Tibet’s Transition to the Modern World

In the 9th chapter of The Tibetans, Matthew Kapstein describes the recent history of Tibet, as they transitioned from an essentially autonomous state to one occupied and controlled by Communist China. He especially touches upon the loss of religious freedom and culture that Tibet is experiencing, due to strict Chinese rule.

First, Kapstein describes how Tibet was in a period of pseudo-turmoil right before the People’s Republic of China absorbed Tibet into their country in 1951. This period of uncertainty began when the Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in December 1933. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Tibetan state, and as his successor had not yet been found, it was unclear who would rule the region. In the interim that they were searching for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the government decided that power “would be shared by a lama serving as regent… and a lay chief minister.” (271) The Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s nephew, Langdün, was selected for the lay chief minister position, and Reting Rinpoché would serve as the regent. Much more occurred at this time, as there were others in consideration to rule the government, controversies surrounding Reting which inspired a coup d’état by his supporters, and other power struggles in Tibet, making the region unstable and unprepared for the Chinese invasion.

Although Tibet was considered an autonomous region since the fall of the Manchu dynasty, when Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang government entered power, they considered re-absorbing Tibet under Chinese control. Communists, led my Mao Zedong, challenged the Guomindang government and a power struggle in China erupted. Even though they were fighting, “the need to restore Tibet to the motherland was in fact one of the few things that the Communists and the Guomindang seemed to agree about.” (273) When Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek, taking control of Tibet was thus on his agenda. The Communist victory in China paired with the internal turmoil in Tibet created perfect conditions for the Chinese to occupy the region, as a divided Tibet stood no chance in defending itself about the new, powerful People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese exerted their control on the Tibetans very gradually, initially only holding negotiations and promising that existing systems in Tibet would remain unchanged. “Mao wished to avoid a prolonged conflict and urged instead Tibet’s “peaceful liberation.” (280) After some negotiations, there was some initial military action to ensure that the Tibetan army was immobilized; however they “did not push on with an actual invasion of Tibet. Their intention was just to make it clear to the Tibetans that they could not expect to resist” and that they would be under Chinese control. (280) Some of the initial promises that the Chinese made to the Tibetans included that “…the existing political system and military will not be changed…All members of the religious bodies of all classes, government officials, and headmen will perform their duties as usual… The PLA… will respect the religion and customs and habits of the Tibetan people.” (280) The Chinese government issued these words in a policy statement after the invasion, and later presented the Tibetans with the 17-Point Agreement, reinforcing these promises that they made but also confirming their control over Tibet. In Point 7, religious freedom was again promised. The Tibetans agreed, for they had few other options.

Once Tibet was officially a part of the People’s Republic of China again, things began to change. The promises that the Chinese made ensuring rights for the Tibetans began to break. The Chinese started to institute reforms to make Tibet more resemble the Communist empire that they were building and they attempted to rearrange Tibetan power structures. Leaders of Tibet became fearful of Chinese rule and many fled the country, including the head of the state, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The greatest promise that the Chinese government failed to keep was their guarantee of religious freedom. The Chinese became stricter in their toleration of free religious practice, which affected many Buddhist monks and nuns, forcing many to leave their monasteries and nunneries. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 further worsened the situation. During this period, “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.”” (290) Buddhism and religious practice were staples of Tibetan culture, the Chinese essentially took away their identity.

Once the Cultural Revolution ended, conditions became slightly better for Tibetans, in terms of religious freedoms, as some monasteries were rebuilt and people were allowed to more freely practice Buddhism. However, Tibet in no way has complete religious freedom, as they once did before. The Dalai Lama is still in exile and people are penalized for devotion to him. The nation is still not independent and their struggle for autonomy continues.

Something that I found very interesting in the chapter was the lack of international support that Tibet received in their struggle with China. Unfortunately the Chinese invasion and occupation occurred just as the Korean War was beginning and as India was in a dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. The countries that might have offered aid and support were preoccupied, and thus Tibet remained vulnerable against the Chinese.

When the United States did start giving support to Tibet in the 1950’s through the late 1960’s, they really only did so for their containment policy. The United States was not truly helping Tibet in their fight for freedom, but using them as “pawns in a much larger game.” (286) When the containment policy ended and Nixon and Kissinger “embarked upon the normalization of relations with China in 1971,” support for Tibet was severed. I was bothered by the United States’ selfishness and want to know what others think about their role in the struggle.

Although I didn’t go in depth in my summary of the chaos occurring in Tibet, I was shocked by the internal strife before the occupation. I had always considered Tibet to be a region of peaceful monks, but obviously there are more complex power systems and struggles that exist. I would be curious to know what others thought of this.

