Signs of Sinicization: Katia Buffetrille on Road Signs and Cultural Erasure in Tibet


The following is a quick translation into English from French that I made of what seems like an excerpt of a longer interview that Le did with anthropologist and Tibetologist Katia Buffetrille. Although it is short, it covers important ground, so I thought non-readers of French might appreciate a version in English. The focus of the interview is the topic of Han Chinese Sincization of Tibet and Tibetans. In a very nice and concise way Katia, describes the little everyday ways – particularly in relation to naming – that Tibetan cultural and lived, embodied realities are erased and suppressed to make way for the steam-rolling priorities of Chinese settler-occupiers.

As anthropologist Keith Basso conveyed a while back so poignantly in his research on Western Apache senses of space and history, ‘Wisdom Sits in Places’. As Katia shows, indigenous names are so much more than just (tiny) characters on road signs, or bureaucratic requirements on travel-permits. She also addresses the important issue of so-called ‘internal Orientalism’ inside Tibet, as this pertains to Han Chinese majority settlers’ relationships with ethnic minority culture. Katia stands out as a Tibetan Studies scholar who though she works inside Tibet, is not afraid to call it as she sees it, and label China’s presence in Tibet as what it is: deeply destructive settler colonialism.

In this vein, Katia has also written a much needed and unapologetic piece directed at non-Tibetan Tibetan Studies scholars, urging them to reflect on their privilege, and ask themselves whether they can in good conscience continue to maintain the fiction of ‘a-political-ness’ for research purposes, when the entire existence of the people they conduct research with is inherently politicized. You can read it here.

Anyway, enjoy, and my thanks to Katia for the piece, and the continued clarity of her voice and quality of her research.


“Tibetan place names are associated with traditions that Sincization is suppressing”

For Katia Buffetrille, moreover, it’s in langauge, and even in road signs, that one can see China’s power over Tibet. Interview

By Catherine Golliau

Modified 13/05/2016 at 12:38 – Published 12/05/2016 at 14:13 | Le


*Photo Caption: Road sign in Chinese, Tibetan, and English which amply demonstrates the difference in size of characters. © Katia Buffetrille

Le : You are an anthropologist who has been visiting Tibet since 1985. In what ways has it changed?

Katia Buffetrille: Chinese politics aims to assimilate the Tibetan population into the Han Chinese one on every front. This Sinicization is ongoing, but Tibetans’ resilience is strong and pockets of Tibetan culture continue to thrive.

Can one really classify this as Chinese “colonization” of Tibet?

Yes. But, let’s firstly make sure we understand what is meant by ‘Tibet’. For the Chinese, this refers solely to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where the Tibetan population is far less in number than in the regions known as Kham and in Amdo in the North-East. When I talk about Tibet, I am referring to the entirety of the Tibetan Plateau, whose total area represents one-quarter of the whole of China, and is inhabited by six million Tibetans. The number of Han Chinese that have settled in Tibet is not known, notably because a large number of these haven’t been included in official statistics: military personnel, merchants -many of whom come to do business during the tourist period between March and November, then return to their home regions, prostitutes – no less than 600 brothels were counted in Lhasa in 1999 – etc. So, even if they aren’t counted in the statistics, these people play an important role in the Sincization of Tibet.

*Photo caption: This sacred mountain in Central Tibetan is called ‘Tsibri’ (Tib. Rtsib ri) which means “the mountain in the shape of ribs”, as a result of its shape. Without this pronunciation, it has no meaning at all.© Katia Buffetrille

In concrete terms, how does this Sinicization manifest?

In many ways. Tibetans are marginalized in their own country, notably because they neither speak nor write Mandarin well, and because they don’t have the connections which allow them to pursue good careers. Sincization also expresses itself in personal and place names. This began under Mao. The Jokhang, the temple where the holiest of Buddha statues is located, was renamed “the Lodging House of Family Number Five”; the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lamas, Norbulingka, became “the People’s Park”. Today, the changes aren’t so radical. Tibetan names are retained but Sinicized. Thus, a Tibetan called Tashi, a very wide-spread personal name in Tibet which means ‘Good Fortune’ becomes [phonetically] Zhaxi in Chinese, which doesn’t mean anything in the one language like it does in the other. The personal name Drolma, the Tibetan name for the goddess Tara, becomes Zhuoma. The mountain Kawakarpo, which means “White Snow”, presently appears on signs as Kawagebo, etc. By suppressing the meaning of words, one removes their essence: Tibetan place names are associated with (specific local) histories, a tradition which Sinicization suppresses. Another example: on traffic signs, Tibetan is always written with smaller characters than Chinese.

But is this ultimately linked with the fact that for the Chinese, China is the Middle Empire, the center of the world, and thus civilization?

The Chinese think of Tibet, it’s true, as a country of backward people and barbarians to whom civilization must be brought. They have invested a lot of money there, and expect Tibetans to show enormous gratitude, forgetting that the majority of projects accomplished don’t benefit the latter. Tibet has become an exotic destination for Chinese tourists and one can see a certain process of folklorization of Tibetan culture taking place. So, the town of Gyalthang in Kham, the Eastern region, survives off of logging. In 1998, this industry was prohibited after experts established that deforestation was to blame for flooding of the Yangtze river. It was thus necessary to find an alternative source of income. Local authorities launched a competition to find out where Shangrila was located, a mythical paradise derived from the imagination of the British writer James Hilton who invented it in his best-seller ‘Lost Horizon’ that appeared in 1933. Gyalthang won the competition. The town was transformed into a Tibetan Disneyland for Chinese tourists longing for exoticism and even its name progressively disappeared in favour of that of Shangrila.

*Photo caption: Chinese Tourists. Chinese tourists at the monastery of Sumtsenling, Gyelthang, Kham (2015). In 2015, a new trend for Chinese tourists was to photograph themselves jumping, whether they were in a store, monastery, or park.© Katia Buffetrille

Is religion dramatically changed?

Yes, especially since Buddhist monks, who remain plentiful in Tibet, have always been at the forefront of protests. The control exercised over recalcitrant monasteries is particularly severe: security forces, cameras, spies disguised as monks. The monasteries that remain docile benefit from great financial resources. Religious practitioners can no longer travel without a permit granted by the county departments for the management of religious affairs and restrictions on re-entering Lhasa are very constraining. The committees who manage monasteries are no longer elected by monks, but are composed instead of government officials who come from outside and are chosen by those in power. These are also attempting to control the reincarnation procedure of religious leaders so as to then have a hand in those (procedures involving) the future Dalai Lama, while the senior religious figure is venerated by all Tibetans.

Reference: “Tibetan Buddhism” is on sale in bookshops and in our store.
Katia Buffetrille is a Tibetologist, researcher at ‘L’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes’ and editor of the Review of Mongolian, Siberian, Central Asian and Tibet Studies. She is the author of, among other titles, “Is Tibet Chinese?” (with Anne-Marie Blondeau, Albin Michel, 2001)


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