THE POTOMAC CONFERENCE, October 5 - 6, 1992
SINO-TIBETAN RELATIONS: PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE
October 5, Afternoon Session II.
CULTURAL, ETHNIC & CHANGING PERCEPTIONS
Tibetan Culture and Modernization
The Chinese Tradition of "Great Unification" and
the Tibetan Issue
The Ethics of Religion
Robert A. F. Thurman, Moderator
+ + + + + + +
ROBERT A. F. THURMAN
Now, the first person I'm introducing I'm delighted to introduce, is my
friend and colleague, Thubten Samphel who I've known for some time.
Thubten we had at Columbia for a year, where he got his degree in
journalism. Before that he worked for a long time for the Information
Office in Dharamsala and he edited the Tibetan Bulletin for many years.
He has written and translated a number of books on Buddhism as well as on
various historical matters. So we look forward to his comments. Mr.
Thank you. My topic is "Tibet's Attempt at Modernization in the Early
Twentieth Century." But before I go into my topic I would like to relate
a story which I experienced when I was very small. Lately we've been
hearing a lot about Tibetan feelings, so I've got to say this that it's
not only feelings, our feelings have been shaped by facts, feelings, so I
will recount how as a little boy I first encountered the Chinese.
My parents worked for the mother of the Dalai Lama who had her house
just below the Potala Palace. At that time in March of 1959, the Chinese
somehow attacked the residence of the Dalai Lama's mother. So my mother,
myself we put a lot of furniture against the door to prevent the Chinese
soldiers from entering her house. So anyway, the house was locked and I
sort of remember streams of Chinese soldiers, members of the People's
Liberation Army, entering her house. So at that time, the Tibetans, when
we beg for mercy, we put up our hands and our thumbs up like this and say
"Coochi-coochi!" So we put our hands up, like that. So anyway, I was
doing this, and telling the Chinese, even though they don't speak
Tibetan, I was saying - anyway, it was a big fright for all of us - I was
saying, "Please don't kill my mother! If you do, kill me with her!" I
don't remember saying it but later on, in her conversations with her
friends, my mother said that I said this. So today I like to believe
that I said it.
Anyway, my first encounter with the Chinese was one big fright. But
later on, a much more gentle, more human encounter happened and around
that time, around 1962-63, the whole of Lhasa was starving. As a boy, I
realized that whether the Chinese liberated or did not liberate us
Tibetans, they definitely succeeded in liberating us Tibetans from our
food, because we were literally begging in the streets of Lhasa! At that
time, in our rounds, I encountered the general or the colonel who first
attacked the Dalai Lama's mother's residence. He immediately recognized
me and lifted me high up in the sky, and that was a sort of wonderful
feeling. So these experiences, in a way, shape Tibetans' mental image of
TIBET'S ATTEMPT AT MODERNIZATION
IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
SHANGRI AND THE MODERN WORLD
For the most part, Tibet's history has been written under the auspices
of Buddhist scholarship and interpreted through the prism of the reigning
orthodoxy. Critical thought, which fawning Western Tibet scholars see in
such abundance in old Tibet, was absent.
This Buddhist monopoly of Tibet's intellectual life and its sanitized
version of Tibetan history reinforced the world's perception of Tibet as
a Shangri. When communist China invaded Tibet in 1949, the world groaned
more for the loss of its Shangri than for the loss of another people's
freedom or for the potential dangers presented by this new geopolitical
configuration in Central Asia.
But the loss of Tibet could have been avoided, if the small but
significant attempts at modernization initiated by the Thirteenth Dalai
Lama (1876-1933) had succeeded.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama's efforts at modernizing Tibet failed, thanks
to both conservative monastic resistance and to the confluence of
interests of imperial Britain and republican China which saw in Tibetan
backwardness a source of stability in their volatile colonial frontiers.
"In doing so, they indirectly denied Tibet any alternative source of
social change." [Note 1]
In fact, the reign of the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama were the best
years for Tibet to introduce domestic reform and enhance its
international visibility because in his person Tibet had a strong,
energetic leader committed to reform and modernization.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama's fascination with modernization was
occasioned by his two experiences of exile: first in Mongolia when the
British, vowing to "prick that bloated bubble of monkish power," invaded
Tibet in 1904, and second in 1909 when Zhao Erfeng, the Manchu governor
of Sichuan, swept to Lhasa.
