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Misty-eyed westerners need a Tibetan history lesson

By Brian Hennessy - posted Tuesday, 27 January 2009


Recent commentary in the international media on the pre-Olympics riots in Tibet is typical of most western reporting in this part of the world: surface-level observations which do not do justice to a complex historico-political situation. In the long run, such facile commentary will do nothing to help Tibetan people achieve their goal of autonomy.

So here is some gratuitous advice for westerners who care for Tibet: First, understand where China is coming from. Without this understanding, western criticism of China’s policy in Tibet will continue to be an exercise in useless self-righteousness.

Let’s put ourselves in China’s shoes for a moment. China shares land-borders with 14 other nations. Some of these neighbours are militarily and politically unstable (e.g. Afghanistan, North Korea, and Pakistan), some have close relations with great and powerful friends (e.g. India with the USA, Mongolia with Russia), and others are struggling to develop economically and politically (e.g. Burma, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).

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Furthermore, China’s long history justifies its fear of invasion (e.g. the Japanese, the Mongols and the Manchus), political and territorial disintegration (e.g. War-lords, and the Western countries carve-up of a weak China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and social disorder (e.g. the Boxer revolution, and the Taiping revolution).

Now, if we put aside our moral outrage over Tibet for one moment and consider the scale of China’s current political concerns, surely we should have some sympathy for her geopolitical position.

If the West hopes to have any influence on China’s handling of what it regards as an internal matter, then perhaps it would be more helpful if our western media adopted a different approach to reporting on Tibet: i.e., a little less moral outrage, and a lot more analysis. Surely, there are readers out there who would like to be better informed on the China-Tibet issue. A little myth-busting would be a helpful start.

For example: although today's exiled Dalai Lama is respected worldwide for his religious leadership of Tibetan Buddhists (both inside and outside Tibet proper), his doctrine of compassion is an historically more recent phenomenon. Further, the West is unaware of the reality of Tibetan society as it was when the young Dalai Lama fled to India after the People's Liberation Army “liberated” his homeland in the 1950s.

Armed resistance had failed. The crazy-brave Khamba Tibetans on the eastern third of the Tibetan plateau had been slaughtered by a modern, disciplined Chinese Army. Closer to home near Lhasa, the Dalai Lama's soldier-monks experienced a similar fate. The seeds of a modern myth of Tibetan sainthood and Chinese brutality were sown by that heroic defeat. A myth which has been exploited by western propaganda for years.

But myths are stories for those who refuse to think things through for themselves. In contrast, it can be intellectually taxing to look for the truth among the complexities of history.

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But it is worth the effort. History can be full of irony and surprise. For example, Tibetan culture was never one giant monastic society whose members lived in harmony with each other. In fact, Tibet's neighbours to the east used to live in fear of Tibetan brigandage. The Khamba tribesmen who inhabited the eastern third of the Tibetan Plateau were a ruthless lot, who were also feared by their more peaceful Lhasa countrymen to the west. Their brother tribes further north had a similar reputation. No caravan was safe, and no neighbouring tribe could match them for ferocity.

The surprising thing for westerners to learn, is that in those days the Tibetan Lamas in their monasteries were involved in commerce and benefited from the brutal rampages of the Khamba hotheads.

It is a fact that early last century, one monastery near Daocheng in southwestern Sichuan was a haven for local bandits. As incredible as this may seem to western sensibilities, the head Lama of that monastery used to lead his bandit-monks on raids into the surrounding countryside. Up to 400 of them at one time. And after plundering their neighbours, they would retire to their monastery to continue the practice of their Buddhist faith. History records other examples of Lama-led commerce, avarice, and brutality.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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