The Changing Face of Labrang: Politics, Religion and Cultural Preservation in Xiahe by Juha Komppa

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[1]Religious revival and the rebuilding of monasteries have been widespread in Amdo since the 1980s. This article deals with the interrelations between politics, Tibetan Buddhism and cultural preservation in Xiahe where the Labrang monastery is currently not only the largest Buddhist monastery in areas inhabited by Tibetans in China, but also cited often as the foremost example of religious revival and monastic restoration in post-Mao China.

On the other hand, it is argued that the strong religiosity of the Tibetans and the local interests of all ethnic groups in promoting tourism both focus almost exclusively on the monastery and in so doing neglect the conservation of the rich secular material culture of the area.

Labrang has remained a key pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists and the most important monastery in the region.

It is nowadays located in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the southwestern part of Gansu Province, close to the border with Qinghai.

Officially both the county and the town are called Xiahe in Chinese, even if most people – including Chinese and foreigners – are more familiar with the name Labrang, which is the Tibetan name for the great monastery as well as for the surrounding vicinity.

Thus, for the local Tibetans, Labrang may be considered as a monastery, a local community, and a district.

For centuries, the borderlands of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau have been sites of political, religious and cultural interaction.

The frontier towns on the edge of the Plateau were and still are meeting places for various peoples, among them Tibetans, Mongolians, and Chinese as well as the Hui and other Muslims.

Thus the place “has a long history as the site upon which differing interests, projects and loyalties have converged and conflicted.”[2] I

n the present day, Labrang continues to be a good example of a border culture with a powerful sense of its Tibetan identity, and yet one that has interacted and assimilated across ethnic and cultural boundaries.

I will look at some of these conflicting and converging interests, projects and loyalties that have shaped present-day Xiahe and continue to do so, in particular in so far as they bear on the local material culture and cultural preservation.

There are some dates that will help to place Xiahe and changes there in their proper perspective and context. Quite briefly: while the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, and the People’s Liberation Army had arrived in Xiahe that summer, the old way of life continued largely unaffected in Labrang as late as between 1956 and 1958[3], including the local de facto administration by the monastery. 1958 was, of course, the summer of the Tibetan uprising in Eastern Tibet and “[f]rom that time on, Labrang monastery did enter a new historical era.”[4]

This is not to say that Labrang would have been without turmoil or violence until then; the Qinghai Muslims had occupied Labrang from 1924 to 1927.

The place has had plenty of both and periods of conflict have always been part of the life in the region. The history of the monastery too has been shaped by the conflicts between various ethnic groups and their cultures: Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchu, Chinese and Muslim.[5] In order to understand and appreciate the rich material culture, both past and present, and

thus the potential for cultural preservation in Xiahe, it is important to realise that historically Labrang, founded in 1709, was located in what was a frontier region on the borderlands between Tibet and China.

Consequently, the administrative authority of neither Peking (and later Nanking) nor Lhasa ever quite reached there, and Labrang remained under the effective rule of the monastery and its abbot until mid-20th century.

The revival of religion in Tibet, as well as its disappearance, was closely tied to general political developments in China. With a brief spell of religious if no longer political freedom in the early 1960s, the monastery was again closed and damaged in the course of the Cultural Revolution.

While Labrang was the best preserved Tibetan religious edifice in the region, it remains impossible to ascertain definitely from any available sources what was actually destroyed or damaged and when.

It seems that much of the destruction of the buildings and pillaging of their contents outside the monastery proper and of some of the religious pieces inside the monastery took place in 1958-1959, while most damages to the monastic buildings themselves were incurred during the Cultural Revolution starting in 1966.

After Chairman Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the monastery was quickly reopened[6], and the 1980s and 1990s saw a great reconstruction and religious revival.

Today, the monastery has been largely rebuilt outwardly at back to its pre-1958 state.

