The picture of a place in the real

The History of Tibet
February 11, 2005

Volume I: The Early Period to c. AD850: The Yarlung Dynasty
Volume II: The Medieval Period c. 850-1895: The Development of Buddhist Paramountcy
Volume III: The Modern Period 1895-1959: The Encounter with Modernity

This is a stupendous contribution, in size and scope, to Tibetan studies, especially history. Well-heeled specialists will want to fork out the £475 for the three volumes of more than 2,000 pages, and any library with an academic reputation must acquire them. The work does, however, have a nearly fatal defect, to which I will refer at the end of this review.

This work comprises 126 scholarly articles by 70 authors - all but three writing in English. English is the dominant language in the field, although the editor, Alex McKay, apologises for not including worthy pieces from other languages.

McKay, fellow in Indo-Tibetan history at the Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London, provides a concise history of Tibet and Tibetology in substantial introductions to each volume. These should be read by novice students before they consult anything else.

The articles, most of them written within the past 30 years, represent, McKay says: "a selected view of the state of our published academic knowledge of the history of Tibet at the end of the 20th century. They do not represent one 'true' account of Tibet, or even provide a consensus of opinions on particular points. The articles illustrate the wide range of contemporary academic understandings of Tibetan history and the many and varied means by which we interpret the subject. Collectively, these volumes represent a new, more worldly, understanding of Tibet. This is not a history of Shangri-La, but of Tibet in this world. If it is the history of a society with many positive qualities and significant achievements, it is also the usual history of patriarchal society in which power is contested, society is stratified, and violence is endemic."

This will annoy Tibet groupies, New Agers, propagandists in the exiled Tibetan government in north India's Dharamsala, and even some professional American specialists, for whom Tibet before the Chinese occupation must be shown as devout, non-violent, mysterious and timeless.

Two selections, both very funny, by Donald Lopez, a Tibetanist at the University of Michigan, describe these specialists well. At the University of Virginia, a major department of Tibetan studies where Lopez was a beginner student, "the first thing they (the students) would learn to say in Tibetan was, 'It follows that whatever is a color is necessarily red'."

Like Lopez himself, many of the first American graduate students of Tibet and Tibetan were taught by emigre monks. The students "were memorising the formulas of their theology" based on a tradition that avoided "certain genres of Tibetan literature (propitiation of malevolent deities, exorcism texts and works dealing in general with wrathful deities or mundane ends) and (gravitated) to others (works on meditation, the Bodhisattva path and scholastic philosophy) that demonstrate that the chief religion of Tibet is a direct and legitimate descendant of Indian Buddhism".

Some of the selections, especially in the first volume, represent what Lopez calls "salvage", that is finding, translating and explaining some of the earliest Buddhist texts feared to be in danger of being lost in the wreckage of the post-1950 Chinese occupation. These selections will be heavy going for all but the most dedicated specialist: they are stuffed with Tibetan names in a variety of transcriptions and do not explain how the text informs us about Tibet. But the essays about 7th and 8th century Tibetan attacks on China are interesting in the way they undermine Chinese myths about early authority over Tibet. Several others explore pre-Buddhist conceptions of the landscape - originally conceived as feminine, according to several of the most fascinating studies. According to Janet Gyatso:

"Buddhism, upon entering Tibet, (found) the feminine ground to be monstrous, chaotic and inherently evil, the Tibetan national character as female and dangerous." Gyatso senses "a certain pride in the description of the massive demoness. She reminds Tibetans of fierce and savage roots in their past".

As the selections reach the most recent 200 years, they become really interesting to the non-specialist. McKay's notably articulate contributions on British contact with Tibet show how the first British officials fostered a Shangri-La image of Tibet, which they knew to be false, intended to enhance its allure as a buffer protecting India from the Russians and Chinese.

McKay observes that a fully comprehensive study of Tibetan history could have included ethnic, political, cultural and mythological approaches, together with Buddhist, feminist and Communist ones. What is included is ample, although some will bewail the absence of certain categories or authors, or the cut-off date of 1959, the year the Dalai Lama fled to India. We have essays and selections from books and scholarly journals on leading personalities, ideas and belief systems. More problematical, as McKay concedes, is the volumes' concentration on "political Tibet; those regions that were claimed by the Lhasa Government as being under their political control in 1949".

This Lhasa-centric construction owes a great deal to the sect that includes the Dalai Lamas, as well as to the rivalries of the great imperial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a narrow conception, as McKay and his authors know. One significant aspect of Tibetan history has been how rarely power lay in the hands of the Dalai Lamas or any major political group, how violently power was contested internally and how diffused power was. Great swaths of territory were inhabited by ethnic groups that were Tibetan only in the widest sense and spoke languages and dialects incomprehensible in Lhasa.

