CHENGDU, China — Decades ago, the thousands of Tibetan-language books now ensconced in a lavishly decorated library in southwest China might have ended up in a raging bonfire. During the tumultuous decade of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, Red Guard zealots destroyed anything deemed “feudal.” But an American scholar, galvanized in part by those rampages, embarked on a mission to collect and preserve the remnants of Tibetan culture.
The resulting trove of 12,000 works, many gathered from Tibetan refugees, recently ended a decades-long odyssey that brought them to a new library on the campus of the Southwest University for Nationalities here in Chengdu.
Despite Beijing’s tight control of Tibetan scholarship, the collection’s donor, E. Gene Smith, insisted that the books be shipped here from their temporary home in New York because, as he told friends, “they came from Asia, and Asia is where they belong.” Just to be safe, he created a backup digital copy of every text.
In October, after a long delay imposed by the project’s Chinese partners, school officials here quietly opened the document-preservation operation alongside a huge library bearing Smith’s name.
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“This is a gem that Gene thought should be shared with the whole world,” said Greg Beier, chief fundraiser for the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, the U.S. organization that Smith helped create.
The tale of how Smith, who died in 2010, amassed the world’s largest private collection of Tibetan literature and then sought to return the books to China is just one strand of a story that traces the tempestuous recent history of a people who remain in the throes of an existential struggle. These days, though, it is the assimilationist policies favoring China’s ethnic Han majority that are the cause for concern.
That the collection was first enthusiastically accepted by China and then put on ice reflects Beijing’s conflicted attitude toward Tibetan culture, which is a source of national pride but also unease, given the aspirations many Tibetans hold for greater autonomy. In recent years, those yearnings have curdled into despair, prompting a wave of self-immolations in predominantly Tibetan parts of the country.
Under ideal circumstances, the collection might have ended up in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, which is 1,200 miles from Chengdu, but government policies that require a permit for non-Chinese visitors and onerous restrictions on foreign journalists seeking to travel to the region would have interfered with Smith’s goal of making the books freely available to scholars from around the world.
He chose the Southwest University for Nationalities because it drew a large number of ethnic Tibetans; while Chengdu’s population is overwhelmingly Han, it also has a significant Tibetan community. The city is also not far from traditionally Tibetan settlements to the north and west that dot the mountains rising toward the Tibetan plateau.
As part of the arrangement, Smith’s institute provides salaries for the four archivists who spend their days scanning and cataloging texts that can be read free online. They aim to digitize the world’s known treasury of Tibetan literature within a decade.
As news of the center’s existence has spread across China, the keepers of centuries-old books have flocked to the library with manuscripts that scholars thought had been lost or destroyed. Many had been hidden by Tibetan monks during the Cultural Revolution, when Buddhist monasteries, religious statues and sacred texts were systematically destroyed.
In November, robed monks from the Dongkar Monastery in western Sichuan arrived with a yellowing collection of 300-year-old texts that had never been published. Scrawled in cinnabar and black ink, the manuscripts, detailing the tantric rituals of Buddhist deities, were copies of 15th-century texts. The monks stayed for five weeks while archivists scanned 6,000 pages, then returned home carrying their beloved texts and a single CD-ROM of digital copies. They vowed to return with seven more volumes.
Painted to resemble a lamasery, the library contains thousands of travelogues, biographies and medical treatises that bear only a passing resemblance to Western-style books. Most were printed using hand-carved wood blocks, and their unbound pages are contained between boards, then wrapped in brightly colored fabric.
The books are displayed horizontally behind glass doors, giving the reading rooms the feel of a museum. The texts are a treasure-trove for scholars seeking to trace the evolution of dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, from the origins of Buddhism in India in the fifth century B.C. to its flowering in Tibet, China and Mongolia.
Leonard van der Kuijp, a professor of Tibetan and Himalayan studies at Harvard, said many of the newly discovered works were the only known versions. He said recent finds had yielded forgotten details about a wife of Kublai Khan, the 13th-century Mongolian ruler who founded the Yuan dynasty in China, and the journeys of a 19th-century Tibetan statesman who traveled from Lhasa to call on the Qing dynasty emperor in Beijing.
“There is a magical trajectory in many of these works, which fill the gaps in Indian and Chinese intellectual history,” van der Kuijp said. “It’s like a larger mosaic with missing pieces that are slowly being filled in.”
Convert to Buddhism
Smith, a lapsed Mormon from Utah who spoke 32 languages, spent much of his life working for the Library of Congress. His interest in Tibetan literature was aroused by an encounter with a Buddhist lama, Deshung Rinpoche, who was among two dozen exiled Tibetans flown to the United States by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1960, shortly after a failed uprising in Lhasa prompted a fierce crackdown by Chinese troops.
After converting to Buddhism, Smith found his studies stymied by the paucity of Tibetan texts. He moved to India and began a 25-year quest to find Tibetan books, many of them smuggled out by refugees who had trekked over the Himalayas.
Using money from a U.S. government program, he printed thousands of rare texts that were later distributed to libraries and scholars around the world. Smith invariably kept one copy of each print run, forming a collection that took over his Cambridge, Mass., home and eventually filled two trailers. In 2007, to the dismay of several American universities that coveted the books, Smith bequeathed his collection to the Southwest University for Nationalities. But a few months later, after deadly ethnic rioting in Lhasa, university officials suspended the project.
Officials eventually opened the center, creating the nation’s pre-eminent center for Tibetan literature. But they appear to be reluctant to promote it. During a recent visit, Tibetan students complained that the doors of the library were often locked, but they said they were thrilled about its existence.
“This is our culture; this is our heritage,” Puchor, a student who like many Tibetans uses only one name, said after touring the library. “We need to learn about our patrimony and then protect it for future generations.”