Orthodox Shangrila vs. Perverse Realism

Tibet: The Road Ahead
by Dawa Norbu Harper Collins Publishers India, New
Delhi, 1997 INR 395, pp 378, ISBN 81 7223 238 1

Contemporary books about pre-1950 Tibet tend to present one or the other of two broad representations. According to the first, Tibetan lamas were subsumed in Buddhist holiness, ordinary peasants were poor but unwaveringly earnest and morally unimpeachable, and the formal institutions of state did not exist because they were unnecessary. This might be dubbed the "orthodox Shangrila school".

According to the other representation, the monks indulged in all sorts of obscure tantric rites and exploited the peasantry, most commoners eked out a life of bare subsistence, and the existing institutions of state were undermined by continual and rampant intrigue. This, "the perverse-realist school", has an extreme variant found in Chinese official literature which says that the dominant characteristics of Tibet´s religious orthodoxy were cruelty and venality, and that human sacrifice and barbaric practices of torture were frequently resorted to in order to maintain an unjust theocratic regime.

Each of these constructions of Tibet serves a political ideology. Indeed, each of them is connected with a specific view of the kind of future Tibetans want for their country, its politics, its society and economy, as well as a characteristic set of prescriptions to achieve those goals. Sadly, informed descriptions of how ordinary Tibetans view the complex issues behind such simplistic and exaggerated positions have been comparatively rare.

Part of the problem has been that among the older generation of Tibetans in exile, it is primarily the aristocracy and the priesthood that possessed the expressive skills and intellectual sophistication to write of Tibet for the outside world. Like any generalisation, however, this one too may be faulted. For it is also true that, particularly in recent times, there have been the excellent works by Jamyang Norbu and others of the Amnye Machin Institute in Dharamshala, the journalism and critical essays of Tsering Wangyal in the Tibetan Review, which he edits, and the academic writings of Tsering Sakya from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, among others. But, for the most part, these have been exceptions rather than the rule.

Dawa Norbu, professor of Central Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, belongs to this select group of Tibetan writers who search beyond popular stereotypes and shopworn cliches for an authentic and representative voice. His new book, couched in the form of an autobiography, must rank as one of the most compelling human documents from a Tibetan perspective to have emerged in recent times. More than any other book this reviewer has read over the past few years it shows us why we must be careful about accepting simplistic representations of Tibet—both the old, pre-1950 regime, and after the hardening of Chinese rule in 1959 and subsequent diaspora that sent Mr Norbu and most of his family into the uncertainties of political exile.

Perhaps the most laudable virtue of Mr Norbu´s book is his ability to describe events in plain and forthright terms. So, instead of attempting to describe how all Tibetans might have felt about things, he records the characteristic reactions of those close to him, his family and their neighbours:

When 1 tried to explain to Mother that the Chinese claimed sovereignty over Tibet, she snapped with her practical common sense and simplicity: "And you believe the Chinese? They tell lies with greater conviction than we honest people do when we speak the truth." Then 1 asked her what difference it would have made to the ordinary Tibetans whether Tibet was ruled by the aristocrats and lamas, or by the Chinese. She answered: "Tibetan rulers were bad, but the Chinese are worse. Think back to when you were a little boy. When I pinched your bottom hard when you were naughty, you cried a little and stopped; but when others, especially outsiders, hit you a little, you cried aloud and wept as if your parents were dead."

Tibetan Society, or Revolutionary Maoism
The first part of the book dwells on life at subsistence, its hardships, but also its relative independence; of the simple events in a peasant´s calendar—marriages, religious propitiations, sexual escapades. After the events of 1950, the gradual Chinese efforts to undermine the reciprocal ties and entitlements of subsistence society and their efforts to introduce a sense of competition among the Tibetan peasantry under the guise of revolutionary Maoism make sad but familiar reading.

Somewhat curiously, Mr Norbu suggests that traditional Tibetans lacked the spirit of enterprise and a sense of forgiveness. One wonders how the former can be reconciled with the customary view of the enterprising Buddhist traders who dominate the trans-Himalayan trading routes, or how the latter is compatible with the (presumably) traditional Buddhist virtues of loving-kindness and mercy. Are we to presume that, in its preoccupation with Buddhism the religion, Tibetan society was inattentive to its underlying principles?

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Mr Norbu´s book is his unfailing ear for the common person´s voice, his eye for subtle detail, and his ability to report the emotional colour of a particular moment. Of his neighbour Acho Dawa returning from Eastern Tibet in 1952 bearing news of the Chinese invasion, he recounts:

Usually he would send a verbal message or letter, through a fellow-soldier or a trader bound for Sakya, well in advance.But this time his return was a complete surprise to his family as well as to his neighbours….He told us: "The sun of bliss will set from the land of snows. Our dreaded enemies are already knocking at the frontiers of Kham. They are the foes of our faith, and have destroyed the monks and monasteries in China and Mongolia. They are bloodthirsty monsters; they eat human beings and any animals they can lay their hands on. They are devils incarnate."

Such naive, but vehement, demonisation of the enemy may be forgivable in illiterate peasants, but one realises with some unease that they are echoed, on the other side and in more organised fashion, in Chinese official accounts of pre-1950 Tibet.

Tibet: The Road Ahead should appeal to all who find themselves dissatisfied with the motivated romanticisation and vague generalisations of conventional accounts of the past, present and future of Tibet. This book is both a deeply moving personal story and the testament of a complex people who, though quite adept at political intrigue, have themselves become subject to the intrigues and uncertainties of the modem world.

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