Tibet: the Golden Age

L'age d'or cover

Adding to my series of recent posts on Tibet, I’ve been reading a fine book in French:

  • Katia Buffetrille, L’âge d’or du Tibet (XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles) (2019; 311 pages)
    (review here; this brief notice; numerous other publications by Buffetrille here).

While Tibetologists have long focused on early history, more recently many scholars have turned, impressively, to addressing the complexities and traumas of Tibetan society since the Chinese occupation in 1950; so this volume on the historical background is welcome. Notwithstanding the focus on the “Golden Age”, it provides material on both earlier and later history, making a useful, wide-ranging introduction for the greater Tibetan region—including Amdo and Kham—before the Chinese occupation, as well as relations with neighbouring countries including Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, and Manchu China.

Using Tibetan, Chinese, and European sources, the book is attractively presented in the Guide Belles lettres format, with copious illustrations and a bibliography arranged by topic. Paying attention to both material and conceptual aspects of Tibetan culture, Buffetrille covers not just the upper echelons but popular life too, correcting misconceptions in the process (cf. Tibetan clichés).

Here I’ll merely list some main themes of the eight chapters.

History: subsuming both the thriving period of political stability under the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82), with the hegemony of his Gelugpa school of Buddhism, and attendant power struggles.

The Tibetan space: cosmology; central Tibet and the peripheral regions, notably Amdo and Kham; and cosmopolitan Lhasa, with its ethnically mixed population (also including Muslims, Newars, Armenians, Christians), dynamic commercial life, and monuments.

Chapter 3 looks at the political and administrative organisation in more detail, including justice, the army, finance, and the postal system.

Chapter 4 unpacks the society and economy. Buffetrille introduces the nobility; the varied strata of common people (“serfs”, in the parlance of some modern observers), including brigands; and the clergy, another stratified category. As to the economy, she discusses agriculture, nomadism, commerce, measures and currency, mining, hunting, and the artisanat.

Age d'or 1

In a chapter on Time, she discusses astrology, the calendar, divination, and the life cycle.

Chapter 6 considers Religions in all their forms. Besides giving a useful overview of the various schools of Buddhism (with earlier historical background) and Bön, Buffetrille features “social inscription”: the life of monasteries, lay practices, pilgrimages, beliefs, indigenous rituals, and local deities.

Age d'or 3

Intellectual life: language, writing, paper, xylography, printing, libraries, and literature (Buddhist, historical, scientific, fiction).

Age d'or 4

The arts, again enmeshed with religious practice: artists, painters (with an interesting vignette on pigments), iconography, sculpture, architecture—ending with a brief mention of music, which is further covered in

Pastimes, with the annual cycle of festivals, both in Lhasa and in rural communities, including courtly and popular songs and dances, lhamo opera—and picnics.

Private life, including naming customs, family, women, sexuality; the house, tents, food and drink; healthcare, costume.

All this makes a suitable reminder that before the Chinese occupation, for all its social issues, Tibet was a mature, functioning, independent society. This concise introduction much deserves an English translation.

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