Tibet: A History
by Sam van Schaik
Yale Univ. Press, 2011, 324 pp.
When he sought to subsume Tibet into the People's Republic, Mao Zedong exploited long-held Chinese stereotypes about Tibetans far different than those held by most Westerners. Barbarians who gouge out criminals' eyes, dismember each other, kill without thought—this was Mao's line on the people of Tibet. Anyone who visited the Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year could see, at least partially, where such beliefs may have originated.1 The centuries-old rugs and paintings seemed to revel in flayed skins, both of animals and human beings. Always the propagandist, Mao made the most of Chinese prejudices.
In Tibet: A History, Tibetan scholar Sam van Schaik shows how this misconception and many others more familiar in the West profoundly miss the true story of Tibet and its people. Succinct, scholarly, and exceptionally well written, van Schaik's Tibet accomplishes a rare triumph of virtue. Neither memoir, nor paean, nor travelogue, nor religious tract, nor political argument, nor biography of the Dalai Lama, this volume fills an important gap in the literature about Tibet. Starting with the 7th century empire of the tsenpos, van Schaik records the narrative of Tibetan civilization through to the present era. Along the way, he undermines stereotypes (like Mao's) that conceal the fascinating reality of life in Tibet. These myths include Orientalizing2 misconceptions such as Tibetans as a quaint, unchanging people or Tibet as an isolated kingdom of peace, as well as the belief pushed by modern Beijing that Tibet has always been a part of China.
Tibetans, now famous for one of the world’s most vibrant Buddhist traditions, were actually late adapters of the dharma. Tibet followed well behind Sri Lanka, Burma, China, and Korea in taking up Buddhism as it spread from India and Nepal. Even Japan, thousands of miles from the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, converted over a century before Tibet. Perhaps more surprisingly, geopolitics likely played a large role in the Tibetan transformation.
Before the 7th century, Tibetans “lived in a world swarming with spirits, demons and minor deities,” writes van Schaik. But in one of the most transformative periods of Tibetan history, these beliefs were swallowed into a new brand of Buddhism. The tsenpo, or divine ruler, Songtsen Gampo centralized power in the 7th century, creating something of a regional empire by conquering a diverse set of tribes. He also commissioned the creation of a Tibetan alphabet and allowed two of his wives, one from China and another (historically dubious) from Nepal, to introduce Buddhism incrementally to Tibet. It would not be until the reign of Trisong Detsen in the 8th century, however, that Buddhism became a state religion. van Schaik makes a compelling case that “a wider political context” motivated the new tsenpo to convert Tibet. Buttressed by Nepal, India, and China—all Buddhist countries—Tibet chose the most powerful regional religion to gain legitimacy in the eyes of foreign courts and to provide a “cohesive cultural force” to unite its young empire.
Trisong Detsen’s decision undercuts another fiction about Tibet—that it was cut-off from the wider world. The early difficulty of Europeans traveling to the high plateaus of the Himalayas does not mean Tibet’s neighbors (or even powers farther afield) thought of it as some sort of hidden kingdom. If nothing else, Tibet demonstrates how vitally interconnected Tibet has always been. For one thing, Tibet includes a vast stretch of the old Silk Road, and Tibetans had extensive contact with Arabs and Turks as early as the 8th century. By the 9th and 10th centuries, the Tibetan language, van Schaik writes, “had become a lingua franca, the common language of this multicultural region, used by Chinese, Turks and even the distant Khotanese.”
When the Mongols conquered their country in the 13th century, Tibetans took on a historic role they would play for the next 700 years: the role of priest to a foreign patron. During their rule over Tibet, the Mongols converted to the religion of their subjects. Starting in the reign of Kubilai Khan, tantric Tibetan Buddhists were key players in the imperial court. Through subsequent waves of Mongol, Chinese, and Manchurian empires, Tibet returned again and again to this patron-priest arrangement; this relationship is a major theme of van Schaik’s account.
