Reading Tibetan-Chinese History in the PRC

The historical question of Tibet ’s administrative and cultural linkage to Chinese central governments prior to October 1950 is a matter of consequential debate. As with other Tibetan topics which appear to have garnered sustained attention from central authorities in Beijing , the development of scholarship on Tibet ’s historical linkages with China has reached a rather fecund status. Unsurprisingly, the immense financial resources which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has poured into Tibetan history research have yielded a great deal of scholarly work which stresses a pattern of unremitting contact between the lamaist court in Lhasa and what is rather loosely called “the central government/ 中央政府”.

The existence of this body of scholarship serves, in some ways, as a repository to be turned to in times of great stress. When its claims of legitimacy over Tibet are questioned internationally – for instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Tibetan uprising of March 2008 — the CCP can confidently hoist up a simplified historical interpretation that “the Tibetans have always been a member of the Chinese family, and for 700 years since the Yuan dynasty, the Chinese central government has carried out effective governance over Tibet” (Tibet: Past and Present Beijing, March 2009, p. 1).”

More importantly, such statements render Tibet ’s absorption into the PRC in 1951 by the CCP as the restoration of a long-standing status quo. The CCP thus appears on the Tibetan scene as the smooth successor to thousands of years of dynastic history, not a group of radical atheists bent on the destruction of Tibet ’s sacred past. Die-hard foreigners and recalcitrant Tibetans who refuse to accept the CCP’s legitimacy in Tibet, rejecting the Party’s rhetoric and achievements in the areas of modernization and economic development, ought properly to be stunned into silence when confronted with the picture of seven hundred years of continuous and central government rule over Lhasa.

Since the uprising (or, depending on the rhetorical orthodoxy being employed, the “riot”/dongluan) in Lhasa of March 14, 2008, Party presses have been churning out a great deal of new information seeking to reinforce the CCP’s claims to Tibet . Particularly prominent have been treatments of the “serf liberation” of 1959 emphasizing and enumerating the evils of the Tibetan aristocracy prior to 1959, such that the PRC retroactively made a holiday out of it. In addition to the standard range of social science and religious research, these texts include historical treatments of the Tibetan aristocracy prior to 1951.

Much more useful for mainstream historians are publications on the early 1950s. A new treatment of Zhang Jingwu is glossy and available in both Chinese and English, describing events of the early and mid-1950s in a way that seems very much in keeping with Party scholarship on similar developments in Xinjiang at the time. Although there is as yet no sign of his Volume 2 in translation, Melvyn Goldstein’s immense and authoritative The Demise of the Lamaist State (originally published in English in 1989) has been available in Chinese since 2001, but it has been reprinted and is now widely available.

Probably the most interesting are the memoirs of Liu Shengqi, stationed in Lhasa from 1944 to 1949 as the English-language Secretary for various (GMD) Central Government organs. More importantly for historians, he later became one of the foremost Tibetologists in the early PRC. His lively biographical history which intersected with one of the major turning points in the modern history of the Tibetan plateau – the fall from power of the Nationalist Party in mainland China. He is therefore a figure of significance when attempting to unravel both what happened in Tibet at the end of the Chinese Republican era, but also in how Tibet ’s subsequent history was interpreted, as he himself was instrumental in crafting the distinctive CCP historiography on the Tibetan plateau.

His memoirs of his Lhasa years are entitled Lhasa Jiushi; this is an important text which one would hope will be appearing in English before too long. (It remains surprising how few Tibetologists in the West cite Chinese sources with real regularity; we might regard this as testimony to a kind of intellectual divide, or sympathize with the fact that it is a lifelong struggle to learn either Tibetan or Chinese in the first place.) Liu’s travels and interactions, his youthful perspective, and his assessment of Han-Tibetan interactions in and around Lhasa provide a unique point of view into multiple issues, in particular, the often-vain efforts of the Chinese Central Government to establish and solidify administrative connections with Tibet . In July 1949, Liu was expelled from Lhasa , and Tibet braced itself for the collision with Maoism.

The appearance of these texts seems to be part of a larger effort to diffuse some new thinking or at least new sources about Tibetan history in the pre-1959 era, an effort which seems to have been redoubled in the aftermath of the March 2008 uprising in Lhasa . Rather than sitting on its historical laurels and repeating the old slogans, the CCP has mobilized a wave of scholarship and documentary energy in the service of documenting (and sometimes demonizing) the old system while at the same time emphasizing the high respect with which Chinese bureaucrats from “the center” have always regarded Tibetans and Tibetan culture.

Selected Citations

Liu Shengqi. Lhasa Jiushi, 1944-1949 拉萨旧事. Beijing: Zhongguo Zangxue Chubanshe, 2010.

