Commoners and Nobles is a study of hereditary social division in Lhasa under Communist rule. The main question I pose in this thesis is: How and why are the social categories of pre-Communist Lhasa persistent and made relevant in the daily life despite five decades of Chinese rule and the comprehensive socio-economic restructuring of Tibetan society? I suggest a focus on family background (rig / kyesa) as an organizing principle of pre-Communist Tibetan societies, and in particular the position of the former lay elite - the noble families.
In daily life in contemporary Lhasa, Tibetans from different family backgrounds socialize extensively. However, family background is made relevant in certain contexts. This thesis analyses how family background is made relevant with regard to marriage practices and choice of marriage partner, to local notions of cultural knowledge, and to norms of respect and humbleness. My analysis is two-folded. On the one hand commoners define nobles as local experts on Tibetan culture and ideals of 'good Tibetan persons'. On the other the act of humble behaviour towards nobles is based not only on religious principles, but is also a strategy for presenting oneself as a good person.
The first main point concerns how kyesa (and particularly nobles) relates to knowledge of Tibet, and what Tibetans define as 'Tibetan culture' (böba rigshung). I will argue that this knowledge, defined locally as knowledge of Tibetan culture (böba rigshung), is desired yet inaccessible within the official educational system of society. Cultural knowledge - knowledge of Tibetan history and religion, and language traditions (festivals) - is identified with noble families and their ancestors. This, I suggest, may be understood in terms of the nobles' ability to control social memory by documenting the past. By analysing both the ambiguous relation between the former Tibetan nobility and the Chinese government, and local perceptions of the transmission of knowledge, I explore how cultural knowledge remains within the noble families.
The second point concerns what motivates commoners to reproduce the social distinctions of kyesa, through respectful behaviour (yarab chözang) towards nobles. I argue that the persistence of hereditary social divisions must be seen not only in relation to the distribution of cultural knowledge, but also in terms of notions of what constitutes a 'good person' and morality in the context of a political conflict. I suggest that respectful behaviour towards nobles is based in religious principles of karma and compassion, but is also a strategy for presenting oneself as a 'good person', that is a person who is 'Tibetan at heart' (sem böba yin), as opposed to 'Red at heart' (sem marpo yin).