Butterfingers: Resculpting Religion at a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Susette Cooke

Abstract

For several hundred years a major Buddhist festival has been held at Kubum Monastery (Ch. Ta’ersi) in present-day Qinghai Province in the PRC. Contemporary eyewitness accounts reveal remarkable consistency in its form at least over the century preceding the founding of the current Chinese state in 1949. Evidence of changes, not from cultural imperatives within Tibetan Buddhist civilisation but under Chinese state impetus, can be perceived since the 1950's, and continue into the present.

Taking a local news item relating to the festival period as a point of entry, this paper considers representations of the festival at either end of the decade 1993-2003 in on-site experience and official reportage, a comparison which reveals several salient characteristics of the cultural-political landscape in an outlying region of the PRC. Qinghai, a large, sparsely-populated administrative unit with a rather recent history as a province, embraces several cultures and ethnic groups within its geographical bounds as well as its rhetorical identity in official discourse. The non-Chinese elements which dominated much of this frontier region before 1949 continue to present dilemmas for the state's integration project. Kubum Monastery has embodied and situated challenges among Inner Asian political forces for most of its history, a factor still utilised by the PRC in its handling of certain regional policies. In the ongoing dynamic of contested values among the region's communities at local and supra-local levels, Kubum plays both a symbolic and a substantive role. Enactions and representations of the festival - an entity itself open to variant interpretations reflecting local concerns - exemplify the state's attempts to redefine political-cultural formations of Tibetan Buddhist societies in the PRC. As an annually recurring event, the festival offers a fixed time and space for viewing this process, in particular the transforming effects of state-sponsored activities at a religious site.

Keywords

Kubum Monastery, Qinghai, China studies, ethnicity

Full Text

PDF