2006 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Guilford College

Field Study at Nomadic Horse Festivals in Khams, Eastern Tibet

Mentor: Eric Mortensen, Religious Studies
Students: Amanda Armbrust, ’07; Willian Frank, ’06; Lauren Reed, ’06; Joshua Shelton, ’08; William McKindley-Ward, ’08

Project Abstract

This summer, five students and I journeyed overland across the length of Khams (Eastern Tibet) in order to conduct research on various aspects of summer nomadic “horse festival” gatherings. The students produced wonderful research projects by interviewing nomads and festival participants, photographing our journey and our stays at the festivals, reading material about Khampa nomads and history, and by interacting with and befriending all sorts of people from our drivers to monks, from doctors to mushroom hunters, from Chinese tourists to horse racers. We camped for much of the journey, and had ample time to interact with and learn from nomads in Khams..We attended four different festivals which gave students a diverse and rich sense of different nomadic styles, experiences, and communities.

Eric Mortensen

Personally, I found the journey highly rewarding, as I learned much about the importance of project scope and of research methods and planning in student fieldwork projects. Some projects were more successful than others, and some students thrived on the trip, whereas others struggled mightily, both with their research and with the adjustments requisite for such a new world and high altitude rough lifestyle. I found a personal joy in bringing students to Tibet, something I had dreamed about for a decade. In general, I think they had an amazing time and a rewarding academic experience. Most of the students now wish to pursue further Tibetological research, and a few have started planning their return. I have also begun to wonder how I might return to the region with more students, having learned several important and sobering lessons about bringing students into “the field,” and having confirmed my conviction that studying Tibet in Tibet with students is an unparalleled joy.

Amanda Armbrust
Agency and Intention-The Dynamics of Consistency and Change in Tibetan Horse Festivals: A Discussion of the Preservation of Cultural Identity in the Wake of Tourism

My research seeks to analyze the degree and nature of change as it continues to shape the horse festivals of Yushu and Litang. It analyzes the distinction between imposed change, which often trickles down from decisions made by an authoritative ‘other’ who operates from a perspective that lies outside the group affected by those decisions, and generative transformation, that arises internally. It questions whether or not diversity, for its own sake, is a value, perhaps if only for its potential to introduce a multitude of perspectives. Much of the analysis hinges on the importance of ideologies as they shape the motivations and intentions behind manifest change. (The research) deals with the struggle of rectifying internal hypocrisies, such as those which form a gap between an individual’s ideals and lived experience, or the one present at the festival between the “marketable Tibetans” as they are presented for the consumption of the tourist, and the “genuine” or “authentic” (Tibetans). (It also explores the) experience of the average Tibetan attending the festival. This research seeks to locate and shatter the lens tourism cultivates, the lens which allows the outsider to distort the reality of this festival into a showcase of “the other.”

William Frank
The Wind Horse and the Last Remnants of Tibetan Nomad Autonomy

My research focuses on the study of the symbolic religious significance of the horse in Tibetan nomadic life. I intend to look at the domestic use of animals in nomadic life and to compare that with their religious significance. During my stay in Zhongdian, I began researching Tibetan Buddhism and I came across the Windhorse. I became fascinated with the symbolism of this ubiquitous creature. The Windhorse is inexorably intertwined with the people of Tibet. I discovered that no none could really talk about the Windhorse with any authority, but it was seen everywhere. The Windhorse is a symbol of freedom. The symbol is not always visible, it is not often spoken of, but I felt it was always present.

The competition at a horse festival is a celebration of the life and practice of the Tibetan warrior. It is an event through which the Tibetan warrior can maintain a sense of himself as fighter. The Tibetans in essence have lost the fight with the Chinese, (but) Litang is a particularly symbolic place for these events to occur because it was the sight of the last stronghold of the Tibetan armies during the violence of the Cultural Revolution. Resistance (to Chinese rule) comes not in military violence but in psychological, emotional and spiritual maintenance of self identity. The Tibetan warrior is still alive and well, functioning incognito as it were. He still fights the good fight, preserving his way of life as a participant in the horse festival.

Lauren Reed
Local and Outsider Perceptions of Gender Performance in Kham: Locating Khampa Masculinity in a Hegemonic World

In my research, I highlight the constructions of gender and ethnic identities of Kham, Tibet, specifically that of the Khampa masculine identity. I assert that the most cherished aspects of Khampa masculinity are wealth and heroic status, talent in cultural arts and skill in functional tasks, physical strength and attractiveness, strong mental and moral character, and conformity to normative gender institutions. I show how institutions of class, philosophy, culture, religion, gender, and the need for survival contribute to contemporary Khampa identity, in turn affecting the performance and perception of Khampa masculinity. Through celebration, performance, and support of this masculinity Khampas express pride in what they see as their unique ethnic identity, despite the use of a similar rhetoric in reinscribing the state’s nation-building project.

I argue that the masculinity that was adopted based on Kham’s geographical positioning has historically and contemporarily served to differentiate Khampas from the political hegemony or institutional majority. Thus, for centuries it has been framed internally with pride of place in opposition to outsiders. Kham will continue to be a geographic borderland. Though the state attempts to co-opt Khampa masculinity for its nation-building project, the deep linkage of gendered and ethnic identity to place and history makes the chances of complete co-option of Khampa masculinity seem slim.

Joshua Shelton
Nomadic Melodies: An Exploration of Music at Tibetan Horse Festivals

Music is one language with many dialects. Each culture creates its own distinct kinds of music that express the depths of its collective experience at a given time. Humans everywhere use their hands, feet and voices to manipulate the phenomena of sound and make manifest the most intangible realities of their emotional worlds, reflecting their daily life, location and landscapes, religious sentiments and experiences of love and death. The essence of any place may be found in the music its people create.

My research, based on the fieldwork I undertook between July 7 and August 10, 2006 in Tibet’s Kham region focuses on the types of music found at horse festivals and monasteries in Kham. Specific emphases include the function of musical instruments in monastic settings, the nature of professional music at horse festivals, and the general attitudes held by Tibetan musicians concerning performance and the ways in which their music is perceived by themselves and their audiences. (I also examined) the major instruments I encountered in my observation of nuns, monks, troubadours, and non-professional Tibetan musicians. Through my exploration of professional troubadours’ music at horse festivals as well as monastic music and amateur music in Tibetan life, my work seeks to shed light on the role of music as a social and spiritual tool designed for daily use in various areas of Kham.

William McKindley-Ward
Medicinal Practice in Eastern Tibet: Preservation and Profiteering

Chinese economic growth contines to be Beijing’s pressing interest, and eastern Tibet (Kham) finds itself increasingly embedded in spheres of tourism, urbanization, and a free market economy. In Tibetan lands to the east of the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s border, the blueprints for China’s future employs large-scale exportation of goods and substantial foreign investment. Reverberations of the Cultural Revolution persist in the religious life of Kham. Buddhist monasteries continue their rehabilitation from the destruction of the 1950s and 60s. The effects of the Mao-era government on the region have proved significant. The practice of Tibetan medicine has been wedged between past forms and future changes within the new Han context. Differences in urban and rural application of medicine (is evident as is) the impact of a growing national/international market. Still, longstanding lineages and continued folk practice persist in reinvigorating the old traditions of Tibetan medicine.