The interiors of the edifices are more difficult to assess as they remain largely out of bounds for outsiders and those that can be visited at times are a mix of the ancient and the contemporary; furthermore, the materials used (wood, plaster, textiles, paintings) and conditions (smoke from the yak butter lamps, permanently semidark interiors, depths of dust in places) are such that many things appear much older than they necessarily are.

Of the shrines, only the Tara Temple remains unreconstructed, together with some of the high incarnate lamas’ estates (the tulku mansions), most of which used to flank much of the southern side of the monastic compound facing the river.

At the same time as material reconstruction and restoration, the revival of monastic Buddhism in Labrang also makes every effort to follow the centuries-old traditions:

the religious ceremonies and festivals have been celebrated in the monastery again since the beginning of the 1980s and a comparison of the current form of these festivities with descriptions from the pre-1958 period[7] confirms that they are nearly identical.

The most significant difference – material and spiritual – remains the paved road cutting through the entire monastery, “[w]hereas before 1958, all the traffic up and down the valley had been routed around the monastery” along the outer circuit lined by the prayer-wheel corridors.[8]

While the road with its mundane traffic cuts into the sanctity and separation of the monastery, in so doing it nevertheless also allows local Tibetans and other pilgrims to circumambulate the monastery precinct in relative peace.

After all, circumambulation of the monastery remains arguably the central-most religious practise in Labrang: “the near-constant flow of foot traffic along what [is] arguably the most important course of movement for Tibetans in the entire surrounding valley: the three-mile-long circumambulation path tracing the perimeter of the monastery grounds”[9], as Charlene Makley writes.

The significance of the road through the monastery is twofold. Along it, “[t]ourism brought Han Chinese and foreign visitors as well as Muslim merchants, including women, onto monastic grounds in movements and at times that disrupted the cycles of [the monastery’s] ritual life”, as Makley concludes.

“The multiethnic traffic of the urbanizing valley cut a straight line through the monastery and connected it directly with [the local headquarters of the Chinese state], thereby tracing the channels of authority that now supposedly sanctioned monastic officials and trulkus.”[10] This, in turn, points to the predicament whereby the revival in the Labrang monastery has at the moment reached some limits.

Martin Slobodník has perceptively noted that “[t]he future will show whether in the revitalisation process it will be possible to reconcile two entirely different sets of interests: on the one hand the desire of the Chinese authorities administratively to control the internal life of the monastery;

and on the other hand the endeavour of the Tibetan monks and laypeople to proceed further with the revival of the monastery with the aim of reestablishing it in its traditional role, which encompassed not only religious authority but political and economic power as well.”

For, as Slobodník explains, “[t]hese two trends are contradictory: the alternative of a limited revival is as unacceptable for Tibetans as the vision of the gradual resurrection of the traditional role of the monastery, represented by Jamyang [Shepa] and Gungthang[11], which would result in the creation of parallel administrative structures independent of the Chinese state, is for the Chinese.”[12]

In its politico-religious aspects the situation in Labrang is not unlike the larger question of Sino-Tibetan relations.

But in view of the close links between religion and politics in traditional Tibetan society[13], this is not surprising.

Labrang monastery was built on the model of central Tibetan Gelukpa Buddhist monasteries, in which high incarnate lamas were in charge of the monasteries’ religious and political affairs.

However, we may question the extent of Tibetan religious revival and cultural preservation: how far should it go and what should be encompassed?

The politicisation of the religious revival in Tibet[14] poses a dilemma for the Chinese authorities: on the one hand the state wants to pursue a policy of limited liberalisation of religious policy in the Tibetan areas, but on the other hand the authorities cannot allow what they term ‘counter-revolutionary political activities’ by the monks.

These developments also create conflicts inside the monastic communities, where some monks are in favour of a continuous religious revival and others, often younger monks, prefer to focus on the struggle for independence despite the negative impact their activities have on their monasteries.[15]

In Xiahe, until autumn 2007 there had never been the kind of overt protest led by the monks that there were in Lhasa.

But after March 2008, with the Tibetan riots there second in seriousness only to Lhasa in the entire region, this predicament too has become reality in Labrang.

