The First Scholarly Study of the Tibetan Fur Burnings

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Why did Tibetans burn their furs? Research in The Journal of Asian Studies reveals modern conflicts at the heart of an ancient culture.

In 2006 the Dalai Lama delivered an extraordinary scolding to his own people on their wearing of furs, particularly the pelts of endangered species such as the tiger.

During an address delivered at the thirtieth Kalachakra Buddhist initiation ceremony, held in India where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, the revered spiritual leader told them their trade and ceremonial wearing of animal pelts was a disgrace. Using uncompromising language he said: “…the collective Tibetan reputation is being ruined, and the Dalai Lama is ashamed.”

When the admonished crowd returned to their villages, many appear to have gone straight to their wardrobes and, dragging out the precious furs (collectively worth millions of US dollars), unleashed an unprecedented outbreak of pelt burnings across the territory known as Tibet, but claimed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Seven years on, the first scholarly study of the burnings has been published by Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Emily Yeh. In the latest edition of The Journal of Asian Studies, published by Cambridge University Press for the Association for Asian Studies, Yeh draws on scores of interviews carried out with Tibetans to re-examine the burnings and ask just what they meant.

Tibetans have increasingly turned to fire to represent their anguish at their continuing inability to control their own destiny, regularly burning themselves alive to protest Chinese rule. Around 100 Tibetans are estimated to have died as a result of self-immolation since 2009 alone. But the 2006 burnings was the first time the nation sent a global signal by consigning their most prized possessions to the flames.

However, it was a confused signal that Tibetans themselves disagree on.

In ‘Blazing Pelts and Burning Passions: Nationalism, Cultural Politics, and Spectacular Decommodification in Tibet’, Yeh argues that the burnings have been viewed through different lenses by outsiders.

But the most interesting and intractable debate is the one being held among Tibetans themselves, says Yeh. After two months of traveling across culturally diverse Tibetan regions and interviewing many Tibetans, Yeh concludes that they themselves are as conflicted over what the burnings represent, and what they may presage for the future of the Tibetan people, as any of the outsiders looking in. She says:

“I found debates among Tibetans about the burnings which embraced environmentalism, nationalism, implications for Tibetans’ global reputation, the survival of Tibetan culture, and the possibility of creating a moral economy in an era of deepening materialism.

“Even as burnings were ongoing, new debates emerged about what they meant, and whether or not they should have happened. One of the most prominent was an argument about whether Tibetans were destroying their own culture. For some, the spectacular destruction of the pelts by fire amounted to a second Cultural Revolution, a furious wave of destruction that Tibetans were unleashing upon themselves. For others the burnings effectively converted financial value into moral value in a bid to create a moral economy in resistance to the aggressive capitalist and materialist society fast developing in China.”

Yeh concludes that, ultimately, those who participated in and debated the burnings asked: is there a right way to be Tibetan in the contemporary world, and if so, what is it? Both the burnings and the fierce debates about them in their aftermath may reveal schisms within Tibetan society and the complex cultural politics of contemporary ‘Tibetan-ness’ that have yet to reveal their true nature and force.

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Notes to Editors:

For further information or to arrange interviews please contact Susan Soule, Journals Marketing Manager at Cambridge University Press, using the following details:

Tel:     212-337-5019
Cell:    646-468-4942
Email: ssoule(at)cambridge(dot)org
About The Journal of Asian Studies

The Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) has played a defining role in the field of Asian studies for over 65 years. JAS publishes the very best empirical and multidisciplinary work on Asia, spanning the arts, history, literature, the social sciences, and cultural studies. Experts around the world turn to this quarterly journal for the latest in-depth scholarship on Asia's past and present, for its extensive book reviews, and for its state-of-the-field essays on established and emerging topics. Its coverage reaches from South and Southeast Asia to China, Inner Asia, and Northeast Asia.

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About the Association for Asian Studies

The Association for Asian Studies (AAS), founded in 1941, is a scholarly, non-political professional organization for anyone interested in Asia and the study of Asia. With approximately 8,000 members worldwide, representing all the regions and countries of Asia and all academic disciplines, the AAS is the largest organization of its kind.

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