Tsering Shakya, Associate Professor, Institute of Asian Research and Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia, Canada; Research Chair in Religion & Contemporary Society in Asia; Co-lead, Himalaya Program. Photo source: Institute of Asian Research, UBC

The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (1999) & The Struggle for Tibet (2009)

This post concerns The Struggle for Tibet (2009) and The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (1999).

Underlying themes concern storytelling, in the presence or absence of evidence, and the history of Communism.

The introduction, which is the focus of the current post, to The Struggle for Tibet (2009) highlights the lives and perspectives of two writers plus one much larger character, namely Tibet itself. This particular introduction, like the one for The Government Next Door: Neighborhood Politics in Urban China (2015), is exquisitely well-organized and beautifully written. The quality of the writing is what has prompted me to write a post about the introduction.

The history and current status of Tibet is the story of the world in the twenty-first century. What happens in Tibet directly concerns us all.


Among other things, the two books about Tibet are about storytelling, a topic that I’ve addressed in What makes a good story? as well as in How do I reach an audience? and Storytelling: Getting attention; playing the role; collaboration.

A key takeaway from the two books is that if you seek to say something about a group of people, make it a point to get the views of the people you are writing about. Let the people speak for themselves.

Freedom, as I understand it, entails going with a script that is of a person’s own choosing. If a person is required to follow a script that someone else has chosen, then freedom flies out the window.

Another takeaway is that sometimes it’s the outsider who can provide the inside story. A corollary is that what is inside and what is outside (and who is the outsider and who is the insider) is a matter of contextualization, a matter of how things are defined.


In his introduction to The Struggle for Tibet (2009), Robert Barnett highlights the book’s three main characters, namely:

  • Wang Lixiong
  • Tsering Shakya
  • Tibet

He describes all three as “outsiders, edge-dwellers.”

“Their lives,” Barnett notes, “revolve around or represent those places that Theodore Roosevelt, borrowing from Tennyson, called the ‘lonely lands’, areas and worlds that to others seem remote, deserted, peripheral or antithetical to their own.”

Barnett speaks, as well, of “generations of writers, from Henry Nash Smith onwards,” whose project it was to change assumptions about “images which depict places as empty and as available for the taking, and to show the historical impact of such pretty phraseology.”

Among his other books, as I have learned, Henry Nash Smith is author of Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1971).

A blurb for the 1971 text notes that Smith “traces the myths and symbols of the Westward movement such as the general notion of a Westward-moving Course of Empire, the Wild Western hero, the virtuous yeoman-farmer – in such varied nineteenth-century writings as Leaves of Grass, the great corpus of Dime Novels, and most notably, Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History.

The three characters in The Struggle for Tibet (2009) debate, notes Barnett, “with a kind of fierce tenacity, the use of similar designations [that is, terminology such as ‘lonely lands’] for Tibetan history. Initially they challenge each other on these issues, but increasingly they speak back to the centre and its certainties, its confidence in its assumptions and its aggressive pursuit of its objectives. In doing so, they speak about all situations where a powerful centre dominates the voices of those it perceives as outsiders.”

In which everyday experiences are defined as exotic

“Much commentary on Tibet,” Barnett notes, “from the best to the most trivial, has focused on exposing the exoticization of that place by foreigners who have been enthralled or appalled by its religiosity, its mountains or its lack of access.”

“The issue for Wang and Shakya,” he notes by way of contrast, “is Tibet, what happened there, who its inhabitants are, and what they think of what they have experienced.”

“In the last hundred years,” Barnett notes, the history of what has happened in Tibet “has been a story of violence, brutality and forced change. The twentieth century began with a British army invading Tibet from the south on a pretext in 1903, mowing down with machine-gunfire some 3,000 Tibetans armed with matchlock guns, and forcing the Tibetan government to a humiliating surrender.”

[Update: A Jan. 19, 2017 BBC article is entitled: “How East and West think in profoundly different ways: Psychologists are uncovering the surprising influence of geography on our reasoning, behaviour, and sense of self.”]

October 1950

We jump forward to October 1950, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “crossed into Tibet and within a week defeated the small Tibetan army. The following year the Tibetan government signed a document of surrender known as the ‘Seventeen-Point Agreement’, accepting for the first time that Tibet was part of China.

“Once the Tibetan leaders had acquiesced to being a part of ‘the big family of nationalities of the People’s Republic’, Mao [Zedong] had no need to impose direct rule on Tibet, declaring instead that the Dalai Lama could continue to run the government and that religion and society should function as before. At the same time, a shadowy Party command unit known as the Tibet Work Committee was set up in Lhasa to oversee all affairs, run by Chinese generals and backed by a large military presence, while roads were being built, cadres recruited and translations of Maoist texts prepared.