In India, the Tibetan leader was confronted with the full force of the
power of industrialization. "While the Chinese troops occupied Tibet, the
Dalai Lama stayed in Darjeeling, and contemplated the circumstances that
had allowed Tibet to be conquered twice within six years... He... learned
a great deal about modern politics. He saw firsthand how an efficient and
dedicated bureaucracy and army could rule a vast country. During his
three years in exile, the 13th Dalai Lama's views of the world broadened
and he conceived a new vision of Tibet."<2>
One pillar of the new vision the 13th Dalai Lama had for Tibet was the
army, which Tibet disbanded in the 15th century. In doing this Tibet
deprived itself of the only institution with which it could defend
itself. In the absence of its own army, Tibet frequently invited Mongol
and Chinese armies to do its intra-factional and intra-sectarian
fighting. Like there being no free lunch, there's no fighting for free.
In the case of the Chinese, they claimed Tibet for their military
services, a claim which they made good only in 1949, when new China was
blessed by a new emperor, a new Genghis Khan, who "liberated" the Chinese
masses, and then, thinking that was a mistake, started oppressing them.
Like the Tibetans of old, the Chinese, who through their cultural and
intellectual sophistication have greatly added to the rich diversity of
human knowledge, would not have truly liberated themselves if they always
allow just one man to do all their vital political thinking.
Meanwhile, back in 1911, the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, after the
Manchu dynasty was overthrown and after the Tibetan army expelled the
remnant Manchu troops from Tibet. He initiated a series of reforms
astounding both in its range and the sustained effort he put in them. At
the heart of his reform movement lay his desire to strengthen the central
government and to give it the means, military, financial and political,
so that a repeat of either 1904 or 1909 did not happen.
The Tibetan army was expanded and given modern military training. Modern
weapons were purchased from British India. Three hundred noncommissioned
officers received military training in the south Tibetan town of Gyantse
between 1922 and 1925. Many were also trained in India. The Dalai Lama
approved of increasing the size of the Tibetan army in a 20-year period
from 6,000 to 17,000. The monastic community and the aristocracy were
taxed for the extra financial cost of the expanded army.
The Dalai Lama was supported in this effort by a group of military
commanders, led by Tsarong, the commander-in-chief, who back in 1909, by
his rear-guard fighting, prevented the forces of Zhao Erfeng from
capturing the Dalai Lama. This group believed that military strength,
rather than the prayers of the monks, had paved the way for the Dalai
Lama's return in 1912.<3>
The Dalai Lama further improved the Tibetan army by employing in 1913
the services of a retired Japanese military expert, Yasujiro Yajima, who
was put in charge of a section of the Tibetan army which he trained in
Japanese methods of warfare.<4>
The success of Tibet's modernization of its military was amply
demonstrated in 1917 when the republican governor of Sichuan, General
Peng Ji-sheng, made inroads into eastern Tibet. The Tibetan army,
despite heavy losses, pushed him back and was prevented from re-taking
the border trading town of Dartsedo or Kangting only after the British
intervened and warned of cutting arms supplies to Tibet.
The 13th Dalai Lama was also the first to introduce paper currency in
Tibet. The paper used was hand-made and the design traditional. Students
were sent to Calcutta to study the printing of the Indian currency.
Postage stamps were also introduced at the time.<5> Tsarong wanted Tibet
to join the International Postal Union, to produce Tibetan typewriters
and to develop motor car and motorboat transportation.<6>
Laden, a Sikkimese of ethnic Tibetan origin, was hired to establish a
modern police force in Lhasa. Laden worked before as a police officer in
But the most critically important step the Dalai Lama took was the
exposure of young Tibetans to modern education. Four Tibetan boys from
the upper middle class were sent to England in 1914 for education. One
majored in mining engineering, the second studied military science, and
the third became an electrical engineer, and upon his return, in a
limited way, electrified Lhasa and the summer palace of the Dalai Lama.
