03 January 2006

Unhappy New Year, Tibet

Although open access usually refers to journal papers, there are an increasing number of books freely available too, as a previous post noted. One I came across recently is a good example, because it lies at the opposite end of the open access spectrum from the latest research reports.

As its title - "Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy of Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction" - suggests, this is one of those "work of lifetime" books that both sums up what is currently known, and also provides as starting-poing for future directions.

It is really quite extraordinary - even for someone like me who has no Tibetan or Burman. In fact the book, which is a svelte 3.2 Mb PDF file, can be appreciated by anyone simply as a hermetic artefact. Scrolling through the 805 pages (yes, you read correctly - it really is one of those awe-inspiring tomes) you encounter a cloud of almost completely-inscrutable signs.

It can also be appreciated as poetry, dealing as it does with the relationships between several hundred languages in the Tibeto-Burman family with names like Bal-brang, Jingpho-Nung-Luish, Khualsim, Loloish, Nruanghmei, Ugong and Yakkhaba.

And anyone can appreciate the importance of this book, laid out in its introduction:

The great Sino-Tibetan language family, comprising Chinese on the one hand and Tibeto-Burman (TB) on the other, is comparable in time-depth and internal diversity to Indo-European, and equally important in the context of world civilization. The overwhelming cultural and numerical predominance of Chinese is counterbalanced by the sheer number of languages (some 250-300) in the TB branch.

But as well as providing clues to the origins of Chinese, whose "cultural predominance" grows by the day, this wonderful e-book is also a major contribution to the understanding of the Tibetan language, almost totally ignored in the West, along with its people.

This fact is particularly regrettable at the moment. It appears that China has decided to crackdown on monks in Lhasa who remain steadfast in their allegiance to the exiled Dalai Lama. This is but the latest episode in China's appalling treatment of Tibet after its invasion of that country in 1949. In addition to its continuing abuse of human rights, Chinese authorities have embarked on what the Government of Tibet in Exile terms "ecocide": the reckless and systematic destruction of Tibet's environment. One of the ironies of this is that China too is suffering the consequences of this.

The only consolation is that however brutal China's treatment of Tibet itself becomes, Tibetan culture will live on. As well as a considerable number of Tibetans living in exile around the world (chiefly in India) who keep the flame alive, there are now a number of projects, some major international collaborations, to digitise the unique Tibetan cultural heritage.

Once again, the world of bits offers a partial counterbalance to some of the terrible losses taking place in the world of atoms.

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