It is hard to think of Professor Elliot Sperling’s death as anything other than a colossal tragedy. He was only 66 and he exuded life, health and purpose – he was the antithesis of death. After retiring from a long professorship at Indiana University in 2014, he had moved to his native New York and bought an apartment in Jackson Heights, where he converted every wall into meticulously arranged book shelves – only the windows were spared for understandable reasons. He was looking forward to a busy retirement, living in what was basically a library pretending to be an apartment.
Elliot was the world’s foremost authority on historical Sino-Tibetan relations, a MacArthur genius at the age of 33, with a body of work that defined and shaped Tibet studies in the last three decades. Through his seminal writings on Tibet’s relations with China during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, he became arguably the first historian to extensively use both Chinese and Tibetan sources to bring to light the separation and independence that characterized the relationship between the two nations. Until he came along, Western academics viewed Tibet only through Chinese eyes, largely because they could not access Tibetan sources; Elliot, who was fluent in Tibetan as well as Chinese, upended the old Sino-centric narrative and literally transformed the field overnight. His writings have become so central to the field that any scholar who attempts to write a paper, or even a page, about historical Sino-Tibetan relations cannot do so without paying homage to Elliot’s work. He is the Hegel of Sino-Tibetan history.
Naturally, my friends and I felt blessed that this great scholar would choose to make his home in Jackson Heights, the second capital of the exile Tibetan world. We were thrilled to see him at demonstrations at the Chinese consulate, art openings at Tibet House, poetry nights at Little Tibet restaurant, and sometimes at dinner parties in my own apartment. Each time he held court as the intellectual life of the party. We bombarded him with endless questions on topics ranging from art to politics to linguistics, for his erudition was not limited to history alone. Unfailingly generous and eloquent, he happily supplied us with the most intriguing, insightful and exhaustive answers to each of our questions. Every conversation with him was essentially a seminar. In our small circle of Tibetan activists and artists living in Queens, Elliot quickly fell into a sort of second professorship, a tenure without the trappings of university. We weren’t about to let him retire so easily.
Last week, when I concluded an extended trip in Asia and returned to New York, I was looking forward to seeing him. I knew I would run into him, most likely at Little Tibet, his favorite restaurant, which is within walking distance from his home. (Actually, for Elliot, everything was within walking distance. He went pretty much everywhere on foot, even to Manhattan on occasion.) Just before he left for Vienna as a visiting professor last fall, he said to me in his characteristic urgency, “Let’s meet up and discuss strategies. We need to escalate the fight against the Confucius Institutes.” He was deeply concerned about how China’s Confucius Institutes, under the guise of promoting culture, have infiltrated our universities and engaged in a quiet campaign to shut down any discussion of Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. He wanted to sit down with Pema Yoko of Students for a Free Tibet and her staff, who have campaigned against the Confucius Institutes, to brainstorm ideas and offer his support.
His academic stature would have easily allowed him to be an ivory tower intellectual without anyone begrudging him. Instead, he chose to be a true ally of the people and an unwavering champion of Tibetan freedom. He joined us in the trenches of activism, showed up in the streets and at rallies, always encouraging us to embark on bigger and bolder advocacy campaigns for Tibet. Speaking in his Bronx-accented Tibetan, he told us that if only Tibetans studied our history more seriously, we would have no doubt that Tibet will be free again.
A sharp and fearless critic of Beijing, Elliot neither minced his words nor censored his writings under fear of being banned from China. Even when he taught in Beijing for a semester, he successfully avoided the trap of self-censorship that has neutered so many brilliant scholars in our time. While railing against Beijing’s atrocities in Tibet, he also managed to be critical of Dharamsala’s excessively conciliatory stance toward Beijing. His provocative critiques of the Tibetan leadership sometimes made us uncomfortable, but that is exactly the impact he was seeking as a teacher who cared deeply about Tibet: to awaken and educate us by pushing us into our discomfort zone.
In recent years, Elliot took up the case of his friend Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur intellectual who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Chinese government under trumped up charges. He played a key role in raising Tohti’s profile as a prisoner of conscience, helping to nominate him for the Sakharov Prize and other honors. He took Tohti’s daughter Jewher under his wing and oversaw her wellbeing and education. In Jewher’s own words, Elliot was “like an uncle” to her. His friendship with Ilahm Tohti and Jewher best exemplified the compassion and generosity with which he treated everyone. Sure, he made his mark in this world as a scholar, but his monumental intellect was matched by his unbounded kindness as a teacher and devotion as a friend. He was a genuinely altruistic human being who dedicated his life to helping others.
Elliot’s death has left an abyss in our hearts and a chasm in the world of Tibet studies. As one of our friends, Christophe Besuchet, aptly reflected, “it is as if a whole library had burned down.” Even so, it is worth remembering that Elliot has already done far more than his fair share of good in the world, and he deserves a rest (or a break, if you look at it from a Buddhist angle). In the course of 66 years, he lived multiple lifetimes – as a taxi driver, hippie, scholar, mentor, activist, uncle, father – each one more productive and meaningful than the other. He has engraved his spirit so deeply in the lives of so many of us that, in a way, he is still alive. And while one library has burned down, there are thousands of libraries where his words still live and breathe.