Flour power and the odd hippie

Resistance and Reform in Tibet - Circle of Protest - Monks, Spies and a Soldier of Fortune

September 22, 1995

Events in Tibet have moved rapidly of late. A new incarnation of the second-most important religious figure there, the Panchen Lama, has been discovered, and the Chinese have taken the boy to Beijing. This marks the opening of a new chapter in Tibet's independence struggle, after a period that saw the failure of Chinese attempts to make Tibetan Buddhism serve communist state interests.

A valuable record of the last chapter is provided by Ronald Schwartz, a Canadian sociology professor, who witnessed many of the events in 1987-92, when new forms of non-violent political protest arose in Tibet. When the region was opened to foreign tourists (briefly in 1981-82, and then from 1984, not, as Schwartz states, 1985), China needed cooperation from Tibetan monks (and nuns) to present the appearance of Tibetan religious freedom to the outside world. In return, the Tibetans were offered limited religious freedom. But it proved impossible to separate religious and nationalist aspects of Tibetan Buddhism in the re-emergence of religious forces in Tibetan society.

Buddhism became the means through which the Tibetans could express their aspirations to independence, and acts of religious ritual became overtly political gestures. China was caught up in a typical colonial struggle, in which every act of suppression strengthened the resistance, and the initiative for choosing the field of debate rested with the colonised. The mandate of heaven was clearly in question when the Chinese were forced to ban the ceremonial throwing of barley flour and the burning of juniper after Tibetans used these rituals to celebrate the Dalai Lama's Nobel peace prize.

Schwartz describes the "ritual of protest" as the defence of Buddhism became synonymous with the struggle for Tibetan independence. His account is at its best in narrating the sequence of protest, much of which he must have witnessed himself, although the extent of his own involvement in events is unspecified. This is a valuable record of the growth of a genuinely ideological challenge to Chinese rule.

This period demonstrated that modern Tibet had acquired its own distinct character, one that western academia had yet to come to terms with. In response, a 1990 conference at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, "Forty Years On: Tibet 1950-90", drew together a number of leading scholars, including Tibetans and Chinese, whose papers appear in Robert Barnett and Shirin Akiner's book. While lacking the excitement of Schwartz's account, this collection will be required reading for specialists. The overall quality of the contributions is excellent, and there is much that is new, not least that Tibetans now have a word for tourist, yul-skor spro-cham-pa - "one who wanders around a region for pleasure".

The central theme of this collection is the construction of a modern Tibetan identity and the expression of this identity in various religious, political and cultural fields. There is also room for the correction of several misinterpretations of Tibetan history, not least, in the light of the image of peaceful Tibetan protest, is ex-resistance fighter and intellectual Jamgyang Norbu's blunt admission that "there never was a non-violent campaign against the Chinese".

Overall the standard of both of these works is admirable. So, too, is that of Scott Berry's book, which gives voice to a forgotten group of "Great Gamers", the Japanese travellers to Tibet in the first half of this century. Using Japanese sources, Berry weaves a fascinating tale around the disparate individuals who ventured into the Tibetan plateau, much to the consternation of the British, who regarded Tibet as their province.

In forbidden Lhasa in 1915, no fewer than four Japanese met for their New Year's celebration. Much of the inspiration for this Japanese involvement in Tibet came from the Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji sects, which had a distinct political agenda in support of Japanese expansionism. But those who reached Lhasa included such odd individuals as Yajima Yasujiro, a hippie 50 years ahead of his time, who wound up training a unit of the Tibetan army, and Aoki Bunkyo, scholar, Buddhist priest, and occasional arms dealer. Nishikawa Kazumi's experiences among the beggars of Kalimpong provide a picture of a level of society not usually encountered in travel accounts, while Kimura Hisao returned to Japan where he helped compile a Mongolian phrase book for the United States air force, the first phrase of which was "Don't kill me, I have money".

It was this disparity of character and intention that prevented the Japanese from having any major influence in Tibet. They were individuals who shared little but a sense of nationalism and they had no influence with their own government or official status in Tibet. But as individuals, they are a worthy addition to the fascinating cast of Central Asian travellers in this period, and this highly readable work is likely to remain the standard work on the subject.

Alex McKay has recently submitted his PhD thesis about British officials in Tibet, 1904-47, at SOAS, London University, and will shortly take up a research post at Leiden University.

Resistance and Reform in Tibet

Author - Robert Barnett and Shirin Akiner
ISBN - 1 85065 161 2
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £12.95
Pages - 314

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