Friday, November 13, 2009


As I was leaving the institute, today, a young woman approached me on the corridor. She explained making short interviews for a Chinese newspaper (her being an Austrian) and had come to our institute because of the question being: “Tibet: Independence yes or no?”. …She probably couldn’t have chosen a more difficult question to answer just like that, standing on the corridor. Even pramana (Buddhist logic) might have been a subject easier to explain.

Tibetan independence is, in fact, a topic hardly discussed at our institute (at least not in classes) but obviously of high interest to anybody occupied with the subject of tibetology (and a number of sinologists too, for that matter).

So, what are my thoughts on Tibetan independence; what is my point in this ongoing and politically heated discussion? It is a subject I have been thinking about and reviewing quite a lot recently. Partly because of my growing interest in Tibet’s historical situation during the first half of the 20th century (along with interesting figures such as dge ‘dun chos ‘phel) and partly because of my advance into sinology and thus the history of China in the 20th century. That is not to say the older Tibetan (and Chinese) history isn’t as important in the whole discussion, of course.

As I biked home after giving my little statement on the topic, a million things came to my mind and I wish I had asked for her name and email address, so I could write them to her (and correct some of my mistakes… it is friday after all). So now I’m writing some thoughts here, to get them off my mind.

To me, the topic of Tibetan independence is clearest the farther you go back in time. In the times of the great Tibetan empire under the rule of kings, the country did not only reach its biggest expansion but also quite probably had the most active contact (be it in war, trade, or else) with it’s neighbours. A glance at Silk Road history in the region of today’s 新疆 (Xinjiang), most of all roughly in Tang Dynasty times, shows clearly how much influence the Tibetan kings waged on those far away lands and kingdoms, Khotan, Miran, Loulan, Dunhuang… the list is long. Heather Stoddard, among others, speaks of the "Doring” (rdo ring) in discussing dge ‘dun chos ‘phel. These “long stones” seem to have existed not only in Tibet (specifically Lhasa) but also Chang’an. The famous doring of Lhasa, standing in front of the Jhokhang temple’s main entrance is engraved bilingually in Tibetan and Chinese with the 821-822 peace treaty between Tibet and China. Not that this treaty had any long-lasting effect, but nevertheless it shows the active political relations between two countries. Also, in discussion about dge ‘dun chos ‘phel, I stumpled about the mchod rten dkar po, “white Chörtens (Stupas)” that were set up as markers of the Tibetan borders (to Bhutan, India, Nepal, but also China and others) and found, for example, at the Kokonor.

But after the fall of the rule of kings, the topic of Tibetan independence seems to get more and more difficult to answer clearly. Over the course of time, Chinese influence in Tibet grew (for example with the post and influence of the ambans). From the Chinese point of view, Tibet (successively) albeit slowly became part of the emperor’s influence and thus, theoretically, a tributary state. The Tibetan view of this was, of course, different and over time it is clear that the Chinese influence gradually diminished again until it had almost faded by the beginning of the 20th century.

The beginning of the 20th century truly was a period of great hope and chance for Tibet. The 13th, and afterwards even the 14th Dalai Lama had great plans for reformation and renewal of the country, organisations were forming in and without connection to movements in China, and so forth. In 1910, Chinese troops made their way to Lhasa but were defeated (the 13th Dalai Lama had taken temporary refuge in India). In 1911/12, the Qing Dynasty fell and together with that many of it’s more remote or tributary provinces declared independence. In 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet’s independence (as did Mongolia; just recently the original of a document has been found in which Mongolia and Tibet assure each other’s independence as states having freed themselves from the oppression of the Qing Dynasty) which sadly was hardly recognise by other states around the world.

The reactions to 1911/12 over the whole of China and it’s periphery are very interesting, in themselves. As was typical for the end of Chinese Dynasties, tributary and remote provinces and countries declared their independence from the court, which in turn further weakened the court’s power and caused it fall. Throughout Chinese history, this has happened times and times again, but it must be clear, too, that this was always followed by a new dynasty arising and incorporating those far regions, again. Thus, a proclamation of independence from 1912 is difficult to judge, considering the overall political situation and dynamics in east Asia at that time.

1927, after the establishing of the Nanjing government, 蔣介石 (Chiang Kai-shek) proposed the separation of Tibet into three regions (Amdo and Kham had already been largely unconnected to the Lhasa-governed central Tibet for a longer time) which was administratively completed by 1936 with the establishing of the regions Xikang (parts of Kham) and Qinghai (Amdo).

Even after that, though, there were still strong Tibetan movements for reform, for independence or for cooperation with the Chinese (communists). The Tibetan Improvement Party, for example, was formed 1939 in Kalimpong, India, or the world’s first Tibetan Newspaper, the Melong, based in Kalimpong, kept trying to shake Tibet out of it’s long and blind slumber of conservative ignorance.

Finally, the conservative system resisted change and closed its eyes to the danger approaching swiftly. It was Tibetans, finally, who built roads for the “liberating” Chinese tanks…

In conclusion, I have no side in this discussion. Tibetan independence keeps being an incredibly difficult subject, partly caused by the fact that there still is too little scientific discussion of new Tibetan history that would have to take account of all the surrounding factors and influences. What is clear, though, is how incredibly political this whole issue has become. The Chinese (CCP) on the one hand and the (exile) Tibetans on the other both almost always approach this from a very subjective perspective. A Tibetan not wishing for Tibetan independence would be “betraying his cultural heritage”, a Chinese not following the party’s (hard)line on Tibet will be silenced with the same charges – betrayal of the motherland, political splittism.

One thing, though, must be noted without doubt: the situation as it is now, in Tibet, is wrong. Without discussing independence of real autonomy, the every day violations of human rights, martial law and cultural genocide planned on a large scale are delicts that many future generations will have to take responsibility and find answers for, either way.


Anonymous said...

Good evening my dear,
i really and deeply support your evaluation of the momentary situation in Tibet. It is far far away from anything that could be accepted from human and civil rights point of view. The constant violations of rights, individuals and culture cannot be justified by any reasons. I hope that the tibetans and their culture are strong enough to withstand these illegalties. In fact, the situation in Tibet is the clearest sign for the inner weakness and instability of the Chinese government's concept of state.

Marc said...

Thanks so much for sharing this!