This week I had the pleasure of presenting a small part of my thesis work at the Himalayan Studies Conference, University of Colorado. Some people asked for a copy of the paper so I thought I’d just turn it into a blog instead and make up for my rubbish blogging record this year. So here it is! Enjoy 😀
Remember – this isn’t a blog about history; it’s a blog about how photographs are used to tell stories about the past. If you’re looking for information on Tibetan history then go read some Sam Van Schaik, Warren W. Smith Jr., and Tsering Shakya.
Please note that the translations are my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original text, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have suggestions for improvement!
Over the past five years of following discussions, debates and general activities among Tibetans in Chinese cyberspace I’ve noticed that sharing ‘old photos’ has been a pretty constant feature.
To be honest, until fairly recently I really didn’t pay too much attention to these ‘old photos’ and pretty much dismissed them as just another case of nostalgia, which is, to be fair, a pretty common theme across essays, poems, stories etc. among Tibetans in Chinese cyberspace. However, as I started to work through my thesis and become increasingly aware of some of the very creative tactics Tibetans use to talk about politically sensitive issues and evade the attention of censors, I started to think that sharing these ‘old photos’ was about much more than simply a longing for the past. I started to think that they represented (whether intentionally or unintentionally) a kind of “history from below” that challenges the Chinese state’s hegemonic story of ‘Old Tibet’ as a “hell on earth”.
So first of all, what exactly are ‘old photos’?
‘Old photos’ is pretty much a direct translation of the terms པར་རྙིང་ and旧照, both of which I’ve seen Tibetans use and sometimes create hashtags around on Weibo, Wechat and other popular online platforms. These ‘old photos’ refer to images of early 20th century Tibet, taken prior to the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. They were mostly taken by British and American men who made their way to Tibet in various capacities – as officers, soldiers, explorers, missionaries and so on (to read about who these guys were, why they went to Tibet, what they did there, the photographs they took and why, etc. see Claire Harris’ latest book).
From time to time Tibetans also share pictures taken by Lopsang Jampal Loodjor Tenzin Gyatso Demo (1907-1973), generally regarded to be the first photographer from Tibet. Sometimes you might also see images from Zhuang Xueben (1909-1984), a Han Chinese anthropologist who travelled to Tibet in the 1930s. Most images however tend to come from Charles Bell, Hugh Richardson, Frederick Spencer Chapman and other white ‘Western’ dudes. This may just come down to the sheer volume of stuff out there by these guys in comparison with the work by Tenzin Gyatso and Zhuang.
What is it about these ‘old photos’ that makes them so popular? Well, before we get into that, it’s worth thinking about photography a little more generally.
It might seem easy to dismiss photography as a pretty trivial thing, but it can be a pretty powerful form of visual technology that can generate, communicate and even context values, meanings and representations of self and others across different cultural, political and historical temporalities. But, at the same time photography is not necessarily an objective freeze-frame of another time or place. Hight and Sampson (p.1) for instance have written about the ways in which photography has “functioned as a cultural and political medium intricately tied to the establishment and support of colonial power.” So it’s important to pay attention to how power works through photographs and to be critical about how photographs are framed, interpreted, and used to shape popular opinion.
In China photography has had and continues to have a very important role in state propaganda. Photographs are used to visualise progress and achievement under the Chinese Communist Party, and as a tool in collective memory-making and nation-building. Claire Roberts (p.104) writes that photography played “an active role in the ideological moulding of the population,” was used to “reflect glorious scenes of struggle by the Chinese people to create a new historical epoch,” and paint the party-state “in eulogistic terms” to win over hearts and minds across China.
Chinese state media’s use of photography to depict Tibet past and present is a perfect illustration of using photography for ideological purposes. Even today, state media regularly uses photographs of ‘Old Tibet” or pre-‘liberation’ Tibet (as the Chinese state likes to put it) to tell a very particular story. These invariably portray ‘Old Tibet’ as a place singularly defined by horrific and cruel instances of hardship and suffering, and poor living conditions. There are so many photo essays of this type in Chinese state media that you could easily get lost in them for days (I did it for my thesis and honestly wouldn’t recommend it).
‘Old Tibet’ is often contrasted with ‘New Tibet’. While ‘Old Tibet’ is represented as a “hell on earth” “full of oppression, backwardness, and darkness”, ‘New Tibet’ is depicted as a “liberated”, “democratic” and an “open” place reaping the “benefits of socialist transformation.” For example, as part of this state project, China Network TV have been running a daily segment since 2014 on their Tibet service entitled Comparing Old Tibet and New Tibet. The footage is made up of images of ‘Old Tibet’ vs. ‘New Tibet’ and again plays into that narrative of Tibetans being “liberated from the shackles of feudal serfdom” to become the “masters of their own destiny” and of the Chinese state as the generous bestower of socialist modernity to Tibet and even protector of Tibetan culture and heritage.
