TIBETAN CHARACTER, SOCIETY AND CUSTOMS

TIBETAN CHARACTER

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family in 1938
Tibetans have been described as rough, proud, earthy, honest, solemn, and reserved. Tibet is an extremely harsh land where many people are consumed by a ruthless quest for survival. Even so Tibetans smile a lot; can be very religious and pious; and are generally very easy going. In his book An Account of Tibet, the 18th century Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia, described Tibetans as people with “good memories who are born wise, kind, polite, active, diligent and skillful.”

On the Tibetan people, Eric Valli, a photographer and filmmaker who has spent a lot of time in the Tibetan region of Nepal, said, "Faith, religion, belief, superstition...has enabled them not only to live in this very harsh place but to remain human...You cannot wear a mask there for long. You cannot fake it. You pretend less and lie less. If you're not open to your neighbor and able to count on him, you cannot survive. This makes relations much simpler and deeper. What I learned from the Dolpo people is courage, tolerance, dignity and perseverance."

One Tibetan saying goes: "When two paths appear before you choose the more difficult one. That's the one that will draw forth your best aspects." Many Tibetans say if they could do anything they wanted, they would choose to spend 10 years in a cave meditating. Tibetans have traditionally not been very ambitious. In many ways Buddhism teaches one to accept their lot in life and look for happiness in future lives. The 2008 riots showed that some Tibetans have a violent side.

Tibet has traditionally been ruled by an aristocratic class with strong ties to the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The aristocratic class still exerts a lot of influence. "A few people belonging to high-status families control everything," said Yangdon Tsekyi, 25, who works in a Dharmsala coffee shop, a comment echoed by many Sangay voters. "If you have the right family name, you can be successful here.” [Source:Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, March 15, 2012]

Chinese poet and blogger Tang Danhong wrote:“From the very beginning of my experience with Tibet, I fell in love with the Tibetan people, their culture, and their faith. Their unique hospitality, charm, good humor, and confident attitude moved me quite deeply. They convey a priceless character through their smiles and their eyes, and the way they serve their tea and toast their wine, the way they spin prayer wheels. It’s a special kind of character that makes one feel warm and think deeply. This special character of theirs is intimately related to their land and Mother Nature, to their language and wisdom, and to their faith and philosophy about the world. I cherish most their understanding of, and universal compassion for, the tough realities experienced by all forms of life. [Source: “Fire Between the Dark and the Cold” by Tang Danhong, Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, January 2013, China Digital Times, January 9, 2013. Tang Danhong is a poet and filmmaker from Chengdu, Sichuan. She currently lives in Israel. She blogs at Moments of Samsara]

Buddhism and Character

The religious scholar A.C. Graham wrote: “Buddhism is a “Nay-saying” religion, rejecting all life as suffering and promising release from it; yet when one is actually in a Buddhist country it is hard to resist the impression that one is among the liveliest, the most invincibly cheerful, the most “yea-saying” people on earth.”

Poor people in Buddhist countries often have a big smiles on their faces, something that many people believe is attributed to the fact they spend so much time praying and engaging religious activities. Religion is a daily, if not hourly, practice for many Buddhists. Tibetans, for example, seem to spend hours each day praying or spinning prayer wheels.

Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check and stresses karma over determination, which often means people are more willing to accept their lot in life and look for happiness in future lives. This outlook and is sometimes viewed in the West as a lack of ambition or unwilling to work hard to get ahead.

Patience is a great virtue. Many Buddhists see patience in terms of moral patience to endure suffering and hostile acts of others and intellectual patience to accept ideas---especially ones that seem so unfathomable and unpleasant like the non-existence of all things---before understanding them.

Buddhism beliefs in sanctity of life and non-violence have their origins in Hinduism and Jainism. The view that non-violence is a dominate belief is a bit of a myth. Robert Thurman of Columbia University told the New York Times, "There is a Buddhist theory of war, of self-defense, and there is also a kind of theory of surgical violence. The optimal ideal thing is non-violence. But sometimes you have to do a little violence to prevent a larger violence. The Buddhist have thought about this are they are not simplistic."

