Asian Art MuseumSacred Arts of Tibet
About this Packet
The Tibetan art in the collection of the Asian Art Museum/Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art andCulture dates from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. This packet provides a context for the study of traditional Tibetan arts, but also attempts to bring the reader up-to-date with contemporary Tibet. Traditional Tibet has been nearly eliminated in its homeland. This background text has been adapted from a previous packet on Tibetan art offered in conjunction with the exhibition
Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet
, in 1991.
The Land of Tibet
Tibet is located in the heart of Asia, held aloft on a vast mountainous plateau. Besides sharing borders with India to the west and south and China to the east, Tibet is also neighbor to Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan,and Burma (Myanmar) to the south, and Eastern Turkestan to the north. The south eastern corner of Tibet is near the northern borders of Laos and Vietnam. The current borders of the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) were drawn after the Chinese invasion in 1959, and incorporate only the western quarter of Tibet. However, Tibet’s historic homeland, from ancient times until 1959, is morethan twice this size (see maps on next page). The TAR covers an area of about 500,000 square miles,about one quarter the size of the United States. Before 1959, Tibet covered some 900,000 square miles,stretching from the Hindu Kush (Kashmir) in the west to the present day cities of Lanzhou (KansuProvince), Chengdu (Sichuan) and Kunming (Yunnan), north into Amdo and east into Lithang (modern-day Qinghai and Sichuan). These areas remain culturally and linguistically Tibetan. However, the PeoplesRepublic of China continues a massive program of population transfer of Han Chinese (the ethnicmajority of the People’s Republic of China) into Tibet that has caused Tibetans to become a minority in many parts of their own country. Tibet is renowned as one of the most inaccessible countries on earth, the “Land of Snows” on the“Roof of the World.” Tibet is geographically a natural fortress with the Kunlun and Altun ranges to thenorth, and the Karakorum Hindu Kush mountains to the west. Along the southern border is the 1,500mile stretch of the Himalayas, home of Jomolungma (Mount Everest), the tallest mountain on earth, andGang Titsi Rinpoche (Mount Kailash), the most sacred mountain to both Buddhists and Hindus. To theeast are the triple river gorges cut by the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween Rivers, followed by rings of lesser mountains and high plains forming a daunting barrier of their own. Generally, access to Tibet canbe gained only by means of steep, high-altitude mountain passes. Tibet was, therefore, not in the path of trade, migration, or expanding empires until the twentieth century. Commerce with India from the fifththrough the fifteenth centuries brought with it a steady flow of spiritual masters from the West. Tibet’sinaccessibility served to preserve its seclusion, spiritual nature, and national and cultural homogeneity.In the late 1950s China was able to successfully invade Tibet for the first time in history. This wasaccomplished only with the help of modern technologies such as airplanes and tanks. Tibet is a diverse land of stark beauty and sudden dramatic changes in landscape. The northern andnorth-central regions of Tibet, about one third of the country, are mainly comprised of a series