Accepted Paper:

Of dragons and demonesses: Tibetan oral myths recast as history  


Gillian Tan (Deakin University)

Paper Short Abstract:

From one perspective, history is an appropriation of the past retold within a particular cultural order. It draws from archival sources and focuses on great persons. This paper uses “the ethnographic present” to capture the oral transmissions of Tibetan myths and legends, showing how common persons may re-appropriate the past into their own present.

Paper long abstract:

In his Apologies to Thucydides, Sahlins critiques approaches to history that do not acknowledge that culture and its differences matter. The historian, in her quest for the definitive narrative of a momentous occasion, appropriates the past by creating its written legacy in the present. She chooses what is collectively remembered and recorded.

Tibet's historical narrative is heavily contested between the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Chinese Communist Party. Interpretations of momentous events and key decisions influence present-day claims on the legitimate ownership of Tibet. Reaching back into Tibet's long and variegated history, where past events signify less on the present conflict, another concern remains: Tibetan history focuses mainly on divine incarnates, religious syntheses and fortune-turning events, leaving no room for "history from below".

The paper examines Tibetan culture through the oral accounts of myths and legends among people who are neither great nor powerful. It engages the ethnographic present and seeks to identify those stories that continue to circulate among local Tibetans. The legend of Ling Gesar, a mythical hero modeled on a historical figure, is an example of those stories that are told to Tibetans as children and live in their hearts and imaginations to be altered and changed in the re-telling. Similar stories of dragons in lakes and demonesses in caves are found in local historicity.

The continued transmission of myths and legends shows that common persons create a history that is different from the written legacy and demonstrates the importance of understanding history through ethnography, and vice-versa.

Panel P45
Religious relations In Asia