Chinese Versus Tibetan Character

Many Chinese consider Tibetans to be uncivilized, superstitious, hostile, lazy, ignorant, dirty, unpredictable and a bit savage, and regard the Tibetan religion as examples of "false consciousness" and "incorrect thinking." Many Tibetans view the Chinese as greedy, moneygrubbing, manipulative, arrogant, unwanted house guests. One nationalist Tibetan told the Los Angeles Times, "We believe in Buddhism, they're atheists. They think only of making money." Tibetans are particularly suspicious of Sichuanese, whose women are regarded as loose and who men are thought of as tricky and sly.

The Chinese have a reputation for being more industrious than the Tibetans. A successful Tibetan businessman told the Washington Post, "The Tibetan people and the Han Chinese people are very different. The Han Chinese are very clever, they think more broadly than the Tibetans. Tibetan people are easily satisfied; the Chinese are never satisfied."

"Even Tibetans like to hire the Chinese because they have more modern methods and they work harder," one Tibetan man in Lhasa told the Washington Post. "Tibetans would rather give their money to a beggar or to a monastery in hopes earning merit for next life than put in the bank or invest it,” he said.

To illustrate the difference between traditional nomadic Tibetan thinking and Chinese thinking, a western analyst told the Washington Post, "If you got eight yaks what's the next best thing. The nomads would say, 'Nine yaks.' The Chinese would say, "No, sell a yak, then you get money. With money, you can build a house."

Tibetan culture and the Tibetan character have gone underground under Chinese occupation. Among the younger generation in urban areas they are being displaced by Chinese and Western culture to varying degrees. These days many young Tibetans wear jeans and speak Chinese and are attracted by opportunities to make money and enjoy material pleasures.

The Chinese occupation has created a situation where there is a lot of stress and aggression below the surface. In some places, especially where Chinese business customs have taken hold, people will cheat you if they get the chance and give you hard time for no good reason.

Tibetans can often be distinguished from Chinese by their full faces and ruddy, sun-burned red cheeks. Tibetan men are tough and surprisingly large.

Stereotypes About Tibet

Elliot Sperling of Indiana University's Tibetan Studies Program told PRI"There is a tendency among many people who are interested in Tibet to see Tibet as frozen in this sort of idealistic Buddhist, or even folk, kind of culture. But all culture is dynamic." [Source: Matthew Bell, PRI, February 11, 2014]

On the five stereotypes that shape views of Tibet, Chan Koonchung, a Chinese writer heo has written about Tibet, wrote: 1) The romantic stereotype –Tibet as Shangri La, an exotic, timeless touristy region of simple, peaceful folks. 2) The spiritual stereotype – Tibet as the spiritual Buddhist holy land. Tibetan Buddhist gurus have many followers in other parts of China. 3) The patronising stereotype – Tibet is pre-modern, China is modern. The Communist Party liberated Tibet from medieval backwardness. Tibet depends on aid from the Chinese state. China’s affirmative action policies are beneficial to the Tibetans, maybe too generously so. 4) The statist stereotype – Tibet has always been a part of China from time immemorial. Foreign imperialists are always there trying to encourage Tibetan separatists to divide the Chinese motherland.

5) The victim stereotype – Tibetan culture is under threat, all because of the Chinese rule: non-Tibetan migrants, ‘Han-ification’, assimilation policies, bureaucratic nepotism and state violence. But traditional culture is also changing inside Tibet because many Tibetans want modernisation and welcome economic growth. Many Tibetan families urge their children to learn Chinese and young Tibetans love hybridised popular culture. (Though, of course, I am not unsympathetic to this victim stereotyping because Tibetans are now indeed a minority culture under stress.)

Shangri-La Myth

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Tibetan side of Mt. Everest
Westerners are fascinated with Tibet and Tibetan culture even though in many ways they are the antithesis of the West and Western culture. The Shangri-La myth of Tibet as a kind of spiritual paradise---created by Westerners---is far removed from the reality of Tibet as an extremely harsh land.

Chinese scholar Orville Schell wrote that Tibet is "a figurative place of spiritual enlightenment in the Western imagination---where people don’t make Buicks, they make good karma." He said the Shangri-La myth ignores "the Tibet of filth, ferocity, arcane religious practices, grinding poverty, barren wastes, inhospitable weather, serfdom, disease and theocratic absolutism."

