Image via Flickr user dotstone, CC license

China is Widening its Crackdown on Tibetan Culture

By Emily K. Scolaro 

You would not think that something as innocuous as yogurt would rile authorities in China. But last August, a yogurt festival in Tibet was met with a police crackdown.

“Shoton” is the Tibetan Yogurt Festival, and typically includes traditional performances, a feast (involving yogurt, of course) and unveiling of the “Thangka,” a large portrait of the Buddha. But this year there was a decidedly different atmosphere: a heavy Chinese police presence, prohibitions on engagement in religious and public gatherings, and inspection booths to confirm the identities of participants and devotees. For an event so anodyne, such restrictions sent a clear message to Tibetans from Chinese authorities: your traditions are not welcome.

The incident at the yogurt festival is just one example of China’s far-reaching — and intensifying — crackdown on Tibetan culture and heritage.

October marks the 73rd anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, which soon led to Tibet’s annexation in 1959 and the self-exile of the Dalai Lama. China has long purported to have a centuries-old claim to sovereignty over the region, and Tibetans have since endured harsh conditions of imprisonment, violence, and oppression. As China’s policy of ethnic unity increasingly takes hold, Tibetan heritage is, and has been, under attack.

Political persecution and forced assimilation have steadily escalated as Tibetans struggle to preserve their culture, faith, and history while navigating a life in which core elements of their identity are not only seen as ‘separatist,’ but also disobedient. Religion is central to all aspects of life in Tibet, and the majority population practices Buddhism; significant numbers also practice Bon, Tibet’s indigenous religion, as well as Islam and Christianity. Historically, religion has been a vital component of Tibetan identity, community, and cultural heritage.

Tibet possesses a wealth of tangible and intangible heritage, with sacred sites at the heart of daily life, political administration, and learning. Monasteries and temples are therefore symbolic of not only Tibetan religion but also culture and identity—and for good reason: monasteries are important institutes of academic study, as well as the study of medicine, crafts, rituals, and professional trades. Many monasteries have also held printing houses for liturgical texts to be conserved and passed on; this makes them vital to the transmission of inter-generational knowledge and the preservation of the Tibetan language. During the Cultural Revolution that spread to Tibet in the 1960s, many of these structures were destroyed or damaged.

Monasteries and temples are also vital to Tibetan heritage because they serve as centers where the sacred relationship between teacher and student is cultivated. The teacher-student relationship functions not only as a method of spiritual study, but also of passing on oral traditions, debates, and intangible heritage. The International Campaign for Tibet notes that this tradition was unbroken until Chinese occupation in 1959.

Chinese attempts to exercise control and oppress the Tibetan people have only intensified, and policies of “sinicization,” the intentional assimilation of non-Chinese groups into Chinese culture, have escalated and become entrenched. These policies prohibit Tibetans from offering prayers to the Dalai Lama in public as well as images of the Dalai Lama himself. The display of the highly symbolic Tibetan prayer flags and celebration of many important Tibetan festivals have also been forbidden. As such, many monasteries and religious events have become subject to regular surveillance.

Even more, Mandarin is now an official language of Tibet, and schools force Tibetan students to learn Mandarin with curricula focused on Han Chinese culture; the teaching of the Tibetan language is increasingly banned in schools in the region. The pervasiveness of these policies into the realm of education threatens the survival of the Tibetan language as well as future generations’ knowledge of their own history and culture.

Sinicization also poses a threat to the spiritual integrity of sacred sites themselves; since 2020, two Chinese-style pavilions were constructed outside of Jokhang Temple, widely considered the holiest temple in Tibet, in the capital city of Lhasa. The differences in architectural style significantly contrast with that of Jokhang, jeopardizing the preservation of the site’s symbolic landscape. 

In addition to the changes engendered by sinicization, the physical destruction of religious heritage is of acute concern. The Cultural Revolution saw the demolition of thousands of monasteries as well as sacred artifacts, scriptures, and statues. Such devastation has since continued, including the 2016 destruction of Larung Gar, the largest Buddhist academy in the world, and the forced eviction of thousands of students, monks, and nuns living around it. Many were subjected to brutality and “political re-education”; reasons have included purported overpopulation, implementation of land rights claims, and infrastructure development projects.

Increasingly clear is that this destruction is not an anomaly in China’s exertion of control, but rather characteristic of its occupation; the International Campaign for Tibet approximates that of the roughly 6,000 monasteries that once existed in Tibet, only 13 have been left undamaged. This strategy has also been employed in China’s assault on Uyghur Muslims, a population increasingly subject to cultural cleansing. Not only have Uyghurs endured the persecution of groups due to their religious or ethnic affiliations, but also the systematic erasure of their customs and destruction of their cultural heritage.

For Tibetans, religion is also deeply intertwined with humanity’s relationship to their surroundings. Many natural sites that have been long-considered sacred are now endangered by resource exploitation and development projects that hinder faith activities. Mount Kailash and Lake Mapham in Western Tibet, for example, are significant holy sites vulnerable to such risks, putting the survival of their spiritual landscape for current and future generations in danger.

What does this mean for the future of Tibet’s cultural heritage?

An effective path forward must recognize the profound link between religion, culture, and Tibetan identity. Physical embodiments of religion, such as artifacts, scriptures, monasteries, temples, and sacred natural sites are symbols of historical significance, as well as of Tibetans themselves. The Chinese Communist Party recognizes this, which is why it has worked to erode these links. The destruction and exploitation of these sites is devastating to Tibetan historical and religious values, and Tibetan identity itself.

Spreading awareness of this connection is vital, as is the urgent need for protective action by organizations such as UNESCO that have the power to identify and monitor these sacred sites. The next meeting of the World Heritage Committee could elect Tibetan sites or intangible heritage to the World Heritage List. Similarly, continued pressure applied to Chinese authorities for their disregard for and implementation of these policies is crucial to this effort. Otherwise, Tibet’s culture, language, and history—as well as its people’s right to religious freedom itself—risk a tragic disappearance.

The systematic destruction of heritage and sacred sites is a form of cultural genocide that threatens to erase the histories, cultures, and identities of at-risk populations around the world. Chinese policies of sinicization in Tibet are emblematic of this. Recognition of the symbolic power of Tibet’s sacred sites and the intangible heritage they protect is the first step to safeguarding Tibet’s past and future. It is also essential to preserving the rights of those dedicated to ensuring its survival.

Emily K. Scolaro is a Senior Researcher with Pepperdine University’s Program on Global Faith and Inclusive Societies. She holds a Master’s in Social Anthropology from Oxford University and is currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.