The historical question of Tibet ’s administrative and cultural linkage to Chinese central governments prior to October 1950 is a matter of consequential debate. As with other Tibetan topics which appear to have garnered sustained attention from central authorities in Beijing , the development of scholarship on Tibet ’s historical linkages with China has reached a rather fecund status. Unsurprisingly, the immense financial resources which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has poured into Tibetan history research have yielded a great deal of scholarly work which stresses a pattern of unremitting contact between the lamaist court in Lhasa and what is rather loosely called “the central government/ 中央政府”.
The existence of this body of scholarship serves, in some ways, as a repository to be turned to in times of great stress. When its claims of legitimacy over Tibet are questioned internationally – for instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Tibetan uprising of March 2008 — the CCP can confidently hoist up a simplified historical interpretation that “the Tibetans have always been a member of the Chinese family, and for 700 years since the Yuan dynasty, the Chinese central government has carried out effective governance over Tibet” (Tibet: Past and Present Beijing, March 2009, p. 1).”
More importantly, such statements render Tibet ’s absorption into the PRC in 1951 by the CCP as the restoration of a long-standing status quo. The CCP thus appears on the Tibetan scene as the smooth successor to thousands of years of dynastic history, not a group of radical atheists bent on the destruction of Tibet ’s sacred past. Die-hard foreigners and recalcitrant Tibetans who refuse to accept the CCP’s legitimacy in Tibet, rejecting the Party’s rhetoric and achievements in the areas of modernization and economic development, ought properly to be stunned into silence when confronted with the picture of seven hundred years of continuous and central government rule over Lhasa.
Since the uprising (or, depending on the rhetorical orthodoxy being employed, the “riot”/dongluan) in Lhasa of March 14, 2008, Party presses have been churning out a great deal of new information seeking to reinforce the CCP’s claims to Tibet . Particularly prominent have been treatments of the “serf liberation” of 1959 emphasizing and enumerating the evils of the Tibetan aristocracy prior to 1959, such that the PRC retroactively made a holiday out of it. In addition to the standard range of social science and religious research, these texts include historical treatments of the Tibetan aristocracy prior to 1951.
Much more useful for mainstream historians are publications on the early 1950s. A new treatment of Zhang Jingwu is glossy and available in both Chinese and English, describing events of the early and mid-1950s in a way that seems very much in keeping with Party scholarship on similar developments in Xinjiang at the time. Although there is as yet no sign of his Volume 2 in translation, Melvyn Goldstein’s immense and authoritative The Demise of the Lamaist State (originally published in English in 1989) has been available in Chinese since 2001, but it has been reprinted and is now widely available.
Probably the most interesting are the memoirs of Liu Shengqi, stationed in Lhasa from 1944 to 1949 as the English-language Secretary for various (GMD) Central Government organs. More importantly for historians, he later became one of the foremost Tibetologists in the early PRC. His lively biographical history which intersected with one of the major turning points in the modern history of the Tibetan plateau – the fall from power of the Nationalist Party in mainland China. He is therefore a figure of significance when attempting to unravel both what happened in Tibet at the end of the Chinese Republican era, but also in how Tibet ’s subsequent history was interpreted, as he himself was instrumental in crafting the distinctive CCP historiography on the Tibetan plateau.
His memoirs of his Lhasa years are entitled Lhasa Jiushi; this is an important text which one would hope will be appearing in English before too long. (It remains surprising how few Tibetologists in the West cite Chinese sources with real regularity; we might regard this as testimony to a kind of intellectual divide, or sympathize with the fact that it is a lifelong struggle to learn either Tibetan or Chinese in the first place.) Liu’s travels and interactions, his youthful perspective, and his assessment of Han-Tibetan interactions in and around Lhasa provide a unique point of view into multiple issues, in particular, the often-vain efforts of the Chinese Central Government to establish and solidify administrative connections with Tibet . In July 1949, Liu was expelled from Lhasa , and Tibet braced itself for the collision with Maoism.
The appearance of these texts seems to be part of a larger effort to diffuse some new thinking or at least new sources about Tibetan history in the pre-1959 era, an effort which seems to have been redoubled in the aftermath of the March 2008 uprising in Lhasa . Rather than sitting on its historical laurels and repeating the old slogans, the CCP has mobilized a wave of scholarship and documentary energy in the service of documenting (and sometimes demonizing) the old system while at the same time emphasizing the high respect with which Chinese bureaucrats from “the center” have always regarded Tibetans and Tibetan culture.
Liu Shengqi. Lhasa Jiushi, 1944-1949 拉萨旧事. Beijing: Zhongguo Zangxue Chubanshe, 2010.
China Tibet Magazine Publishing, ed. 中国西藏杂志社编，西藏民族的新生：民主改革亲历史 （北京：中国藏学出版社，2009。3。）New Life for Tibetans: Personal Histories of the Democratic Reforms.
Tsering Yangdzom, The Aristocratic Families in Tibetan History, 1900-1951 ( Beijing : China Intercontinental Press, 2006) [originally published as 次仁央宗著，西藏贵族世家：1900-1951 （北京：五洲传播出版社）.
Che Minghuai and Zhang Huachuan, Zhang Jingwu: The Representative of the Central People’s Government in Tibet, translated by Ta Gerun ( Beijing : China Tibetology Publishing House, 2009).