Monasteries are commonly understood as the repositories and guardians of Tibetan culture. Thus Tibetan Buddhism has come to define a widely shared notion of that culture.

This is also an understanding that is often expressed by Tibetans, Chinese and foreigners alike and a point where their otherwise often conflicting interests, projects and loyalties converge.

A competing claim to cultural authenticity is offered in the vision of authentic Tibetan culture as the culture of the grasslands.

It is an image of Tibet that attracts increasing numbers of tourists from the crowded urban centres of China as well as overseas.

This image appeals also to many urban Tibetans, giving them a sense of identity and countering the stereotype where they are not as seen by the Chinese as members of a backward and superstitious minority dominated by religion, but as a people of the high plateau with their roots in the very landscape of Tibet.

In line with this view, many Tibetans believe that nomadic life on the grasslands defines the uniquely Tibetan culture.

Yet it is important to realise as well that the underlying official understanding and promotion behind such images of Tibetan culture as a culture of grasslands corresponds well with the Chinese Communist Party view of Tibetan culture as a non-Buddhist, secular culture of the people.

One of the key questions, therefore, is what Tibetan culture actually implies or should imply. For no matter how we define and understand culture, it has become increasingly impossible for any culture to survive in isolation, unaffected, for instance, by globalisation and tourism. Labrang/Xiahe is a case in point.

In the past, “[i]ts location resulted in both assertions of Tibetan identity and dynamic social, political, and economic interaction.”

[16] Even when indigenous peoples in relatively isolated villages practice rituals and customs that have been preserved from the past, they can never do so now in the manner of the era before roads, telephones, and the internet, not to mention modern methods of political control.

While we question the notion of seemingly unchanging cultural traditions, it is also important to question change and examine the ways in which, at different times and under different circumstances, it takes place.

At times when the issue of cultural survival in Tibetan areas has become heavily politicised, it is important not to fall indiscriminately under the imagined nostalgia for a reality that may not be so very real when it is unfolding in the midst of daily life.

As we have seen so far, with the religious revival and restoration of the Labrang monastery, the Tibetan Buddhist material culture has been resuscitated.

At the same time, however, there appears to be no interest in preserving the secular cultural heritage of Labrang.

In China as in Tibet, “the corporeal represents the material world and is therefore considered inferior, since nothing physical lasts for ever.

In this light, the building itself becomes subordinate to function.

The physical elements might be swept away and replaced, as they infrequently were by nature or man, but they would be rebuilt and their function restored. Significance, therefore, resided in the immateriality of place rather than the physicality of structure”[17], just as in the destruction and revival of Labrang monastery.

This, then, is the way of thinking behind cultural preservation in Xiahe and to this extent at least a shared worldview of its inhabitants, whether Tibetan or Han Chinese.

But what is more critical, in the Tibetan view only material culture bearing on religion matters; of course, secular objects or buildings could also be restored, but for the Tibetans there is no value, importance, nor merit in doing so.

The preservation and promotion of Labrang’s secular heritage – the Tibetan and Mongolian material culture the area used to be so rich in, including that of the nomads, as well as what there is left of old Chinese and Muslim things – could shift some of the pressure caused by tourism and the politics of religion away from the monastery and offer alternative points of interest in Xiahe, while still capturing the tourists’ attention.

As Kevin Meethan has observed: “Other more exotic societies need to preserve their culture, not perhaps for their own benefit, but to cater for the demands for the authentic from the tourists of the developed economies.”[18]

In Xiahe this would mean not only catering to the Chinese and foreign visitors, but could also help multicultural survival and enable people to (re)discover part of their own history and traditions by way of marketing their secular culture and realising its worth.

So far only the local antique dealers have tapped into the secular material culture in commoditising it for Chinese and foreign consumption. I

n fact, between 2006 and 2009, Xiahe was one of the best places in China for acquiring antiques and old things Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian.

