Tibetans, culture of

The Tibetans, whose homeland is among the highest-lying of any people’s, have two languages and many dialects, belonging to the Tibetan-Burmese branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. They have their own script, of seventh-century origin, and in 1988 a special commission was established to promote the use of the Tibetan language in the public sphere in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The 1990 census showed just over 2 million Tibetans in the TAR (95.46 per cent of the total), and 4,593,330 in all China. The 2000 census had the Tibetan population in the TAR as 2,411,100 (92.2 per cent of the total). Other than Tibet, the provinces with the most Tibetans are, in order, Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan.
Tibetan culture is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism (see Tibetan Buddhism among minority groups). To this day, the great majority of houses have shrines, especially in the countryside. Tibetan medicine is also religiously based, and is still much in use. Religious themes permeate the rich Tibetan tradition of paintings, scrolls, sculpture and statues. Masked religious dancing, performed by monks, still takes place in the monasteries. The gigantic Potala Palace, now a museum, stands atop a mountain towering over the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and is among the world’s greatest old buildings. One of the few fully secular works of art in Tibet is the tale of the great King Gesar, fighter against evil, which said to be the world’s longest epic (see ethnic minority literary collections). In addition to the classical arts, there is a modern tradition emerging in literature, painting and storytelling. More professionalized and secular, the content reflects conditions in modern Tibet and contemporary Tibetan history. However, Tibetans still prefer traditional themes. The epic of King Gesar is still sung by bards as well as being dramatized, and retains great popularity.
Formerly monasteries dominated the education system and Tibetan learning. Religious education survives in the monasteries, but there is also a comprehensive secular education system. Although most children now go to school, the literacy rate in the TAR for people aged over fourteen is only 52.7 per cent (2000 census), much lower than the national average (see literacy (and illiteracy)). Since the 1990s, attention has been given to devising Tibetan-language textbooks, and at primary level most instruction uses Tibetan, although it changes to Chinese higher in the education system.
Most marriages are monogamous. However, polyandrous and polygamous marriages still exist, especially the former—a 1996 survey showing polyandrous marriages at about 15 per cent of the total. The aim of polyandry, which usually sees brothers sharing a wife, and of polygyny, with sisters sharing a husband, is to avoid splitting inheritance.
Tibetan culture has changed significantly under Chinese pressure. It has, however, shown astonishing resilience, even conservatism, and no signs of extinction.
Barnett, R. and Akiner, S. (eds) (1994). Resistance and Reform in Tibet. London: C.Hurst.
Snellgrove, D. and Richardson, H. (1968). A Cultural History of Tibet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
COLIN MACKERRAS

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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