How to think about Tibet

Donald S Lopez Jr
31 March 2008

Think about Tibet as Latvia, with very tall mountains. Latvia was once the westernmost Soviet republic, although it had little in common with Russia. The language, the religion, the literature, the food, the society were all quite different. Latvia had been oriented to the west and to Europe over much of its long history. Yet Latvia came under Russian control during the 19th century. After the Russian revolution of 1917, it gained independence in 1921, only to fall to Stalin in 1940. After fifty years of Soviet domination, the Soviet Union collapsed and Latvia regained its independence in 1991.

Donald S Lopez Jr is professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. Among his books are Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (University of Chicago Press, 1998), (as editor) Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin, 2004), and The Madman's Middle Way: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendun Chopel (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Most Tibetans have never heard of Latvia. But the parallels are striking. Today, the "Tibet Autonomous Region" (TAR) is the southwestern province of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC); the Chinese word for Tibet is Xizang, "western treasury." Although linguists today speak of "Sino-Tibetan" linguistics, the relation of Chinese to Tibetan is tenuous. Tibet received its Buddhism from India long after the establishment of Buddhism in China; indeed, beginning in the 8th century, Tibet looked to India rather than China for its literary and religious culture, even modelling its alphabet on an Indian script. Tibetans eat roasted barley moistened with the infamous "yak butter tea", something the Chinese palette finds unappetising. Yet, during the 18th century, much of Tibet's foreign affairs were overseen by the Chinese court. With the fall of the Qing, Tibet became an independent state, a status it maintained from 1913-51. Since 1951, Tibet has been part of the Peoples Republic of China. What is today called the "Tibet Autonomous Region" (TAR) represents only a portion of the Tibetan cultural domain. The remaining areas were incorporated into Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces of the PRC.

On 10 March 1959, a rumour circulated in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa that the Chinese troops occupying the city intended to do harm to the Dalai Lama. A large mob gathered and surrounded his summer palace in order to prevent the Chinese from coming in or the Dalai Lama from going out. On 17 March, the Chinese shelled the palace; the Dalai Lama escaped that night, disguised as a Tibetan soldier, and made his way to exile in India. He has not returned.

A potent anniversary

10 March is celebrated as "Tibetan national uprising day" by the Tibetan exile community and supporters of the Tibetan cause around the world. It is not publicly observed in Tibet. However, on 10 March 2008, about one hundred monks from Drepung monastery (prior to the Chinese invasion the largest monastery in the world, with over 10,000 monks) began walking the five miles into Lhasa to protest the detention of monks after the Dalai Lama received the Congressional gold medal in the United States in October 2007. They were stopped by Chinese security forces, and some of the monks were beaten. Monks have always been accorded respect in Tibetan society; since the Chinese takeover of Tibet, to be a monk is to be a patriot, the red robes and shaved head marking a certain defiance of the avowedly atheist Chinese state. Tibetan lay people are protective of Tibetan monks; it was when Chinese cadres tried to collective the lands of Buddhist monasteries in eastern Tibet in 1950 that the first bloodshed occurred between Chinese communists and Tibetans. The People's Liberation Army followed soon thereafter.

Also in openDemocracy on Tibet:

Ugen, "Tibet's postal protest" (4 November 2005)

Jamyang Norbu, "Tibetan tales: old myths, new realities" (13 June 2005)

/ Tenzin Tzundue, "Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown" (15 August 2006)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

10 March 2009 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising. But the monks of Drepung knew that 10 March 2008 would be the last 10 March before the Beijing Olympics. They dared to use the occasion to draw attention to the plight of Tibet, where since 2006 a high-altitude railroad has brought thousands of Chinese workers and Chinese tourists into Lhasa, where in 2007 the Chinese government declared that henceforth it would approve the recognition of all incarnate lamas (which would include the Dalai Lama). The monks knew what was at stake. Monks and nuns had been on the frontlines of riots in 1987 and 1989, which resulted in arrest, torture, and long prison sentences for hundreds. Among the Chinese security forces deployed in response were cameramen, capturing the faces of all those who marched in protest for future use (see Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" [18 March 2008]).

A wheel turns

And so Tibet has erupted in violence. News reports have announced, "Tibetan protests spread to Chinese provinces". But to Tibetans, the regions of Sichuan and Gansu and Qinghai where protests, and violence, have occurred are not Chinese provinces; they are Tibetan. Chinese policies in those areas have generally been more liberal than in the Tibet Autonomous Region, making the rapid spread of the protests beyond the TAR all the more significant, indicating the level of frustration that has seethed for ethnic Tibetans across a vast region that was once called "Tibet".

Tibet has a violent history. Tibetan soldiers defeated the armies of the Chinese emperor and captured his capital in 763. The fifth Dalai Lama took the throne of Tibet in 1642 with the assistance of Mongol troops. When the current Dalai Lama instructed the Tibetan guerrillas who had long hounded the Chinese to give up the fight, some committed suicide. This Dalai Lama has urged Tibetans not to resort to violence against the Chinese, explaining that a deer cannot fight a tiger. He knows the suffering that has resulted from resistance in the past (see Tubten Khétsun, Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule [Columbia University Press, 2008]).

Is there anything to do but wait? Latvia regained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would seem that Tibet could only regain its independence with the collapse of the Peoples Republic of China. In Buddhism, time is measured not in centuries, but in cycles of creation, abiding, destruction, and vacuity, then creation again.

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