Tragically, Tibet’s first true interaction with a European power made it more isolated than ever. This was despite the early friendship formed in 1774 between George Bogle, the first British diplomat dispatched to Tibet (with a mission to explore trade possibilities), and Losang Palden Yeshe, the sixth of the Panchen Lamas (high-ranking spiritual leaders whose clout rivaled that of the Dalai Lamas through much of Tibet’s history). In one of his book’s most charming passages, van Schaik recounts the occasion when, asked by the Tibetan high monk to speak for a while in English, Bogle recited several stanzas of Thomas Grey’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” This happy beginning, though, would be short-lived. In 1793, fearing British incursion into his territory, the Manchu emperor Qianlong closed access to Tibet, requiring passports for anyone crossing the border in either direction. As van Schaik notes, “no passports would be issued to Europeans.”
Of course, Tibet’s interaction with the West would continue. Tibetan and British forces fought over Sikkim in the 1880s, and hundreds of Tibetans were slaughtered during Francis Younghusband’s misguided march to Lhasa. The British continued to play a role in Tibetan history in the 20th century as China attempted to swallow Tibet whole. British negotiators set the terms for establishing an Inner and Outer Tibet and for China’s “suzerainty” over Outer Tibet, a tricky word van Schaik elucidates brilliantly; in short, “China was responsible for Tibet’s international affairs, but would have little influence in its internal affairs.” Tibet’s unique relationship with Britain eventually allowed the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas and their followers to establish a second home in northern India, both before and after Indian independence.
“Perhaps the greatest misrepresentation of Tibet,” writes van Schaik, “is that it was unchanging.” Indeed, it has had as violent and tumultuous a history as any country on earth. Tibet: A History is replete with tales of invasion, coup, espionage, and assassination. Over its long history, Tibet has seen its temples re-purposed as slaughter houses for livestock, monks engaged in bloody civil war, and every sort of intrigue among the elite, including fratricide. At the same time, though, the region witnessed one of the most unique and dynamic spiritual quests in human history, as van Schaik documents in exquisite detail. Just as its politics has seen constant reinvention, Tibetan monasticism and spirituality have been constantly evolving, adapting, and innovating. While maintaining monastic institutions that, for centuries, included incredibly large percentages of the adult male population, some of Tibet’s most influential spiritual leaders developed their insights by wandering—at times, literally—outside of the monastic system. Figures such as Milarepa, Longchenpa, and Tsongkhapa searched for guidance beyond their own monastic traditions, often finding it in the beliefs of rival monasteries in Tibet, abroad in India, or in the teachings of eccentrics. As these teachers attracted followers, they reinvigorated Tibetan Buddhism. One of the subtexts of van Schaik’s book is how these religious leaders—and the scribes who anthologized Indian and Tibetan scriptures – mitigated the cultural loss inflicted on the country by invasion and internal conflict alike.
Tibet: A History also has much to say about the origins of Tibet’s current situation as a Chinese province ruled, often brutally, by authoritarian representatives from Beijing.3 But van Schaik approaches this subject with a sobriety often missing from other accounts. While long accustomed to being a vassal state of empires, Tibet entered the 20th century unprepared for the stringent geographical logic of nation-states. As van Schaik writes about the political situation facing the 13th Dalai Lama in 1913, “The Chinese idea that Tibet was an inseparable part of China, and the opposing Tibetan idea that Tibet was an independent country, were both quite new. In the past there had simply not been a political vocabulary to talk about nations this way.” The new language of nation-states frustrated cultural norms that had existed for centuries, including the patron-priest relationship. Historically, Tibet had been an amorphous confederacy of tribes, linked by religion, language, culture, and often united by resistance to outsiders. But it had also frequently fallen under the authority of distant empires, such as the Mongols and the Manchus, though these regimes had allowed significant self-governance in internal matters. van Schaik makes clear, however, that no one seriously considered Tibetans as Chinese. Not until the early 20th century did Chinese nationalists leaders begin to make this claim.