The fourth was trained in survey.<7>
In 1924 an English school was started in Gyantse under the supervision
of F. Ludlow. Most of the students were the sons of the Tibetan
For the pro-modern Tibetans, these were heady, exhilarating days. It
looked as though Tibet was going to be able to develop the political,
economic and military infrastructure of a modern state.<9>
But the Dalai Lama's push for the modernization of Tibet was not without
its opponents. Caught in the complex inter-play of inter-monastic
rivalry, and its unified opposition to the modernization program, the
constant jostling for influence and power within the aristocracy, and the
abrasive, domineering personalities of the military commanders who were
out to undermine the overwhelming influence of the monasteries, the 13th
Dalai Lama, at best, could only do a balancing act, while still, wholly
or in part, depending on the strength of either opposition or support,
pushing for the modernization drive.
That medieval, Buddhist Tibet survived as an independent state till the
middle of the twentieth century is a legacy of the Great Thirteenth.
That's more than Tibet could ask for from any Tibetan, man or god.
The death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933 cooled Tibet's modernization
drive, but it did not stop it. Among the members of the English-educated
aristocracy and the burgeoning, mobile Tibetan mercantile class who were
exposed to outside cultural and intellectual influences the desire for
change and modernization grew.
However, during the reign and in the immediate aftermath of the death of
the 13th Dalai Lama, the debate on change and the piece-meal attempts at
modernization were confined to the ruling class, emboldened as it was by
the Dalai Lama's strong push in the direction.
Among the members of the ruling aristocracy, apart from Tsarong who has
been identified as pro-British and hence pro-modernization and who used
the modernization drive insofar as it could strengthen the military, the
other personality who made a last-ditch attempt in re-structuring Tibet's
political system was Tsepon Lungshar, the man who accompanied the four
Tibetan boys to Rugby in England in 1914. Lungshar stayed in England for
a number of years and traveled extensively in Europe. In this way, he
was exposed to the full range and diversity of the political systems
prevailing in Europe then. He was convinced of the need for Tibet to
change. "When a whole country is engulfed in a massive flood, one little
stone cannot remain dry," he has been attributed as telling his friends
on his return to Tibet. "When the whole world is undergoing change, Tibet
cannot remain unchanged and unaffected."
"During his stay in England he became convinced that Tibet must change
voluntarily or experience the fate of France... Though still a young man,
Lungshar was not awed by England or the British and would not let them
determine and control what he perceived to be the interests of the
The reform which Lungshar advocated and which he tried to implement in
1934, when he was at the height of his power, concerned the Tibetan
cabinet. Lungshar wanted the lifelong term of office of the cabinet
ministers replaced by a four-year term. Lungshar wanted the cabinet made
accountable to the Tibetan national assembly, and, in fact, announced
that "Tibet should be a sort of a... republic in which the Assembly under
his leadership, should speak for the country."<10>
"This represented a radical change, shifting power from the large
landholders who tended to dominate the Kashag (cabinet) to the assembly,
which was Lungshar's base of power,"<11> and which was dominated by
However, vision of a republican Tibet foundered when monastic support
was withdrawn from Lungshar. He was arrested on high treason and his
eyes were gouged out.
The judgment of historians has been unkind on Lungshar. Hugh E.
Richardson, the British political officer in Lhasa at the time, writes in
his _A Short History of Tibet_, "Lungshar was an unusual phenomenon in
Tibet. In him certain qualities inherent in the Tibetan character were
overdeveloped and exaggerated. A strain of recklessness made him, in the
well-worn phrase, 'drunk with power.'"<12>
Tsepon Shakabpa, the author of _Tibet: A Political History_, describes
Lungshar's organization as consisting of "political bandits."<13>
A more gentle judgment and evaluation of Lungshar's role in the history
of modern Tibet has been done by Melvyn C. Goldstein who writes,
"Lungshar's movement was the last attempt to reform and revitalize the
traditional political system before World War II. Its destruction was a
major turning point in modern Tibetan history. Trimon, representing the
prerogatives of the traditional system, outmaneuvered Lungshar and
punished him in a way that intimidated other aristocrats. Lungshar's
statement to his sons regarding the government officials' inability to
understand his dreams for a new Tibet rings true in the light of the
absurd charge that his party was trying to establish a Bolshevik form of
government. For all his personal faults, Lungshar was one of the great
figures in modern Tibetan history. In retrospect, his downfall must be
seen as a main factor underlying the demise of the Lamaist State."<14>
All this took place within the Tibetan government circles and within the
confines of the political elite of Lhasa. Meanwhile the emergent Tibetan
middle class, made prosperous by tea trade with China and wool trade with
India, and getting a tantalizing glimpse of the outside world as it
impinged on its commercial and business interests, cried out for change.
