Two new books skip the myths and propaganda and show how Tibetans really live in China
By ISABEL HILTON
It will be 40 years in March since the uprising in Lhasa that forced the 14th Dalai Lama to flee Tibet. It was a drama that precipitated the exodus of nearly 100,000 Tibetans from their native land. Most went to India, where they settled in what they thought would be temporary exile. A few moved on--to Nepal, Europe, the United States. Almost none returned to live in Tibet.
If the Dalai Lama were ever to go back--an event that grows ever more doubtful--he would scarcely recognize the Tibet he left as a young man. His departure in 1959 opened the way for the full force of China's occupation. Only then did the real battle between millenarian socialism and Tibetan traditions, including its religion, begin. The Chinese, bent on transforming Tibet, discovered that the main obstacle to a socialist, materialist Tibet was the deep attachment Tibetans felt to their very unmaterialist religious faith.
Tibet was to become a highly polemical issue, about which Beijing remains sensitive to the point of neuralgia. In the propaganda war, the exiles, led by the Dalai Lama, have retained the moral authority, while losing the material battles. But Tibet's role as an international issue and cause has obscured the reality lived by the Tibetans themselves. The voices of Westerners talking about Tibet are loud; the voices of Tibetans, especially of those in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, are curiously mute. There are many reasons for this. Beijing discourages serious investigation in Tibet by outsiders, and journalists and scholars who try to gain access must choose between the equally unattractive options of trying to sneak past official scrutiny or making a kind of Faustian pact with Beijing. Besides, the study of Tibet is still a minority pursuit, and the analysis of today's Tibet--as opposed to the favored Western preoccupations of religious Tibet or dreamland Tibet--is rarer.
For all these reasons, the appearance of two new, very different books on Tibet can only be welcomed. The exiled Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya has published in The Dragon in the Land of Snows, (Random House, 592 pages) the first scholarly history of Tibet under Chinese occupation. It is a book that will undoubtedly become the standard for its topic. Steve Lehman's The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive (Umbrage, 200 pages), is a personal photo-history, informed by Lehman's decade of covering Tibet and enhanced by personal testimonies from people the photographer has encountered.
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