33 Questions on The History of Modern Tibet

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American Foreign Policy / Chinese communist party / Cultural Politics / Tibet

Here on Sinologistical Violoncellist, the subject of Tibet seems to be coming up with greater frequency, as it ought to.  After all, the Dalai Lama remains floating through the universe (and the halls of Congress, Richard Gere in tow) dropping rhetorical bombs on Beijing, and Zhongnanhai makes no bones about shutting off all avenues of dialog with the 14th reincarnation.

And thus, apropos of well, this, allow me to state that people who have not read (or are in the process of reading and attempting to digest) Melvyn Goldstein’s relatively new tome on the Chinese Communist Party’s policies in Tibet from 1951-1955 are really missing out.  I believe this is one of the most essential books that anyone can read, and should read, in order to understand the compromises that are both possible and historically relevant between the Chinese and Tibetan leadership, and the inherent conflict in their positions.

Thus, I bring you a few dozen questions (which, unlike most of the material on this blog, I encourage you to plagiarize and modify as you like):

Discussion Questions [by Adam Cathcart] re: Melvyn Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, Vol. 2: The Calm Before the Storm, 1951-1955 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

CHAPTER ONE – Chinese Perspectives

1. On pages 22-25, Goldstein lays out a set of points which are key to understanding the realistic conditions for CCP’s gradualist policy in Tibet.  I presently believe that the CCP were gradualist because they had to be.  Goldstein, on the other hand, never draws this explicit conclusion.  Why doesn’t Goldstein want to discuss more about the motives of the communist leaders?

2. In describing “United Front” (e.g., propaganda) work of the PLA, Goldstein describes Mao’s “carrot-stick” approach toward Tibet.  What are the carrots, and what are the sticks?  Absent the tens of thousands of troops bearing down on Chamdo, could Mao have gotten the Tibetan government to agree to anything?

CHAPTER TWO – Tibetan Perspectives

3. What is the 1914 Simla Convention and why does Prime Minister Nehru get on the phone about it during his meeting with the Tibetans (p. 45)?  Why isn’t India more supportive of the Tibetans in their hour of need?

4. In their first meeting with the new Chinese ambassador to India, Yuan Zhongxian, in September 1950, the Tibetans state that “there is no need to liberate Tibet from imperialism, because there are no British, American, or Guomindang imperialists in Tibet, and Tibet is ruled by the Dalai Lama (not a foreign power).”  Is this a true statement?  If so, then why does the CCP continue to insist that it is liberating Tibet from foreign imperialism?

CHAPTER FOUR – Dalai Lama to Yadong

5.   In Tibet’s appeal to the UN (pp. 90-91), China is pictured as immense and inherently aggressive.  In what ways is the memo’s ultimate suggestion – the dispatch of a UN fact-finding mission to Tibet – both a non-starter with the Chinese and a horrendously belated request for political recognition from the global community?

CHAPTER FIVE – The United States Intervenes

6. Why does Goldstein find it necessary to discuss China’s intervention in the Korean War in late 1950 (pp. 114-115)?  Is it possible that the connection between the war in Korea and the events in Tibet is actually much, much bigger than Goldstein implies? Or is the Korean War irrelevant to events on the Tibetan plateau at this time?

7. In point one “Against the Embassy Proposal,” the author describes how the goal of U.S. policy in China for the past several decades has been to support the “territorial integrity” of China (p. 116).  The Americans threw hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of millions of dollars into the Asian theater of World War II to support that policy and back up China’s right to exist.  Why would the Americans have considered throwing out all of that history and investment of blood and treasure in order to advocate a separation of Tibet from China?  Does the U.S. Executive Branch support China’s territorial integrity today?  Does the Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, as she demands a consulate be set up in 2011 in Lhasa?

8.  What is the major problem with the American statement (p. 117) that “we should encourage….Tibet’s orientation toward the West rather than the East”?

9.  If it were possible to find enough information, the trip that never happened of “experienced explorer-scholar Schuyler Cammonn, University of Pennsylvania” to Tibet to spy out the situation in summer 1949 would be a fascinating and very publishable research paper topic (p. 119).  If anyone is interested in hunting down more information about this thread for a possible guest blog post on Sinologistical Violoncellist, please let me know.

