SOAS University of London

China & Inner Asia Section, Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures

Cultural History of Tibet

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Term 1

At the hearth of the Asian Continent, Tibetan culture has not developed in isolation, but enmashed in a network of religious, political, and commercial networks extending from South Asia, to East Asia, Northern Inner Asia and beyond. This module introduces to Tibetan culture in the pre-modern era, with a historical approach, highlighting major turning points, analysing founding narratives, and exploring the formation of long-lasting political and religious institutions such as that of the Dalai Lama.  


None.  This module is also available as an open option to students on other programmes at SOAS.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  1. be familiar with the basic outlines of Tibetan history from ancient times to the 20th century, with a particular emphasis on cultural developments, and have a working knowledge of some of the key themes running throughout Tibet’s history.
  2. demonstrate a basic understanding of the sources for Tibetan history and some of the methods that inform the writing of history both in a Tibetan context and in a Western and international context.
  3. retrieve, select, and refer to secondary sources relevant to the course's topics.
  4. assimilate and synthesise prior knowledge, while developing critical views.
  5. communicate ideas clearly in writing, formulating research questions and presenting evidence in support or against particular thesis.


Total of 10 weeks teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week consisting of a 2 hour lecture.

Scope and syllabus

The module introduces the land and people of Tibet and the Tibetan cultural area, which extends into the PRC, Nepal, India and Pakistan. The module moves chronologically through the history of Tibet and its main periodisation, delineating the formative period of the Tibetan Empire (600–850 CE), the period of fragmentation and cultural renaissance (950–1500) and the rise of the Dalai Lamas in the seventeenth century. Throughout this historical survey, the module spotlights persistent issues such as sacred kingship, the preservation of lineages, and the relationship of ritual and narrative to religious and political power.

Method of assessment

A response paper of 1000 words to be submitted on day 5, week 6, term 1 (15%); an oral presentation to be given on day 5, week 11, term 1 (15%); an essay of 2,500 words to be submitted on day 1, week 1, in the term following the one in which the module is taught (70%).

Suggested reading

  • P. Kvaerne, "Tibet: The Rise and Fall of a Monastic Tradition," in The World of Buddhism, ed. by H. Bechert and R. Gombrich. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984, pp. 253–70.
  • D. Snellgrove and H. Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala, 1968.
  • M. Kapstein, The Tibetans. Oxford: Blackwells, 2006. 
  • K. Schaeffer, M. Kapstein, and G. Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition, Columbia University Press, 2013.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules