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Social History of Tibetan Societies

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ANR-DFG Programme SHTS : Social History of Tibetan Societies, March 2012-February 2016

A Tibetan document from the archives of a community in Mustang, Nepal
Dated 1887, the document, bearing the signatures or seals of all the community representatives, is a resolution to resist the imposition of higher taxes by the local ruler and to recompense individuals whose property is confiscated by the the ruler’s henchmen.(Photo Charles Ramble, 2011)

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The untold story of Tibetan society in Lhasa, the Himalayas and the Chinese borderlands from the 17th to the 20th centuries

In collaboration with the University of Bonn, a multinational team of researchers based in France will use hitherto unexploited resources to develop a clearer understanding of Tibetan society over three centuries.

Behind the myths : unravelling the truth about Tibet’s « people without history »

The history of minor principalities across “ethnographic Tibet” as well as their relations with each other and the greater political powers deserves more attention than it has received ; not only because of the need to understand how society operated at a small-scale level, but because a far richer picture of the whole can be obtained from a close study of the component parts. For many authors the narrow focus of “history from below” is self-justifying, on the grounds that the local concerns of “people without history” are a legitimate subject for the attention of historians. The more comprehensive view, however, is that these micro-level observations, especially in apposition to the perspective of the centre, may have real significance for the larger picture. The project will examine specific social groups and institutions such as family and household, village organisation, serf economy, craftsmen, traders, aristocratic and ecclesiastic elites, legal systems and courts etc. The areas under consideration are Central Tibet, the North-eastern periphery, the Himalayan belt, and the Peking-based Qing administration.

A multi-disciplinary approach : combining textual analysis and ethnographic enquiry

The main method applied will be the textual analysis of Tibetan archival collections already photographed in Tibet, Nepal and India. New material has come to light that will also be digitally photographed, while existing microfilm resources will be scanned. The texts will be transliterated in roman script, edited and translated. Commentaries to each document will be provided, and syllable indexes for each collection ; indices of this sort will make it possible to see each syllable in context, and will be produced using the software Concordance. Since most of the terminology encountered in this literature does not feature in existing dictionaries, the project will develop a lexicon using TshwaneLex and TshwaneDJe. All the processed primary sources will be made available both as published volumes and online, to facilitate searching. In addition to examining unpublished manuscripts, the project will also use interviews and published biographies to analyse relations between the different types of Central Tibetan élite –those whose power was based on a form of traditional influence, such as the aristocracy, the clergy and the educated, and those with a more “modern” power-base, represented by the merchant elites – and, on the other hand, the relationship between these groups and the government. Subjects for interview will comprise mainly members of these elite groups still living in Tibet, as well as others in exile. A clearer understanding of community archives from the Himalaya will be obtained through anthropological investigations carried out in the field.


The results will be relevant to the broader discussion on Tibet and its fate in the twentieth century, as the project will provide a more nuanced picture of Tibetan societies than is now the case. In addition to creating the largest available resource for the study of Tibetan social history, members of the project will also produce monographs and articles focusing on selected areas, social groups, and broader thematic issues. All the material will be made available as a resource for the international scholarly community in printed volumes and/or on searchable websites. While the legal status of Tibet according to international law is an issue with which this project will not be concerned, it is hoped that publications aimed at a more general readership will help to dispel many popular misconceptions about Tibetan society, such as the extent to which pre-1951 Tibet was a feudal society, the social role of clerics and nobles, farmers, nomads, craftsmen and traders ; the organisation of civil society ; strategies of dispute resolution and the numerous legal systems that prevailed in different areas.


Modern representations of Tibetan society before 1959 are diametrically opposed : for the supporters of the old regime, it was a paradise of spirituality, while Chinese Communist rhetoric presents it as a hell on earth. This divergence in presentation is possible because the present, limited state of knowledge enables interested parties to select isolated features in an anecdotal manner : to use the image of the blind men and the elephant, there is sense of the trunk and tail, but no picture of the whole beast. The publications produced by this project will make it harder to misrepresent the situation for political ends. This is the first research project ever to focus on the social history of Tibet ; in spite of the large volume of documentation analysed, and the wide geographical and temporal range of the research, there remains a vast amount of unstudied material. It is hoped that this project will be the pioneer of a new field of investigation in Tibetan Studies.