10. In U.S. Ambassador to India Henderson’s secret letter to the Dalai Lama, he recommends that his Holiness go into exile in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka).  Why does Henderson recommend this course of action?  Why is this letter not a part of the Dalai Lama’s autobiography or his manga biography?

11. In the 1950s, is the Indian border city of Kalimpong really, as George Patterson called it, a “nest of spies”?

CHAPTER SIX “The Dalai Lama Returns to Lhasa”

12. At the three-day assembly and debate in Yadong, why are the Tibetan monks, including the abbots of the big three monasteries, nearly unanimous in demanding return the Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa (p. 138)?  How would you characterize the strategy of the three big monasteries in the eight years (1951-1958) of cooperation with the CCP?

13. Namseling is hardcore, the main advocate of rejecting the agreement, and therefore of the idea of perpetuating the notion of a political and cultural Tibet in exile. Why does Namseling oppose China?  What is his particular view of the global role of the question of sovereignty in “keeping the flame of Tibetan independence alive”?   Does history change at all if Namseling wins this argument?

CHAPTER SEVEN – Initial Contacts and Strategies

1. Zhang Jingwu arrives in Lhasa on 8 August 1951.  Given that Mao had proclaimed the People’s Republic on 1 October 1949 (and with the republic, presumably, the victory of the CCP in civil war), doesn’t Zhang’s arrival in Lhasa seem awfully late?  If so, then what does Tibet’s later timetable for consolidation tell us about China’s sensitiveness about “territorial integrity”?

2. Note the pre-arrival stereotypes of the Han Chinese among Tibetans: many Tibetans thought the Chinese might be “devils” of some kind.  How are the imaginations of some Tibetans calmed, and others enflamed, by the appearance of actual Chinese in Lhasa?

3.  Why were songs especially important in Tibet’s political culture?  Hint: Because there were no newspapers in Lhasa before the Chinese showed up!

4. Who is Shelling, the source on pp. 171-172 for Zhang Jingwu’s appearance in Lhasa?  Hint: he’s my old housemate in Cleveland!  I was fortunate to live with linguistically talented and spiritually adept Tibetan aristocrats, via Dhramsala, when I was studying to become a Sinologistical Violoncellist in Cleveland in the late 1990s.

5. How does Lukhangwa fit into contemporary images of Tibet?  Which “side” in the contemporary context is more truthful?  Does Lukhangwa represent an incorrect approach among Tibetans toward relations with China?  Is there such a thing as Tibetan xenophobia, or would that phrase be politically incorrect?

6.  Would Tibet be better off had Sinified Tibetans like Lobsang Tashi been more assertive (p. 193)?

7. How does the fait accompli of the 17-Point Agreement make the sitsab even more hard-line in dealing with initial Chinese military officials in Tibet (p. 174)?

8. Chinese propagandists made promoted many positive images of Zhang’s first month in Lhasa.  In what ways was Zhang’s behavior toward the monasteries patterned after the Guomindang/Nationalist precendent in Tibet? And why, generally speaking, was there no open Sino-Tibetan disagreement in this period?

9. Why doesn’t Lukhangwa’s threat involving “the three jewels and karmic cause” scare the Chinese (p. 176)? Hint: It’s because the Chinese officials are atheists!

10. Would you attribute the first-ever growth of what we would recognize as “civil society” in Tibet to the Chinese pressure (pp. 177-179)?  Is it fair to say that the arrival of the CCP inaugurates a period of real political participation for Tibet’s non-official aristocrat class and others?  If so, doesn’t this render the CCP as a positive force in Tibet?

11.  What was Mao’s strategy with regards to the Dalai Lama?  Does it seem likely, given the reasonably reliable information on p. 179, that the CCP threat to kill the Dalai Lama – a message delivered via his brother from Qinghai (see also Manga Biography pp. 64-69) – is simply false?

