Illuminating the Context of Contemporary Tibet

An Introduction

Tibet is the site of intense geopolitical and cultural conflict. Throughout the past century, Tibet has evolved from a theocratic and nomadic state to one controlled by the People's Republic of China (PRC). Strife has beset this Buddhist-dominated ethnic area and has caused suffering for both Tibetans and Chinese. In this archive, I hope to present some of the context surrounding the complex issues that permeate Tibet, and the history surrounding it.

President Barack Obama meets with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House, Saturday, July 16, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

I have collected works from the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and Wikimedia Commons. Both sources have provided this archive with unique perspectives into the lives of Tibetan people and the struggles they face. But I would be remiss not to mention here the problems with modern day censorship in China, and the under-representation of Asian media in American libraries. These issues make it hard to find both historic and contemporary documents relating to Tibet, and I have struggled to create a representation as strong as I would have liked. Despite this, I have tried to find and present information in this archive such that those silences are, at least somewhat, rectified.

Navigating this Archive

This archive contains various images of historic and contemporary Tibet, presented in a couple different formats. I recommend scrolling through the archive at your own pace, interacting with the content (such as sliders and links), and digging deeper into the parts you find most compelling. You can do that by exploring the sources, or simply by taking time to reflect on the information presented here. The order of information here is presented in the order in which you should read it; left to right, top to bottom. That way, you will best be able to understand the story that is being told here.

Selection Principles

Selecting items for this archive was challenging for many reasons. I first had to become more knowledgeable about the history of Tibet and the evolution of its governments and peoples, which would help me in deciding what parts of Tibetan history were important to illuminate. After this, I knew that I wanted to focus in on the rich culture heritage that pervades life in Tibet, and how the current political struggles are foregrounded by long standing ethnic and political disputes.

In that, I tried to find mostly images, as they gave an immediate sense of the humanity of the situation and were easy to understand. Many of the other types of documents I considered - interviews, text documents, videos - often contained irrelevant information, were much too dense, or, was often the case, were biased largely from the Western perspective. In realizing that, I decided to only include images that were taken within Tibet (with some minor exceptions). Much of the discourse surrounding Tibet in the modern day - and, thus, many of the images in our times - come from international and external sources. I wanted to try to get at the heart of the issue as much as possible. However, due to the delicacy of the government and strict Chinese censorship, these kinds of images are hard to come by, but such is the whole purpose of creating this kind of archive.

Historic Tibet

Portrait of Chief of Lama Police in Tibetan Plateau
Warriors on road to Lhasa in Tibetan Plateau
Portrait of Tibetan nomad in Tibetan Plateau
Tibetan tribal warriors with rifles in Xiahe


Tibet was under theocratic rule by the Buddhist Lamas (priests) by the early 1900s. Many of the people lived off the land and under "serf-like" conditions, subject to the rule of the theocrats. Whether or not this system was ultimately good or bad for the Tibetan people is the source of extreme controversy: some scholars reject the idea of serfdom in Tibet as a Western projection and maintain that the government in Tibet was integral in sustaining Tibetan culture and religion, while others, including the Chinese government that now rules Tibet, maintain that the Tibetan people were inhumanely brutalized and lived in total poverty. It is very hard to determine with accuracy the true conditions and feelings of the people; the truth likely remains somewhere in the middle of those two accounts.

However, it is hard to argue against the idea that the Chinese takeover of Tibet was unwelcome. In fact, Tibetans celebrate Tibetan Uprising Day on March 10 every year, in support of those who lost their lives in fighting for a free Tibet. Tibet was overtaken by China during the 1950s in what is often described as a violent overthrow of the Buddhist theocracy. China justifies its takeover through a sort of societal gentrification of the Tibetan people, citing the increased life expectancy and GDP of the region after the takeover in the 1950s and the need for Tibet to modernize. Tibetans, including the top religious leader, the Dalai Lama, have advocated either for an independent or more autonomous Tibet.

While Tibet has certainly begun to modernize under Chinese rule, the extent and value in this is not clear. The truth on this issue is made more contentious by the fact that access to Tibet is greatly limited by the Chinese government and accounts of Tibetan history are hotly debated. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no consensus on what Tibet was truly like in past. The only facts with any semblance of consensus are that Tibetan society was, and still is, strongly ethnic in nature, and that many in Tibet resent Chinese rule, a rule which is often laced with reports of violence and obscured with censorship.

Modern Day Tibet

Modern Tibet is a central point of contention for ethnic defenders and social Darwinists. Fighting between the Chinese forces, who hope to bring "modern" Communist ideology to the "backwards" Tibet, and the ethnic peoples of Tibet has been ongoing for decades. After the takeover in the '50s, China established the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), but this region does not include many ethnic groups who consider themselves Tibetan. Since then, forms of protests have included armed warfare, peaceful demonstrations, and self-immolation by Tibetans.

