Global Lives and Local Perspectives: New Approaches to Tibetan Life Writing

Global Lives and Local Perspectives was the second largest collaboration between two research clusters of Wolfson College: OCLW (Oxford Centre for Life Writing) and THSC (Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre). In 2012, Wolfson College hosted the conference Beyond Biographies: New Perspectives on Tibetan Life-Writing; convened by Professor Ulrike Roesler and held in collaboration with OCLW, the meeting had the merit of attracting attention to the rich tradition of biographical writing within the Tibetan literary corpus by placing Tibetan biographies and autobiographies within the broader context of life writing across the world. New avenues of interpretation and understanding were advanced at the time, and, by taking our cue from that, we proposed to slightly enlarge the focus of the analysis to embrace other forms of indigenous life writing, such as journals, memoirs, songs, oral testimonies, and personal narratives, as they are documented in Tibetan historical, poetic, legal and religious literature, as well as on social media.

In the course of Global Lives and Local Perspectives, new approaches to Tibetan life writing had been proposed by the speakers. Whereas it is undisputable that biographies and autobiographies are at the core of the Tibetan practice of recording memories and experiences of the self, it is also clear that such a label crosses over and includes diverse genres and forms, thus opening the field of investigation to different analytical means.

Biographical and autobiographical writing can be used, for example, as a source of information about social, cultural, and political history, as demonstrated by Dr Franz Xaver Erhard and Rachael Griffiths. Through the eyes of the authors, modes of identity construction come to the foreground, thus allowing for a better understanding of the different ways in which Tibetanness was, and still is, expressed. It has been reiterated throughout the workshop that the role on self-perception by the socio-cultural and historical milieu should not be underestimated; individuals are in fact urged to adhere to specific kinds of personhood, that is to say behavioural models considered to be socially acceptable. Dr Marta Sernesi, Miroslav Hrdina, and Sangseraima Ujeed presented contributions describing the edifying character of rnam thar, and the importance given to the observance of precise schemas in the portrayal of the life of an individual considered to be “exemplary”. Interestingly, it is the analysis of the themes and structures of these texts that makes it possible to gain a new perspective on rnam thar, the most popular form in which life writing was carried out in Tibet. Tibetan biographies also provide interesting information about the biographers themselves, so much so that sometimes the real value of these works lies not in the amount of details about the life of their characters, but rather on what the authors or the compilers reveal about their understanding of both their own identity and the socio-cultural environment they lived in, as shown by the presentations of Prof. Per Kværne and Dr Lewis Doney. Furthermore, the recording of life-stories of remarkable individuals was not a perfunctory implementation of a traditional practice; rather, Tibetan authors reflected on the issues of literary theory, developing indigenous explanations regarding the worth of their compositions as well as proposing new ways of narrating the self.

If the importance of biographies and autobiographies for social and cultural historians is clear, the perils of considering these works as mere deposits of dates and names should not be forgotten. Life writing, in all its forms and expressions, is a literary manifestation, and as such it deserves to be considered and discussed. The literary value of autobiographies, journals, and memoirs affects the surrounding society; the creation of a relationship between the work and its audience may lead to the negotiation of issues of exemplarity and legitimacy, as illustrated by the case-studies brought by Prof. Per K. Sørensen and Lucia Galli. Personal recollections may shed a new light on past events, improving our understanding of controversial historical periods, as the decades of the 1940s to the 1960s certainly were for the Tibetan communities along the Sino-Tibetan borders as well as for those living in the central provinces of the plateau, as showed by Prof. Heather Stoddard, Dr Lara Maconi, and Xénia de Heering.

What has been said so far applies not only to biographies and autobiographies compiled in pre-modern times, but also to new forms of individual expression, such as social media, blogs, and instant messaging apps. Creating the self in the moment is a feature that we ascribe to modernity. Technology provides us with the means to immediately share small personal stories, updating our identities constantly though multi-semiotic forms. But writing on the spot, recording the ebbs and flows of the mind, is indeed a rather ancient practice; diary, personal journals, travelogues are all instances of what can be defined as life writing of the moment, jotting down impressions as well as reflections on the self and the other. The contributions offered by Prof. Charles Rambles, Dr LamaJabb, and Dr Theresia Hofer broached the issue of “fragmentary” selves and how it is possible to reconstruct a personal identity by putting together snapshots of life as they appear in legal documents, poems, songs, or instant messages shared on social media platforms.

These are indeed exciting times for those working on Tibetan life writing. The field is ripe with possibilities. Not only the past may be looked at with different eyes, but also the present, and more importantly, the future, all reserve new and unexpected ways of studying and comprehending the ever-evolving Tibetan identity. We planned to collect and publish the contributions to this workshop, with a sincere hope that the study of Tibetan life writing may continue to thrive and develop.

We would like to express once again our gratitude towards those who have made this workshop such as successful event: Oxford Centre for Life Writing (OCLW), Ti se Foundation, Wolfson College Academic Committee, Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre (THSC), and the Linying Foundation.

Lucia Galli and Franz Xaver Erhard (Conveners)

Photo by Nadja Friesen (CC0 1.0)

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