Among those taken in by the Shangri-La myth was Adolph Hitler who speculated that the Aryans may have originated from Tibet. A variety of cults and New Age sects, who have incorporated Tibetan Buddhist beliefs into their own doctrines.

Rigzel Losel is the director of the Research Institute for Contemporary Tibet at the China Tibetology Research Center, “Like any scholar, I value academic freedom. I am concerned that some Western scholars of Tibet do not practice genuine academic research. Instead, they come with preconceptions.... A case in point is an American scholar I recently encountered at a forum in Tibet. When asked about China’s plan to invest 300 billion yuan in Tibet for the next five years, he immediately dismissed it as beneficial to the local Chinese population and unhelpful to the Tibetans. How could a serious scholar make such a foregone conclusion before he understands the details of the investment, and before it even starts?

See Shangri-La and the Lost Horizon, Literature

Tibetan Etiquette and Customs

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Khatang
Tibetans are exceedingly courteous and have rules governing their relationships. For example, polite language is widely used in Tibet. Tibetans use it when they are addressing seniors, people with higher social status or people of the same age and same status. If they call someone, they add 'la' after the name to show their respect. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

In your dealings with both Tibetans and Chinese try make sure no one loses face, looks bad or is wronged or forced to back down in front of others. Negotiations, persistent and patience often achieve more than anger and confrontation. Tibetans pray and smile a lot. Some Tibetan children are fascinated by the hairy arms of Western males and like to rub their heads in the hair. Other Tibetans aren’t so fond of foreigners---the Tibetan kingdom was closed to outsiders after all for a thousand years---and sometimes they throw rocks at them. Instead of saying grace before a meal some Tibetans dip their forth finger into their tea and flick the droplets in the four directions.

Do not take photos of people without their permission. Some Tibetans still believe that photos can steal their soul and taking pictures of people without their permission is viewed as intrusive. For smooth transmigration in the afterlife Tibetans believe that no trace left of earthliness should be left behind. One reason why Tibetans don’t like their picture taken is that a photo could remain behind after they die. Ask for permission before taking pictures of Tibetan people. Sometimes they will let you if you pay them money or give them a gift like a piece of chocolate.

Tibetans have a distinct culture and strong religious belief and unique customs and beliefs about etiquette and behavior that go along with them. Political issues are sensitive in Tibet. Avoid talking about sensitive topics like the Dalai Lama and political repression with your tour guide, driver, monks and local people. Listening devises are planted here and there and Chinese spies are about and Tibetans can get into a lot of trouble for saying the wrong thing.

Tibetan practice a kind of funeral called a “sky burial”— the disposition of a corpse by letting it be devoured by vultures. These are very private ceremonies where the family and close loved ones of the deceased pay their last respects. It is considered highly offensive for outsiders to intrude upon a family the time of a sky burial, especially taking pictures.

There are a lot of taboos associated with sky burials. Strangers are not allowed to attend the ceremony as Tibetans believe it could negate the efforts of the ascending souls. So visitors should respect this custom and keep away from such occasions. Family members are also not allowed to be present at the burial site. Despite all this, sky burials intrigue the morbid curiosity of many people. If you have an opportunity to witness a sky burial in Tibet, please respect local custom. Do not get close to the sky burial site and do not take photos, talk or ask any questions on site. Just stay quiet. <>

Tibetan Greetings and Gestures

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Khatang offering
When Tibetans greet each other, they use long polite words. They add 'la' after the name to show their respect. While everybody is being greeted, the listener must listen carefully without any impatience. Tibetans cane be very verbose in saying good bye. In particular, if one person is elderly, they are repeatedly given expressions of good wishes, auspiciousness, safety, and good fortune.

If a Tibetan encounters a friend or an acquaintance, he removes his hat and bows while holding his hat in front of his chest. However, if he meets an official, a senior, or a highly respected person, he should lower his hat as much as possible when he bows. The other person should show exactly the same courtesy in return. Although this custom is fading, it is still regularly used. Don't someone on the head. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Some Tibetans greet one another by touching foreheads. Others gesture hello to strangers by opening their hands at waist level. This form of greeting dates back to a period of time when it was important to show a person you were meeting that you weren't concealing any weapons. When Tibetans families are reunited after being apart for a long time often there are no emotional hugs or tear of joy, instead prayerful bows and murmured words of greeting are exchanged.♣

Don't be alarmed if a Tibetan man sticks out his tongue when he meets you for the first time---it’s a greeting. Tibetans used to believe that people with black tongues intended to poison somebody, and that devils had green tongues. By sticking out his tongue a man is showing you that he isn't planning to poison you and he isn’t a devil. Don't greet Tibetans this way if you have been chewing licorice or sucking on green candy.

