Tibet & China: Then and Now

In the ninth chapter of the Matthew Kapstein’s book “Tibet in the Modern World,” he discusses in detail the great divide between China and Tibet and the civil unrest that Tibet faced as a result. Kapstein explains how the “interpretation of this history is still very sharply contested, even where there is consensus regarding what actually took place,” (Kapstein, 269). This is important to note because it indicates the multitude of sides to this particular part of history which makes it difficult to decipher the actual truth. I however found that Kapstein did an excellent job of profiling the history in an unbiased and truthful manner.

Kapstein begins by depicting how the widespread perspective of the United Sates and Western Europe of what took place between China and Tibet was that the “brutal machinery of Chinese communism invaded an independent, peace-loving land, and has since been determined to eradicate any trace of Tibetan cultural and religious traditions in China,” (269). Kapstein further explains how in this same perspective, though Tibet has continually faced hardship in recent decades, they still strive to “preserve” their “enlightened, spiritual civilization against all odds.” (269) Kapstein adds that of course the Chinese perspective is completely opposite. In China’s view, Tibet has “for centuries been part of China and the Tibetans now enjoy unprecedented liberty and prosperity,” (269). Kapstein goes on to tell how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) feels that this liberty and prosperity is in great contrast to what the Tibetan people experienced under the Dalai Lama’s rule. The CCP’s view is that the Dalai Lama is actually the source of divide, trying to split China apart by supporting Tibet’s independence.

Though Kapstein’s summary of what takes place between China and Tibet is a shortened version of all that happened, I can’t possibly summarize all that he does. So instead I have chosen a few of the main events that took place surrounding Tibet’s relations with China in order to give a decent scope of the all that is explained in the chapter. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in December of 1933, which marks the beginning of all that ensued. His death left Tibet in a sort of “vacuum” state, especially since the government had not found a proper successor to take the Dalai Lama’s place (270). During this period Tibet faced much conflict within itself about who should rise to power and how. The internal power struggles Tibet faced at this time left it weak to outside forces, and China saw this as an opportunity to reclaim Tibet.

Tibet had been technically independent from China ever since the Manchu dynasty lost power. However, as Kapstein puts it, “Chinese leadership never accepted this sate of affairs.” As a result General Musong was sent to Lhasa by the Guomindang government. Even though they presented it as a show of condolence in the wake of the Dalai Lama’s death, it was really a means to “open negotiations regarding Tibet’s status vis-à-vis China.” (273) Kapstein further writes how the Guomindang and Communists both agreed that Tibet was rightfully a part of China. Those in power in the Tibetan government were skeptical of negotiating with China, yet at the same time were also worried to completely end discussions with the Guomindang representatives. The Tibetan leaders knew that at some point soon the issue would need to be dealt with and therefore tried to maintain an unstrained relationship.

Meanwhile, the search for a new Dalai Lama was underway. A new Lama was found in a place that was not part of political Tibet, also under the control of the Chinese Muslim warlord, Ma, Bufang. After debate about being able to bring the boy they’d found from his home for further study to see if he was the Dalai Lama they’d been searching for, the Guomindang government assisted in getting Ma to allow the child to leave under certain “conditions so as to secure a role for China in the new Dalai Lama’s recognition and installation: the director of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission was to participate in the ceremonies in Lhasa.” (275)

A multitude of events followed that presented civil unrest: a coup d’état took place lead by Reting, the appointed regent. Although that attempt failed, this set-off violent conflict between the two sides. A rebellion also took place at Reting’s monastery some time later. It was after these events, which the Dalai Lama found to be “deeply disturbing,” that the Dalai Lama truly realized the turmoil of the political system he was being “raised to rule.” (278). It was around this time that Mao Zedong claimed his victory in China. Mao’s “intention” became to “ ‘liberate’ ” the Tibetan people from the “grips of imperialism, which they found puzzling as no imperialists were known to be active in Tibet at the time.” (279) At first, the Chinese, made it clear that they wanted this transition to be peaceful, and they didn’t begin with an invasion. Instead they just wanted to make it clear that the Tibetans simply could not resist against China’s immense force. Negotiations between sides therefore commenced. An agreement was formed that encompassed the “17-Point Agreement,” which essentially established that although Tibet would return as a part of China, the Chinese government would respect and allow Tibet to uphold its cultural and political system. In light of this, the Dalai Lama’s advisers motivated him to make his return to Lhasa as well as publically accept the 17-Point agreement, after being in exile for some time.