“No social changes were imposed in Lhasa at that time, but in eastern Tibet aggressive social reforms, land distribution and the destruction of monasteries began in 1955. Resistance armies were formed by local merchants and running battles ensued with the PLA. Refugees from the conflict fled in their thousands to Lhasa, leading to the watershed events of March 1959, when tens of thousands of Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace to prevent him visiting the Chinese military camp, where they feared he would be abducted. The battles that followed in Lhasa are now seen by many or most Tibetans as a popular uprising in defence of the nation against a foreign occupier, and by Chinese officials as an armed rebellion instigated by the Tibetan upper classes with the secret support of the hostile foreign forces – meaning the Americans and the CIA. In any event, the 1959 uprising failed and led the Dalai Lama and 80,000 followers to flee across the Himalayas to India, where they still remain, with an exile government established in the small hill station of Dharamsala in the northwestern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.”

“At this point,” notes Barnett, “the place called Tibet becomes lost as a distinctive voice and player in its own history.” Tibet has become “a muffled, incoherent voice” and in its place a battle has taken place to represent it.

‘The early work of Wang Lixiong and Tsering Shakya emerged out of that battle, and traces of it can be seen in the initial debate between them. But they rapidly became the leading figures among those who try, by understanding the intricacies of representational conflict, to navigate beyond it.”

Robert Barnett adds (p. 19):

“Both gained their status as interpreters of [events described in the introduction (pp. 17-19)] by trying to make sense of the muted Tibet, to find plausible, concrete explanations for Tibetan actions and beliefs. This effort is situated within a view of China which implies that Tibet is not merely an idiosyncratic element among China’s many problems but a core issue which shows the workings of the large state and thus has direct implications for its viability as a state. In other words, the Chinese state cannot resolve its key contradictions and become sustainable until it resolves its problems in Tibet.”

Key disputes


1. Political status

“The most prominent element of the conventional dispute,” according to the introduction, “is that of political status. The Chinese side sees Tibet as having been for centuries an integral part of China. Since at least the 1970s, Beijing has dated this incorporation to the thirteenth century, when Tibet became a part of the Mongol empire.”

“From a Tibetan perspective,” however, “Tibet’s relations had been with the Mongol or the Manchu Emperors, not with China as a state or with their successor regimes, and it had therefore become fully independent in 1913.”

2. Territory

Similar disagreement exists over the question of Tibetan territory.

3. Consequences of flight of the Dalai Lama (1959)

“The immediate consequences of the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959 are similarly contested. According to the Chinese narrative, the rebellion was routed by the PLA and, to the relief of the common people of Tibet, the perpetrators and their supporters were ‘eliminated’ or ‘suppressed’, to use the official jargon of the time.”

“According to the Tibetan or exile view,” however, “the 1959 uprising was followed immediately by an orgy of persecution, mass arrests and killings. Forced collectivization and the establishment of communes began within a year or two, taking back the individual land-holdings that had been given to the peasants in 1959. Attacks on religion and on monasteries also began at around this time.”

4. Disagreement over events of late 1960s and 1970s

“Another fundamental cleavage of views concerns the events of the late 1960s and 1970s. Underlying this is the question of whether those events are still the responsibility of the present leadership.”

5. Post-Mao era disagreements

“In the post-Mao era, the arguments accumulate but become more detailed.”

“No one disputes the visible evidence of modernization in Tibetan towns,” Barnett notes, “as in other areas of China, and the striking increase in wealth, especially in the urban areas. But there is bitter antagonism over the intentions behind these policies, or over their effects. One side sees the investment as a kind of cultural levelling, eroding Tibetan language and culture; the other sees it as beneficial modernization that is an overall advantage to Tibetans.”

6. Divergences regarding recent Chinese policies in Tibet

“A similar dispute surrounds recent Chinese policies in Tibet, which, perhaps as a response to the fall of the Soviet Union, attributed by Chinese analysts to its laxity with nationalities, had become much more aggressive in the 1990s.”

7. Differing perspectives regarding language usage

“Such differences can be listed indefinitely, down to the level of the individual word. The word ‘country’, for example, antagonizes Chinese if used of Tibet, who see this as a claim for the independence of what they term a ‘region’ or an ‘area’. Similar tensions surround words like ‘invasion’ or ‘occupation’, let alone saying ‘Tibet and China’ instead of ‘Tibet in China’.”