Khatags (also called khatas and hadas) are white scarves that are presented to holy images or important people and as a greeting gesture and sign of respect. If you meet a lama you should present him with a khatag. The scarfs can usually be purchased at the temples where the lama resides and placed around the lama's neck when he is greeted. Not presenting a scarf is considered very, very rude, even sinful. People also show respect by placing khatags around pictures of the Dali Lama and others they respect. In some formal situations, Tibetans greet one another by exchanging khatangs. Scarfs are also given as good will or welcoming gesture to potential friends or guests. If you receive a scarf hold the scarf out with both hands, palms turned face up. You are expected to keep wearing the scarf until after you leave. More on Khatags, See Below

Tibetan often indicate directions with their lips. The most common hitchhiking gesture is sticking out one or two fingers towards the ground and waving them up and down.

Buddhist Customs

Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments, keeping the religious landmarks to your right. The Buddhist practice of circling stupas and religion sites is believed to have been derived from cults that circled solar temples. Don't walk in front of praying people. Don’t take photos during prayers or meditation sessions. Don’t use a flash. As a rule don’t take photos unless you are sure it is okay. Taking photographs of Buddhist statues or images is considered to be sacrilegious.

People should have their arms and legs covered and remove their hats when they enter a temple. Wearing improper attire---such as men with no shirts or women in short skirts---in a religious shrine is also considered disrespectful. There are rules that people who have ingested alcohol or garlic are not allowed in temples because such things are said to disturb the human mind. Some temples however allow smoking because Buddhism does not directly ban smoking. Although smoking is not banned and sometimes you see monks lighting up the temples hope that smokers will voluntarily refrain from smoking.

Buddha images are sacred objects and one should not pose in front of them or point their feet at them. When sitting down many local people employ the “mermaid pose” to keep both feet pointed towards the rear. Photographing Buddha images is considered disrespectful, but again, is tolerated from foreign tourists. The Tibetans have niches in their homes for keeping Buddha statues. Nver do anything disrespectful here. Most people wear a metal amulet box, about the size of a cigarette case, on the breast, and turn prayer wheels. It is forbidden to turn prayer wheels counter-clockwise.

In Tibet people must are expected to make a detour from left to right when passing religious facilities such as temples, piles of Mani stones, and pagodas. And people are not allowed to cross Buddhist ceremonial implements and braziers, and are also not allowed to turn prayer wheels in the wrong direction.

Buddhist Monastery Customs in Tibet

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women praying
When you pay a visit to a monastery, remove your hat as entering the temple. Generally, it is not necessary to remove your shoes, even though monks do that. Tourists are allowed to come inside while monks are chanting. If you do so sit or stand in the rear, and walk clockwise around the room-- unless it's a Bon monastery, in which case walk counterclockwise. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]

Do not talk loudly or engage in irreverent conversation. Do not photograph anything inside without permission (photography outside is okay). Don't touch the murals, butter sculpture, or other things you see displayed. Do not sit with the soles of your feet facing the altar or any other sacred object or person. It would be a nice gesture to add some money to the little piles of cash you see around, but it's not required.

If you have purchased butter or oil as an offering, spoon it into the lamps yourself. You may follow the lead of other pilgrims in bowing to various shrines, but if your heart isn't in it then it's quite acceptable not to. In general, it's okay to wander around the building, and you can go to the roof or enter any room that's not locked--however you should stringently avoid entering chambers on the roof of the monastery where monks may be in retreat. Don't worry a lot about committing faux pas in a monastery, because if you're about to do something wrong, and there's someone around, then they will stop you. Tibetans are really very good natured and will not take offense.

Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped to their foreheads from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha or other religious objects and images . Prayers are often made after tossing a coin or banknote into an offering box and leaving an offering of yak butterm holy water or something else. Many people visit different altars, leaving some burning incense and praying at each one. Others bow at the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life. In big temples money can be left in a donation boxes near the entrance. If there is no donation box. You can leave the money on the floor.

When Tibetans worship the Buddha at stupas or temples, they often prostrate themselves. Devoutly, they raise their hands together high above their heads, take one step forward, lower their hands to the height of their forehead, take another step forward, lower their hands before their chest and take a third step forward. Then they kneel down and stretch themselves out upon the ground. After arising, they repeat this process. While they are performing prostrations, they chant sacred words, usually: Om Mani Padme Hum. Many pilgrims spend several years traveling from other provinces to Tibet performing prostrations each and every step of the way. Even though some people have died while on the road, it is never considered a pity as having traveled toward Tibet in this manner is a lifelong honor.

Tibetan Home Customs

When acting as hosts, Tibetans generally allow guests to go first, whether it be walking or talking. People must sit cross-legged as it is very rude to let the sole of your shoes or feet point towards other people. Don’t pour drinks for yourself. The lady of the house or one of the family's children generally pours a bowl of yak butter tea for the guest. The guest must wait quietly until the host carries and presents the bowl of tea with both hands and the guest takes the tea from the host in the same manner. Then, the guest can enjoy the tea and conversation. As a polite guest, one does not empty his bowl as a never empty bowl signifies lasting abundance. The host adds more tea to your bowl to ensure that it is never empty. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

If you have a chance to visit a local family, let the oldest people go first when you walk together with them. Do not touch the heads of children with your hands. If the family invites you to have dinner with Tibetans, when the host hands you something, for example, a cup of wine hold it with both hands to show your respect. Do not drink wine fast, otherwise the host will give you more wine until you are drunk. Bring some small gifts like pens, pencils or candies. Tibetan children like them very much.

People should offer tea, alcohol, and cigarettes with both hands and their fingers should not be put into cups or bowls. People should bow and bend their knees with smiles on their faces when welcoming visitors and seeing visitors off. People should pick up a gift with both hands and give a gift by bending their bodies with hands over heads.

When drinking butter tea, guests should not take cups by themselves until the host holds the tea in from of them. After taking his first cup a guest should dip some alcohol on their third finger and flip the alcohol in the air three times when toasting. This indicates toasting towards heaven, earth and their ancestors, and the guests should sip a little alcohol while the host timely replenishes the cup. This is repeated for three times and on the fourth time, the guest must drink up.

Bowls with cracks or breaches should not be used to serve dishes or tea for guests. If you take some barley wine or butter tea to a Tibetan family as presents when you visit a home, the Tibetans may give something else in return or leave some of your present to you. This doesn’t mean they don’t like your presents, it's just their custom.

Social Customs in Tibet

When Tibetans visit relatives, the visitor usually carries a basket filled with gifts on his or her back. The baskets are covered with a cloth so no one can see what is inside. In addition, the visitor always takes a thermos flask of buttered tea and a plastic bucket of barley beer. These two items are indispensable. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

When a guest arrives, the host and hostess greet them with the words, "ah, you're welcome here." Then they begin to chat while drinking the tea and barley beer that the guest brought. After 2 or 3 hours of chatting, the guest will ask the host to accept the gifts in the basket. The host won't take all the gifts, but will leave something like food or eggs for the guest to take back. This is because taking all the gifts would spoil a person's good and modest name. What's more, the host will put something new in the basket in return, something inexpensive such as fresh cabbage, fresh fruits, or clothes for the children. The host will take great care to remember what has been received, so that gifts of similar value can be taken on a return visit at a later time.

According to traditional customs, when guests visit a Tibetan's home, the men are always seated on the first seat on the right, which is called the "guest seat," and women are sat on the first seat on the left, which is called "kitchen range." During the holidays, guests often stay very late.

Tibetan Eating Customs

Tibetan people are expected to eat and drink quietly and not eat too much in one bite. When eating tsampa—a staple food of Tibetan people made from parched barley— place some flour with salted butter tea in a bowl, rotate the bowl with the left hand and mix the food with your fingers of your right hand. Then roll it into small lumps and squeeze it into your mouth with your fingers.