In other Tibetan areas in China, particularly in Kham (Yunnan/Sichuan provinces) there are several Old Towns adjoining the county seats, such as the Naxi town of Lijiang or the Tibetan town of Shangrila. The latter consist of traditional Tibetan homes, similar to what can be seen in the countryside but adapted to the different conditions and demands of town life.

In Xiahe, the old Mongolian quarter west of the Labrang monastery, would have offered a chance for preserving and renovating a Tibetan Old Town, but it may already be too late.

Several historically and architecturally significant secular edifices were demolished as late as in the summer of 2007 and in July 2009 by so diverse agents as a local Tibetan hotelier, a local monastery, and private Hui shopkeepers.

For once, the Chinese are conspicuously absent in this present-day destruction.

I will illustrate my point with a single if representative example: the destruction of the Mongolian princely palaces in Labrang.

Paradoxically, the earliest palace of the ruling Mongol Princes, who were the foremost patrons of the monastery from its founding in 1709, was given by them to the monastery in the 19th century, and is preserved in its new guise as the monastery’s printing house within the monastic compound.

Yet most of the princely palaces were located in the old Mongol, then Tibetan quarter as evidenced by its name Wangfu, Chinese for “princely palace(s)”.

At one point there were several of them belonging to the extended princely family, built along the road leading towards the west.

After donating their old main palace to the monastery, the Mongol princes built a new one in Wangfu, the Jewel Palace next to the Bodhi Stupa.

When the Fifth Jamyang Shepa arrived to Labrang with his family in 1920, the Mongol princely family gave them part of their own palaces to live in: the three-courtyard mansion called the Litang House (named after the family’s hometown) and the large Alo Residence on the site of the current Tibetan Middle School and a Tibetan temple.

The shell of the Jewel Palace still stands, in two separate compounds, but very little of the mansion remain as they have been divided into one-room apartments for communal living as happened to most private mansions in China after 1949. The same fate befell the Litang House, although more of the old structures remain there.

The only princely mansion that did survive intact until July 2009, had become the property of the local Nyingma order, next to whose temple in Wangfu it stood.

A section of the Litang House was demolished and rebuilt as a private Tibetan home in the modern Chinese style in 2007; what remains is in very mixed condition and form.

The mansion next to the Temple of the Red Hat Sect was being renovated in summer 2008, yet in July 2009 it, too, was completely demolished.

From a cultural heritage perspective, the value of these princely mansions was as great as that of the monastic edifices in Labrang.

It can be argued moreover that as secular historic buildings they were in fact even rarer, simply because there were so few of them left in Xiahe or elsewhere.

While one can follow their destruction and exploitation under the “Democratic Reforms” or later during the Cultural Revolution, their neglect today is harder to fathom.

Given the scale of redevelopment both in Xiahe as well as China as a whole, the cultural nostalgia for the ethnic exotic past and the commercial potential for tourism such sites hold, not only the preservation and restoration of the palaces, but also the entire quarter with its traditional Tibetan architecture could have been a marvellous opportunity for Xiahe.

Cultural preservation of Wangfu along with the Labrang monastery would have meant safekeeping both religious and secular aspects of Tibetan and Mongol culture and local history.

Unlike with a monastery circumambulated or a piece on display in a museum, both which often convey an impression of absolute permanence: being simply and safely there – untouchable, silent and complete – the different interests and projects moulding tomorrow’s Xiahe must soon take note also of Labrang’s secular material culture in their efforts at cultural preservation or else very soon there will be nothing to display, nothing left to preserve. I may be pushing my own interests in a Tibetan space, as foreigners are frequently wont to do, but nevertheless I feel that there is a valid point to be made about preserving a culture as a whole.


