Accommodation, Acculturation, Amalgamation, and Back Again: The Tibetan Muslim Experience in Ninteenth- to Twenty-First-Century Kham

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon C (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
David G. Atwill , Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
Muslims first entered Tibet and appeared in sizeable numbers in Lhasa under the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682). In the intervening years Tibet’s Muslim populations continued to grow but due to their primary role as long-distant traders, no single Tibetan Muslim community attained a permanent community of any magnitude.  Despite their diminutive demographic presence, their historical significance in Kham as miners, commercial brokers and cultural middlemen is notable both in local histories and community oral histories up to the present.  More recently, their presences as "Zang-Hui" (Tibetan Muslims) has garnered considerable interest by Chinese historians and social scientists.

The largest communities settled in Kham in the early to mid-Qing and quickly adapted and adopted Tibetan customs and habits including speaking Tibetan, dressing like Tibetans and often inter-marrying with local Tibetans.  As a result, to outsiders and subsequent waves of immigration the Tibetan Muslims were often indistinguishable from the indigenous Tibetans and rarely remarked upon.  However, within the larger Tibetan population centers, Tibetan Muslims continued to be labeled as such long after they ceased to be practicing Muslims (or conversely shed many of their “Tibetan” traits). This paper examines the propensity of Tibetan Muslim to straddle and influence Tibet’s interactions with its’ neighboring communities shaping modern Tibetan identity in ways not often acknowledged in traditional histories of Tibet. Conversely, as Chinese-speaking imperial subjects (and later citizens) of the Chinese state, their assimilation to cultural and religious Tibetan practices offers a rarely acknowledged “reverse assimilation” away from the Chinese cultural sphere.  The paper is framed by a discussion of how two communities have responded to recent 'Islamic Revitalization' efforts.

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