Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet's Move into the Twenty-First Century

By Gao, Jie | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet's Move into the Twenty-First Century


Gao, Jie, Canadian Journal of History


Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet's Move into the Twenty-First Century by John Kenneth Knaus. American Encounters/Global Interactions Series. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2012. xvii. 355 pp. $25.95 US (paper).

Given the dearth of works on the relationship between the United States and Tibet, a monograph with the scope of John Kenneth Knaus' Beyond Shangri-La--which begins at first contact and runs through to the present--is a welcome addition. The author brings a wealth of invaluable personal experience, having long been acquainted with Tibet since his days training rebels there for the CIA beginning in the 1950s. As an historian, Knaus previously authored Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival (New York, 2000).

Aside from works from this author, see: Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, The CIA's Secret War in Tibet (Lawrence, Kansas, 2002); Melvyn C. Goldstein's exhaustive three-volume history of Tibet, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State (Berkeley, 1989); A History of Modern Tibet, Volume 2: The Calm Before the Storm, 1951-1955 (Berkeley, 1997); and, A History of Modern Tibet, Volume 3: The Storm Clouds Descend, 1955-1957 (Berkeley, 2013); and, Carole McGranahan, Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Durham, North Carolina, 2010).

Historically, on the infrequent occasions when Americans took notice of this sprawling, sparsely-populated corner of China, they have shown warm feelings toward the Tibetan people and sympathy for their long-standing struggle for autonomy. Though Tibetans practice Buddhism rather than Christianity, Americans admire their deep spirituality. Politically, Americans often subconsciously superimpose their nation's own anti-colonial struggle on the region, casting the Chinese as the oppressive British Redcoats and the Tibetans as the brave revolutionaries.

When China went through an abortive democratic revolution in 1911, the country subsequently fragmented and regional warlords asserted their rule. This upheaval created an opportunity for Tibet to secure de facto independence with British support. This meant that Americans first took notice of Tibet at one of the relatively brief intervals over the past millennium when it was not under Chinese rule. During this period, the conservative religious authorities who held real power foiled the thirteenth Dalai Lama's attempts at reform and modernization, yet Americans often assume that Tibet could and should be independent.

That said, at no point, however, has Washington been willing to provide the sort of political or material aid required to fulfill the aspirations of Tibetan nationalists. Knaus' overarching theme is that America has been in the right when it has supported Tibetan autonomy, but that it has never developed a coherent, sustained strategy that could deliver it. The first official contact was made between the United States and Tibet in 1908, when President Teddy Roosevelt's envoy to China, William Woodville Rockhill, travelled to Tibet to meet the dispossessed Dalai Lama. …

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