<references / >
  1. I would like to thank Jill Sudbury and Roselene Schenberg for their careful reading of the article, corrections and suggestions.
  2. Charlene E. Makley, “Gendered Practices and the Inner Sanctum: The Reconstruction of Tibetan Sacred Space in “China’s Tibet””, pp. 343-366, 344, in Toni Huber ed. Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture: A Collection of Essays. Dharamsala: The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1999.
  3. See Martin Slobodník, ‘Destruction and revival: the fate of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery Labrang in the People's Republic of China’, pp. 7-19 in Religion, State and Society, vol. 32, no 1, March, 2004, 8-9.
  4. Luo Faxi ed., Labulengsi Gaikuang [An Introduction to Labrang Monastery]. Lanzhou: Gansu Minzu Chubanshe, 1987, 176.
  5. See Paul Kocot Nietupski. Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at the Crossroads of Four Civilizations. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1999 and “Labrang Monastery: Tibetan Buddhism on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier”, pp. 513-535 in Religion Compass, vol. 2, no 4, 2008; Yangdon Dhondup and Hildegard Diemberger. “Tashi Tshering: The Last Mongol Queen of ‘Sogpo’ (Henan)”, pp. 197-224 in Inner Asia, vol. 4, no 2, 2002; Charlene E Makley, The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China. University of California Press. Berkeley, 2007.
  6. According to a local informant, the monastery was accessible to worshippers as early as 1976 once the Cultural Revolution had come to an end. The first monks also returned then, marking the start of the religious revival at Labrang.
  7. See Li Anzhai, History of Tibetan Religion: A Study in the Field. Beijing: New World Press, 1994, 212–234.
  8. Makley, 2007, 158.
  9. Charlene E. Makley, “Gendered boundaries in motion: Space and identity on the Sino-Tibetan frontier”, pp. 597-619 in American Ethnologist, vol. 30, no 4 (November), 2003, 587.
  10. Makley, 2007, 165.
  11. The two highest incarnate lama lineages in Labrang, along with the Detris and the Gyanagpas (‘Chinese’ – hence the names Chinese Temple and China House for the two large edifices in Labrang monastery pre-1958 as neither of these have rebuilt). The first Jamyang Shepa (1648–1721) was the founder of the monastery and his reincarnations its abbots. The current Sixth Jamyang Shepa (b. 1948) was “forced to marry during the Cultural Revolution and thus lost his status of a monk […] but not his status as a reincarnation as it is an ascribed status […] and since 1978 he has mainly resided outside the monastery in the provincial capital Lanzhou. The late Sixth Gungthang [1926-2000] was an immensely popular lama not only among the monks but also among the lay believers, especially nomads, in the whole Amdo region.” (Slobodnik, 2004, 11) The Seventh Gungthang (b. 2002) was identified by the Sixth Jamyang Shepa in 2004 and has been residing in Labrang since November 2006. His enthronement “triggered a range of construction and renovation activities in Labrang. Work on the Gungthang [Chörten], (a landmark of the monastery), the Avalokitesvara Temple and the faculty of Tibetan medicine […] as well as the re-construction of the Hayagriva Temple which was destroyed during the 1960s” ( content/update/32).
  12. Slobodník, 2004, 14-15.
  13. See Phuntsog Wangyal, “The influence of religion on Tibetan politics”, The Tibet Journal, 1, 1, 1975, 78-86; Bina Roy Burman, Religion and Politics in Tibet. New Delhi: Vikas, 1979; Franz H. Michael, Rule by Incarnation: Tibetan Buddhism and Its Role in Society and State. Boulder: Westview Press, 1982, 40-50.
  14. Åshild Kolås, “Tibetan Nationalism: The Politics of Religion”, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 33, no 1, 1996, 51-66.
  15. See Melvyn C. Goldstein, “The Revival of Monastic Life in Drepung Monastery”, pp. 15-52 in Melvyn C. Goldstein and Matthew T. Kapstein eds., Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 46-47.
  16. Nietupski 2008, 513.
  17. Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren, Modernism in China: Architectural Visions and Revolutions. Chichester: John Wiley, 2008, 19.
  18. Kevin Meethan, Tourist in Global Society: Place, Culture, Consumption. New York: Palgrave, 2001, 110.