BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Tibet is Tibet is Tibet ...

Slowly but surely making it through my part of that last Open Books box sale … this is the latest of those that I've gotten to. As usual with things purchased in the random acquisitional frenzy that those sales engender, I did not come to this book with much intention … it looked interesting, sounded like something I'd like to read, so it went into the box … as such, I didn't have much expectation of what it was about. Lee Feigon's Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows could have exhibited a wide range of themes, given that title/subtitle pairing, but if you wanted to sum the book up in a sentence it would be something along the lines of “Tibet's not part of China … no, really. While I'm certainly among the “choir” to whom he's “preaching” on this point, I kept having the “OK, we get that, when do get to the secrets and the demystifying?” reaction, pretty much at the end of each chapter.

I don't suppose that naming this “A Cultural Survey of Tibet” would have sold as well as a book dealing with “secrets” and mysteries, but it would have been a far more accurate title. Frankly, it is quite a satisfying look at the history of Tibet and the cultural development of the Tibetan people, which starts fifty million years ago when the land that is presently at altitudes over 11,000ft was a coastal plain on a long-drained ocean … and runs the narrative up to its 1996 publication date. There's anthropology here, there's sociology here, there's politics here, and there's certainly history in various forms (art, religion, military, etc.) here, but nearly no “mystery” nor “secrets”.

Again, the thrust appears to establish the difference of the Tibetans from the surrounding peoples, and especially the Chinese at each step here. From architecture, linguistic forms, written language (Tibetan is written in an alphabet based on Sanskrit, rather than in ideograms of Chinese), art and costume, and on into the idiosyncratic religious form of Vajrayana Buddhism, each section of the first part of the book works to establish the separateness of the Tibetans.

Although being generally conversant on the subject of Tibet's history, I found that Demystifying Tibet provided an interesting read into the ebb and flow of various cultural influences between Tibet and its neighbors. At times it was closely allied with particular dynasties, at others in bitter struggles. Tibet was obviously strongly influenced by the outside (such as when Buddhism established itself there and eventually largely absorbed the native shamanistic Bön religion), but still maintained an identifiable “national identity”. Much of this, of course, can be attributed to Tibet's geography, ringed by the world's highest mountain ranges, it required a focused effort to get there in the days before aircraft (and, at those altitudes, it's still not trivial), so there was far less opportunity for cultural intermixing compared to almost anywhere else.

The most fascinating part of this is the later political history, starting in the mid-1700's with assorted relations with the Qing dynasty, moving into Tibet's role as both a buffer zone and something of a “pawn” in The Great Game (standing in the middle of British India, Russia, and the then-isolationist Qing Chinese), on through the wars of the early part of the last century, and the rise of Chinese communism. Obviously, for theocratic Tibet, the rise of belligerent, expansionistic, and aggressively atheist Red China was a Very Bad Thing, as the “new neighbors” had both a massive army and a habit of conflating monasteries living off of donated peasant labor with “feudal abuse of workers” … and the grim recent history is spun out in very informative detail.

One of the most fascinating points that Feigon makes here is that the Chinese “national myth” (of Han superiority over all other Asian races, etc., and having had borders encompassing any region that had ever even been in “formalized trading” arrangements with previous Imperial dynasties) is perceived as being rather fragile, and is more and more challenged by things like Tibetan freedom movements globally, and the likes of the Tiananmen Square protests domestically. He paints this as an intentionally promulgated fantasy aimed at maintaining centralized control by the communist government over such a vast and culturally heterogenous national entity. He provides many instances where the “myth” of Tibet being “part of China” has not squared with the actions of the Chinese:
          The Chinese have not been forthcoming about exactly how good a deal they offered the Tibetans. To this day the Chinese argue that the acceptance of this agreement marked the official Tibetan acknowledgment that Tibet is and always has been part of China. But the very existence of the Seventeen-Point Agreement clearly shows that this is not the case and indicates that in the 1950s the Chinese viewed the region as distinct from the rest of China.
          For one thing, China did not sign such agreements with other areas it “liberated”. Only in Tibet did China acknowledge that it was dealing with a political, cultural, social, and ethical system so different from its own that China needed to guarantee Tibet's political and religious autonomy. The existence of the agreement indicates the Chinese recognized Tibet as a separate and independent ethnic area that deserved different treatment from the rest of the country. Tibet was not an integral part of China but an area with special status.
So … if you're looking for a detailed cultural history of Tibet, half old and half new, this is a great book for you. If you're looking to “take a peek behind the curtain” and find Shambhala, you're gong to be disappointed. Fortunately, I (as noted above) hit this without any particular preconceptions, so found it quite to my liking.

Demystifying Tibet appears to be still in print in a paperback edition, but “very good” copies of the hardcover can be had for as little as 15¢ (plus shipping). Even if you've read a lot about Tibet, I think you'll find this a useful “cultural study”, and it would certainly be an informative place to start if one was just now looking into “The Land of Snows”.

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