When Mao became the leader of the People’s Republic of China, van Schaik writes, he “wanted to unite the ‘five races’ into a single motherland or, as he preferred to call it, the Big Family.” This vision included Tibet. Having exhausted other options, including an appeal to the United Nations, Tibetan leaders committed to negotiate with the Communists. During meetings in Beijing in 1951, the man in charge of the Tibetan party, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, perhaps thinking he had no other option, agreed to all of the Communist proposals and signed the Communists’ Seventeen-Point Agreement on behalf of his people. He figured the Tibetan leaders could refuse to ratify the treaty upon his return to Lhasa. Unfortunately, even under pressure from the United States and Britain, who urged Tibetans to say they had agreed to terms under duress, the Kashag, Tibet’s ruling council, refused to publicly protest the treaty, thus becoming complicit, however reluctantly, in the Communists’ Tibetan agenda. van Schaik explains that “the majority of the Tibetan government actually wanted to accept the agreement” and in the following weeks “the Dalai Lama sent a telegram to Mao, accepting the agreement…” Shockingly, it was not until 1959, as the Dalai Lama fled into exile, that Tibetan officials publicly repudiated the Seventeen-Point Agreement. By then, though, the Chinese had years of precedent and a signed document to appeal to, and under Mao, Tibet, like the rest of China, would experience massive cultural destruction.
For all its sober scholarship, Tibet: A History is also an exciting story, elegantly told. Take this sentence, for example: “As the monks of the Gelug monasteries hoisted prayer flags over their roofs and burned incense in celebration, the Dalai Lama set out to meet Gushi Khan on the battle plain.” Writing of this caliber, both balanced and thrumming with energy, is common throughout. Tibet is also full of brilliantly captured details. There is Princess Jincheng, the daughter of a Chinese emperor who had been married to the Tibetan tsenpo, requesting books be sent to her from home, only to be rebuffed by a minister who replies:
Your servant has heard that these Tibetans are naturally endowed with energy and perseverance, that they are intelligent and sharp, and untiring in the love of study… By reading these books they will certainly acquire a knowledge of war…
And there is the golden statue of Buddha that makes its way from Tibet to Mecca and is mistaken as a sign that the tsenpo had converted to Islam. Countless other delightful examples fill the pages of van Schaik’s history.
The Sakyapas, one of the groups of monks described in detail in Tibet: A History, believed the final renunciation on the way to enlightenment is the rejection of the attachment “to any fixed view of reality.” Perhaps, in this way of thinking, historians are bound eternally to samsara by the very nature of their work. It is a predicament van Schaik addresses at the outset of his book: “How can one write a history of Tibet when we can hardly say where ‘Tibet’ begins or ends, when it exists in so many places at once? The writer of such a history can only hope to capture something of this diverse, ever-changing realm and the complex people who have inhabited it.” On the other hand, van Schaik has accomplished what the Sakyapas would probably appreciate: he has devastated some of the key misconceptions and myths that have obscured the essence of Tibet. It is a necessary undertaking. Policymakers, activists, and interested citizens must clear away the fictions about Tibet’s past if they are ever to develop workable solutions for its future. Tibet: A History furthers this cause.
1. Rugs and Ritual in Tibetan Buddhism, October 7, 2010–June 26, 2011, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Images archived here. The painting “Offerings on Wrathful Deities,” which depicts the flayed human and animal skins, is still on display in the Met’s Tibetan gallery.
2. Orientalizing refers to the process, as described by the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in his groundbreaking book Orientalism (1978), in which Westerners romanticize Eastern cultures as exotically “other,” instead of relying on the same terms and standards they would use to describe Western cultures.
3. For a round-up of some of the most recent political developments in Tibet, see: The Economist. “Tibet, China and America: Toward the Light?” (July 19, 2011): http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2011/07/tibet-china-and-america.