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Transforming History And Myth: On The Mutuality And Separation Of Shared Narratives In Eastern Tibet

Transforming history and myth: On the mutuality and separation of shared narratives in Eastern Tibet




  Transforming history and myth: On themutuality and separation of sharednarratives in Eastern Tibet Gillian G. Tan Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University Questioning the distinction between ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ societies, and an implied separationbetween myth and history, anthropologists have increasingly urged for an understanding of both myth and history as equally valid modes of shared social consciousness. This article takesup this point of view by referring to a written history of Lhagang, a town in Eastern Tibet; a his-tory that appears to have the transformative content and oral circulation of myth. Using L  evi-Strauss’ structural analysis of myth and Santos-Granero’s concept of topograms to demonstratethe mythemes that derive from the written history and circulate among Lhagang Tibetans, thearticle argues that, within the political and cultural context of Lhagang, myth and history shiftin and out of indigenous categories even while being categorically distinct. Keywords: myth, history, L  evi-Strauss, mythemes , topograms, Eastern Tibet L  evi-Strauss (1978) has said that the gap that exists between history and myth canmost likely be breached by studying histories not as separated from but as a continua-tion of myth. His approach to myth through structural analysis brings it closer to his-tory by showing how transformations reveal the structure that underlies the variousmanifestations of myths, mirroring what he writes of the process of history: ‘By show-ing institutions in the process of transformation, history alone makes it possible toabstract the structure which underlies the many manifestations and remains perma-nent throughout a succession of events’ (1963: 21). Nevertheless, his assumption of alinear progression from myth to history as well as his definition of ‘cold’ and ‘hot’societies has, in its own way, perpetuated a certain kind of binarism 1 between mythand history, which anthropologists have since attempted to redress. Most notably,evidence from anthropological research in Latin America and Africa (Goody 1968,Rosaldo 1980, Hill 1988, Turner 1988, Hugh-Jones 1989, Rappaport 1985, Santos-Granero 1998) has demonstrated how, for some groups of people, both history andmyth are perceived to be valid forms of shared social consciousness that may existsimultaneously. This body of literature thus questions the linear progression frommyth to history that L  evi-Strauss assumes and the characterisation of societies as ‘cold’or ‘hot’, based on an either/or choice of how they internalise and share historical The Australian Journal of Anthropology  (2013) 24 , 193–212 doi:10.1111/taja.12038 ©  2013 Australian Anthropological Society 193  memory. Rather, using ethnographic observations of when and how narratives of shared social consciousness are variously referred to as ‘myth’ or ‘history’, theseworks –  in particular Turner’s –  highlight the importance of context to our under-standing of the concepts of myth and history. This view is echoed in the literature onhow narrative genres, whether as history, myth, folktales or songs, have been used toconsolidate group identity either through cultural indigeneity (Drummond 1977,1981) or national belonging (Feeley-Harnik 1978, Herzfeld 1985). Implicit here is theassumption that shared social consciousness is never a given, but needs to be actively negotiated and creatively reproduced within a particular context.This article is situated within these various viewpoints. It presents an example of the simultaneity of myth and history in one community by referring to a version of the history of Lhagang, 2 a predominantly Tibetan-populated town situated at 3700metres above sea level, in the county of Dartsedo (Ch. Kangding), Ganzi TibetanAutonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China. This history is a narrative aboutthe town that recounts the srcins of the place and its people. The particular versionpresented in this article was written in the 1970s by a monk named Pema Tsewangand it is currently the version 3 that is used by the town’s main monastery, which is of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and disseminated by its monks as ‘history’ (T. lorgyus ). As the article elaborates, the narrative that is disseminated by monks influencesthe stories that ordinary, non-literate lay Tibetans tell of the origins of Lhagang,although –  in practice –  lay Tibetans never claim that the stories they tell are ‘history’,even though the content may be similar to that of the written history of PemaTsewang.On closer examination of the written narrative, however, an interesting pointemerges, namely that this history itself contains elements that, from an anthropologi-cal perspective, may be described as mythic. This will not be surprising to anthropolo-gists, who have –  as mentioned above –  argued for the blurring of history and myth,both as conceptual categories and as evolutionary dependents: first myth, then history.This blurring of history and myth indeed is found in the case of Lhagang. Yet, analy-sing the text through a structural study of myth, as proposed by L  evi-Strauss, contin-ues to be valuable because it highlights how the bundles of relations that comprise thegross constituent units of the myth or, mythemes , are devices 4 that enable groups of people who neither read nor write to actively participate in and transact