Tibetans sometimes use silver or high-quality porcelain dinner wares to serve dishes to guests, while the most common ones are wooden. Tibetan cuisine is traditionally served with bamboo chopsticks, in contrast to other Himalayan cuisines, which are eaten by hand. Small soup bowls are also used. Rich Tibetans like to use bowls of gold and silver.

If you are invited into a home, remember that it is considered rude to ask for tea or food directly. You must wait to be offered food. Additionally, it is considered rude to request seconds. If there is additional food, you are offered food. If you are in a Sherpa home, you must decline the first offer of food, regardless of how hungry you are. To do otherwise is to insult your hosts. Informal social rules denote that is appropriate to refuse three times and accept on the fourth time. Use only the fingers of your RIGHT hand when touching food. If you are served the tail of a white sheep, it means that they are honoring you as the guest of honor.[Source: Catherine Go, tibetravel.org]

In Tibet, eating the meat of donkeys, horses and dogs is an absolute taboo in Tibet. Some regions also do not eat fish. Otherwise, many Tibetans eat a lot of meat, particularly yak meat. This a bit surprising in that Buddhism discourages the killing of animals and Buddhists are encouraged to be vegetarians. One reason Tibetans eat a lot of meat is that there is not much land that is good for agriculture on the Tibetan plateau. Grazing land for animals such as yaks and sheep is more plentiful.

Taboos and Don'ts in Tibet

1) Don't touch the head or shoulders of a Tibetan. 2) Don't step across or tread on others’ clothes. 3) Never step across from one's body. 4) Don't step across or tread on the tableware. 5) Don't spit or clap your palms behind the Tibetans. 6) Don't kill any animals or insects in monasteries. 7) Don't drive away or hurt vultures or eagles, for they are holy birds for Tibetans. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

8) Women clothes, especially, women pants and underpants are not supposed to be aired to dry in a place where people pass. 9) Don't whistle or shout or cry inside a house. 10) One is not supposed to sweep the floor or throw out the trash after some family member goes away from home, or guests have just left, or at noon or after the sunset, or on the first day of Tibetan New Year. 11) Non-relatives can not mention the name of the dead face to face with the relatives of the dead. 12) Tasks, such as knitting a sweater or making a carpet, should be finished before the end of the year.

13) One should not go to the house of others at twilight, especially when there are women who's going to give birth to a baby or have just given birth to a baby, or heavily ill people in that house. This especially applies to strangers. 14) Objects are not allowed to be taken outside a home after noon. 15) Two family members are not supposed to go out at the same time if they are headin opposite directions. They should go outside at different times. 16) Tibetan women can not comb or wash their hair in the evening, neither can they go outside with their hair not being tied up.

17) Don’t walk over ritual objects, braziers or an appliance, utensil or bowl that is used for eating. 18) When you are using a broom and dustpan, you can transfer them from one hand to another. But you must put them on the ground at first, and someone will pick them up from the ground and hand them to you. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Khatags: Tibetan Scarves

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Tibetan Farmer Lady
Khatags (also called khatas and hadas) are white scarves that are presented to holy images or important people and as a greeting gesture and sign of respect. If you meet a lama you should present him with a khatag. The scarfs can usually be purchased at the temples where the lama resides and placed around the lama's neck when he is greeted. Not presenting a scarf is considered very, very rude, even sinful. People also show respect by placing khatags around pictures of the Dali Lama and others they respect. In some formal situations, Tibetans greet one another by exchanging khatangs. Scarfs are also given as good will or welcoming gesture to potential friends or guests. If you receive a scarf hold the scarf out with both hands, palms turned face up. You are expected to keep wearing the scarf until after you leave.