China Tibet Magazine Publishing, ed. 中国西藏杂志社编,西藏民族的新生:民主改革亲历史 (北京:中国藏学出版社,2009。3。)New Life for Tibetans: Personal Histories of the Democratic Reforms.

Tsering Yangdzom, The Aristocratic Families in Tibetan History, 1900-1951 ( Beijing : China Intercontinental Press, 2006) [originally published as 次仁央宗著,西藏贵族世家:1900-1951 (北京:五洲传播出版社).

Che Minghuai and Zhang Huachuan, Zhang Jingwu: The Representative of the Central People’s Government in Tibet, translated by Ta Gerun ( Beijing : China Tibetology Publishing House, 2009).

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11 thoughts on “Reading Tibetan-Chinese History in the PRC

    • Thanks for the link…But I think the jury is still out on Condi Rice’s comment: “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea.”

      • Maybe more Tchaikovsky would break down the barriers; as I think I’ve pointed out on this blog before, the North Koreans have shown a real tendency to be influenced by Russian Romanticism.

        BTW, lots of Wikileaks news hitting newsstand covers now (front page of Xinmin Zhoukan 新民周刊 首页写了 “人人都是阿桑奇“)

  1. I suppose what this comes down to is whether or not you choose to believe China’s versus Tibet’s version of history. Both have distinct views regarding Tibetan history and Tibetan liberation (or lack thereof). However, regardless of the opinion that “the Chinese Communist Party [appearing] on the Tibetan scene [is] the smooth successor to thousands of years of dynastic history”, shouldn’t the Tibetan people’s current opinion be the overrider of this argument? Tibetan communities’ protests against Chinese rule should speak for itself. Obviously it’s not that simple, but just because Tibet has a ‘history’ of being ruled by another country does not mean that they desire for this to continue – look at the French Revolution. Issues like the persecution of the Dalai Lama and the suppresion of Tibetan autonomy – China does not have the Tibetan’s best interests in mind as far as human rights are concerned. Tibet should be its own governing body. The past should not dictate the future, and the continuation of Chinese rule simply for the sake of sucessorship, so to speak, is a weak argument for the 21st century.

    • These are worthwhile points to consider, Elizabeth. I think the problem with the model you propose is that it would require the PRC to be far less centralized than it is currently — that the members of any given “province”, which Tibet is, although it is called an “autonomous region” which in fact means it has even _less_ autonomy than other provinces, could simply vote themselves out of the PRC with a simple majority.

      Since independent opinion polls are not allowed in Tibet (hell, foreign broadcasts are not allowed into Tibet, which you can see for yourself in the form of the huge and draping jamming stations outside of Lhasa), it is difficult to assess what would happen in the event of such a hypothetical vote. There are more than a handful of Tibetans who are benefitting handsomely from the PRC presence….And when Tibet has served as its own governing body (the entire first half of the twentieth century! 1905 or so until 1951!) they really failed to reach out to foreign friends to get recognition of their de facto independence. This passivity in foreign policy is in one way the original sin of the Tibetan leaders, who were far too busy with factional infighting and reinforcing insularity in the early 20th century when, if independence was their goal (or if there had been a bona fide visionary and capable political leader in that era who could have envisioned a time when the CCP would establish control over all of China and thus reincorporate Tibet in a communist-inflected reinvigoration of Qing dynasty prerogatives, being looped into a Beijing-centric world), that would have been the time to be recognized. But all they did was recognize Outer Mongolia which in turn recognized them. No delegate at the Versailles Conference, no outreach to Gandhi in nearby India, no sustained effort to get anything more than occasional defacto recognition by Britain or the US, much less the USSR. Which means they are now one of the more strained family members of China’s 56 ethnic groups. I didn’t even get into the regional splits among Tibetans and the inability of Lhasa to serve as a true focal point for Tibetans’ nationalist aspirations, but you get the point — problems abound in asserting Tibet’s independence both historically and today, and of course the historical failings but reinforce the feebleness with which Tibetan freedom activists can enforce their will upon an ascendant China which is progressively binding Tibet to the “motherland” with all manner of steel, both actual and ideological.

  2. When you talk about the intellectual divide between Chinese and Tibetan histories, do you mean that they are distinct and have seperate stories in the eyes of Tibetologists? (and that the CCP is looking to combine their histories in an impractical way)

  3. What I’m wondering about is the legitimacy of those claims from the CCP. Sure, they can say that Tibetans have been apart of the Chinese family for 700 hundred years. But can we really trust what the CCP says? I should be one of those die hard followers that should be stunned into silence. But I was pushed a little further into skepticism.

    • Yes, whenever someone tells you “it’s always been this way, trust me,” that’s a good time to find another source.

  4. Pingback: Kunming, Lhasa, Chengdu, Berlin: Sources on Tibetan 20th Century History | SinoMondiale

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