Magazine article Commonweal

Torched: How a Political Protest Became an Olympic Event

Magazine article Commonweal

Torched: How a Political Protest Became an Olympic Event

Article excerpt

Ever since the late eighteenth century, Tibet has exercised a particular hold on the Western imagination. A Himalayan kingdom, difficult to reach, it remained seemingly faithful to its age-old traditions, high above the great changes sweeping over the modern world. The Shangri-la of James Hilton's Lost I Lorizon in 1933 was not his invention; the pacific, magical realm was already there as the land of Kim's lama, described by Rudyard Kipling in 1901, as well as in the accounts of the few Western travelers reaching it.

The myth of Shangri-la says more about Western imagination than Tibetan reality, of course. In fact, the region has a perfectly good history of violence and oppression, of political infighting and conniving, the same as other lands. From 1804 to 1876, for example, four successive Dalai Lamas died mysteriously before reaching maturity. The Great Thirteenth, on the other hand (1876-1933), proved adept in using the rivalries among Britain, Russia, and China to secure a breathing space for his land and people, though shortly before his death he issued a prescient warning of the troubles facing Tibet if it did not change.

Other myths still hang over the mountain fastnesses. One holds that Tibet has always (or almost always) been independent. Another--zealously propagated by both the Chinese Communists and their Nationalist predecessors--that Tibet has always been part of their nation. Yet what does "always" mean, and what does "independent" mean? Finally, what is the "Tibet" to which these modifiers apply?

Has Tibet been a sovereign country? Or, alternatively, has China exerted sovereign power over a region called Tibet? Put thus, the question simply made no sense until about a century ago. Sovereignty and nationhood are relatively modern concepts, emerging from the wreckage of Europe's seventeenth-century wars, and they are difficult to apply beyond the West. Zhuquan, the Chinese term for "sovereignty," did not come into common use until the late nineteenth century. For a millennium or more, it would have been impossible to define clear boundaries between, say, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Manchuria, and so forth. Certainly, Mongols, Tibetans, Chinese, and others usually lived in territories that had some general cultural and even ethnic cohesion. Yet no clear frontiers separated their lands, which were frequently contested, often to China's disadvantage. In 763, for example, a powerful Tibetan army fought its way into the great Tang capital of Chang'an. Furthermore, it's worth remembering that foreign dynasties ruled China for almost four of the six and a half centuries between 1279 and 1912.

Though the Yuan established some degree of authority over Tibet in the thirteenth century, theirs was a Mongol, not a Chinese, dynasty. And while the Qing dynasty (1644-1912)--itself Manchu--occasionally exerted influence in Tibet, by and large the region was left to its own devices. From 1912 until 1950, Chinese authority was very shadowy indeed. On the other hand, no foreign nation--the United States included--ever formally recognized Tibet as an entity independent of China (though the British, at least, were also careful not to admit to Chinese "sovereignty" over Tibet).

What precisely makes up Tibet? Does the term mean simply what Beijing considers the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)--central Tibet, with its capital at Lhasa? Or does it include what's sometimes called Greater Tibet, or ethnographic Tibet, embracing the Tibetan-peopled regions of western provinces like Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan? Today, when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama calls for Tibetan autonomy (not independence), he appears to mean this larger Tibet, which, he believes, should be permitted to retain its own culture and institutions, while Beijing would remain in control of foreign and military policy.

Yet if the idea of national sovereignty, whether Chinese or Tibetan, had little meaning before modern times, a conception of Tibetan separateness (whether or not as part of a Chinese empire) makes a good deal of sense, historically, ethnically, geographically, and above all, culturally, the last quality most evident in Tibetan Buddhism. …

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