Shifting to Online Engagement, Helina Yuheng He, BFA ID, 2023
First week: defining and grouping
Hello, dear friends.
Welcome to the first week of my journey. If you are reading this post, then I am fortunate to have you witnessing my project to protect the Sino-Tibetan environment with public education and design thinking.
My name is Yuheng (Helina), and I am a senior in Industrial Design with a minor in Art History and Theory. I was born and raised in an ethnically multicultural area in China (Guizhou province), and therefore, I naturally sought to help and protect a minority culture (the Tibetan culture in Sichuan) when I decided to apply for the Maharam fellowship.
Many of you might ask: who are the Tibetans? And why are they significant to the environment as well as the cultural landscape in China? Well, let me throw in some explanations so that it will be easier for you to follow my upcoming updates.
The Tibetan people are spread across different countries. In China, the Tibetan area is located in the west, extending over four provinces of the country—Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunan. They have their own language (Tibetan) and religious tradition (Tibetan Buddhism) that are different from Han Chinese (the majority Chinese ethnic group). The Tibetan environmental group that I am helping sits in Sichuan province, the one of the four that has most frequent communications with Han Chinese.
Located in the Himalayas, Tibet holds the highest mountain peaks and the most extreme cold weathers. It is dubbed the “pure land”, attracting numerous tourists, hikers, and naturalists every year to witness the breathtaking beauty of the area. Besides, any pollutions to the land will be directly reflected on the mountains and rivers in Tibet.
The environment in Tibet is facing danger due to industrialization. The snow line of the mountains has been rising. Poachers also appear around the forests in Tibet to steal animal skins and fish. In response to this crisis, many individuals and grassroot organizations have stood up. One of them is the organization I’m working with, LDONGTSOG (Chinese: 玛嵘峒格). It is located at Kehe Village, Aba County, in Sichuan province. Organized by a previous Tibetan monk, LDONGTSOG employs Buddhism concepts1 to educate local people as well as poachers. LDONGTSOG is a very small-scale organization based on local villagers. They accepted my help this time because they wanted to extend their influence beyond the village level, reaching out to youths in the city. With my Maharam fellowship, I want to bridge the conceptually “marginalized” Tibetan group with Han Chinese people and convey their organization’s value through visual means.
Although the idea seems charming, my plan was messed up by the sudden COVID outbreaks in China. The government tightened the border and required people from abroad to be quarantined for around a month (update: 2022/6/20) before they could move freely.
I was hesitant to go back to China due to these restrictions. Is it worth traveling for? What will I face when I return home and live in their village? Finally, I decided to seize the chance and embrace the uncertainty that this journey would bring.
The COVID outbreaks also means that I have to change my initial plan, which was to spend my first two weeks with the villagers and learn the culture before doing any design work. Obviously, it will not work out, and I will have to be remote for the first couple of weeks. Tibet is so unique that I do not want to make any assumptions about it before actually doing fieldwork there in person. My teacher once told me, “You will design differently once you breathe the air in Tibet.” I do not want to rush.
So, I stepped back and asked myself, “What is my goal in this journey?”
“To define a strategy of environmental protection derived from Kehe villagers’ unique perception of nature.” I answered.
“To connect people from outside and inside, sharing Tibetan’s holistic approach to nature with city inhabitants.”
“To unwrap my design process as an art historian student and designer, and honestly record Tibetan folk cultures in relationship with their environmental protection.”
With the answer in mind, I decided to shift my focus to online engagement with Chinese youths for my weeks in quarantine. My first and foremost task is to back up my knowledge of Tibetan culture by connecting to other professionals, since I have limited insights at this point.
The first organization I connected with is called Machik, which built the first K-12 school using Tibetan as the major instruction language in Litang County, China. Their founder, Dr. Lobsang Rabgey, was so kind that she offered me a free language lesson.
Then, I traveled to Philadelphia to meet another Chinese scholar in Linguistic Anthropology who researched environmentalism in Sichuan-Tibet. She provided me with information about other environmental activists in Tibet and inspired me to not measure the Tibetans and their culture against the western standard of environmental protection. She also emphasized the importance of fieldwork, which she believes is the best way to pay respect and attention to ethnic culture.
I also visited the Robin Museum of Art in New York. And I was delighted to discover how Tibetan knowledge and tradition were continued and transformed into contemporary visual languages.
After the initial research, I found that so many Tibetan young adults and residents doing social innovation works related to cultural and environmental preservation. The current issue is that these social innovation organizations are usually localized and fragmented.
Then it raises the question of how to create civic engagement effectively? I know that many Chinese university students have endless curiosity to the unique environment and culture in Sino Tibet, so I decided to make them as my major audience group in my online campaign.
My following days in quarantine will be dedicated in the planning of online forums targeted at Chinese international students and scholars aged 20–30. I reached out to one of the biggest community-based youth organizations in China named 706 (https://706ny.com/706). I will use their platform to produce 2-3 live broadcasts in communication with outstanding youths and groups that have engaged with the Tibetan environment or culture.
This diagram serves as my road map for the forum. Currently, I am in the phase of outreaching to speakers. I believe this forum is a great opportunity for me to learn more about the Tibetan community that I will enter, and for other Han Chinese students as the first door step to connect Tibetan Chinese.
This is my report for today. Please keep an eye out for the upcoming posts if you are curious how the online forums will develop.
- Here are two Buddhist concepts related to environmentalism:
- Interdependence: all creatures on the land are equal and interdependent. Men should care equally for others’ welfare, including both living and non-living elements.
- The belief in the dwelling deities: Tibetans believe mountains and rivers are dwelled with powerful deities and demons. Therefore, the sacred mountains are inviolable, and you have to consult the gods before cutting the trees. Tibetan people have grown complex and wholistic knowledge on the ecology derived from their religion.
- Reference article: Yangtso, Lobsang. “Environmentalism in Tibet.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 44, no. 2, 2019, pp. 39–56. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26921472. Accessed 4 Jul. 2022.