Tibetans who Escaped the Historian’s Net

We are happy to announce the publication of SHTS’s first collective volume:

Ramble, C., P. Schwieger and A. Travers (eds) 2013. Tibetans who Escaped the Historian’s Net: Studies in the Social History of Tibetan-speaking Societies. Kathmandu: Vajra Books.

On this page you will find the book’s table of contents and the editors’ introduction. To order a copy of the book, contact Vajra Publications at www.vajrabookshop.com, and click on “how to order” in the menu bar.




JEANNINE BISCHOFF—Right There but Still Unnoticed: Information on dGa’ ldan pho brang Mi ser from Archival Material Published in German(y)

KALSANG NORBU GURUNG—The Role of the Ambans in the Dalai Lama Government According to the Ten-Point Edict

FABIENNE JAGOU—In Search of the Tibetan Translators within the Manchu Empire: An Attempt to Go from the Global to the Local

LIU YUXUAN—On the Edition, Structure, and Authorship of the Weizang Tongzhi

CHRISTOPH CÜPPERS—Sde srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho’s Short Remarks on Ordeals in his Guidelines for Government Officials

PETER SCHWIEGER—An Almost Forgotten dGe lugs pa Incarnation Line as Manorial Lord in bKra shis ljongs, Central Tibet

BERTHE JANSEN—How to Tame a Wild Monastic Elephant: Drepung Monastery According to the Great Fifth

ALICE TRAVERS—How Should we Define Social Status? The Study of “Intermediate Groups” in Central Tibet (1895–1959)

FERNANDA PIRIE—Who Were the Tibetan Lawmakers?

SAUL MULLARD—Recapturing Runaways, or Administraton through Contract: The 1830 Covenant (Gan rgya) on Kotapa Tax Exiles and Sikkimese Border Regions

ASTRID HOVDEN—Who Were the Sponsors? Reflections on Recruitment and Ritual Economy in Three Himalayan Village Monasteries

CHARLES RAMBLE—Hidden Himalayan Transcripts: Strategies of Social Opposition in Mustang (Nepal), 19th–20th Centuries

Notes on Contributors


What was even more exciting was the street-level nature of much of the material [in the “Mutiny papers”]… petitions, complaints and requests from the ordinary citizens of Delhi—potters and courtesans, sweetmeat-makers and over-worked water carriers—exactly the sort of people who usually escape the historian’s net.

William Dalrymple, The Last Moghul

While a great deal of research remains to be done in all areas of Tibetan civilisation, certain domains have naturally received more attention than others. It requires the most cursory examination of any of the standard dictionaries to see that entries related to Buddhism, for example, vastly outnumber those belonging to such fields as divination, farming, law and administration. And yet it is surely the case that these activities have exercised the great majority of the Tibetan population far more than the arcana of high religion.

Subjects such as these have by no means been completely ignored by scholarship, but the number of researchers who have engaged with them—notwithstanding the considerable importance of some of their publications—remains very small indeed. This is the case with the field with which we are particularly concerned here: social history. Although that designation itself has featured in very few works related to Tibetan societies, there are nevertheless a number of landmark studies on aspects of this discipline that provide a foundation of prior research on which we can build, and that feature repeatedly in the bibliographies of the contributions in this volume; the door is already open, and the purpose of this collection is to push it further ajar.

The social study of Tibetan-speaking communities has traditionally been the province of anthropologists, rather than historians. Where a diachronic perspective is adopted, it is usually based on oral tradition, or on the type of quasi-historical written accounts that are themselves substantially indebted to legend. As in the case of similar studies in other parts of the world, a social history of Tibetan regions must necessarily make use of local archival material or other documents. Scholarly research on this genre of Tibetan literature is still in its infancy. The importance of documents, where they have been accessible, for understanding how national institutions operated at a local level is illustrated by, say, Schuh’s landmark study of monastic recruitment and revenues in Kyirong (Schuh 1988). Among other things, cases of this sort give an idea of the considerable local variation that existed in the operation of systems too often regarded as homogeneous. Contemporary documentary literature has also proved invaluable in shedding light on the local manifestations of the Tibetan empire (7th to 9th centuries) in its northern hinterland, as the work of Takeuchi, Uebach and Uray, among others, has shown. Nevertheless, it is also true that these studies are primarily concerned with political and economic institutions, and the people who wielded power in relatively small arenas; many social groups—ordinary villagers, for example, as well as substantial sections of the Central Tibetan elite—have still not found a voice and a place of their own in histories of Tibetan-speaking people.