While the expansion of information technologies across Tibet provides the Chinese state further space to consolidate the ‘Old Tibet’ vs. ‘New Tibet’ story, it also provides Tibetans a limited but important platform to construct and disseminate alternative narratives or counter stories.
Solorzano and Yosso describe counter storytelling as essentially “telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told.” These are stories that take place within power-laden, colonial, and racialised contexts that seek to interrupt, expose, and challenge dominant narratives of the past. Also writing on counter storytelling, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (34-5) writes:
Telling our stories from the past, reclaiming the past, giving testimony to the injustices of the past are all strategies which are commonly employed by Indigenous peoples struggling for justice.
Counter-storytelling can help strengthen traditions of social, political, and cultural survival and resistance, but it can be very risky work for many reasons. Openly questioning or even criticising power and the powerful can face all kinds of censorship, or even punishment. In China, the history of Tibet is a high stakes issues. Anything that challenges the master narrative of Tibet as an ‘inalienable’ and ‘integral’ part of China for centuries or of pre-‘liberation’ Tibet as a “brutal”, “cruel” and “backward” “feudal serfdom” can be very risky ground to publicly tread. This is because this particular spin on ‘Old Tibet’ as nothing more than a “hell on earth” is a pretty powerful way for the state to legitimise their invasion and occupation of Tibet.
That’s not to say that counter-storytelling doesn’t happen in Tibet. It does, but it’s just a little more low-profile, taking a more subtle and sometimes coded form. In fact, counter storytelling happens all the time in folktales, jokes, linguistic tricks etc. I think it happens in ‘old photo’ sharing, too.
One blog on Tibetcul.com, one of the most popular online Tibetan websites in China, that does a tonne of ‘old photo’ sharing is Lingka Luorong Zeren. To date he’s shared about 300 ‘old photo’ essays and has clocked up over 100,000 views on his page. His posts are always getting re-shared on Weibo and Wechat too so he tends to get a pretty big audience.
What’s interesting about Lingka’s blogs are that they come from all over the place – most of which seem to come either directly or indirectly from The Tibet Album at Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University, home to an extensive online collection of photographs of early 20th century Tibet and the Himalayas more broadly (go get lost in it for a few hours – it’s really cool!). But, the thing is that Lingka seems to pick and choose images from different collections, time periods, places etc., compiling them in such a way that they tell a particular story.
So let’s have a few examples of ‘old photo’ sharing as counter story-telling.
Old Photographs of Lhasa Fashion in the 1940s, posted in 2013, is one such example. Lingka prefaces the collection with a few brief words:
These are all old photos of Lhasa in the 40’s era in the last century. It can be seen from them that at that time Tibetan areas were actually not closed off but had many new things.
The essay features eight images, among which include children wearing “Western-styled clothes”, a Lhasa noble women wearing qipao, Tibetan women using a microphone to sing for British representatives, “a modern bridge of Lhasa” and “a little monk listening to a gramophone.”
In Animals of Norbulinka in the 1920s Lingka posts photographs of an elephant gifted to the Dalai Lama in the early 20th century. It also features a number of other animals from here there and everywhere with the caption “let everyone directly observe that era and the kind of living situation of the people”.
Between Lingka’s short prefaces, the photographs and their captions all work to showcase a Tibetan past that was regionally and globally integrated and influenced, engaged with western and Chinese fashions and technologies. It challenges those representations in state media that emphasise ‘Old Tibet’ as a wholly remote, isolated and backward corner of the world.
Tibetans who comment on these images often talk about how the images allow them to learn about their past. In response to another of Lingka’s essays Tibetan Men in Postcards from 100 years Ago one commenter writes “Thank you for letting us know about many things that we did not know before” while another writes “Thank you for telling us the story of our ancestors.”
In another of Lingka photo essays Children of the Land of Snows From Over Half a Century Ago, one commentator notes that the photographs “allow us to see Tibet as it was before”. These are pretty typical comments, many of which talk about how “valuable” (zhengui) these visual histories are and how they are commonly found elsewhere. As one person writes:
“These pictures are great. They are worth collecting and studying. In a complex environment as that of China it is very difficult for us Tibetans to see these.”
Similarly, commenting elsewhere on another essay on The English People’s Hospital of Old Tibet someone writes “According to propaganda today, there is no way of imagining history. From your pictures we can see real things.” Sometimes people also chime in with a snippet of related history from their own hometown or parents, grandparents’ experiences. This can quickly turn into a collaborative knowledge production about the Tibetan past too.
While Lingka himself has written that he compiles and posts these photo essays not to “oppose the party or to oppose society, but just because [he] finds them interesting,” many of the Tibetans who comment on the images are quick to note briefly and in somewhat indirect terms the ways in which the images they find on his blog tell very different stories from those they see in official media.