However, the 17-Point agreement was highly controversial. Though much ensued following this, the essence of it all was that the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, and following that, the United States became involved as support for Tibet. This was until Nixon and Kissinger wanted to ease tension with China and when aiding Tibet was no longer in their personal interest they ceased US presence in Tibet. Following this, the Dalai Lama, now 25-years-old, was thought to be in danger due to “declarations of oracles as well as astrological indications.” (287) Therefore, when the Dalai Lama was invited to a musical concert that was going to be held at Chinese military headquarters, the news spread through the Tibetan people like wildfire. Rumors began that this concert was to be the Dalai Lama’s doom, and that it was secretly an elaborate assassination or kidnapping. Though there was no “factual evidence,” that this was true, a “spontaneous demonstration of thousands” began “during which one leading Tibetan official was stoned and another, a prominent monk…was beaten to death,” (277-288). As a result of the protests, the Dalai Lama ended up cancelling his plan to attend the concert in light of all that was taking place. Demonstrations continued, and “disturbances” took place throughout the country (288). An oracle pronounced the Dalai Lama was no longer safe in Tibet, and so, as a result he fled from Tibet, arriving in South India. Though many events took place in much more detail than I will describe, the end result was that China lost its trust in the Dalai Lama and his ability to negotiate. With the Cultural Revolution in China at its peak, it was time for Tibetan traditional culture to take a massive hit. Kapstein illustrates this time as follows:

…all but a few of the thousands of Tibetan temples and monasteries were razed,     their artistic treasures and libraries destroyed or plundered. Tens of thousands of          monks and nuns, together with what remained of the aristocracy and the middle-class peasantry as well, were forced to undergo “reeducation.” Many thus perished under extraordinarily harsh conditions, or suffered prolonged maltreatment in prison. (289-290)

Furthermore, a Tibetan community had formed in India, the Dalai Lama at its forefront. Refugee camps were formed in parts of India, with the support of the Indian government. During this time, several major monasteries were able to reestablish themselves,” as well as making it a “priority,” now more than ever, to educate monks (290). Kapstein concluded by explaining that the “Dalai Lama himself emerged as a spiritual leader of international renown, struggling to use him prominence to call the world’s attention to his nation’s predicament” (290).

When I read the article, I was incredibly intrigued by the detail Kapstein was able to give. I had known generally about the Tibetan-Chinese conflict but I had no idea of the intricacy of it its complexity. I was really fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s role throughout. I really found it interesting how, at the end of everything he became an outspoken figure for what his people were facing, as well as a respected figure all over the world. Even though some of his decisions became catalysts for added conflict, he was always respected by the Tibetan people. I also found the relationship between the Dalai Lama and his people and vice versa to be really interesting because it seems to truly be one of epic care and compassion. Tibetan culture is so unique that I feel like this is part of why the Tibetan people have such an immense bond.

As Kapstein continues until the end of the article to describe the aftermath of the cultural revolution to present day, I also was interested by his discussion of re-education of children and how the Tibetan language is becoming less and less used in schools. This to me is a clear sign of China’s influence, even though the Tibetan people have fought so hard to maintain a sense of tradition. It made me really wonder what Tibetan culture will be like in the years to follow present day.

Discussion Questions are as follows:

  1. What, in your perspective, was the climax of the Chinese-Tibetan conflict and why do you think this?
  1. Do you think that there is anything that could have changed the course of events if something had gone just a bit differently?
  1. In your opinion, how do you feel about where Tibet and China stand today? What course of action do you think should be taken (if any) to try and come to some kind of compromise between the two sides?


