Simon Fraser University


Potala Palace

Weaving a thesis in Tibet

November 29, 2007

Financing a doctoral thesis on the westernization of the Tibetan handicraft carpet industry isn’t easy. That’s why graduate communication student Tracy Zhang was so thrilled to win SFU’s COGECO graduate scholarship in communication. She used the $14,000 award to pay for research trips to Lhasa, Tibet and hire interpreters to assist as she interviewed, observed and surveyed carpet weavers.

Like most cultural industries in the world, carpet weaving in Tibet is now globally sourced and managed. Originally it was a prestigious craft mastered by both men and women and sponsored by a theocracy. Today, the weavers are mainly women working in private factories. "They don’t enjoy the same respect as traditional weavers," says Zhang, "and factory managers make most of the money."

Zhang’s ethnographic study of the reorganization of labour in the industry takes a qualitative and a quantitative approach to social phenomena. She wondered how the women express meaning in their life and work as a result of today’s new power relations. And she discovered they were are a lot like her. "Many are from the countryside so they are immigrants in the big city, like me," says Zhang, who came to Canada from Shanghai in 1997. "They are trying to make a home in a new place with lots of pressures."

Zhang’s thesis topic is so rich, and she has gathered so much interesting material, that she hopes to one day publish it as a book. In the meantime, she continues to search for support to complete it.

"After watching reports about the Canadian prime minister meeting with the Dalai Lama, I want to tell you that Canadians’ common sense of Tibet is not any better than Chinese and Americans," says Zhang, who was the only Canadian researcher in Lhasa. "Even though SFU gave the Dalai Lama an honorary doctorate, there are few opportunities in Canada for anyone wishing to do Tibetan studies."

By Barry Shell