Khatags are often offered by Tibetan Buddhists to Buddhist images or statues, holy sites, lamas or are used in certain rituals. They represent the highest respect to the recipient. Khatags are usually made of raw silk and are loosely weaved. “Khatag” means silk in Tibetan language. Top grade ones are often knitted with patterns signifying good luck and happiness such as lotus flowers, bottles, umbrellas and conches. They come in various lengths. Longer one can be 10 or 20 meters in length, while shorter ones are 1 or 1.5 meters. The material varies in quality, but generally that is not a concern as long as the khatag can express good wishes. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Khatags are usually white. Tibetan people revere the color white, believing it symbolizes purity, auspiciousness, sincerity, kindness, justice and prosperity. White khatags white symbolize the pure heart of the giver. Yellow gold khatags as well. However, there is a special kind of khatag with five colors on: blue, white, yellow, green and red, respectively indicating sky, cloud, land, river and the God in charge of Buddha dharma. Five-colored khatag is very valued gift which can be given to the Buddha statues or intimate relatives. According to the Buddhism teachings, five-colored khatag is the clothes of Buddha. Therefore, five-colored khatag can only be presented in some special occasions.

On the origin of the khatag tradition, there are various stories. One Chinese version is related to Zhang Qian's diplomatic mission. In the Han Dynasty, Zhang Qian, a respected diplomat, was sent on a mission to nations west of China. When he passed Tibet, he presented silk to the chieftain of the local tribe. In ancient China, silk was highly valued and symbolized pure friendship in that people in the tribes thought that giving silk was a kind of courtesy to enhance relationships. Gradually it became a custom extended to all. Another Chinese story centers on the ancient Tibetan king, Wangbasi. The king brought khatag back after he met with the emperor Khubli Khan of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The khatag had the pattern of the Great Wall and the Chinese characters "ji xian gru yi" (good luck and happiness to you). Later, people gave khatag or more mystical and religious sense, saying khatag were the ribbons in fairy maidens' clothes and symbolized purity and authority. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Presenting a Khatag

Presenting a khatag is very popular in Tibet. It is a traditional practice of respect and hospitality in Tibet, and is appreciated by your host. People present Khatag when they visit parents, worship the Buddha, see somebody off, welcome someone home, and so on. It is interesting that some Tibetans even take a Khatag with them when they go out in case that they meet friends or relatives; and some Tibetans even seal Khatag in letters so that they can send their very best wishes. This custom is derived from the ancient practice of adorning deities with clothing and has evolved into a greeting of respect and caring.

Generally, the presenter holds the Khatag with both arms stretched out evenly before him, and makes a little bow. The receiver accepts it with both hands held in front of himself (but not overly stretched out) and immediately puts it on around his neck and wears it, because putting it down immediately is very rude. However, when presenting Khatag to seniors, the two arms should be raised up above the head. When presenting a Khatag to people of the same age or younger, the presenter can tie the Khatag directly to their necks.

Presenting a khata shows purity, honesty, sincerity and respect to others. It is done at funeral and at weddings; when receiving or sending off someone, visiting elders or going to temples and monasteries. When Tibetan people go to a temple they present a hada first and then visit the Buddha statues or visit halls. When they decide to leave the temple, they also leave a khata, suggesting that they have physically left, but their hearts are still in the temple. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

People offer khata when they visit parents, worship the Buddha, see somebody off, welcome someone home, and greet a visitor and so on. In different circumstances, the meaning a khata transmits is different. In festivals, it shows congratulations or happiness. After a wedding ceremony, it conveys the wish that the newlyweds couple reach old age together. When presenting khata to guests, it implies sincere prayers to God for the blessing and protection. When presenting at a funeral ceremony, it suggests grieving over the dead and comfort for the families of the deceased.

The ways that khata is presented varies from person to person. Most people take the khata with their both hands, lift it up to the same level as the shoulder, reach out their hands, bend over, and pass it to the guest. Make sure that the top of one's head is in the same level with the khata. Only in this way can you express your respect and best wishes. For the receiver, he should receive it with both hands. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

When offering the khata the presenter makes a little bow and the receiver accepts it with both hands held in front of them and immediately puts it on around his neck and wears it. Sometimes honored guests are greeted Tibetan style with a scarf around the neck. If you are honored in this way you expected to keep wearing the scarf until you leave. When presenting a khata to seniors, you should lift the khata up over your head with your body bent slightly forward and put it in place in front of their seats or feet. For peers or those below you, you can hang the khata around their necks. Some Tibetans even take a khata with them when they go out in case that they meet friends or relatives; and others even seal khata in letters so that they can send their very best wishes. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Image Sources: Purdue University, China National Tourist Office, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html, Johomap, Tibetan Government in Exile

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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