Tibetan Libraries in China Today
Religion, Politics, and Bookworms: Tibetan Libraries in China Today by Christina Kilby (Talking Shop)
Picture this: it’s mid-morning in Beijing. The fog parts to reveal the imposing concrete face of the Cultural Palace of Nationalities (The Minzu Wenhua Gong, 民 族文化宫), a national museum and repository of texts in China’s minority languages. I, the bright-eyed American doctoral student, approach the security gate and introduce myself to the gateman.
After I engage in the requisite pleading and kowtowing, he tells me to wait for the man who comes out to raise the flag. The flag? Okay. I step back from the gate and wait. In about ten minutes, a man in a red windbreaker exits the security gate and begins hoisting the Chinese flag in front of the massive compound. I initiate my second round of kowtowing. He reluctantly leads me inside the security gate and then disappears. I find my way to the library circulation desk and negotiate with the librarian: because I am studying Tibetan language texts, she doesn’t want me to use their catalog. “Just tell me what you want to know,” she prompts. That’s how research works here, apparently — you come all the way to China because there is just one thing that you want to know, and it’s something she can type in a search string for you.
My visit to the Cultural Palace of Nationalities depended on the whims of a motley crew: the gateman, the flag raiser, a sketchy department head who was a little too interested in me, an accommodating but anxious scholar who copied a digital text onto my flash drive for me but only reluctantly offered his name, and five different librarians, mostly grumpy, but one of whom adored me and brought me lunch two days in a row as she watched me frantically scribble through the lunch hour. With much inconvenience on my end and on theirs, I somehow stumbled upon a rare text that I didn’t know existed, a text that played perfectly into my core thesis. It felt nothing short of miraculous.
The truth is, when working in the Tibetan libraries of China, there are all varieties of characters and coincidences on which research depends. And there are all manner of obstacles that converge to make research difficult. Some of these are random obstacles, like the mood of an employee who just wants to go on break or is too shy to speak to a foreigner. Then there are the random building closings, construction projects, holidays, hours changes, address changes, staff changes, and phone number changes. All this is part and parcel of life in China, especially the further one ventures away from Beijing into the provincial libraries and archives of the interior.
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