a sharedsocial consciousness in specific contexts. In the case of Lhagang, the specific contextsare not only the norms established over who has authority to disseminate history butalso the need to present the narrative as history, in light of the area’s thorny relation-ship with the Chinese government and the desire to assert an autonomous culturalidentity. Within this context, mythemes are useful also because they can be trans-formed and thus transacted between neighbouring groups, allowing a greater numberof people to participate in a shared social, and cultural, consciousness.To demonstrate the simultaneous mutuality and separation of myth and history,the article begins with a review of the literature on myth, particularly on its relation-ship with history. It then proceeds by analysing a written history of Lhagang and ©  2013 Australian Anthropological Society 194 G. Tan  identifying some of its mythemes . Combined with ethnographic evidence of the sharedstories that circulate in the daily lives of Lhagang Tibetans, the article highlights thetransformations of  mythemes that occur when stories are circulated, emphasising notonly that Lhagang Tibetans actively participate in a cultural identity beyond theirimmediate locale but also how ‘myth’ and ‘history’ shift into each other in practiceeven as Lhagang Tibetans themselves maintain the distinction in terms. A section onTibetan narrative genres highlights how Tibetan literature has its own distinct lineagewith respect to these terms and a further section on Lhagang’s cultural history exam-ines why this distinction continues to be important given the political and culturalcontexts of contemporary Tibet. The blurring of history and myth reveals that theprocess of moving in and out of these categories is always contingent on context andthe frames of power that must be constantly negotiated. The conclusion suggests thatthe phenomenal intermingling of history and myth and the categorical distinctions of the terms, in fact, offers ways to re-examine L  evi-Strauss’ structural analysis of mythand its continued, albeit revised, relevance to this day. ON THE NATURE OF MYTH AND ITS RELATIONSHIP WITH HISTORY Cohen (1969) observed that theories on the nature of myths are divided into thosethat emphasise the non-sociological role of myth and those that focus on the sociolog-ical aspects of myth. The latter has particularly influenced anthropological theory through its examinations of how myths are an integral part of religious systems(Durkheim), how they form social charters (Malinowski), how they play a synony-mous role with rituals (Leach), and how they represent patterns of abstract relationsin the minds of those who relate them (L  evi-Strauss).These analyses of myths primarily focus on the descriptions and mechanisms thatare internal to the group, or series of closely related groups, when, for example, mem-bers of the group both narrate and transform events of the past into the present. Yetmythic content, in turn, is quite specific because it refers to a past that is srcinary,pre-cosmological, and virtual (Viveiros de Castro 2007). By virtue of this, it is able tofulfill both synchronic and diachronic time, and satisfy being simultaneously past andpresent, 5 as L  evi-Strauss (1963) has noted. But when myths are brought into a con-temporary world that prioritises fact and reason, they almost immediately lose theirvalidity as a viable and accurate narrative of past events. This is evident from the useof ‘myth’ as a synonym for ‘fiction’ (Herzfeld 1985: 191) as well as in the oppositionbetween myth and history, where the former is regarded as a fanciful story while thelatter approximates a true sequence of past factual events. History takes precedence asthe true account of past events, even though Goody (1968) and Gellner (1983) haveshown that history includes its own storehouse of creative stories when it is deployedto legitimate the nation-state.In light of the assumption that myth represents unrealistic and virtual pasts,belonging mainly to savage minds and ‘cold’ societies, whereas history accounts forfactual and valid events that take place in civilised and ‘hot’ societies, anthropologists ©  2013 Australian Anthropological Society 195 Transforming history and myth  have increasingly called for a re-evaluation of the distinction between myth and his-tory (Goody 1968, Rosaldo 1980, Hill 1988, Turner 1988, Hugh-Jones 1989). Mali(2003) has resurrected the term ‘mythistory’, which traces the influence of myth onhistory, and authors such as Hill et al. have demonstrated that both history and mythare valid narratives of the past in indigenous communities of South America becauseboth are ‘modes of social consciousness through which people construct shared inter-pretive frameworks’ (Hill 1988: 5). 6 Seen from this perspective, myth and history arephenomenally inseparable in that they can co-exist within a single speech, or narrativecycle, or ritual act.Ethnographic evidence supports this statement. In his essay on Kayap  o history and myth, Turner (1988) highlights how indigenous representations of contact withoutsiders shift depending on context, thereby revealing how ‘“mythic” and “histori-cal” consciousness are not mutually exclusive but are complementary ways of framingthe same events, which can, and usually do, coexist in the same culture, indeed in thesame utterance by the same person’ (1988: 212  –  3). What this important observationallows is the shift in focus from external constructions of how societies remember thatharden the distinction between myth and history to the internal practices of the socie-ties that are in the process of remembering and that may deploy whatever narrativegenre is most suited to the context. 