Violence has been carried out by both sides, but the power differential is clearly in China's favor. Most outside of the PRC agree that China has committed human rights violations against the Tibetan people, possibly even genocide. China defends its actions by either denying them, or by explaining how the Buddhists and the Dalai Lama are separatists and political agents who seek to promote chaos while China attempts to promote a stable society. Facts and opinions of the people in Tibet are hard to come by, as the Chinese media is tightly regulated today.

The most recent protests include riots during the Tibetan Uprising Day in 2008, leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games. Self-immolation continues to be a prominent form of protest and self-sacrifice among Tibetans. With these recent protests has come crackdowns by armed Chinese police, who justify their violence by saying that mobs of Tibetan people have committed actions of ethnic violence against Han Chinese who have moved into Tibet following the Chinese takeover. Other accounts corroborate this; it is likely that some of the Tibetan people have taken to violence, some of it against innocent civilians, in protecting their ethnic identity and defending themselves from modernization by the Chinese. Clearly not all Tibetans share this view, and the Dalai Lama has tried to promote non-violent protest. It is hard to determine the what the best course of action is for the future of Tibet. Tibetan ethnic groups have become more insulated with the increasing presence of Chinese cultural groups, but China also continues to commit human rights abuses against the Tibetan people.

Tibetan Girl Aba Sichuan, China

Diversity and Conclusion

Our data reflects who we are. That includes our biases, subconsciousness or not. The goal of this archive (and those on this website in general) is to bring those biases to light, to make the silence less deafening. The DPLA had many great historic pictures of Tibetan people, but many were not labeled with the word "tibet", but rather were connected only with certain monasteries or regions of Tibet. I note this example because it demonstrates how great collections of diversity can hide within our data. We need only reach out and show them to everyone, as I tried to do here with the Tibetan people. In conclusion, the hope here is that the reader leaves this archive with a broader perspective on Tibet and, more broadly, on Asian cultural divides.

I myself came into this project with a typically Western view, but I now understand that the issues in Tibet are complex, historied, and multilateral. My ultimate conclusion is that conflict and suffering are abundant in Tibet, both against the Tibetan people and the Chinese (and other) people living there, and any solution to the problems there will have to be nuanced and compromising. I hope the reader of this archive is able to develop similarly diverse conclusions.

Sources and Credits


File:2008 Tibet. China..jpg. (2017, November 10). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 19:47, December 10, 2018 from

File:Arrested Monks and lay Tibetans.jpg. (2017, November 30). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:06, December 10, 2018 from

File:Barack Obama with the 14th Dalai Lama in the Map Room 2011.jpg. (2018, March 4). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 22:05, December 9, 2018 from

File:Map of 2008 Tibetan protest locations compiled by Students for a Free Tibet.png. (2017, November 10). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 19:00, December 10, 2018 from

File:Map of Tibetan Self-Immolations.png. (2018, December 1). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 21:52, December 9, 2018 from

File:Phuntsog, 21 years old, 16 March 2011, Ngaba (2).jpg. (2018, January 12). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 19:49, December 10, 2018 from,_21_years_old,_16_March_2011,_Ngaba_(2).jpg&oldid=278927810.

File:喇嘛與臺灣人為爭自由圖博 (西藏) 而祈禱 Tibetan Buddhism Lama and Taiwanese pray for a Free Tibet in Taipei, TAIWAN.jpg. (2018, February 15). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 18:53, December 10, 2018 from,_TAIWAN.jpg&oldid=287372088.

File:Tibetan Girl Aba Sichuan China.jpg. (2016, October 31). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 18:55, December 10, 2018 from

File:Tibetan People Arrested in 2011 Ngaba, Tibet 西藏阿壩遭逮捕的藏族人.jpg. (2018, July 23). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 02:46, December 10, 2018 from,_Tibet_%E8%A5%BF%E8%97%8F%E9%98%BF%E5%A3%A9%E9%81%AD%E9%80%AE%E6%8D%95%E7%9A%84%E8%97%8F%E6%97%8F%E4%BA%BA.jpg&oldid=312215168.

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, November 18). 2008 Tibetan unrest. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:37, December 10, 2018, from

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, November 10). Human rights in Tibet. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:37, December 10, 2018, from

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, November 27). Serfdom in Tibet controversy. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:30, December 10, 2018, from

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, December 8). Tibet. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:02, December 10, 2018, from

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, September 17). Tibetan independence movement. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:05, December 10, 2018, from


If you like to reuse content in this archive, note that some of the material is under Creative Commons Share-Alike licenses, so this archive is as well.

License: (CC BY-SA 2.0)


I would like to thank Elizabeth Dillion, Sarah Connell, the CERES Toolkit Team, the DPLA, and organizations like Students for Free Tibet for making this archive possible.

Created for Literature and Digital Diversity, Fall 2018 by Niall Dalton