8. Points of agreement also exist

“Surprisingly, some points of agreement can be made out, though they are rarely emphasized. All parties to the China-Tibet dispute more or less agree that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster on a massive scale, but differ on whether it has been correctly explained, sufficiently amended for, or even stopped. There is broad consensus that Tibet is not simply another Chinese province and has special characteristics – during the 1980s, that was the term, tese, used by Chinese leaders to describe Tibetan and other nationality entities – and so is entitled to a different, devolved form of administration compared to the inland provinces of China.”

As well: “Both sides talk about ‘preserving’ Tibetan culture and environment, as though these were museum specimens, though they differ sharply in how this should be done and who has the right to do it. And all agree that economic improvement in society, plus increases in social welfare, infrastructure and modernization, are a benefit, though not at any cost.”

9. Disagreements regarding protests

“The first wave of protests occurred in Lhasa between 1987 and 1989, when there were four major rallies against Chinese rule, each involving over a thousand laypeople. Between 75 and 150 Tibetans were shot dead by paramilitary troops during these protests, two of which ended in rioting. In March 1989 the army was sent in to impose martial law on Lhasa, remaining on the streets for thirteen months. Some 200 smaller protests were staged by monks and nuns in this period and during the following six years. A second phase of protest erupted in March-April 2008, when some 150 protests took place in or near Lhasa and in rural towns and villages of eastern Tibet, including parts of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan. At least four of these incidents involved serious rioting. Chinese official reports say nineteen people were killed by protesters in the riot in Lhasa on 14 March 2008, and have said at different times, without giving details, that up to eight protesters died. Exile organizations say that between one and two hundred protesters were killed by security forces or died from abuse in custody. As before, the response by the government was militarization, this time by paramilitary troops rather than the army, in towns across the entire Tibetan plateau rather than just Lhasa. The troops remained on the streets of Lhasa and other areas for at least fifteen months and were still there at the time of writing.

“In this sense, a Tibet of some sort had made its voice heard. But what had it said? Some people claimed that the 2008 protests had shown that Tibetans wanted independence, since many protesters waved the Tibetan national flag, which is strictly illegal in China. Numerous protesters carried pictures of the Dalai Lama, leading some to argue that this showed support for his proposals of compromise. Other observers speculated that the protests were about the excessive Chinese policies of the 1990s, which had been applied increasingly to eastern Tibetan areas as well as to the TAR. On the other hand, Chinese officials and their supporters insisted that the protests were violent and coordinated, and therefore showed deliberate instigation by the Dalai Lama and his followers.”

10. Divergences related to class and benefit

“The protests raised a fundamental question, beyond the symbolic disputes over Tibetan independence and the ideological arguments over representation: whether the Tibetan farmers and the nomads, some 85 per cent of the population, had benefited from Chinese rule. China’s principal strategy in 1959 had been to win over the Tibetan peasantry with land distribution. That support was squandered through such policies as rushed collectivization, impoverishment and the Cultural Revolution. But in 1980, Beijing dismantled the communes and again distributed land to individual rural households, liberalized the economy and allowed people to practise religion. It also invested huge sums in infrastructure, roads and services in Tibet. Do rural Tibetans see the modernization and the market economy as net advantages, given that some religious practice is now allowed? Or did the Party’s heavy-handed attacks on Tibetan nationalism and on the Dalai Lama since the 1990s lose any goodwill it might have acquired from those gifts?”



The Dragon in the Land of Snows (1999)

Tsering Shakya, co-author of The Struggle for Tibet (2009), is also author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows:A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (1999).

At the Toronto Public Library, the book is available only on Reference. However, the book can be borrowed from the Mississauga Library System.

You can access an excerpt from the first chapter of the book at the New York Times website. Having read the chapter in its entirety, I can attest that if you want the full overview, of the start of the book, you are better off reading the entire chapter from start to finish. As well, GOI, in the excerpt below, in the case you have not figured it out, refers to the Government of India. The book includes a glossary of abbreviations.

The opening paragraph of the first chapter reads:

The Lull Before the Storm

On 15 August 1947, India became an independent nation and inherited the political influence and the privileges that Britain had gained in Tibet. This historic transition was marked in Lhasa with a simple ceremony: the Union Jack was lowered and the Indian national flag was raised in its place. Hugh Richardson, the last British representative in Lhasa, became the first Indian representative. Later he wrote: ‘the transition was almost imperceptible. The existing staff was retained in its entirety and the only obvious change was the change of flag’. But this was deceptive. The emergence of the new Republic of India changed the traditional balance of power, and Asian nationalists envisaged that the collapse of the British Empire would lead to the birth of a new order in Asia. And thus the history of modern Tibet in the second half of the twentieth century was to become a search for the maintenance of its independence and international stature in this emerging regional order.


