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Tubote, Tibet, and the Power of Naming

Saturday, Apr 16, 2011

A few people have now asked me to repost the English version of my introduction to the Chinese translation of Authenticating Tibet here, since it’s also up on at least two other sites (For Tibet, with love and Tibetan Political Review). As a result, I now do that. But I do so in part because Taiwan Xuangouzi has just posted a deft polemic on the question of the Chinese name for Tibet on her site. The post is in the form of an open letter to the Tibetan representative in Taiwan, Dawa Tsering and meticulously dismantles his stated reasons for claiming that Xizang is the proper name for all of Tibet. Those who read Chinese are urged to read the entire post. Two points in the open letter seem particularly striking to me. The first is a reference to a discussion in committee during a meeting of Republican China’s Legislative Assembly in 1946. At that time Skal-bzang tshe-ring from ’Ba’ and 7 others brought up the question of “Zang” (from Xizang) being thoroughly unsuitable as the designation for Tibetans, and asked that the Chinese term be a phonetic rendering of the word “Bod.” It was admitted that they had good reasons for the request, but they were blocked from going further with the idea by bureaucratic tactics and appeals to common Chinese usage. The second point is the reference to Dawa Tsering’s assertion in a public discussion on March 31 in Taipei that Tibetans are not seeking basic human rights, but just survival. That statement is one I leave to readers to ponder.

Readers might also consider that the name “Xizang” is wholly imbued with a Chinese viewpoint. Indeed, one might say that use of that name subliminally reinforces it: the first syllable means “West;” i.e., it situates Tibet according to the way it’s perceived from China. Taiwan Xuangouzi brings up the principle of the power of naming being the appropriate domain of those at the core of the matter (名從主人; 尊重當事人) , i.e., in this case the people who inhabit the land thus named. She clearly indicates that this is not the case with the name “Xizang.”

Tubote, Tibet, and the Power of Naming


“In the Tang it was called it Wusiguo, in the Ming, Wusi-Zang.
Today it is called Tubote, and also Tangut.”
                                                —Xizang zhi


The above quote, from an anonymous 18th-century gazetteer (fangzhi 方志) of Tibet,[1] may strike readers as a bit of arcane Tibetology, a peculiar remark about nomenclature in the early-Qing era that, while curious, is of little relevance to present-day understanding of the Tibet Issue. And indeed it is curious: the author states that in his day “Tibet” was known as “Tangut” and as … well, “Tibet,” for that is exactly the name that is transcribed in his work as “Tubote 圖伯特.” But is this irrelevant to the modern reader? To the contrary; the author, by telling us that the name “Tubote” was known in the Qing as a name for Tibet, touches upon one of the fundamental questions that confronts anyone writing in Chinese about Tibet at the beginning of the 21st century: what should one call this large land when writing about it as an integral cultural and national whole and not simply as a grouping of administrative divisions within the People’s Republic of China?

The immediacy of this question has been obscured in large part because of the rigidity that the terminology for Tibet and Tibetans has attained in the PRC. But that very rigidity should long ago have led us to question the whole terminological edifice. Ideological and post-modern jargon (and gibberish) aside, language, in this instance, is indeed power. China’s ability to command the terminology associated with Tibet has consequently given it the ability to define Tibet and to define Tibetans. It has allowed China the power to determine the most basic terms of debate over Tibet, a debate that readers of this volume will shortly encounter in the chapters that follow.

It is therefore fascinating to see that a growing number of writings and blog posts in the Chinese language—many from Taiwan, some by Tibetan writers, and even a few from the PRC that manage to make it past the Great Firewall of China—pick up where our anonymous 18th-century author has left off and refer to Tibet as just that: Tubote or, as a variant, Tubo 圖伯. It is for reasons that are spelled out in this introductory note that Tubote is used in this book for the world of Tibetan civilization and of the Tibetan people, a world that stretches far beyond today’s Tibet Autonomous Region.[2]

The official term, the term for Tibet that most people use in Chinese, is Xizang 西藏. Its etymology is well known and transparently obvious from references in the standard dynastic histories and other commonly-used sources. One notion common among Western Tibet supporters, that Xizang means “Treasure House of the West” and is so named because China sees the area as a massive storehouse of mineral wealth to be exploited, is patently erroneous. The “Zang” in Xizang, while it can mean a storehouse, is used in the name simply because it transcribes Gtsang, one part of the region generally referred to as Central Tibet, or Dbus-Gtsang in Tibetan. In the Ming period we find Dbus-Gtsang rendered as Wusi-Zang 烏斯藏.[3] During the Qing this changes to Wei-Zang (again, an easily understood transcription of Dbus-Gtsang)[4] and finally to Xizang. The last denotes the Western location (i.e., “Xi” 西) of the land and the sound of its two syllables finds an echo in the name of the province Republican China created for Khams, the southeastern part of Tibet: Xikang 西康 (a good portion of which actually lay beyond China’s reach).