12.  Were the communist leaders sincere in their desire to respect Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism (p. 180 ff.)?  Or was the policy merely a necessary short-term accommodation that preceded their true desire: to wipe out the religion and therefore the basic civilization of Tibet?

13.  In what ways is the CCP directive not to stir up class consciousness or attack landowners (p. 183) fundamentally at odds with concurrent political events in China at the time?  What would scholars like Julia Strauss or the author of Words Kill have to say about CCP policy in Tibet in comparison to that in China proper?

14.  In the early 1950s, the CCP leadership insisted that there be no specific timetable set up for Tibet’s fuller integration into the PRC.  In what ways does this strategy mirror Sun Tzu or Chairman Mao’s tactics as described in their respective texts Art of War and On Protracted War?  Does everything that important require a plan with a calendar? Or are flexible principles themselves sufficient grounds for acting efficiently and effectively?  Did the Tibetans fail in the 1950s because of a dearth of ancient and indiginous military texts and strategies?

15. In what way is Lukhangwa the real father of “the Tibetan Resistance”?  Can we speak of a “Lukhangwa model” of resistance today, or have times, tactics, and perspectives changed radically?  In what ways has his strategy failed the Tibetans, particularly in the impulsive and independent character of the resistance?

16. What do you think of Goldstein’s implicit assertion that Tibet weakened itself by truncating the modernizing influence of British-educated Tibetans from 1914-1933?  In what ways did Tibet’s “anti-imperialism” of the 1910s and 1920s – an outlook and violent activity for which the CCP lauds them still – paradoxically leave Tibet unreformed and thus open to Chinese allegations that they, the Chinese, are modernizing Tibet because the Tibetans are incapable of doing the job themselves?

17.  On pages 192-193, Goldstein describes the minor wave of Tibetan students who went to study in the interior of China at places like People’s University in Beijing.  While Goldstein seems to interpret this change positively (or at the very worst, as an anodyne development), Tibetan exiles have since depicted the associated actions as a form of “abduction” by the Chinese, part of a quasi-genocidal process of forced acculturation.  In the long run, why does this topic of Tibetans studying in China matter at all?  Shouldn’t we just be focused on what the Chinese are doing in Tibet itself?

18.  When it comes to Tibetans who admired Chinese modernization and culture in the early- and mid-1950s, the Dalai Lama needs also to be considered (pp. 200-205).  Didn’t these people understand that China was about to embark upon two massively destructive mass campaigns, known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which would be very harmful to Tibetans?  If the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Sinified elites had had better foresight, wouldn’t they have gone into exile in 1951 instead of giving the Chinese Communist Party a chance to demonstrate its moderate nature?  Conversely, what is the historical problem with criticizing the young Dalai Lama and others for pro-China tendencies in the mid-1950s?

19.  Of the partially-Sinified and conciliationist wing of the Tibetan elites, few are more influential in the long run than Ngabo.  Do you consider Ngabo a pragmatic patriot or a sell-out?

20.  When is a scholar going to write a historically accurate rap battle between Ngabo and the culturally conservative obstructionist Lukhangwa, giving each man a verse which pivot around a chorus which starts with “khasey dingsey,” which is the Tibetan phrase for “say what your feel and think?”

Brave, Yet Isolated: Cat Surveys Shigatse, The Old Haunts of the Panchen Lama; photo by Adam Cathcart

The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com.