The perspective of ‘history from below’, which owes so much to the French Annales school, has not yet featured prominently in historical writing on Tibetan societies. As is well known, the school has broadly favoured a focus on what would later come to be known, in Gramsci’s phrase, as “subordinate” (or “subaltern”) groups, in combination with methods of other disciplines such as social anthropology. (Classic studies in the genre include Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou [1978], Carlo Ginzburg’s studies of heterodoxy and witchcraft in the Friuli [1980a; 1983], and the works of Le Goff [1977, 1985].) Much of the historical writing on Tibet has tended to emphasise its centralised, national institutions, and the homogeneity of its administrative and governmental structures. An alternative perspective that has been successfully borrowed from Southeast Asia in recent times is that of the “galactic polity”, whereby the provincial satellites (petty kingdoms, tribal confederacies, monastic complexes) of central entities (such as the great monastic colleges of Lhasa) themselves constituted the centres of other political constellations (Samuel 1993). The elusiveness of the identity of “Tibet” has itself formed the subject of scholarly discussion, and certain writers—notably Anne-Sophie Bentz—using theoretical apparatus developed by authors such as Rogers Brubaker, have even argued that the Tibetan nation is a creature of the diaspora that came into existence only following the flight of the Dalai Lama and his followers into exile. It is clear, in any event, that one of the most important factors in the production of political loyalty and cultural identity has always been based on Tibetans’ close association with their particular region.

The present collection is the outcome of a conference, “Recapturing the Tibetans who Escaped the Historian’s Net”, held in Bonn on 27–28 May 2013. Most of the authors are directly associated with the project “Social History of Tibetan Societies, 17th to 20th Centuries”. The two exceptions, Astrid Hovden and Berthe Jansen, were invited to present papers based on their current research, which addresses themes directly relevant to the topic of the conference and to the project as a whole. As the title of the conference suggests, the broad focus of interest was provided by the kinds of “people without history” that Dalrymple saw emerging from the pages of the “Mutiny letters” preserved in the Delhi’s National Archives. However, the contributions to this volume are not confined to their elusive Tibetan counterparts, but include the attitude of the central government and its organs towards its subjects, and to the analysis of some of the sources materials themselves.

While some of the papers are concerned with establishing a clearer understanding of the perspectives close to the Tibetan centre—that is, the Ganden Podrang government—during the period in question, the “centrist” position is balanced by papers that focus on “peripheral” areas: northeast Tibet (Amdo) and the Himalayas (the enclaves of Limi and Mustang in what is now Nepal, and also Sikkim, which was absorbed by India in 1975). As far as Central Tibet is concerned, the political culture is framed by the “conjunction of religious law and government” (chos srid zung ’brel) articulated particularly through the rule of the Lhasa-based Ganden Podrang (dGa’ ldan pho brang) government (1642–1959). This political structure, with the Dalai Lama at its apex, received its final form under the overall control of the Qing imperial administration, but survived the collapse of the latter by more than four decades. The confluence of the clerical and the worldly is starkly illustrated by Berthe Jansen’s presentation of the seventeenth-century guidelines (bca’ yig) for ’Bras spungs, a warts-and-all document that reveals aspects of monastic life such as “infighting, immigration, corruption, and even the shooting dead of a monk”. In spite of the pious formulation (chos srid zung ’brel) cited above, the religious and the secular were not always comfortable bedfellows. This is apparent from a number of accounts, such as Melvyn Goldstein’s well-known study of the consolidation of clerical authority through the confiscation and acquisition of aristocratic estates (Goldstein 1973). Without contesting that this was the general trend, Peter Schwieger nuances the picture with evidence that it was not only the aristocracy but the clergy too—in this case, the bKra shis ljongs reincarnation lineage—who were susceptible to having their estates swallowed up by more powerful monastic institutions. Provision of support for monasteries was of course not a matter of choice for the inhabitants of clerical estates in Central Tibet. Through a combination of local documents and ethnographic enquiry Astrid Hovden reconstructs the history and current operation of patronage in Limi, northwest Nepal. The villages of Limi were once gifted to the monasteries as a revenue base by a local king, but over the centuries their contributions of material support and labour have become a voluntary affair that is built into the communities’ structures of household obligations.

In spite of a few landmark studies, the field of Tibetan law remains one of the most under-researched areas of Tibetan Studies. An important component of Tibetan legal procedures was—and in certain areas still is—the use of ordeals to establish guilt or innocence. Christoph Cüppers’ investigation of sDe srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho’s comments on ordeals reveals one of the probable reasons why law has not attracted more researchers—the sheer difficulty of the texts—while advancing our knowledge of the use of this procedure. Fernanda Pirie develops the notion that law-codes may have had some function other than a strictly legal one. In examining a corpus of Golok laws, she doubts the likelihood of their ever having been enforced, and considers instead the possibility of that they were produced by local chiefs to legitimise a social order.

