2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 23

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Urbanization, Urbanism and Tibetan Civilization

Organizer and Chair: Gregory Rohlf, University of the Pacific, USA

Discussant: Elliot Sperling, Indiana University, USA

The Tibetan world has a unique urban tradition. The gigantic and beautiful Potala Palace in Lhasa is emblematic of its significant, durable and recognizable architectural and urban accomplishments. Other permanent settlements developed around monasteries in Kham and Amdo, such as at Kumbum, Jyekundo and Labrang. These monasteries and settlements created a distinct and lasting urban pattern which contemporary Chinese urbanism and state-building have built upon. But contemporary history suggests that urbanization in the Tibetan world became primarily a vehicle for state-directed sinicization. These papers empirically examine urbanization and urbanism in Tibet’s heartland and in Amdo from multiple perspectives, including local Tibetan officials in Amdo and Tibetan migrant workers in Lhasa. Their findings both confirm and challenge the sinicization framework, and place a distinctly Tibetan urbanism in the context of historical and contemporary trans-Himalayan, Central Asian (Silk Road) and East Asian urban traditions.

Tibetanising Lhasa: rural-to-urban migration, sinicisation, and the new indigenous urbanism of Tibet.
Ivan Costantino, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

This paper is an ethnographic study of migrant urban space in Lhasa—the capital of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Lhasa has undergone massive changes since Chinese troops first entered the city in 1951 and in 2008 the official population of its urban area (186,000) was around six times that of 1941. The townscape has also seen dramatic development, with hundreds of Chinese-style high-rises sprouting up immediately outside of the old town. Tibetans in Lhasa (as well as the exile administration) claim that Han residents represent at least half of the city's population. Tibet support groups also have pointed to the risk of sinicisation and ‘cultural genocide’ as a result of the massive influx of Han migrants to the region and the city's increasing ethnic diversification. This paper, however, takes the study of migration in Lhasa beyond a simple discourse of sinicisation by focusing on young Tibetan rural migrants and their encounter with diversity and modernisation in the city. I examine their spatial practices by looking at residential patterns (particularly their presence in the old monastic courtyard complexes in and around the Barkor), work, leisure, education, and participation in outdoor ritual activities. I analyse how said practices affect and define rural migrants' notions of urbanism and identity formation vis-a-vis both Han residents and Tibetan urbanites. In particular, I point to provenance, religious devotion, generational differences, and social mobility as major factors that inform the urban experience of Tibetan rural migrants in Lhasa. I also tackle methodological issues concerning the study of identity and space in a profoundly divided and heavily militarised city.

Pastoral Urbanism and State Building in the Zeku (Tsekhog) Tibetan Autonomous County in the 1950s
Benno Weiner, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

When in 1949 the Chinese Communist Party “Liberated” Amdo, it brought with it concepts of spatial organization, administrative practice and economic development that were often at odds with those of existing Tibetan communities, particularly in Amdo’s vast and sparsely populated pastoral regions. Focusing on the immediate post-Liberation period, this paper examines changing patterns of Tibetan “urbanism” in the Zeku (Tsekhog) Tibetan Autonomous County. The establishment of Zeku County necessitated building from scratch institutions and infrastructure of governance— a county seat, district townships, roads, cooperatives, grain stations etc— and demanded concomitant changes to spatial patterns of habitation. It also required redefining the conceptual space in which the indigenous pastoral population lived, for example by turning “tribes” (buluo) and herding groups (quanzi) into districts and mutual aid teams, and transforming an internally conflict-ridden “tribal” society into “pastoral masses,” who as residents of Zeku County were an integral part of the multination People’s Republic of China. Working through the mediation of the indigenous elite, state agents attempted to “rationalize” existing spatial practices of pastoral life in order to strengthen production, administrative integration and “national unity.” Moreover, Tibetans may have welcomed some of these initiatives while resisting others. Therefore, even within radically uneven power dynamics, I argue that for much of the 1950s changing patterns of Tibetan “urbanism” occurred through a negotiated process, even in Zeku’s pastoral grasslands.

Sedentarisation of Tibetan Pastoralists: Governmental Re-settlement Programs in Amdo
Jarmila Ptackova, Humboldt University, Berlin, Czech Republic

One of the aspects of the Chinese Opening the West development strategy is reconstruction and enlargement of already existing towns and cities, but also establishment of new urban areas in China’s west. In the past years the urbanisation movement reached also the pastoral areas of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. In order to improve the socioeconomic situation of the households, allow recovery of the grassland vegetation through grazing pressure release and also to ensure political stability in area with predominantly minority population, Tibetan pastoralists are being relocated into new settlements. The current sedentarisation practices must however be viewed in the context of other state reforms implemented by the Chinese state since the 1950s, as part of longer processes and their consequences. This includes the land distribution system following decollectivization, and the introduction of fencing and permanent housing programs. The constructions of the numerous urban villages are not part of one single governmental program. They are being implemented under different names and administered by different offices. They all aim to transform the Tibetan pastoral society into a more settled one. The pastoral areas of Amdo are especially affected by the sedentarisation policy. New villages, designed to accommodate relocated pastoralists are spreading throughout the grassland. However the lack of employment opportunities and state assistance during the adaptation period in the new urban environment might lead to negative consequences for both, the Tibetan pastoral society and the Chinese government.

The Urban Morphology of Tibetan Towns in Historical and Comparative Perspectives
Gregory Rohlf, University of the Pacific, USA

Although Tibetan civilization is often conceptualized based on nomadism, its settlements seem more distinctive in world historical perspective. The Mongols also raised horses and sheep in cold and arid environments, but their capital Karakorum did not last. In both architecture and urban morphology, Tibetan towns are unique. Religious communities were sited on high land; a trading town often arose at a short distance away on the plain. This paper examines the built environment of Tibetan settlements over time using a range of sources, including historical maps and remote sensing technologies. The inquiry examines the theory and practice of Tibetan urbanism both before and after the crushing homogenization of Chinese socialist urban design practice. What has survived of the historical Tibetan pattern? The answers will help us understand Tibetans’ role and place in the rush of Chinese state-directed urbanization.