Artistic freedom

By way of relating the discussion to current realities, I will refer to two recent Guardian articles.

A Jan. 10, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain: Desperate to find somewhere she could live and work as she wished, Xiaolu Guo moved from Beijing to London in 2002. But from the weather to the language and the people, nothing was as she expected.”

A Jan. 15, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Xiaolu Guo: ‘There was no private or personal space in China’: The writer and film-maker on the hardships of growing up in communist China and the shock of discovering artistic freedom.”



Tibet in Agony (2016)

A recently published study is entitled: Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959 (2016).

A blurb notes:

On March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama slipped out of his summer palace, the Norbulingka, in disguise, evading detection both by the Chinese Communist authorities stationed in the city and by the thousands of Tibetan demonstrators who had gathered in the area, fearful that the Chinese were plotting to abduct their beloved leader. After a hair-raising trek across the Himalayas, he re-emerged weeks later in India, where he set up his government in exile. Soon after he left Lhasa, however, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army pummeled the city in the savage “Battle of Lhasa.” The poorly prepared Tibetans were forced to capitulate, putting Mao in a position to fulfill his long-held dream of imposing Communist rule over Tibet. Partisan politics has tended to overshadow history ever since these fateful developments. For decades, independent scholars have lacked the source materials necessary for evaluating these conflicting allegations and placing them in their proper historical context. Chinese sources, in particular, have remained shrouded in secrecy until quite recently. Meanwhile, unrest has continued to erupt periodically in Lhasa, which had its third major disturbance in 2008. What really happened in Lhasa in March 1959, and why did it happen? Tibet in Agony sets the historical record straight by extensive examination of Chinese and Tibetan sources, many of which are either new or have never before been used by independent scholars. From these sources emerges the first narrative to trace the crisis in Lhasa in March 1959 to its roots in Mao’s plan to take over Tibet, and in the fears and suspicions that the step-by-step execution of his plan aroused among Tibetans.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)

A blurb for Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) reads:

An extraordinary novel set in China before, during and after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 – the breakout book we’ve been waiting for from a bestselling, First Novel Award winner. Madeleine Thien’s new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition even as it is hauntingly intimate. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations – those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century. With exquisite writing sharpened by a surprising vein of wit and sly humour, Thien has crafted unforgettable characters who are by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise. At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow’s ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer. Here, too, is Kai’s daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story. With maturity and sophistication, humour and beauty, a huge heart and impressive understanding, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once beautifully intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of daily life inside China, yet transcendent in its universality.


Food of Sinful Demons (2018)

Food of Sinful Demons: Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet (2018)

A blurb reads:

Tibetan Buddhism teaches compassion toward all beings, a category that explicitly includes animals. Slaughtering animals is morally problematic at best and, at worst, completely incompatible with a religious lifestyle. Yet historically most Tibetans – both monastic and lay – have made meat a regular part of their diet. In this study of the place of vegetarianism within Tibetan religiosity, Geoffrey Barstow explores the tension between Buddhist ethics and Tibetan cultural norms to offer a novel perspective on the spiritual and social dimensions of meat eating.

Food of Sinful Demons shows the centrality of vegetarianism to the cultural history of Tibet through specific ways in which nonreligious norms and ideals shaped religious beliefs and practices. Barstow offers a detailed analysis of the debates over meat eating and vegetarianism, from the first references to such a diet in the tenth century through the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. He discusses elements of Tibetan Buddhist thought – including monastic vows, the Buddhist call to compassion, and tantric antinomianism – that see meat eating as morally problematic. He then looks beyond religious attitudes to examine the cultural, economic, and environmental factors that oppose the Buddhist critique of meat, including Tibetan concepts of medicine and health, food scarcity, the display of wealth, and idealized male gender roles. Barstow argues that the issue of meat eating was influenced by a complex interplay of factors, with religious perspectives largely supporting vegetarianism while practical concerns and secular ideals pulled in the other direction. He concludes by addressing the surge in vegetarianism in contemporary Tibet in light of evolving notions of Tibetan identity and resistance against the central Chinese state. The first book to discuss this complex issue, Food of Sinful Demons is essential reading for scholars interested in Tibetan religion, history, and culture as well as global food history.


Previous posts related to Buddhist cultural practices and related topics

Below are three previous posts addressing topics of relevance to an understanding of Tibet:

Sherry B. Ortner has emphasized “bridge making between theoretical and methodological divisions within anthro­pology.”

Ethnographic and neuroscience research addresses Buddhist cultural practices

Evans-Pritchard explores a “closed system of thought”

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