As a result of all this, however, “Xizang” remains identified only with Central Tibet and a part of Khams. And it is that sense, and that sense alone, that is conveyed by the term. But the greater world of Tibetan Studies, and indeed of Tibetan perceptions, sees Tibet as the land of Tibet’s three principle regions: Central Tibet (Dbus-Gtsang), Khams and A-mdo. And many writers and bloggers from Taiwan, China, and Tibet, increasingly understand this. Thus the growth in the use of Tubote (or Tubo) to denote what Tibetans understand as Tibet. There is obviously something a bit subversive in this: Tibetans using a name of their own choosing in Chinese-language materials are retaking some of what has been lost to them and acting to define themselves.

The entire vocabulary of nationalities and nationality terms in the PRC is imbued with a conscious political element of control by definition. The very designation “minority nationality” reduces all of the peoples so designated to the same uniform level, regardless of whether they number in the millions and have a conscious history of themselves as a political power with their own government and a bureaucracy literate in their own language, or whether they number in the tens of thousands with no national history.

It would be wise to remember too that the meaning of Xizang is essentially determined by politics: during the era of Guomindang rule the territory was considerably smaller than it is presently, since a good portion of Khams (and even a bit of Dbus) was drawn into the map of Guomindang Xikang. It goes without saying that Qinghai and the Tibetan areas of present-day Yunnan and Gansu were not covered by the pre-1949 definition of Xizang, just as they are not covered by it today. And so the traditional and historic realm of Tibet does not have a single officially-sanctioned Chinese term designating it today. It can be described, of course, in phrases like Zangzu juzhu diqu 藏族居住地区 , “the area inhabited by the Tibetan nationality.” But that is a description, not a name. Obviously there are solid fundamental reasons to find writers gravitating to the term “Tubote.”

The language about the area of Tibet has also encumbered the language about Tibetans with a singular inelegance. If only Xizang can be understood to denote Tibet, and Xizang/Tibet is to be limited to the TAR, an artificial stiffness attaches to descriptions of Tibetans as a whole. They can be described as people “of Tibetan nationality,” Zangzu 藏族, but “Tibetans,” Xizang ren 西藏人, are uniquely the residents of the TAR. In Tibetan this divide is manifested in the distinction between the terms Bod-pa (=Tibetan, Xizang ren) and Bod-rigs (=those of Tibetan nationality, Zangzu). That this is a recently created distinction is clear from some of the common accounts of the Red Army’s passage through regions in Khams during the Long March. In these writings one finds a Chinese awareness that prior to 1949 at least, the use of the Tibetan term Bod-pa (i.e., “Xizang ren”) was not restricted to the area under the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama’s government (i.e. the modern TAR). Thus one can read of the Red Army’s establishment of short-lived, local “Tibetan People’s Governments” which they called “Boba renmin zhengfu” 波巴人民政府, Boba 波巴 transcribing the Tibetan Bod-pa.[5]

Tibetan aside, all modern languages except Chinese refer to the entire cultural and historic realm of the Tibetans with a variant of the name Tibet. And in those other languages the rigid distinctions engendered in modern Chinese that are deployed in support of China’s political definition of Tibet and Tibetans don’t apply. The increasing numbers of writers and bloggers from Taiwan and also from the PRC opting for Tubote shows that their engagement with the question is substantive. In addition to Tubote, many of them have chosen to integrate into their writing transcriptions of Tibetan terms for Tibetans as a people (Bomi 博彌 and Boba 博巴, i.e., Bod-mi and Bod-pa in Tibetan), Tibetan as a language (Boyi 博伊 and Bogai 博蓋 , i.e., Bod-yig and Bod-skad), and so forth, all in order to avoid the limits imposed by the use of the Chinese term Zang 藏, with its connection to “Xizang.”

Ironically, the one place in the Chinese language where “Bod” is decreed to be appropriate in Chinese transcriptions referring to Tibet is actually in the mandated pronunciation of the name for Tibet used during the Tang period: Tufan 吐蕃, now pronounced and rendered everywhere in the PRC in romanized pinyin as Tubo. This pronunciation was rigorously dissected and clearly shown to be erroneous a century ago by Paul Pelliot 伯希和.[6] Indeed, I recall with some humor a conference many years ago at which a Chinese colleague kept referring to “the Tubo Kingdom.” A venerable Tibetologist leaned over to me and whispered “Will nobody have pity on the poor man and tell him that Pelliot showed already in 1915 that the character can’t be read bo?” Of course our Chinese colleague was likely familiar with Pelliot’s comments; but politics is no doubt at play here and the notion that the name Bod was known to the Tang and incorporated into the contemporary Chinese name for the Tibetan state is an element in the Marxist teleology that cannot be trifled with: it ostensibly demonstrates that even at that early stage the Tibetan and Chinese peoples were inexorably growing closer and closer.

Interestingly, as Pelliot showed, the desire to see Tufan as Tubo, and to see the name Bod within the Chinese transcription is not rooted in Chinese historiographical traditions but derives from the 19th century work of Western Orientalists, stretching from Jean-Pierre Abel Rémusat to William Woodville Rockhill and beyond. We might note that even if one were to accept that fan 蕃 should be read as bo, that still leaves us with the problem of explaining the first character, Tu 吐, and here imaginations have run riot, with some of the Orientalists mentioned by Pelliot fantasizing about “Mtho-Bod” or “Stod-Bod” as names used in ancient Tibet. Both names render something akin to “High Tibet” or “Upper Tibet.” These names, however, are unattested in old Tibetan materials. Most importantly they do not appear in bilingual materials from Tibet’s imperial period in which Tufan is simply rendered as Bod. Without such attestations “Stod-Bod” and “Mtho-Bod” appear like nothing more than the result of a 19th-century hunt through dictionaries and word lists aimed at concocting a name that didn’t exist.

Actually, the Tibetan Plateau didn’t constitute one realm to its pre-Tang inhabitants. Everything we know about the Tibetan Plateau before and during the early period of the empire speaks of a divided realm with no visible cohesion—ethnically, linguistically, and religiously—and no evidence whatsoever of a larger sense of “Bod” until the Tibetan emperors and their armies rolled through the lands of the ’A-zha 吐谷渾, the Sum-pa 松巴, Zhang-zhung 祥雄, the Khyung-po 瓊波, and others, and created it. Nevertheless, we do have evidence of the early use of the name Bod, but this only comes from the south-central area of the Plateau and our awareness of this is due to the Indian references to “Bhoṭa” in Vedic literature: it was not a name used across the Plateau before imperial times. How, indeed, could it have been otherwise, given the disunity among the plateau’s inhabitants in pre- and early imperial times? The idea that all people living on the Tibetan Plateau during that period saw themselves as holders of a common name, or that they were all aware of the topography of the world beyond the Plateau and thus commonly considered their realm to be “Upper” or “High Tibet” is utterly unsustainable.

The fact is, as Pelliot showed in 1915, there is a fine and reasonable explanation for the name Tufan in the official Tang histories. Indeed, we find at the beginning of the Jiu Tangshu 舊唐書, a description of its derivation from  the Xianbei 鮮卑 clan name Tufa 禿髮, carried by the descendants of a Southern Liang 涼 family: 以禿髮為國號,語訛謂之吐蕃. In other words, Tufan became the name for Tibet as the result of an error in rendering Tufa, the correct Chinese name. And it was this clan name Tufa that was originally applied to Tibet; only later was it corrupted into Tufan. Tufa, in fact, actually would have been pronounced in a manner akin to “Tupat,” which can be easily linked to the forms for “Tibet” subsequently found in Turkic, Arabic, and a number of other languages, and which eventually surfaced in European languages. Indeed, we find the term adopted by the 8th-century Turks as Tüpüt; from there it passed on to the Arabs and the Persians in the form of Tubbat and similar variants. In the later Middle Ages the name is recorded by Marco Polo as Tebet; the narrative accounts of other medieval European travelers use related spellings.

The long journey of this clan name and its transformation into a geographical name may seem convoluted, but it is hardly unusual. This is, after all, the case with “America.” Moreover, the transformation of the name for a small region (i.e., Tufa/Tufan, which appears at first only on the northeast edge of the Tibetan Plateau) into the name for a much larger area is also not rare, as the examples of “Asia” and “Africa” illustrate. The field of meaning for both terms expanded well beyond their original senses in the languages of the Classical Mediterranean world. Thus, this somewhat localized pre-Tang name, Tufa/Tufan came to denote in Chinese the larger Tibetan realm that emerged to the west of its original location. This name was quite unrelated to the names that the actual inhabitants used on the plateau itself, much as the name “America” is similarly unrelated to any indigenous names used in the Western Hemisphere.

