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Tibet Unconquered: An Epic Struggle for Freedom
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Tibet Unconquered: An Epic Struggle for Freedom

by Diane Wolff, Robert Thurman (Introduction)

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A fabled country in the far reaches of the Himalayas, Tibet looms large in the popular imagination. The original home of the Dalai Lama, one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, Tibetan Buddhism inspires millions worldwide with the twin values of wisdom and compassion. Yet the Chinese takeover six decades ago also shows another side of Tibet—that of a


A fabled country in the far reaches of the Himalayas, Tibet looms large in the popular imagination. The original home of the Dalai Lama, one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, Tibetan Buddhism inspires millions worldwide with the twin values of wisdom and compassion. Yet the Chinese takeover six decades ago also shows another side of Tibet—that of a passionate symbol of freedom in the face of political oppression.

International sympathy has kept the Dalai Lama's appeals for autonomy on the world's political agenda, but in light of China's political and economic gains there is fear that Tibet is in danger of being forgotten by the world. As the Dalai Lama grows older, and the Chinese threaten to intervene in the selection of Tibet's next spiritual leader, many wonder if there is any hope for the Tibetan way of life, or if it is doomed to become a casualty of globalization.

In Tibet Unconquered East Asia expert Diane Wolff explores the status of Tibet over eight-hundred-years of history. From the Mongol invasion, to the emergence of the Dalai Lama, Wolff investigates the history of political and economic relations between China and Tibet. Looking to the long rule of Chinggis Khan as a model, she argues, that by thinking in regional terms both countries could usher in a new era of prosperity while maintaining their historical and cultural identities.

Wolff creates a forward-thinking blueprint for resolving the China and Tibet problem, grounded in the history of the region and the reality of today's political environment that, will guide both countries to peace.

Editorial Reviews

Westminster University and author of Geopolitical Dibyesh Anand

How do competing imaginations of Tibet's history affect the current debates over the Tibet question? Wolff provides an accessible, intelligent, and sophisticated insight and is a must read for those wanting to understand the story behind the headlines.
From the Publisher

“No one summarizes the historical backdrop to current events for the general reader like Diane Wolff. Even when the history is complex as it is for China and Tibet, Wolff does it with style and economy.” —Peter A. Brown, columnist, Wall Street Journal Online

“Ms. Wolff has produced a well-written and readable account about their crucial era in world history She offers a sound guide and analysis to the complex era, which initiated global history.” —Professor Morris Rossabi, Columbia University, Biographer of Khubilai Khan

“Diane Wolff has written an important book that focuses on the history of the Tibet-China relationship. Especially fascinating is her excellent description of how the ‘Loose Reins' government of Chinggis Khan held an empire that included China, Tibet, Mongolia and other regions together for a century, and she goes on to show how this could serve as a workable model for today's multi-national People's Republic of China, achieving the stability and harmony the Chinese leadership is striving for, while allowing the Tibetan people to enjoy their spiritual culture and restore their fragile environment. Her vision of how the 50-year-long futile China-Tibet struggle could easily be turned into a positive, win-win cooperative relationship is brilliant, and is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the issues and the possibilities.” —Robert Thurman, Professor of Tibetan Buddhist studies, Columbia University, President, Tibet House US, Author of Why the Dalai Lama Matters, Atria, and Beyond Words

“I welcome this new book on Tibet. This is a critical juncture in Tibetan history, when the future of the Tibetan people, their culture, and the very concept of a Tibet, as a nation or a distinct entity, is under stress. It does us all a world of good to understand the history and complexity of the issues that surround Tibet.” —Tenzin Tethong, Stanford University, Board of International Campaign for Tibet, Tibetan Cultural Official Ex Officio for Tibet House

“How do competing imaginations of Tibet's history affect the current debates over the Tibet question? Wolff provides an accessible, intelligent, and sophisticated insight and is a must read for those wanting to understand the story behind the headlines.” —Dibyesh Anand, Westminster University and author of Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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Tibet Unconquered

An Epic Struggle for Freedom

By Diane Wolff

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2010 Diane Wolff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62273-9


Surging Storms

Tibet as the High Ground of Inner Asia

Six Tibets

The Dalai Lama says that there are six million Tibetans and that their fate is more important than his own fate. Whether or not he returns to Tibet, whether or not he has a role in the future of Tibet, is less important than the fate of the Tibetan people and Tibet's survival as a culture and homeland.