The most and systematic scholarly studies of the social system under the Ganden Podrang government are provided by the work of Melvyn Goldstein although, as anthropological studies, they naturally cover only the last period of the old Tibetan government (e.g. Goldstein 1968, 1971). Goldstein’s well-defined characterisation of the socio-economic structure of “old” Tibet as a form of serfdom has provoked much criticism, much of it less well justified and documented than Goldstein’s position. What these accounts lack are, on the one hand, extensive and representative philological and diplomatic analyses of archived materials, which would provide a solid basis for the examination of the whole legal, administrative and bureaucratic processes involved; and on the other, analyses of material that might offer insights into earlier periods of the Ganden Podrang. Such material has been edited and analysed extensively by Dieter Schuh, who thus established the field of diplomatics—the science of charters—within Tibetan Studies. However, the examination of such material on a larger scale as sources for a social history remains a desideratum. Studies of Tibetan history have been based almost exclusively on historiographic sources. Now that other sources are available, they too should come to form the basis of scholarly writing in order to present a more differentiated and rounded picture than we have at present. This picture can be drawn in particular by letting the primary sources speak for themselves. How vivid and fresh such a picture based on archival material can be is demonstrated by Peter Blickle’s study on the history of serfdom and freedom in southwest Germany (Blickle 2003).

The importance of documents for our understanding of the lives of the Tibetan peasantry in pre-1951 Tibet is illustrated by the opening article in this collection. Discussions about this group have too often been reduced to an ideological and sterile debate on whether or not mi ser should be classified as serfs. Jeannine Bischoff’s overview of Tibetan documents edited and published in the past forty years suggests a wealth of details in the interaction between different social groups, such as mi ser and their lords, mi ser and the central government in appealing against the excesses of their lords, as well as among mi ser themselves. These are the kinds of sources that provide fascinating and welcome contours to the otherwise flat landscape of Tibetan social life that is available to us.

If the Tibetan peasantry has largely escaped the historian’s net, so too has practically the entire middle level of Tibetan society, to such a degree that its very existence has often been denied by writers. This astonishing lacuna, Alice Travers suggests, is the result of “a tendency to impose a medieval reading on Tibetan society and history… [that] stresses the binary opposition between farmers and landlords and tends to obliterate nuances and groups who are external to this opposition”. Travers’ contribution is one of the few published attempts to foreground the existence of such an “intermediate group” – merchants, the non-monastic intelligentsia and others – who had a prominent but largely unacknowledged role in Tibetan society.

The influence of the Qing administration on Tibet’s socio-economic system has been almost totally neglected from the Tibetological perspective. The only monograph in this regard is Dabringhaus’ study on the Amban Song Yun (1752–1835) and his efforts to reform the Tibetan administration, tax system and military as well as controlling governmental expenditure and improving the life of Tibetan peasants. Dabringhaus’ valuable study is based on source material in Chinese, especially the writings of Song Yun himself. Her landmark study can now be complemented by investigations based on primary sources in other relevant languages. Such sources, especially in Tibetan, as well as certain trilingual works in Tibetan, Mongolian and Manchu, are available among the archival material collected so far. They also include Tibetan versions of the ideas Song Yun presented to the Tibetan government. A matter that is generally overlooked when dealing with relations between Tibet and the Qing central authority is the medium of communication. Clearly, a crucial role was played by translators, but this group, too, has remained largely invisible in the writings of historians. The vicissitudes of the translation process between Manchu and Tibetan, and the possible identity of the mysterious translators themselves, are the subject of Fabienne Jagou’s article. As Kalsang Norbu Gurung points out, the function of the Qing Ambans was not always very clear, but the focus of his contribution, the Ten-Point Edict drawn up by the abovementioned Song Yun, is testimony both to the reforming zeal of this remarkable figure and also a precious record of the parlous state of social conditions in Tibet at the time. Gurung’s study anticipates a full-length translation and annotation of the Tibetan version of this important resource. Liu Yuxuan’s paper underscores the importance of official Qing documents for the social history of Tibet. Of the many gazetteers of Tibet that were produced during this era, the most important—for the detail it provides about Tibet’s social conditions and especially the Gorkha wars of 1788–1792—was the Weizang tongzhi. Liu’s contribution focuses on the structure of this gazetteer, and addresses the uncertainties surrounding its authorship.

While the Himalayan areas also felt the presence of the Ganden Podrang to varying degrees, they enjoyed a substantial measure of autonomy, or else fell within the orbit of other powers. The rise of the Ganden Podrang coincided with the establishment of Sikkim’s independence from Tibet; Mustang, for its part, came under the sway of Jumla and, after the late 18th century, of the Gorkhas, within the emerging state of Nepal. The rich archival collections preserved in these areas offer an invaluable resource for the examination of institutions and processes analogous to those that are known from Central Tibet. The Sikkimese covenant (gan rgya) of 1830 that forms the subject of Saul Mullard’s contribution is ostensibly concerned with a problem that beset Tibet’s rulers at various period: the vexed issue of tax fugitives, and how to retrieve them. But as is often the case, the document carries a subtext that addresses broader concerns relating to tensions between the political centre and the periphery, as well as between the ruler and members of the country’s elite. Notoriously, the voices of subordinate groups generally go unheard, and even when they are documented it is almost invariably through the filter of the official record. In the concluding contribution, Charles Ramble presents certain archives of southern Mustang that provide a rare example of “hidden transcripts” (in James Scott’s phrase): the discussions and resolutions of subordinate communities who recorded the strategies they adopted against their oppressors in documents that they kept concealed from outside view.