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Interview with Professor Sperling

By Jaime Bue


Dr. Elliot Sperling has long been an integral part of the CEUS Department as a Professor of Tibetan studies, MacArthur Fellow, and an academic who is not afraid to speak his mind. After more than thirty years in the department, he will retire at the end of this fall semester. Despite his jokes to the contrary and the temptations that retirement may offer some, Professor Sperling will not be sitting around but will be spending a semester in Vienna, as well as working on a major book translation project.

Professor Sperling’s project looks at a major historical source that has not been translated into English, providing translation, annotation, and context for the work’s place within Tibetan history. He is quick to note that many Tibetan historical sources have not been translated, although a considerable amount have been in Chinese. Professor Sperling loosely translates Mi-dbang Rtogs-brjod as The Story of the Man of Power. The work is emblematic of a nascent modernity and a Tibet that might have been. Professor Sperling emphasized that his use of the word “modern” is not a value judgement but a way to refer to the molding of the world around Tibet and a move towards something more secular. Although certain modern aspects such as secular autobiography, novel, vernacular language all by this one person showing what might have been. The scope and scale of The Story of the Man of Power is already a formidable challenge for translation, but Professor Sperling will also be annotating the text and helping the reader understand the work’s historical context.

The Story of the Man of Power is unprecedented in Tibetan literature for three main reasons. First, the book the source details the battles and accomplishments of the secular ruler, Mi-dbang Pho-lha Bsod-nams stob-rgyas (1689-1747), a lay person ruling in the midst of the Dalai Lama. While the story of a secular leader is interesting in itself, secular rule is not new to Tibet. However this work extols the worldly achievements of a lay ruler within the context of the Manchu-Mongol world as opposed to his spiritual accomplishments. It is this emphasis on the ruler and his family’s power, battles, bestowed honors, and military prowess that moves this work away from the established domain of the Tibetan biography. Mi-dbang Pho-lha Bsod-nams stob-rgyas’ reign is also the last formidable secular rule in Tibet. His son lasted a few years before being assassinated, and afterwards the government of the Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet unimpeded.     

The Story of the Man of Power breaks with precedent by the selection of the author and the context under which the work is written. Mdo-mkhar zhabsdrung Tshe-ring dbang-rgyal was a literati who is considered to have written the first Tibetan novel, as well as an autobiography that was not of his spiritual realizations because he was not a spiritual person.  He wrote this biography by command and under the instruction of the ruler. Part of that instruction including writing the biography in a language that would be more accessible so that ordinary “dull” people could understand. This results in a biography that moves away from a more esoteric style of writing.

This brief manifestation of nascent secularism important because of context.All of this occurs at a time when greater awareness of the outside world is already coming into Tibet. Professor Sperling noted that Tibet was not isolated and was also influenced along with the rest of the world’s economy by silver from the New World in mid fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, this trajectory progressed with the British and French in India, and the Russians in Siberia. This coincides with Tibet’s second Mongol Century and the fact that the Mongols, part of the Manchu-Mongol world, are so dominant in Tibet and make Tibet part of that world.The Story of the Man with Power occurs within a context of global change and slow modernization, offering a glimpse of what a secular Tibet could have been.


You can listen to Professor Sperling’s 2014 talk “Liberal Principles and Autocratic Regimes” at the IAUNRC podcast page.