A wonderful post by a China historian, inspired by a conversation with a Chinese friend:
Today YJ and I were discussing for the 1000th time the Τιbetan question and I suggested that my disdain and distaste for the Party line (and its supporters and parrots at home and abroad) had little to do with their opinion or right to hold such an opinion, but rather that the claims this group tended to make were of a different intellectual tradition than my own. The “Τιbet always has been, always will be part of China” crowd are starting from a point of certainty and proceeding to mine the past to create a narrative in support of that predetermined certainty. Complexity and nuance need not apply.
I’m not disputing the assertion “Τιbet is a part of China” or even “Τιbet was historically a part of China,” just that such assertions are built on unstable ground. The problem of Τιbet involves highly complex questions of sovereignty, authority, national identity, (de)colonization, and the evolution of empires into nation-states. Even the very definitions of these ideas, never mind how such ideas were understood in the past, are subject to discussion and debate. Thus the above assertion on Τιbet isn’t “wrong,” but the glassy-eyed certainty with which it is uttered and the narratives which support it deserve to be unpacked and the constituent parts looked at carefully and critically. For me, the counter to “Τιbet is part of China and history says so” is not “Τιbet is not part of China and history says so” but rather “How can you be so sure? Did you look at it this way?”
It then examines how historians’ minds work when it comes to reaching conclusions that then go on to become mainstream. shibboleths. This is not really a post on Tibet, but on drawing historical parallels in general. Its conclusion certainly got me thinking:
Indeed, the rhetoric of same sex marriage and gays serving the military disturbingly resembles the rhetoric against miscegenation and mixed-race army units in the 20th century. Similarly, the suggestions that PRC control of the Tibetan plateau was a strategic necessity, a humanitarian mission of liberation, or a benevolent paternalism which brought “modernity” in the form of hospitals, schools, and infrastructure to the benighted locals is fiendishly close to the justifications used by European and American imperialists in centuries past (and recent years).
Ouch. Please go read it all.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.