It is interesting to note that when the scholars Don-grub rgyal 端智嘉 and Chen Qingying 陈庆英 made their Tibetan translation of the Jiu Tangshu and Xin Tangshu 新唐書 chapters on Tibet,[7] they assuredly knew of the old Stod-Bod idea, but they appear to have rejected it, rendering Tufan instead as Thu-Bhod. One imagines that they couldn’t wholly reject the politicized Tubo, which is essentially dogma in the PRC, but they could finesse it, perhaps, by rendering it as something closer to “Tibet” and not outrightly equating fan/bo with Bod.

In brief, then, the original Chinese name for Tibet noted at the beginning of the Jiu Tangshu can now be seen as an early form of the name that is used universally outside Tibet and modern China: Tibet. And Tibet, as universally understood as a cultural and historical realm, is not the modern “Xizang.” But it is the Tubote that a new generation that writes and blogs in Chinese has rediscovered and adopted as a clear and unambiguous marker of the land with which they are so intensely engaged.

[1] Xizang zhi 西藏誌 (Taipei, 1968); See also Deng Ruiling 邓锐龄, “Du ‘Xizang zhi’ zaji,” 读 《西藏志》札记, Zhongguo Zangxue 中国藏学, 2005.2, pp. 18-25. 

[2] While there is a modern precedent for using the variant “Tubo,” the fact that Tubote is already found in the Qing (often with the variant forms 土伯忒 or 土白特, etc.) and that it more clearly reflects the name by which Tibet is known in almost all the world’s languages recommends it as the form to be used throughout this book. In addition, the present-day Tubo 圖伯 is vulnerable to being confused with the erroneous Pinyin rendering of Tufan 吐蕃 as “Tubo,” a problem discussed below.

[3] Zhang Tingyu 張廷玉, Mingshi 明史 (Bejing, 1974), 331:8571-8585.

[4] See Songyun 松荺, Wei-Zang tongzhi 衛藏通志 (Taipei, 1965).

[5] Hongjun changzheng zai Sichuan 红军长征在四川,  (Chengdu, 1986), p. 355 ff.

[6] Paul Pelliot, “Quelques transcriptions chinoises de noms tibétains,” T’oung Pao 通報 16.1 (March, 1915), pp. 18-20.

[7] Don-grub rgyal and Khrin Chin-dbyin, Thang-yig gsar-rnying-las byung-ba’i Bod chen-po’i srid-lugs = Duanzhi jia端智嘉 and Chen Qingying Qingying 陈庆英, Tufan zhuan 吐蕃傳 (Xining, 1983).

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  • avatar Jamyang Norbu says:

    I think this is one of your best posts yet. The scholarship is impressive and the case you make for using “Tubote” and not “Xitsang” beyond argument. Great work. I will put up your name with ICT for the next Light of Truth Award. On second thoughts, ICT and TGIE might want to stick with Xitsang (which makes Tibet the western region of China) than Tubote which emphasizes its past as an independent nation.

  • avatar Jamyang Norbu says:

    One question? If we use “Tubote” for Tibet, how could we use for “Tibetan” , “Tubo-ren or Tubote-ren? Or for the Tibetan language.

    • avatar Elliot Sperling says:


      Many thanks for the kind comments. And for the nomination! I shall set to work immediately, writing my acceptance speech for the Light of Truth Award. Washington, here I come!

      I did make a brief reference to the terms that are being used on the web and elsewhere by writers and bloggers when they refer to Tibetans and the Tibetan language. In effect, “Tuboteren” is much too cumbersome and a convention has taken root. As I note:

      “In addition to Tubote, many of them have chosen to integrate into their writing transcriptions of Tibetan terms for Tibetans as a people (Bomi 博彌 and Boba 博巴, i.e., Bod-mi and Bod-pa in Tibetan), Tibetan as a language (Boyi 博伊 and Bogai 博蓋 , i.e., Bod-yig and Bod-skad), and so forth, all in order to avoid the limits imposed by the use of the Chinese term Zang 藏, with its connection to “Xizang.””

      I should also add, given your comment about the TGIE and Xizang, that Dawa Tsering, the representative in Taiwan, has responded to Taiwan Xuangouzi’s open letter to him (to which I refer in the introduction to this post), accepting Tubote as a name for Tibet but insisting that Xizang has exactly the same geographical spread as Tubote (i.e., it includes Dbus-Gtsang Khams and A-mdo). Taiwan Xuangouzi, as I noted, made mincemeat of that notion in her letter and her specific points of evidence have not been refuted.

  • [...] (Guest post by Professor Elliot Sperling, originally published on Rangzen Alliance) [...]

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