7 These practices are also highlighted when Rappa-port (1985) writes about how the Paez of Colombia created their own version of history supported by a series of myths that describe the exploits of colonial chiefs inorder to maintain territorial access to land. Feeley-Harnik’s (1978) observations of theSakalava demonstrate that their meaning of history is tied up with conceptions of temporality and personhood, so that the distinction between history and myth is itself dissolved according to indigenous categories.It is interesting, nevertheless, that indigenous categories can shift through place orin time. Leach (1970 [1954]) suggests that the vagueness of myths, as with rituals,enforces the essence of the mythological and ritual ‘ideal’. This ambivalence allowsethnographic differences to operate in processes, such as myth and ritual, as both syn-chronic change and as a diachronic system for inter-group understanding. For thePaez, which Rappaport writes about, a shared social narrative may be practiced asmyth yet is importantly recast as ‘history’ because both groups have had to interactwith Others for which history plays an important role. This point will be taken uptowards the end of this article, but first, let us examine the written narrative that formsits crux. A HISTORY OF LHAGANG This history of Lhagang was written in the 1970s by the monk Pema Tsewang, whohails from Lhagang and who passed away in the 1990s. It is necessary to present themajor portion in its entirety to allow the reader to appreciate the intricacies of thenarrative, including the interweaving of real historical persons into the mythical andreligious overtones of the place of Lhagang. ©  2013 Australian Anthropological Society 196 G. Tan  … There was a big lake in this place and famous Yogis from India came here in order todevelop Buddhism. One of them sprinkled seven little pieces of rice, which the TripleJewels and Bodhisattvas blessed. After a while the lake turned to dry land. But in the lake,there was a N   aga 8 who was the master of this place. When the N   aga saw his lake changedto dry land, he worried and begged the great Yogis: ‘Great Lamas, if you turn this lakeinto dry land, where should I live?’ So the great Yogis made a hole in the middle of thisland that is the door to the N   aga’s home. The Yogis also built a really big stupa, whichthey called Yogis’ stupa. When they started to build this stupa, there were seven demons.They were brothers and they destroyed at night what the Yogis built in the day. Then theYogis were very angry and they used power to turn themselves into a very angry-facedGod. He put one foot on Jambayang Mountain and one foot on Zhara Mountain. Thedemons were very scared and became seven crows and tried to fly away, but the Yogiscaught them and put them in a big brass pot and built a stupa on it.After many years the local king Chagla destroyed the stupa and two crows flew away. Healso built a white stupa in the east side. In the stupa, there was a lamp, invaluable cornand medicine. In the south, he built a southern yellow stupa and in the west, he built ared stupa, representing power. In the north, he built a blue stupa, which symbolises thedestruction of demons. When he finished building everything, the N   aga was devoted toBuddhism and promised the Yogis that he wanted to become a protector god in thisplace. Sakyamuni’s statue was the important one of three things that symbolise Bud-dhism. The Bodhisattva Chana Dorje’s incarnation Minister, King Songtsen Gampo, andDrolma’s incarnation, the Chinese princess Gongjo, had invited Sakyamuni’s statue,which is also known as the Lhasa Jowo, from Han to Tibet. When they were passing by this place, they stayed in Lhagang temple. They put the Lhasa Jowo in a big cave in frontof Zhara Karbo Mountain. People still call the cave ‘Jowo cave’.When the minister and princess were staying in Lhagang, the princess gave birth to ababy, but the baby passed away and its body was placed in Tashi Golmang stupa to theright of the temple. When they started to leave Lhagang, they couldn’t move the LhasaJowo even though they tried their best. The minister ordered that they should build anew statue instead. People looked everywhere to find holy things with which to build anew statue. They brought a bag of earth from Sersatog (the golden sand land) in Lhagang.But in fact they saw the bag of earth contained both gold and sand. When they wereusing it to build the statue, there was a brahmin, but in fact he was an incarnation of Buddha’s wisdom. The brahmin brought two relics as big as two eggs. He let the ministerput one in the statue (they had already built half the body in one day). The amazing thingwas they didn’t need to build the upper half of the statue because it built itself spontane-ously. There was another tantric siddha who had a super power and could travel aroundthe world three times a day. He visited Lhagang and he brought many kinds of earth andwater from all over the world. The siddha put earth and water in front of the new statue. … When the Princess and minister finished building these things and invited many holy tantric siddhas to consecrate these two new statues, rainbows and colorful clouds per-vaded the sky and there were many magic views of Buddha coming from the sky to thesetwo new statues. Flowers with bright lights rained from sky, which was a lucky, holy,wonderful and auspicious sign. The minister was very happy and said, ‘the gods are very happy and love this place, so we should name this place Lhagang, or the Gods’ beloved ©  2013 Australian Anthropological Society 197 Transforming history and myth