9 thoughts on “Tibet & China: Then and Now

  1. I think the climax had to be the Dalai-Lama fleeing. It served as a turning point that marked Chinese influence overwhelming Tibet. With the DalI-Lama gone Tibet is a changed nation, one that is not fully whole. The main figure that unites the country no longer resides there, so Tibet can’t really be Tibet. This marks the climax for it marks China winning.

  2. Even though it was at times hard to follow (especially early, trying to keep track of Tibetan aristocrats and religious leaders), this was a really interesting reading for me because I knew so little about the history of this conflict. I thought it was a cool look into Tibet, but since this course is about religion, the absence of much discussion of religion in the text stood out to me. Although of course the Dalai Lama plays such a central role in the story as Tibet’s leader and religious centers are targets for the cultural genocide carried out by the Chinese, there was no discussion of how Tibetan buddhism (and perhaps its contrast with practice elsewhere in China) may have influenced the events Kapstein describes, and vice versa. I would be curious to hear a little bit about both.

  3. This article provided a fascinating glance at the complexity of Tibet’s history. Although there was a lot of information to process, Kapstein does a very good job of presenting details in a very clear manner, making the article very readable. I want to concur with Cole’s point that he brought up in his comment – there was very little about Tibet’s rich religious customs. Aside from the obvious religious leader of the Dali Lama, I felt like there was not much mention of Buddhism. This leads me to wonder how big of a role religion may or may not have played in the history of Tibet. Did it have any influence at all?

  4. I completely agree with Cole in that i felt like certain religious aspects of the conflict were missing. I can’t help wonder how different the outcome would have been if there would have been no turmoil in the government and a united religious front against the invasion.

  5. I agree with a lot of aspects of the above comments, starting with the one that this was very clear in its nature and made many of the aspects of the history very clear for me. I did not know much about this conflict at all so reading through, although it was a bit hard to keep some of the names straight, was very interesting and I really enjoyed it. I do agree to the point that there was not much religion at all in the piece besides the Dalai Lama. I think that religion definitely would have played a part in such a huge conflict but for some reason a big majority of it was missing. I would’ve liked to see that talked about a bit more and seen the roles, even if it was based around the Dalai Lama, that religion played in this conflict and the results it had in the end.

  6. I agree that this reading was a little bit tougher to get through because of what felt like “information overload,” especially hard after the fantastical-seeming stories of Kunley and Virupa which were captivating and very new to us. What I did find particularly interesting, however, was the mention of Chögyam Trungpa and the way in which the Fourteenth Dalai Lama approached his position. Though it was brief, I thought it was interesting hearing about Trungpa from a different, more objective point of view. We spoke in class of how Midal was a devote follower of Trungpa, so he had a strong bias in favor of Trungpa, but Kapstein seems to see him as a pretty positive figure as well. He explains that Trungpa “successfully adapted aspects of their teaching to contemporary Western ways of thought, giving a strikingly modern appearance
    to millennial traditions” in order to spread Tibetan Buddhism (290). I also thought that Kapstein’s piece on the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was incredibly interesting. I think that his ability to entertain other ideas is a very respectable trait to have in a leader. In order to create your best self, I think that it is important to listen to many perspectives on life and the fact that “he has actively pursued conversations with leaders of other religions, as well as with contemporary scientists” is very honorable because, when it comes to religion, it seems that many people are stuck in their beliefs and have difficulty entertaining the ideas of others (300). This reading made me wonder at what point does modernization corrupt a religion. Can we adapt a religion so much that it is no longer Tibetan Buddhism?

  7. Before reading this chapter I was not very aware of the conflict between China and Tibet. I was surprised that there were so many power struggles in Tibet and that corruption existed within the government. I also thought it was interesting that the Chinese government first tried to incorporate Tibet into China peacefully by creating the 17 points, which would have allowed Tibetans to maintain their culture. As mentioned by Avery, I believe that the climax of the conflict was when the Dalai Lama decided to flee Tibet, leaving the area without their main spiritual leader.

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