Into the pass: perceptions of change and permanence on the Tibetan plateau
AuthorTan, Gillian Gi-Leng
AffiliationArts - School of Philosophy, Anthropology and Social Inquiry
MetadataShow full item record
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationTan, G. G. (2009). Into the pass: perceptions of change and permanence on the Tibetan plateau. PhD thesis, Arts - School of Philosophy, Anthropology and Social Inquiry, The University of Melbourne.
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© 2009 Dr. Gillian Gi-Leng Tan
This dissertation tells the story of change and permanence as they are variously lived on the Tibetan plateau. Among Tibetan nomads, international development practitioners, local development brokers, and an incarnate lama, attitudes towards change and permanence take on a polyphony that is occasionally harmonious, sometimes dissonant, but rarely univocal. The attitudes inflect the concepts themselves, complicating our understanding of “change” and “permanence” and leading to the thesis at the heart of this story: that change, though universally experienced, is experienced and understood in different ways, ways that are informed by phenomenological and religious positions. Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted at multiple sites and with various groups of people in the eastern Tibetan region of Kham. This ethnography details the attitudes of each set of actors towards change. As nomads continue to engage with the changes wrought by the Chinese state, they also interact with the changes planned by American development organisations. Yet, contrary to a persistent view that Tibetan nomadic life is in danger of passing, nomads display an ability both to move along with change, incorporating and creating changes in their life-worlds, and to govern contingency by adhering to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. Moreover, development practitioners, despite needing to achieve targets indicating the success of projects, are motivated by altruistic desires that result in frustrations when motives and realities do not align. But negotiating between structured plans and lived realities generates the habitus of development, which resolves the frustrations of development practitioners, and which, itself, perpetuates the industry of development. Processes of change on the plateau are also mediated by local development brokers and the incarnate lama, but with different effects. Development brokers mediate between nomads and external scripts of change because they identify with the demands of each. Yet, in the process, brokers are caught in the tensions that arise when one perception of change encounters another. The incarnate lama, by virtue of his divine, political and social authority, is able to negotiate a different outcome. He gathers together the momentum of change created by the Chinese state and development organisations and reconfigures its elements to impart his vision as the changes that nomads encounter. These engagements come together in a theoretical framework informed by phenomenology. Phenomenology posits that consciousness knows the world by being and moving in it; in this way, then, movement allows us to experience change, change that is lived and felt by every consciousness. However, Tibetan nomads move with respect to not only change but also permanence. Their attitudes towards death and loss, for instance, reveal that they perceive permanence not as unchanging but as continual change. Thus, they live in practice the philosophical tenet of Buddhism, which states that everything is impermanent. Finally, we arrive at a Tibetan-inflected interpretation of the structural adage: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, the more a thing changes [in structure], the more it stays the same [in idea]. To Tibetan nomads, everything is in flux and impermanent, and that is the crucial permanence.
KeywordsTibet; nomads; China; social life; customs; lamas; ethnology; impermanence; Buddhism; change; phenomenological anthropology; plateau; travel
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