In Sports and Entertainment Events in Old Tibet, one commenter writes “These images were all taken before liberation. Does everyone think pre-liberation was so dark?” In another of Lingka’s photo essays entitled Children of the Land of Snows From Over Half a Century Ago, several comments again note the divergence between what they see in the images and the Tibetan past they know from state media: “From that which is above we can see that Tibet of before is not like that of the propaganda in television and movies…maybe they are lying haha…”
The use of the photographs to question and challenge state narratives of ‘Old Tibet’ as “dark”, “backward” etc. is one of the most common strands of discourse across the responses to Lingka Luorong Zeren’s photo essays. The reproduction, circulation and consumption of ‘old photos’ by Tibetans regularly centre on past as misunderstood, falsely represented or simply erased in state media, and as something from which Tibetans themselves, through lack of knowledge of these histories, have become alienated. This is closely followed by comments on the necessity of rescuing history from hegemonic official narratives.
However, this practice of sharing old photos to tell stories about ‘Old Tibet’ does not always go down positively. Indeed, there are quite a few people who are critical of a tendency in these photo essays to over-romanticise pre-communist Tibet as pure, authentic and so on.
Responding to Lingka’s essay Colour Photography of the Potala Palace in the Republican Era, one person responds: This is our Potala Palace! Without a single trace of stain.” Lingka himself replies that even though the Potala Palace back then was indeed “pure”, “Lhasa also needs to develop.”
Sometimes ‘old photos’ are used as a means of self-critique. In Old Photographs of Lhasa Fashion in the 1940s one commenter writes, “at that time those who were corrupt and closed were the political and religious worlds. It is they who destroyed Tibet. They have still not learned their lesson.”
Others question who gets represented and who doesn’t, noting that nomadic life seems to feature little in these pictures while Lhasa aristocrats get the majority of attention. So there is definitely some critique of how these ‘old photos’ can be selective in their storytelling, too.
Another point of critique that I expected to see was about the context within which these photographs were taken, but I can’t remember ever seeing people drawing attention to that. Few mention the “Great Game”, the Younghusband Expedition, etc. The pictures are almost always super decontextualised (not unlike those of ‘Old Tibet’ in state media). In fact, no one seems all that bothered about who took the photos or why – the priority is really just about showing that there was a great deal more to ‘Old Tibet’ than what state media says.
It is also worth pointing out that there is no discourse of outright denial concerning the existence of negative aspects of the Tibetan histories. Now that may well have to do with censorship and self-censorship, but from is online it’s pretty clear that Tibetans are just calling for the complexity and diversity of their history to be acknowledged.
Hands down my favourite ‘old photo’ sharing episode was the 2017 response to state media’s celebration of Serf Emancipation Day, a state-made holiday marked across the Tibet Autonomous Region each year on March 28th to celebrate “the liberation of Tibetan serfs from feudalism and theocracy” and mark the moment when “millions of slaves under the feudal serfdom became masters of their own.”
Every year the event is commemorated across social media with the same selection of images of Tibetans with limbs amputated, begging, living in dilapidated settings etc. “Nine Flavours of Anshen Tea”, a highly popular Weibo account dedicated solely to sharing ‘old photos’ of Tibet, responded to the celebration of “Serf Emancipation Day” in official media with a number of images from the Qing era of Han Chinese people placed in the stocks, as well as others of Han Chinese people being punished and tortured, with the caption “these images are also of things that happened in the Qing Dynasty, but that is absolutely not the whole story of the Qing Dynasty”. The post ended up getting quite a few shares, and was re-captioned by some Tibetans with words that mimicked and mocked state media’s descriptions of old Tibet. For example, some wrote “Old China: One billion serfs” and “Have the Han serfs been liberated yet?”
So, again, there isn’t an outright denial of the existence of negative features of ‘Old Tibet’, but a simply desire to complicate and diversify representations of the past beyond the hegemonic single story promoted by the state.
In short ’old photo’ sharing is not a trivial thing at all; it challenges state narratives of what ‘Old Tibet’ looked like. Building up a picture of ‘Old Tibet’ as a place rich and diverse in cultural traditions, regionally and globally integrated and influenced, and home to a wide array of ‘modern’ technologies, Tibetans creatively use ‘old photos’ as an act of counter storytelling, namely “telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told.” ‘Old photo’ sharing presents many Tibetans with a visual history they were not familiar with and is often presented as a means of recovering and reclaiming a lost past, and connecting with Tibetan history.
Through this re-telling of history and collective memory making, representations of the Tibetan past found within the practice of old photo sharing represent a visual interruption and resistance to the dominant narratives of the Chinese state, and an awakening to silences of the past. It offers an opportunity to rethink and reclaim Tibetan histories from the hand of the Chinese state.
In a nut shell, ‘old photo’ sharing is just another of the creative and strategic ways in which Tibetans navigate overt online politics and seemingly harmless cultural practice to resist state hegemony.