Whatever the varying strengths and weaknesses of the research that has been carried out by scholars in the past, all existing studies are compromised by the fact that both in their conception and in the formulation of the object of their research they are addressing a necessarily small part of the complex picture that is the Tibetan cultural world. The greatest – regrettably common – flaw among writers is that whatever the focus of the investigation, whether the Ganden Phodrang government or a peripheral enclave – it is often taken to be representative of the whole. The present project is unprecedented insofar as it will engage the attention of numerous researchers, using an unexploited wealth of written documentation in combination with field research, in the course of which all researchers will be constantly kept aware of the discoveries and problems encountered by others, via regular workshops and a live online noticeboard.
The history of minor principalities and cultural enclaves across the entire range of “ethnographic Tibet” as well as their relations with each other and the greater political and cultural powers deserves far more attention than it has so far received; not only because of the need to understand the mechanisms by which society operated at such a small-scale level, but because a far richer picture of the whole that the familiar bird’s-eye view affords us can be obtained from a close study of the component parts. For many authors the narrow focus characteristic of “history from below” is self-justifying, on the grounds that the local concerns of the “little people” are intrinsically interesting and a legitimate subject for the attention of historians. The more comprehensive view, however, is that these micro-level observations, especially in apposition to the perspective of the centre, may have considerable significance for the larger picture, and may reveal (in Giovanni Levi’s phrase) “the hidden incoherences of an apparently unified order”, and demand the reformulation of that order.
Modern representations of Tibetan society before 1959 are often diametrically opposed: for the supporters of the old regime, it was a paradise of peace and spirituality, while Chinese Communist rhetoric presents it as a hell on earth. This wide divergence in presentation is possible because the present, limited state of knowledge enables interested parties to select isolated features in an anecdotal manner: to use the familiar image of the blind men and the elephant, there is sense of the trunk and tail, but no picture of the beast as a whole. While the aims of the present project are apolitical in their intention, and the greater part of the output is intended for scholarly use and readership, it is hoped that a concluding, synthetic volume that presents the general findings to a wider public will make it more difficult in future to misrepresent the situation for political ends.
The various sub-projects will operate within the following general question:
How are Tibetan societies to be characterised adequately for the period that corresponds to the duration of the Ganden Phodrang government (1642–1959), what variations existed and what were the major developments? These questions will be tackled by examining specific social groups and institutions such as family and household, village organisation, serf economy, craftsmen, traders, aristocratic and ecclesiastic elites, legal systems and courts etc. The areas under consideration are Central Tibet, the North-eastern periphery, the Himalayan belt, and the Peking-based Qing administration.