Inside Tibet and in diaspora, it is not difficult to find nationalist Tibetans who believe that the Chinese style of modernization and development is destroying their identity, their environment, and their way of life. The dredging of a sacred lake during construction of the newly completed Qinghai–Tibet railroad meant material progress to China, but to Tibet it meant desecration of holy land.

The character of the holy city of Lhasa has changed. Tibetans resent the diminishment of ethnically Tibetan Tibet in favor of a growing Han Chinese and Hui Muslim immigration. The good jobs and high pay that induce immigration stem from the govern-ment's promotion of a "Go West" policy. The influx of Han Chinese has had the effect of making Tibetans a devalued minority in their own land. The population influx is part of the general movement of poorer peasants from the interior to locations in China where jobs are more plentiful and salaries are better.

Tibetans resent that in their own country the material benefits of health care, education, and jobs go to Han Chinese and Hui immigrants, who have turned their holy capital into a Buddhist theme park. The proliferation of bad architecture, cheap hotels, and businesses that cater to Chinese and Western tourists is offensive to many Tibetans.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet occurred in October of 1950. For more than half a century since, China has attempted economic reform. The PRC has invested billions of yuan in the improvement of Tibet's infrastructure. They have also replaced Tibet's political system with a communist government and changed the class structure. Yet by China's own admission, the socialist dream of equality in a worker's paradise has not been realized. The application of force and the calling out of security forces, coupled with the official line that all problems in Tibet are the result of outside agitation, indicate that China has not addressed the root questions of unrest. If the PRC does not address the problem, new unrest is likely. Neither China nor Tibet will benefit from renewed protest. The deadlock raises a number of questions.

Does Tibet's religion give its cultural heritage a special place among other countries? Would it be tragic if a multi-ethnic Tibet lost its unique identity? Is changing the composition and look of Tibet the necessary, justifiable, or inevitable cost of modernization? Is geography a part of the Tibetan identity? Does "genius of place" exist? Is it relevant?

Who decides how development is to take place? Should architects of new buildings design them to conform with the look and feel of old Lhasa or is this sentimentalism? Is strictly utilitarian architecture good enough as long as it improves living standards? Should these issues be handled in Beijing by the Chinese leadership rather than in Lhasa by those whose lives are affected?

Should Tibet be the Tibet of history? If so, then whose history is the correct version? Tibetans are not willing to trade a thousand years of culture for sixty years of modernization, some of it clumsy and misbegotten. These are philosophical questions, but they invoke passionate responses.

For the past century and a half, Tibet has been not only a place but also a state of mind, a projection of the imagination. The reader may count many Tibets—much like the smaller Buddhas that, in tangkha paintings, radiate from the consciousness of the central Buddha. First and foremost, Tibet exists in the Western imagination as a Shangri-la nestled in the high Himalayas, where a peaceful people lived among spiritually exalted Buddhist monks. An indigenous mountain people, materially poor but spiritually rich, Tibetans are seen to have lived an idyllic existence against the backdrop of the jagged peaks and the bluest of blue skies at "the Roof of the World." The major rivers of Asia originate in this landscape, the remote and forbidding habitat of the snow leopard.

In the 1937 film Lost Horizon, travelers reached Shangri-la as the result of a plane crash. In the magical land, they were healed and found salvation. Because of its isolation from the modern world, Tibet is seen as a pure land—the custodian of a religion that offers a refuge from the Western materialism and even the new Chinese materialism.

In China today, spirituality has become a cultural fad. The materialism of the Chinese economic miracle has created a spiritual void in many of those who have succeeded. Han Chinese tourists number among the thousands who visit Tibet each year seeking spiritual renewal. Singers of Tibetan nationality have achieved pop-star status, and their melodies—with Buddhist mantras and nostalgic elegies for Lhasa—can be downloaded from the internet.

Remote and mysterious, Lhasa has proved to be irresistible and alluring to Westerners for some 150 years. Seekers, adventurers, merchants, officials, diplomats, spies, and soldiers have trekked across the passes of the high Himalayas, setting out from the colonial outposts of the British Empire to penetrate what was (before the age of jet travel) one of the most inaccessible places on earth. The vision of Potala Palace high above the city—a citadel of wisdom in a place of mystery and magic—has exerted a magnetic pull on the world's imagination. This is Hollywood's "magical mystery tour" vision of Tibet, where one may find love, peace, happiness, and the answers to eternal questions.

A second Tibet is the vision projected by the Chinese. It derives from the ideology of communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the party serving as the vanguard of the people's revolution. In this cosmology, Tibet is the socialist paradise represented on the Chinese flag as one of four small yellow stars on a red background. These little stars stand for the former tribute states of Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The big star represents China proper.