Tibet's first newspaper in the Tibetan language was started in Kalimpong,
the gateway to Tibet and the center of activity of Tibet's wool trade
with India in 1925.<15> The newspaper, _Melong_ (_Tibetan Mirror_), was
started by Tharchin Babu, a Ladakhi Christian, whose house became the
refuge of dissident scholars, exiled government officials and disgruntled
This traffic of people and ideas slowly made Tibetans aware of the
larger world beyond the confines of the mountains and grasslands of
Tibet. Though incoherent and vague, a startling and radical set of ideas
emerged within the small group of Tibetan scholars and nationalists on
how best Tibetans could continue to keep their ancient mountains and
The marriage of Tibetan intellectuals and the emergent business
community was best exemplified by the collaboration in the late 1930s and
early 1940s on the formation of the Tibet Improvement Party between Gedun
Choephel and Tibet's fabulous Pandatsang brothers.
"Gedun Choephel represents a new current of thought in the
traditionalist society of Tibet. The critical observation which he
brought to bear on the outside world was in line with a re-evaluation of
his own civilization. He was an outstanding man, with ideas in advance
of his time; he was misunderstood because of his controversial views on
politics and religion."<16>
This party wanted to free Tibet from the "existing tyrannical
government" and replace it with a vague republic under some form of
benign domination by Kuomintang China.
In trying to make the devil which they did not know topple the devil
they knew, Gedun Choephel and his party, despite with the best of
intentions, compromised the sovereignty of Tibet. The loss of the
academic brilliance of Gedun Choephel was and still is a loss for all
Tibet. But no self-respecting government, no matter how tyrannical, can
tolerate sedition, however, well-meaning.
The attempt made by Gedun Choephel and his party was the last one made
by Tibetans to restructure Tibet's traditional political system and
modernize Tibetan attitude and outlook. "But before the Tibetans could
successfully adapt their attitude to the realities of the outside world,
the new world in the form of communist China overwhelmed them and brought
about the collapse of not only their civilization but their national
I personally think that if the Tibetans were given more time, a much
longer chance, if there were no Chinese invasion, they would have been
able to succeed in modernizing. The best example of this is that way
back in the 7th Century, Tibet went out to India to get Buddhism. So
this transmission of somebody else's knowledge into Tibetan society
became very effective.
1. "The 1959 Tibetan Revolt: An Interpretation by
Dr. Dawa Norbu," _The China Quarterly_,
March 1977, p.74.
2. _A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise
of the Lamaist State_, Melvyn C. Goldstein,
University of California Press (1989), p.54.
3. Goldstein, p. 89.
4. _Tibet: A Political History_, Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa,
Potala Publications (1984), New York, p.250.
5. Shakabpa, p. 249.
6. Goldstein, p.
7. Shakabpa, p. 249.
8. Goldstein, p.
9. Goldstein, p. 191.
10. _A Short History of Tibet_, H.E. Richardson,
E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1962, p.139.
12. Richardson, p. 140.
13. Shakabpa, p. 276.
14. Goldstein, p. 212.
15. "Gedun Choephel or the Loss of a Sage," _Lungta_
# 6, 1992, published by C. Besucher, Geneva, p.19.
16. From the biography of Gedun Choephel by Heather
Stoddard, quoted in _Lungta_, # 6, p. 19.
17. "A Culture in Exile: Tibetan Refugees in India,"
Thubten Samphel, July-September 1988, _China
Report: A Journal of East Asian Studies_, Center
for Developing Societies, Delhi, p. 238.