Author Article by Sam van Schaik: Discovering the real Tibet

Sam van Schaik

Sam van Schaik

Tibet: A History by Sam Van Schaik (published last month) is a timely and insightful history of Tibet spanning from the seventh century to modern times. Here the author discusses how Tibet is perceived, illustrating the competing political narratives that obfuscate our understanding of the country. An antidote to this confusion, he argues, is a greater comprehension of Tibet’s rich and complex history.

Article by Sam van Schaik

I wonder whether anyone believes in the old romantic images of Tibet any more? I know that journalists still reach for the old clichés. “Inside the Court of the Tibetan God-King,” exclaimed the Observer recently, above yet another article about the Dalai Lama. Yes, the symbolic value of a remote and mysterious land of hidden valleys and enlightened Buddhist masters is still cashed in by lazy writers, but I doubt that many take it seriously.

Throughout the nineteenth century, when Tibet closed its borders in an attempt to keep the British Empire at bay, Europeans began to dream of what lay beyond the Himalayas. It was the writer James Hilton who brought these dreams into focus, and gave them a name, in his novel Lost Horizon. This was the book that introduced the mythical Shangri-La, a secret place of peace, spirituality and immortality. No matter that Hilton, who never travelled to Tibet, wrote the book in the leafy London suburb of Woodford. For many, Shangri-La and Tibet became interchangeable.

Now, in the twenty-first century, things have changed. The world is a much more interconnected place, and we are aware of Tibet as part of our global politics. Western leaders assure their countries that they will raise the ‘Tibet issue’ with China on state visits. Tibetan monks are seen on television, not in peaceful meditation in remote settings, but protesting on the streets of Lhasa.

Mao and Dalai Panchen

Mao with the Dalai Lama on his left, and the Panchen Lama on his right, 1954.

But it would be a mistake to think that we have a clearer view of Tibet. In fact, we now have to contend with two distorted visions, which are in competition with each other. The first comes from China, which has been telling the same story since 1950, when the Tibetan government, under the threat of a military invasion, agreed to become part of modern China. In this story, Tibet was a benighted feudal kingdom up until that point. Power was vested in the aristocracy and the monks, who exploited the ordinary people. The latter were essentially the equivalent of serfs in medieval Europe, kept in their place by ignorance and religious superstition.

The other vision comes from the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government in India, and their supporters in the West. In this story, the Chinese annexation of Tibet was a tragedy which resulted in the peaceful, spiritual, and largely happy Tibetan people being crushed by the political domination and anti-religious ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Since 1950, the Tibetans have been ruthlessly disenfranchised of their religion, culture and language.

There is truth and untruth in both visions, but as the two sides trade arguments and rhetoric both stories have become more extreme, hardened into caricatures. When a few years ago the Chinese government described Tibet before 1950 as “hell on earth,” the Dalai lama shot back using exactly the same phrase to describe Tibet after 1950. Most people now, I think, no longer believe in Shangri-La, but many aren’t sure what, or whom to believe among the competing voices out there.

Anyone contemplating writing a history of Tibet is faced with this difficult situation. In the end, I decided that it would be a mistake to try pick through the truths and untruths in an attempt to arrive at ‘the facts’. There is so much more to Tibet than these unsubtle visions distorted by twenty-first century global politics. Best perhaps, to step back from them entirely. Tibet’s history is full of great stories, and their narratives are strong enough to draw our attention away from our contemporary fixations, to look at Tibet on its own terms.

Detail of the Samye Monastery, the first Buddhist monastery built in Tibet, constructed in the 8th century

Tibet’s recorded history began in the seventh century, in a blaze of conquest, cultural innovation, and the forging of relationships with other cultures. At one point the Tibetan empire even extended as far as the Chinese capital, and it also contested with Arabs, Turks and Indian kingdoms. From this time onward Tibet has been part of the ebb and flow of global culture. Lhasa has always thronged with merchants and pilgrims travelling from distant countries, and for many centuries had its own Muslim community.

One way to save Tibet’s history from being crushed by polemical representations is to tell this story, and what happened afterwards, through to the struggles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Of course modern scholars have been doing great work in recovering episodes from Tibetan history. But this work only rarely filters through to the general consciousness. if Tibet’s history could be retold as an engaging narrative, one that doesn’t shy away from politics, but does avoid falling into one of the politically motivated representations of Tibet, this might just allow people to consider Tibet in its own right – complex, fascinating and relevant.

Whether I managed to achieve that in Tibet: A History is something I’ll have to leave readers to decide for themselves.

Tibet: A History

Tibet: A History

Sam van Schaik is an expert on the early history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. He is based at the British Library in London where he works for the International Dunhuang Project. He is also the founder of the website www.EarlyTibet.com. Tibet: A History is available to buy from Yale University Press.

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