8 Comments

  1. Kristiana says

    I confess my reading of Goldstein has not had enough history in it (it’s mostly been his massive Tibetan-English dictionary has of late…!).
    -Lukhangwa: To confess I haven’t heard of him. But I have read the biography of Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal Phunwang, a project of which Goldstein was largely part. This in itself gives valuable insight into what even the most enthusiastic supporters of the CCP were really interested in…Similarly, his and other (even more recent) resistance movements have been very Maoist all along, very much following the school of theArt of War.
    As for your chapter 7 Questions, this would be some interesting direction for me to further take some of this research. Regarding the Great Leap Forward, etc., I could posit the correlation between the Great Leap Forward and a general interest in reforming “Feudal Society.” Did this book mention that, as it turns out, Tibet, Qinghai, and Gansu were the hardest-hit during the GLF? Who woulda thunk…
    As for #17-18 on university students and enthusiastically supporting the Chinese Central Gov’t — I think these two questions feed directly into each other. When you deligitimize your own way of both arriving at and sharing knowledge as something “backwards,” and tout the systems of others as more “advanced” than one’s own (and even China’s educational system is certainly a product of Japanese/Western colonialism), many of the benefits, including those of collective empowerment and cultural self-esteem, are thrown out along with it. This state of cultural “orphan-ness” could also lead into reckless forward driving towards anything that seems to be giving direction, hence the potential for (albeit no longer) “minority policy happy” Mao worship in Tibet. More on this train of thought to follow hopefully in terms of where I have been going this semester for my papers and next semester.
    #16: I’ll try to remember where I read more about this – I think in the course of my capstone I followed a 所谓 credible link to 所谓 credible link to read an interesting article on this, but essentially, the Chinese have greatly touted the Tibetan Anti-Imperialist actions, and especially those in either 1904 or 1905 and the Battle of Gyantse as a way of showing early Tibetan “Proletarian” resistance for foreign hegemony. (*Cough*). And thus why Tibet’s destiny has always been that of China’s.
    *#3: I have to address this, don’t I? Well, let’s also keep in mind that not only were newspapers an issue in their own right (literally, since no printing presses were allowed immediately even before the PRC), but…to this day, literacy is still a major concern. The popular songs have a tendency to repeat themselves a lot, and just like the mantras that Mao taught during his guerilla warfare days, they travel fast and far because they are so dang catchy and easy to memorize, even without knowledge of Tibetan script. That’s why song has always been such a good form (and perhaps even best) tool for subversion
    On that note (no pun intended), I thought I should share one more gem that came my way on Tibetan music. I think it drives this whole point entirely.
    This is the Khampa all-star singalong extravaganza, complete with “real” Tibetan dancing that, albeit theatrical, is thankfully without the bizarre Beijing-choreographed, sexed-up elements that I’ve seen in all-too-many stage performances. A reclamation of culture in and of itself…?

    Politically, what grabs you besides some rather unfortunate mistakes in the English translation on the screen, is the very message itself that repeats itself, changing ever so slightly, so that a very powerful political statement of national unity is delivered – and one of a “return” in the sense that one is already physically “home,” but because of other circumstances, is not allowed to be “home” in anywhere but inside one’s heart and mind. You can almost hear it delivered, echoing throughout the plateau. What gets better is, as you can observe (but nearly miss!!!) at 2:24, right under THEIR nose is the PLA.

    (And of course there’s our divo Yadong in a B.A. leather jacket and ponytail, and with him his side-kick Gunga. So what’s not to like..)

      • Adam Cathcart says

        The Phunwang memoir you mentioned was, in fact, just translated into China and published in Hong Kong just when we were leaving the PRC last time. Woeser gives a thourough review here (in Chinese):

        http://woeser.middle-way.net/2011/05/blog-post_24.html

        Somehow I doubt that anyone else will be translating this entry, but it could be very interesting to do so; Woeser clearly thought the book had a great deal of merit, in any event.

  2. justrecently says

    Re chapter 1 – 2. In describing “United Front” (e.g., propaganda) work of the PLA:

    I’m not sure if “united front” can refer to several different organizations and approaches, but I’d think that the united front concept goes far beyond propaganda – it’s a system and approach to ensure the loyalty of non-party-members to the CCP, and to make them and their parties or organizations agents of the CCP. In its own view, it would apply to Taiwanese “province”, too.

    • Adam Cathcart says

      Sure, putting the force into the 统一verb of the 统一战线. Thomas Lutze has a wonderful book about CCP’s united front work with “third-party or middle forces” in the late 1940s. The difference here is that the Tibetans’ other non-CCP choice was not the GMD (who were looking pretty bad to those middle forces in 1949, and whom the Tibetans had [unwisely?] expelled that same year) but the recalcitrant Indians and to a lesser extent the newly interested but relatively impotent Americans.

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