Although Tibetans write on their own history, there are only seven Tibetan contributors in this collection, including the outstanding Tsering Shakya, a Western-trained historian born in Tibet and with Tibetan sensibilities; he is renowned for puncturing some of the myths propagated by Western and Tibetan specialists, who usually avoid crime, punishment, social class and non-elite, non-idealised subjects in their research.

McKay tackles head-on the effects on recent Western scholarship of the Chinese "liberation" or occupation of Tibet since 1950. Before 1950, of course, there were formidable apolitical scholars such as Giuseppi Tucci and R.A. Stein, and afterwards Alastair Lamb (not strictly a Tibetanist), whose extensive research - some of it included here - on diplomatic manoeuvrings over Tibet by the great powers is praised highly by McKay. In the minds of many scholars, not to say the public, McKay notes, the invasion created a past "good" Tibet and a present "bad" one. This image has been heightened by many Western scholars, who had no access to Tibet between 1950 and 1982, and little thereafter, and whose contacts with Tibetans have been largely with emigres. These refugees naturally propagated for their Western interlocutors images of good and bad Tibet. As a result of that, and of press coverage of Tibet since 1950, "support for Tibetan self-determination is overwhelmingly the predominant position of non-communist scholars, indeed it may be that historians of Tibet should state their intellectual entry point".

McKay reminds us, however, that long before the communist takeover, politics influenced images of Tibet. In 1920, Sir Charles Bell was the first British official permitted a long visit in Lhasa. He was one of those officials who, in McKay's view, helped form the image of an "ideal Tibet" because it suited British policies. For Tibet to be an effective buffer state, McKay suggests the British "needed it to be transformed into a strong, united and clearly defined entity on the nation-state model" - as they had earlier done with India. In 1924, Bell said: "Modern Tibet rejects Chinese suzerainty and claims the status of an independent nation." There is plenty of Chinese writing on China's right to sovereignty in Tibet. But not a single Chinese scholar is represented here because "their historical scholarship fails to meet the Western academic standards required for inclusion here", McKay argues. In his introduction to volume one, however, McKay allots more than 25 pages to an essay by Helmut Hoffman, whose scholarship he defines as "grounded in the ideological scholarship of Nazi Germany that is rarely consulted today".

But what if the Chinese historians had stated their "intellectual entry points"? Are they less worthy of attention than Hoffman? The inclusion of an article by Tom Grunfeld, an eloquent advocate of the Chinese view of Tibet, might have provided a Beijing-inclined orientation. Some would say that the selections from Melvyn Goldstein on how Tibetan weakness made the Chinese conquest relatively easy, show a pro-Chinese bias; but what Goldstein's mighty A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951 shows is that the Chinese were able to overpower the Tibetans with their military force and diplomatic bullying. Shakya's essay on Beijing's negotiations with the Dalai Lama's officials makes the same point. The essays exploring how the Tibetan modernists, initially encouraged by the 13th Dalai Lama, were routed by the hidebound religious establishment and its ambitious allies do nothing to justify Chinese claims to Tibet.

Indeed, essays on 7th and 8th century Tibet, especially by Christopher Beckwith, show how the Tibetans invaded and dominated parts of China, including the capital of the Tang Dynasty. In the 1950s, when I was doing research on this period in the Tang annals, the sources claimed that the Tang emperor sent a princess to the Tibetan king as a kind of condescending cultural prize. The Chinese claim to this day that this princess was the beginning of China's civilising mission in Tibet. It is plain, however, in some of the essays here, that the terrified Chinese dispatched the poor girl to Tibet as a form of protection - any mafioso would grasp this - from further depredations.

There is no doubt that this set of books is a formidable contribution to Tibetan history and historiography. But now the nearly fatal flaw: no index. How is someone with no index to research, say, Bon, the religion or belief system or rituals that may or may not have preceded Buddhism in Tibet? They will have to flick through the pages of all the likely essays.

The publisher tells me that this was because they made a mistake: Routledge never indexes collections of facsimiles. This diminishes McKay's labour in making all the texts and footnotes uniform. McKay himself takes the blame.

He told me that because there are many transcriptions of Tibetan in English (in his introduction he calls for a conference on standardisation), indexing was impossible. I suspect expense played a part, too. But he could have chosen one transcription, and most specialists would have found their way. And then there are all the common words such as "Dalai" and "Younghusband". Someone should now index these volumes and sell the result to the grateful buyers of these otherwise superb volumes.

Jonathan Mirsky was the East Asia editor of The Times . He has been to Tibet six times.

The History of Tibet: Volumes I, II and III

Editor - Alex McKay
Publisher - Routledge Curzon
Pages - 624, 789 and 737
Price - £475.00
ISBN - 0 7007 1508 8 (set)

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments