Overwhelmed by history

Tibet, Tibet
April 25, 2003

Pico Iyer is harrowed by both the past and the present of Shangri-la

Patrick French's first book, Younghusband , was one of the revelations of recent years, for me, thanks to its seemingly effortless charm and humour, its self-effacing panache and intrepid research and, most of all, thanks to a sense of historical judgement and learning uncanny in one so young. In his mid-20s, French followed Francis Younghusband, the imperial soldier-turned-mystic, so deeply into the Himalayas, and so intensely into all-but-forgotten archives, that he offered a unique and unexpected portrait of empire. In training an eye on the bluff soldier who, having completed a bloody advance on Lhasa in 1904, had a sudden vision of mystical brotherhood and went on to write spiritual tracts in which he depicted himself as an Indian, French threw light, somehow, on everything that was complex and surprising in Britain's interaction with the world, and began to explain Kipling and Maugham, Paul Scott and E. M. Forster.

A small part of the fascination of that book arose, too, from the sense, unvoiced and often unacknowledged, that French had more than a little in common with the earlier explorer, as a very English soul of the ruling orders drawn to everything that lay beyond his ken. The eccentric mystic was never written off as a crank, and in fact his exploration of untracked spaces and his readiness to make room for beliefs not at all in his background (indeed, opposed to everything he grew up with) began to make him seem something of a hero. Younghusband was never more a model of empire, French suggested, than in his willingness to go imaginatively native.

In Tibet, Tibet , French pursues that impulse right the way into a country that he never visited while writing the first of his four books, and in some ways offers a corrective to, even a repudiation of, the innocent hopefulness of that earlier work. The book stitches together an account of French's gruelling two-and-a-half month trip across Tibet in 1999, and an exhaustive excavation of historical resources about Tibet that suggest that it was never the unworldly and peace-loving paradise that generations of foreign admirers have projected onto it. In effect, the book offers a general reader's digest of some of the current historical thinking about Tibet, advanced by Donald S. Lopez, Melvyn Goldstein and Tsering Shakya, which proposes a sober revisionist response to all the myths and mystification so long associated with the realm of Shangri-La.

At the same time, though, as mournful as its title, the book advances a more personal story that is no less poignant in its implications. As French writes of how his wanderings in Tibet moved him to throw out the "material put out by western pro-Tibet groups, much of which I had read and some of which I had written", one comes to see that his book is, at some level, not so much about paradise as about innocence lost; it is the anguished story of how French can no longer sustain the eager, buoyant visions of the place he once shared with Younghusband. Under its scrupulous and responsible surface, Tibet, Tibet has something of the fury of a legal prosecutor determined to refute anyone who would harbour more hopeful readings of Tibet.

At heart, I think, French is more a historian than a travel-writer (and the travel sections of Younghusband were transporting in part because they were just colourful asides). His account of suffering through Tibet is, in effect, an account of a series of broken and spiritless places, where "drunken Tibetans in cheap synthetic clothes swayed past heavy administrative buildings, and bored Chinese migrant workers advanced into a karaoke block called The Art Gallery of the Masses". His pocket is picked on a bus in Tibet, and Tibetans draw knives on one another around him. Yet, what lights up and distinguishes these sections are the stories French, with his air of patient humanity, draws out of people he meets, both of enduring and of inflicting horrors during China's cultural revolution.

These accounts are not for the faint-hearted. We read of people being beaten with belts until the belts broke and scrambling to eat the leather from their shoes. Activist nuns, sometime torturers and former noblewomen speak of years of torture and self-abnegation as if they were everyday occurrences. Elsewhere, no less honest, French describes the aristocracy of Lhasa eagerly embracing everything Chinese in 1951, and the Dalai Lama's cabinet enjoying picnics as Mao's troops invaded eastern Tibet the previous year.

French, as was shown in his first book, has a decided gift for inspired and heartfelt research, and for coming up with overlooked details that are worth several volumes of desiccated analysis. Not many writers on Tibet are able to find the note Mao scribbled in a copy of Friedrich Paulsen's System of Ethics that in some ways sums up everything that would follow. "I am the universe," Mao wrote, "life is death and death is life, the present is the past and the future, the past and the future are the present, small is big, the yang is the yin , up is down, dirty is clean, male is female and thick is thin." And in the final section of the book, French delves into Tibetan archives to suggest that the Dalai Lama's claim of 1.2 million Tibetans killed by the occupying Chinese is an approximation so rough as to be almost arbitrary.

French is a strikingly serious and engaging writer, and his evocations of contemporary Tibet are given depth by repeated quotations from Nadezhda Mandelstam on the madness of living in a police state; while his resourcefulness moves him to tell us that the Potala Palace was largely restored thanks to a Chinese emperor, and to investigate the story of a Tibetan politician who had his eyeballs removed with yak bones and knives at the implicit behest of the 13th Dalai Lama, in Lhasa in 1934.

In particular, French has a knack for savouring the incongruities of cultural mingling. Some of the uniqueness of Younghusband comes back when he describes, say, some British visitors challenged to a football game in Lhasa in 1933 by "a home side called 'Lhasa United', composed of three bearded Ladakhis wearing red fezzes, a Chinese tailor, a Nepalese soldier and five of Tibet's leading young aristocrats, including Yuthok and Taring", who, wearing charm-boxes on their heads, were prevented from heading the ball. Later, writing of how four Tibetan boys were sent, quixotically, to Rugby School, in 1912, he tells of how one was described by his tutor as "a perfect idiot at a simple game of cards" (the same boy went on to help control Lhasa's police force and bring electricity to many homes). Some of the retired Chinese officials he met in Tibet, French writes with typical warmth, reminded him of the old servants of empire he had run across in Britain: "likable old men" who had suddenly found themselves shipwrecked with the change in history's tides.

For all that, however, there is something almost merciless about the book's determination to cut through all the illusions of Tibet's supporters in the West, as if to admonish the more romantic believer French once was.

Certainly, there is a sense among all who follow Tibet that the surge of optimism that attended the Dalai Lama's winning of the Nobel prize in 1989, and then the near-simultaneous cinema release of Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet in 1997, has faded fast. Everything that could be done for Tibet by groups in the West has been done, it can seem, and yet, 44 years after the Dalai Lama's flight into exile, the people imprisoned in the country remain farther from liberation than ever. Over and above all that, a new generation of sceptical scholars, exemplified by Lopez in his Prisoners of Shangri-La , has begun to argue that to romanticise Tibet is to commit it to an oblivion as surely as its enemies do; and that all the support the Dalai Lama and his teachings have won in glamorous circles has done as much to harm as to help their cause.

French's refusal to countenance any simplistic notions about Tibet is bracing, and chimes with the voices of those young Tibetans who for all their reverence of the Dalai Lama worry that he may have missed his chance to return to China and negotiate from there. On the other hand, I think that French's entirely political reading of the Tibetan leader's cause does a disservice to a man who is in the agonising position of having to lead a political movement while being the head of a complex theology. The Dalai Lama does not have the same freedom to act that Gandhi or Mandela did, and the odd burden of his theocratic role places limits on him that even the canniest politician could hardly solve. More deeply, if you see the world as illusion and impermanence, as he surely does, you are liable to think in terms of results not always seen in the short run.

This is all a way of saying that French, while brilliantly correcting much that is fuzzy or wrong, goes too far in pronouncing a plague on every house in this book, and suggesting that exiled Tibetans are getting rich, and westerners are salving their consciences by helping an exotic cause, even as Tibet itself is being bulldozed into perdition. He calls the Tibetan section in Lhasa a "ghetto", and yet, returning there last August, on my third trip since 1984, I continued to find it a centre of vibrancy and spirit, in some ways in better shape than during the dark days of martial law. He rightly attacks the British and US governments for using Tibet without ever helping it, yet is too harsh on those well-meaning souls who give their lives to working with Tibetan refugees today.

I read Tibet, Tibet by chance in the same guesthouse across from the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala where French concludes his book. And I began to feel that what French had seen and heard in Tibet was so abject and harrowing that he could no longer have any patience with the perspectives of Dharamsala or of London. And yet Tibetans in Tibet are at last, as he notes, free to prosper a little and move beyond their terrible memories.

Tibetans abroad are able to exchange ideas and innovations. And Tibet itself is for the first time open to the gaze of writers as rigorous and sympathetic as French. A Buddhist might suggest that something seen in the light of violent disenchantment is as unreal as something seen in the glow of first love.

Pico Iyer has been travelling in the Himalayas since 1974 and is the author of Video Night in Katmandu and The Global Soul .

Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land

Author - Patrick French
ISBN - 0 00 257109 9
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 333

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