I did not realize how different my childhood was before I lived in mainland China, and later in the US. I grew up in a herding community in Eastern Tibet known as Amdo and herded sheep, yaks, and horses when I was a child. My family lived in a tent and moved to four different camps seasonally. Thus I have a special intimacy with herding life and often recall a childhood when I saw high mountains, clean rivers, and wide grassland as part of my daily life.
Herding life was relatively easy since people had the freedom to move and herd anywhere they wanted before the 1950s. However, as Tibetans often say “nothing is permanent.” Tremendous change has happened to many herding communities in Qinghai over the last sixty years due to State policies of land division, rural to urban resettlement, mandatory attendance of state-sponsored schools, and so on…. Most of the Tibetan younger generations are not aware of these constant changes and don’t know their local history as they attend schools in the county towns and cities where Chinese are the dominant presence.
I loved to listen to stories when I was child and asked my grandmother and an uncle from a neighbor family to tell me their life stories. They taught me a lot about their life when they were young. Unfortunately, the number of people who were born around the 1930s and 1940s are fewer and fewer every time I visit my birth place. This gives me passion to record what those people have experienced before their generation is completely gone.
A record of ordinary local peoples’ histories can be a mirror for younger Tibetan generations to learn about their past. It also can complement recent Tibetan history, since most of Tibetan history was lived by un-extraordinary figures. Furthermore, I believe that a herding history of local people has a lot to offer for grassland management, environmental protection, and livestock care.
This summer, I have a special opportunity to work with Ganglha, an NGO based in Xining, on the Tibetan Plateau that focuses on cultural preservation through social enterprise. My work for Ganglha will be to conduct interviews to record some of those local peoples’ histories while it is still possible to do so. I will be doing this work in the Gcan Tsha thang (also called Jianzhatan), a herding community in Qinghai, to record and document local life and history.
My interests and Ganglha’s mission align well. I am a Cultural Anthropology major considering anthropological work as a career. I have some previous fieldwork experience and I know the place and people in the Gcan Tsha thang community—it is near where I lived before moving to a city to go to school. Therefore, I thought it would be easier to identify potential interview subjects. It is a rural community, and I will working by myself for much of the summer, with trips back to Ganglha periodically and finally to pass along what I am able to document. I have prepared around 170 open-ended questions with my mentor’s input, and I am ready to begin.
I see this as a great opportunity to learn more about local history, preserve local knowledge for younger generations, and experience the challenges of doing anthropological fieldwork. I am excited to get started.
Sangjie Zhaxi is a rising junior Cultural Anthropology major from Tibet. Sangjie is committed to the preservation of the rural Tibetan culture and lifestyle in which he was raised. He is aware that his culture’s persistence rests in part on the presence of opportunities for young people in rural Tibet that would induce them to stay where they grew up. This summer, he will be working with Ganglha, an NGO based in Xining, China on the Tibetan Plateau that focuses on cultural preservation through social enterprise.