In this worldview, China delivered Tibet from a feudal system that held the masses in serfdom. China was the heroic liberator delivering the benefits of modernity and material progress to a backward people. Tibetans should be grateful for what the Chinese Communist Party has done for them. Instead, they protest, their attitude resulting from ignorance and superstition. Tibetans want a return to feudalism, an exiled religious leader who is an anachronism, and a belief system that has kept them in servitude and poverty.

A third Tibet is virtual Tibet. It exists in cyberspace, almost like an ethereal projection of the future Buddha, Maitreya, floating in a tangkha painting's celestial realms. On the internet, Tibetans in diaspora have found a voice more powerful and far-reaching than at any time in their history. Those in China's Tibet have no such voice: The internet is heavily policed, and references to Tibet, websites about Tibet, and searches for Tibet are banned, blocked, and outlawed as criminal activity by the authorities.

In cyberspace, surfers beyond Chinese control access opinion journals such as the Tibetan Review. They glean information from the websites of authors and activists, and learn of the activities of pro-Tibet advocacy groups, such as Students for a Free Tibet. News services such as phayul.com keep the world informed of events inside Tibet. Human rights organizations, such as the International Campaign for Tibet and Amnesty International, pressure the international community to respond to Chinese violations of the human rights of monks and nuns in Tibet.

Academic websites, such as that of Australian National University, publish work by the global community of Tibet scholars and keep followers informed with a calendar of events relating to Tibet. Exile Tibetans, together with dissident Chinese in the West, organize conferences where experts in the many disciplines of Asian Studies discuss the Tibet Question. The records of these conferences are subsequently published on the internet for use by the international scholarly community.

The Voice of America has a Tibetan language channel on the web. Exile journals of diaspora Tibetans, including the Tibetan Review, publish a wide variety of opinion. A Colorado art gallery exhibits the paintings of diaspora Tibetan artists, whose artistic output is not the classic tangkha painting of Tibet, but modern work in keeping with trends in the international art world.

Cyberspace has also provided a home for organizations dedicated to Tibetan culture, including Tibet House and the American Himalayan Foundation (which has developed micro-enterprise and health projects in central and eastern Tibet). The Mechak Center for Tibetan Art promotes contemporary art from a traditional society, no matter where in the world it is created.

Cyberspace is cheap and it is hip; it is messy and unruly, but in its variety and availability it gives David, the small state out on the multi-ethnic frontier, some traction against Goliath, the power in the capital. Although the public security watchdogs of Beijing censor internet material related to Tibet, the young and the technologically savvy have ways of getting around the firewalls.

A fourth Tibet, the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE), was established in Dharamsala, India, after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. In exile, the modernization of the old system has progressed along democratic lines, although the Dharamsala government is not a perfect democracy. The Dalai Lama has expressed his wish that it should be a complete democracy, without himself as an unelected head of government. The TGIE has a global media presence and uses the web to maintain contacts among the fifty or so communities of Tibetans spread all over the globe.

A fifth Tibet is that of the Tibetan independence movement, various groups that see their homeland as illegally invaded and occupied. The Tibetan Youth Congress and the Young Tigers oppose the Dalai Lama's Middle Way of autonomy, are willing to consider violence as a tactic, and do not wish Tibetans to be seen as (in the words of Professor Robert Thurman) the baby seals of the human rights movement—pathetic victims clobbered by a bully's club. For members of the independence movement, the Tibet Question is a political issue of self-determination, not an issue of cultural preservation or religious freedom.

The sixth Tibet is that of the global community of Buddhist practitioners. It is estimated that this community numbers in the millions. Until the recent fad for pop Kabbalah, Tibetan Buddhism was the spiritual path favored even by seekers among the Hollywood glitterati. Through his writings and personal appearances, the Dalai Lama has become a charismatic and popular spiritual mentor for the world.

The diaspora of Tibetan monks has made Buddhist teachings available to more people than at any time in the religion's history. Tibetan Buddhism is now a world religion. A vast array of Tibetan Buddhist websites and magazines inform practitioners of where they may receive teachings, go on retreats, and avail themselves of the vast canon of Tibetan Buddhist literature.

* * *

At the heart of the Tibet Question is the rivalry of ethnicity and nationality, the clash of cultures, the slippage of the tectonic plates joining two civilizations.

Tibet's Backstory

Tibet is a Central or South Asian culture, falling within the Indian sphere of historical influence. East Asian societies such as those of Japan and Korea are similar to China, influenced by Confucianism and later forms of Buddhism, more authoritarian and centralized than non-Confucian Asian societies. These countries came within China's cultural sphere and absorbed China's historical influence. They fall within the East Asian tradition.

Traditional Tibetan society was different from traditional Chinese society. It was not a rice-based culture and did not feature the centralization and organization that rice cultivation requires. Tibet was more decentralized, with local lords and monasteries establishing their own local chieftains and internal power structures.

In the seventh century, Tibet was unified under the warrior King Songtsen Gampo. This was Tibet's imperial period, and the dynasty lasted for two centuries. During this time, Tibet's borders expanded to include Xinjiang province in the north, parts of modern Ladakh and Kashmir in the west, and in the east, Amdo and Kham (parts of today's Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces). This accounts for Tibetan populations throughout the vast expanse of territory in southwest China and northern India.

This era marked the beginning of diplomatic relations between China and Tibet. Before the Tibetan imperial expansion, parts of the territories were subordinate to Tang China. In the Asian manner of making political alliances, the Tibetan king wed a Chinese princess, and Tang China was required to pay tribute to Tibet. After the Tang failed to pay its tribute, Tibetan armed forces seized Ch'ang-an (modern Xi'an), the cosmopolitan Tang capital.

These conflicts were put to rest by 822, when China and Tibet signed treaties and fixed borders. A stone pillar in Lhasa memorialized these events. In the imperial period, China and Tibet were separate states. Buddhism came to Tibet in the ninth century and found itself in conflict with the native Bon religion, a shamanist faith. Religious conflict caused the Tibetan dynasty to come to an end. In the 10th century, the Tang Dynasty ended. Because of the internal politics in both countries, formal political relations between China and Tibet were nonexistent from the ninth century onward.

In the thirteenth century, a new and formidable power arose in the steppes north of the Great Wall of China: Chinggis Khan unified the warring tribes of Mongolia and led his army to victory in a war of national revenge against the Chin Dynasty. Chinggis Khan was the new political master of East Asia. His empire was the largest land-based empire in world history and ushered in a new historical era.

In 1207, Tibet submitted to the Mongol Empire without a war of conquest. As with all the states that submitted and became his vassals, Tibet saved Chinggis Khan the trouble of going to war, so he was lenient. The Mongol Army did not invade Tibet; neither did it place a military governor or garrison there, as it did throughout the rest of its empire. Chinggis Khan's aim was not to acquire territory, but to extract wealth from it. He instituted indirect rule in Tibet, choosing the Sakya branch of Tibetan Buddhism as rulers and administrators of the country. As long as Tibet paid its tribute, it enjoyed local rule. Tibet paid tribute. On the occasions it failed to pay, the Mongol imperial government dispatched troops to collect the missing remittance.

The man known as The Conqueror revered those whom he termed Speakers to Heaven, his term for holy men of all faiths in his empire. The Mongols practiced religious toleration throughout their empire.

* * *

The southernmost part of Tibet was mainly agrarian. The principle crop was barley, a staple of the Tibetan diet. Buddhism had its own system of ecological protection that arose from its philosophy of compassion toward sentient and nonsentient beings, and famine was unknown in traditional Tibet. In the northern areas of Tibet, the principle means of livelihood was mixed herding. The majority of peasant families produced their own food and clothing. Tibet did not develop an internal market economy. As Tsering Shakya states, "Before the 1950s, it was unheard of for tsampa, barley flour, the staple diet—to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Even in a city like Lhasa, families relied on relatives from the countryside to supply their basic needs." A few hundred noble families staffed offices of the government, and a fourth of the adult male population resided in monasteries. The rest of the population lived as farmers, serfs, or nomads. The Tibetan political system was not a modern democracy, but its monastic and civil branches of government did provide some checks and balances.

At the time of the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet had neither elections nor a popular vote. Much as was the case in pre- modern Europe, the church played a crucial role in running the state. Control rested in the hands of a few hundred landowning families. Thegovernment body, the Kashag, was similar to the English House of Lords and was composed of representatives from the landed nobility.


Excerpted from Tibet Unconquered by Diane Wolff. Copyright © 2010 Diane Wolff. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Diane Wolff is a highly regarded expert on East Asia and the recipient of an ALA Notable Book Award. She has been published in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, and the Chicago Tribune, among others, for her work on China and Tibet. Wolff is also a member of the Author's Guild, the American Society of Authors and Journalists, the Asia Society and the Association for Asian Studies. She lives in Miami Beach, FL.

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