How an American scholar saved a trove of Tibetan literature from extinction

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: After President Obama met with the Dalai Lama last week, he issued a statement on Tibet. It said, in part, that it's important to preserve Tibet's unique cultural and linguistic traditions. We're going to here now about an American scholar whose life mission was to do just that. Gene Smith was his name. He passed away in 2010. For decades, Smith rescued works of Tibetan literature that might've disappeared as China imposed its rule over Tibet. He started in the 1960's, studying Buddhism with exiled monks. But according to Andrew Jacobs with The New York Times in Beijing, he quickly ran out of things to read.

Andrew Jacobs: He spent basically 25 years, first in Europe and then in India, looking for these lost texts, literature, religious documents - all kinds of things, that he collected thousands over the years and ended up printing many of them with US government help and saved a copy of every book he printed and that formed the foundation of his collection, which is the largest private collection of Tibetan literature in the world.

Werman: So while the late Gene Smith was kind of wandering around and picking up all of this Tibetan literature, he had in the back of his mind this goal to set up a library somewhere in Asia for these books. Apparently that's not materialized and you saw it. What's it like?

Jacobs: It's pretty extraordinary. The actual design is quite beautiful. It's inside a university library in the city of Chengdu and they've given over almost an entire floor. The university paid for the library. That was part of the deal - Gene Smith provided the books, they provided the space. It has a red lacquer finish, it looks like a Tibetan temple. All the shelves are not traditional shelves that you'd picture in a library. They're all glass cases where the books are slid in horizontally. Almost like a museum, they're displayed behind glass where you can open it up and take them out. The very colorfully painted walls, ceilings - it's pretty tastefully done. There's lots of fabric, it's very plush, you can sit down and read. It's a pretty impressive space.

Werman: What does it suggest to you that the Communist party frowned on Tibetan culture, still frowns on Tibetan culture, but a lot of people are hanging on to these Tibetan books and ancient texts.

Jacobs: I think it shows a real tenacity of Tibetans and the way they feel about their heritage and their culture and their religion. I think the Chinese government tries to manage these competing forces. On the one hand, they would like to promote Tibetan culture as a reflection of their own Chinese culture, because the Chinese believe Tibet is part of China. On the other hand, they're a bit nervous about Tibetans identifying too closely with the Dalai Lama and their religion and their culture and moving away from China and the Communist party. It's sort of a balancing act. Also, for the outside world, they don't want to seem too Draconian, so I think that partly reflects why they accepted this collection in this library.

Werman: The fact that this library is in Chengdu in China makes a library story ultimately a political story. Who's going to visit this library? Tibetans who will come to Chengdu? Scholars? Will ethnic Chinese actually go see this stuff?

Jacobs: I think the idea is a little bit of everything. I think there are a lot of Tibetan students at this college. There's also scholars from all over China and the world who will presumably come here. I have heard complaints that the place is not always opened, doors are locked, the hours are not very consistent, but it is there and it is available for the most part and I think it's seen as a great resource for scholars.

Werman: The New York Times Andrew Jacobs speaking to us from Beijing. Thanks a lot, Andrew.

Jacobs: Great to be here.