In class, we have been talking a lot about the spread of Buddhism by different individuals. This reading suggests that the Dalai Lama’s absence from Tibet and role in the international world as he advocates for Tibet has helped spread the religion even more. Has anyone considered how Buddhism would have spread if the Dalai Lama were not exiled and this conflict did not exist? What is the conflicts role in how Tibetan Buddhism has infiltrated the Western world?





14 thoughts on “Tibet’s Transition to the Modern World

  1. For some reason, when reading your summary, I developed a thought that didn’t come up when reading the actual chapter (so bear with me as I try to keep unfolding it). Much like when Tibet was in a period of pseudo-turmoil right before the People’s Republic of China absorbed it into its country, it is that mental place that many people find themselves before they are engulfed in a religion. When you are vulnerable and searching for stability, there is a vacuum of competing structures/entities (can’t find the word that I actually mean) that attempt to take advantage of those feelings, and fill the void. Although we like to think of religion as always meaning well and keeping an individual’s best interest at heart, that always necessarily the case because nothing is perfect. So in a sense, much like a colonial country invades when they think that people need “saving,” a religion can also do that.

  2. If the Dalai Lama had more of an influence on the Tibetans the religion would be much more prevalent. But as the Tibetans were trying to rebuild after the cultural revolution, it seems like Buddhism was forced to have boundaries and restrictions. During these years of rebuilding, do you think it might have been better for the Tibetans to start from scratch and change their traditions so it just isolated the core of the religion and aspects of meditation? Would a figure like Choygam Trungpa helped to slowly build the religion up again at the Tibets own pace?

  3. Since this was 6 years after WWII had ended, I think that may have been a reason they didn’t receive much international support. Many of the powerhouses had just finished a war and they didn’t want to get involved in another. All of Europe was being rebuilt and the Cold war was beginning as well so many of the people who could have helped worldwide were focused on something they deemed as a bigger problem.

  4. I think that if the Dalai Lama hadn’t left Tibet and this conflict never existed, Tibetan Buddhism would be much less prevalent. It would probably be viewed as some untouchable, exotic religion and have much less publicity in the west than if the Dalai Lama didn’t leave. When he left, he brought publicity onto the issue and Buddhism, as he is a great spiritual leader in the religion. The publicity certainly peaked some people’s interest, and as knowledge about the religion spread, practitioners of Buddhism most certainly increased too.

  5. I think Taty is right that the conflict has brought international attention to Tibetan Buddhism, and that this fact probably has much to do with the spread of the religion to the Western world. I wonder whether things would be different if the historical narrative we encounter in the U.S. did not favor the Tibetans and if we were therefore not as sympathetic to Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and the cause.

    Another thing I found myself wondering about that wasn’t much touched upon was how exactly the Tibet-China conflict has affected the evolution of the religion itself. Perhaps this is something we could talk about in class.

  6. After reading this chapter, I’ve become interested in the different Dalai Lama’s effects on the Tibetan political system. Just as consecutive presidents or dictatorships or ruling powers in general can differ greatly in how they run their country, I was wondering if historically the Dalai Lamas generally shared political views with one another or if they varied greatly as well. The difference between most ruling entities and the Dalai Lama is that the Dalai Lamas are all Tibetan Buddhists and therefore share similar upbringings and teachings versus more general rulerships that take over the predecessor by force or by election.

  7. Though the Tibet-China conflict is unfortunate, it brought awareness of the Himalayan region to people around the world. This probably helped lead to a more universal understanding of Tibetan Buddhism.

  8. This spring I read Dalai Lama’s autobiography, “My Land & My People”, and he explains the reason behind the lack of international support. Basically, after world war 2, the Korean war, and the retreat of the English from South Asia, most western nations did not want to intervene in the East any more (practically ‘done’ with Asia), whilst no Eastern country had power to interfere with China (Japan being the defeated nation). The United Nations acknowledged this issue during the late 50s, yet did not actively chastise the Chinese government nor enforced any kind of international law. If such a thing were to have happened just 20 years later, I don’t think China would have succeeded to absorb Tibet. The book was a sad read.

  9. I was thinking the same thing that Jesse has mentioned. I am very curious to see the changes in the religion itself due to the conflict. I do agree that the conflict helped bring the religion to the forefront on an international scale, but I am curious to see if and how the religion was affected and if it was altered at all? Would these changes have taken place if the conflict had not existed?

  10. Uma vez que este foi de 6 anos após a Segunda Guerra Mundial tinha terminado, eu acho que pode ter sido uma razão que não receberam muito apoio internacional,o governo chinês nem aplicaram qualquer tipo de lei internacional. Se tal coisa tivesse acontecido apenas 20 anos depois, eu não acho que a China teria conseguido absorver o Tibete

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