time, we didn’t have our own house to live nor land to grow crops, so we could only survive as serfs. Since I was very young, I accompanied my sister up the mountain to let the cows graze and gather dung as fuel for the fire. We would leave early in the morning and return late at night. My mother had hoped that I would become a lama because only lamas had better prospects for the future.

In the 1950s, my hometown started a democratic reform, confiscating property from the land owners and distributing it among the poor. Our family got a new house with a glass window, a few mu of land (15 mu=1 hectare), and a couple of cows.  After the peaceful lib-eration of Tibet, the people’s government of Tibet established the first elementary school in my village, despite the opposition of the temple and rumors of rebellion. Wanting a better future for her son, my mother took me to the new school three to four kilometers away and registered me.  She hoped I would become a teacher. During my subsequent academic career, every time I encountered difficulties or setbacks, I always thought of the help and support the People’s Liberation Army gave to us. I recall the expression on my mother’s face while working her own land for the very first time after the democratic reform. 

The real change to my life came after the implementation of reform and opening-up policy. In 1977, the Chinese government reinstated the national college entrance examination system. I immediately registered and in the spring of the second year, was accepted to the Southwest Minzu University, becoming one of the first batch of undergraduate students in the Chinese language and literature department after the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976). Right after the first semester, I received news of the reinstatements of graduate programs nationwide. With the support and encouragement of my teachers and friends, I applied to study ethnic history at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). In 1978, I came to Beijing, the capital, and entered the coveted halls of academia.

From 1983 to 1986, I studied for my doctorate at Sun Yat-sen University. This academic experience had a profound influence on my career development. Three years of strict training laid a solid foundation for my academic pursuits.

I was fortunate enough to attend two great institutions of higher learning: the graduate school at the CASS and Sun Yatsen University. I was also fortunate enough to be guided by two excellent Han Chinese teachers: Professors Li Youyi and Liang Zhaotao.

As a beneficiary of reform and opening-up, systematic study made me evolve from a largely ignorant shepherd on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, dubbed as the Roof of the World, into a doctor who has made outstanding contributions to the country. In January of 1991, in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Jiang Zemin, former general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) personally awarded me the honorary title and certificate of “Doctor with Outstanding Contributions to China.” He asked me: “Are you a Tibetan who studied anthropology?”  Yes, I am a Tibetan anthropologist. I am the descendant of a family of serfs. Without the peaceful liberation and democratic reform led by the CPC, I would have at most become a lama reciting and chanting scripture and barely being able to fill my belly. There is no way I would have enjoyed the honor and esteem of being the first Tibetan PhD in anthropology. It is even more unlikely that the government would have awarded me the honor and subsidy for my contri-bution to the development of China’s social sciences.On a tour of investigation in Lhasa in 1993.Witnessing Change in Tibet

Over the past 40 years, I have traveled west to Ngari Prefecture, north to the vast grasslands, south to Shannan Prefecture, and east to Qamdo Prefecture and Tibetan autonomous prefectures in Yunnan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces. I have travelled to almost all of the towns and villages of the Tibetan-inhabited regions. I have enthusiastically unraveled the mysteries of Xiangxiong Kingdom, Guge Kingdom, and the sacred mountains and lakes. I have contemplated the human spirit, the trajectory of civilization, the meaning of life, and human suffering. I also spent much time pondering the Tibetan culture between tradition and modernity.

However, what gave me immense pleasure and enthusiasm is the experience of conducting a number of key national projects dedicated to material and cultural progress in Tibetan-inhabited areas. These projects included the Study on Traditional Culture and Modernization of Tibetan-inhabited Areas in China, the Survey on 100 Tibetan Households, Challenges and Opportunities: Accelerating the Progress of Modernization in Tibetan-inhabited Areas, and the Study on the Strategy of Cultural Protection and Modernization in Tibet and Tibetan-inhabited Areas in Other Provinces.

For the past 40 years, one area of interest for my research has been the changes in Tibetan farmers and herdsmen who carry a long history and cultural tradition after the peaceful liberation, especially after China’s reform and opening-up. According to our field study of over 1,000 households in three different types of Tibetan regions (cities, farms, and pastures), since China started the reform and opening up, rural and urban Tibetan so cieties have gone through many changes. The most obvious of which are as follows:

 After the reform and opening-up policy was carried out, the household contract responsibility system was implemented in the rural areas of Tibet. The right to use land and possess livestock has been transferred from collective organizations to individual farmers and herdsmen. This linked their initiative over the management of production directly t