What is the Modern Tibetan Studies Program? Why Study Modern Tibet?

The guiding principles of the MTSP are:

  1. to foster a cooperative approach within the field;
  2. to use interdisciplinary methods of study;
  3. to conceptualize the subject as a regional and cross-border study involving areas such as Tibetan communities within China, Mongolia and the Himalayas; and
  4. to prioritize interaction with scholars from Tibetan regions.

Columbia’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program is a unique hub for teaching and learning about Tibet and a venue for scholarly interaction, rigorous academic research, and discussion on Tibet. 

The MTSP provides an integrated center for the study of modern Tibet with seven major components: research and publications, language teaching, librarianship, undergraduate and graduate training on modern Tibet, a graduate student group, a very active events program, and collaborative projects with domestic and international partners. All of these components have helped to solidify the unique platform that the MTSP provides to a field that often lacks centralized institutional support.  

Columbia’s proximity and links to important institutions and organizations such as the Rubin Museum, Latse Library, the Treasury of Lives, New York City’s vibrant Tibetan community, and other New York institutions have all proved vital in ensuring interdisciplinarity, diversity, and cooperation in modern Tibetan studies. In particular, since New York is home to the largest community of Tibetans outside Asia, MTSP at Columbia provides opportunities for young Tibetans to attend events and listen to a range of scholars, filmmakers, poets, and pop stars speaking about the realities of contemporary Tibet. In recent years, the MTSP has been striving for greater collaboration with these and other organizations, thanks to the collective efforts of Professor Gray Tuttle, Dr. Lauran Hartley, Mr. Pema Bhum, and the new MTSP Director, Dr. Eveline Washul.

Why Study Modern Tibet? 

The study of modern Tibet offers valuable understandings about pressing social and scientific issues impacting the world. 

Tibet is significant as an ecological and geopolitical region, central to connecting Inner, East, and South Asia. As the highest place on earth, Tibet is often called a “third pole,” with major glaciers and rivers that bring water to about one third of the world’s population. The impact of climate change on Tibet and the repercussions for much of Asia are of major concern for scholarly and grassroots communities. The emergence of China as the world’s second largest economy and the significance of western China in China’s “Belt and Road” initiative make the study of contemporary Tibet as timely and as important as ever. 

With intensifying state-led economic development and the increasing impacts of climate change in the contemporary period, the populations and high plateau of Tibet are at the forefront of rapid socioeconomic and environmental change. Tibetan culture has also long been influential within Asia; since the 20th century, that impact can be seen across the globe. 

We expansively define modern as the period from the 17th century to the present. In doing so, we break with other definitions of modern Tibet that view its modernity as a disruptive force tied to its incorporation into the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s and the upheavals that followed in the ensuing decades. We see modern Tibet as starting in the 17th century due to internal developments on the Tibetan plateau: the development of a bureaucratic state, the dramatic expansion of standardized monastic education and thus literacy, and the growth of trade and pilgrimage networks that connected Tibetans in new ways. By defining modern Tibet as having its beginnings around the 17th century, we also recognize the engagement of Tibetans with global intellectual transformations occurring in a period when the mobility of people, ideas, and goods was expanding throughout the world.  

The Modern Tibetan Studies Program is concerned not only with “Tibet” as the Tibetan regions incorporated in the People’s Republic of China (one quarter of the territory of the People’s Republic of China is recognized as Tibetan “autonomous” regions), but also with all areas where Tibetan peoples traditionally reside. This includes the study of Tibetan peoples and cultures within the Himalayas, cross-border studies involving areas such as China, India, Bhutan, and Mongolia – and, additionally, the contemporary diasporic contexts.