News and Views on Tibet

Shakabpa and the awakening of Tibetan history by Jamyang Norbu

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By Jamyang Norbu

Academic scholarship may not generally lend itself to moving or inspirational writing, but there are exceptions. Edward Gibbon’s, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is probably the greatest work of history written in the English language (Hugh Trevor-Roper) and a literary masterpiece praised for its narrative clarity, biting irony and elegant prose. It was a book that woke people up to a whole new way of viewing antiquity, especially in relation to the development of religious institutions – the Christian church in particular. It was also the defining work of history that came out of the European Enlightenment.

Tsepon Wangchuk Deden Shakabpa’s Advanced Political History of Tibet deals with events, places and personalities that have, of course, less resonance or significance to the rest of the world, especially at the moment when China is being hailed internationally as the next global superpower, and the issue of Tibet has been relegated to a kind of oblivion, more distant and inconsequential (it sometimes appears) than a chariot race at the Hippodrome in ancient Constantinople.

But within it’s own more modest niche of intellectual relevance, Shakabpa’s history should be seen as an inspirational work, one that opened the eyes of Tibetans to their historical past, the memory of which had been systematically and near-effectively erased by Communist propaganda and mind-control (xinao, literally “brainwashing”).

Under Chinese totalitarian control, Tibetans had been subjected to an overpowering indoctrination campaign to make them believe they possessed no history of their own other than a sporadic narrative of slavery[1] and barbarism from which they had been “liberated” by the PLA in 1950. In addition to this and other forms of daily political and psychological indoctrination, the entire population, for roughly over two decades (from 1959 to the early 1980s) endured (at one time or the other) starvation, forced labor, torture, executions and a succession of mass campaigns that reached a crescendo with the savagery and destruction of the Cultural Revolution. By the time Mao died the Tibetan people had been culturally, intellectually and spiritually reduced to a near catatonic state.

A trickle of rumors and disconnected stories, vague and sporadic at best, somehow made its way out of Tibet, even during the height of the Cultural Revolution. But with the slight opening up of the country in the late seventies and early eighties the exile-capital of Dharamshala finally began to get hard information on what had really happened inside Tibet. It was also around then that people in Tibet were finally allowed to communicate with relatives and friends abroad.

An official[2] in the exile government received a message from a cousin who was a senior Communist cadre in Sichuan province. This cadre had attended a special high-level meeting where Shakabpa’s “false” history of Tibet had been discussed. He heard that the “Dalai counterrevolutionary faction” (talé lokchoe shoga) in India had published a very dangerous and subversive book. He asked his relative in India to secretly send him a copy of the book through a trusted courier.

This and other similar incidents made the government-in-exile realize that people inside Tibet wanted to read Shakabpa’s history. At the time the book was printed by the Tibet Cultural Printing Press in Dharamshala. It was cheap but the quality of the printing and paper was woefully substandard. It was also inconvenient for any sort of covert distribution as the book consisted of two thick volumes. But many copies were somehow secretly smuggled into Tibet. I was told that it was later reprinted in Japan in a compact one-volume edition, exclusively for distribution within Tibet. A special thin lightweight paper was used and the font and page size considerably reduced.

In subsequent years, in discussions with other “new arrivals” from Tibet, who had read the book, I received the definite impression that Shakabpa’s history had been not just informative or intellectually enlightening, but possibly even therapeutic in a psychological sense. One person from Lhasa described how he had felt after reading Shakabpa’s history: “nye saypa nang-shing jhe song”, or “it was like being awakened from sleep”. A well-known Tibetan scholar and incarnate lama, Rakra Thupten Chodhar, in a verse of praise for Shakabpa’s history, wrote “You who have taken up and sung this unblemished song of our history/ Have awakened many beings from enduring sleep.”

In his 1973 memoir, Awakenings, the neurologist Oliver Sacks tells the story of the victims of the 1920’s sleeping-sickness (encephalitis lethargica) epidemic, which caused them to remain in a bizarre and deep catatonic states for entire lifetimes. Sacks, who worked in a long-term care facility for these patients used the new drug L Dopa which managed to wake them up, almost miraculously, from decades of “sleep.” In a sense, Shakabpa’s book became the cultural and intellectual L Dopa for Tibetans who had manage to survive Communist Chinese rule but had been intellectually traumatized by the experience.

In the years that followed, Tibetans inside Tibetan once again began to produce works on their history, literature, culture and much else. What was impressive was not only the generally high-standard of these works but also the prolificacy, the sheer quantity of books, journals and articles that came out from Tibet, despite the repressive political atmosphere and state censorship, which though not as totalitarian as before, is still a permanent (though mutating) feature of the Tibetan intellectual landscape. Perhaps it would not be incorrect to say that Shakabpa’s history was probably one of the seminal intellectual inspirations, or at least a vital factor that contributed to the unleashing of this enormous intellectual and cultural energy in Tibet.

The publication of the English translation of Shakabpa’s two-volume Advanced Political History of Tibet, (which first appeared in Tibetan in 1976), has been eagerly awaited by all students of Tibetan history, especially those like myself who, regrettably, find it easier to read English than Tibetan. Of course, we have had the English language one volume, Tibet: A Political History published by Yale University Press, since1967. It was, without doubt, the most comprehensive one volume history of Tibet we had till then.

Nonetheless, since the Advanced History was published over nine years after the ‘67 Yale history, the author had sufficient time not only to revise, correct and update his initial treatise but also enlarge on it considerably. The structures of the two works are fairly similar, but the Advanced History has a great deal more detail and information. The unhurried pace of the writing of the Advanced History allows Shakabpa to expound on his various source materials, even digressing now and then to make comparisons between some of them on certain dates or facts, which contributes to the readers understanding of the breadth and diversity of Tibetan historical writing.

The first chapter on the “Origins, Culture and Traditions of Tibet”, at more than a hundred dense pages, is by itself a substantial text-book on Tibetan civilization, providing an astonishing wealth of information that even present-day specialists on some these subjects might find useful. Of the many sections (and sub sections) in this chapter alone – all compulsive reading – my favorite is the section “Lhasa the Capital”, where Shakabpa lays out detailed accounts of all the major temples, monasteries, mosques, church (the former), stupas, public buildings, courthouses, monuments, cairns, markets, roads, alleys, bridges, dams, canals, springs, and even the history of the famous giant prayer flag poles (dharchen), which were well-known landmarks in the Lhasa of yesteryear, like the famous Cornhill maypole in London destroyed by Oliver Cromwell.

As only a Tibetan would, Shakabpa describes the various prominent features of the Lhasa landscape essentially by their preternatural resemblance to each of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism (tashi-ta-gye), which for all Tibetan, especially the devout pilgrims, are important components of their sacred (geo-mystical) vision of that holy city. In describing “Lhasa’s residents, of high, low, or middle station, (who) were completely carefree”, he does not forget to include the ubiquitous beggars, and recounts how they would spend their mornings begging for food, after which they would sing songs in the street and get drunk by the evening, which he regards as “a marvelous thing.” I have recounted this at some length to give the reader a feel for Shakabpa’s encyclopedic knowledge of Tibet, his traditional, non-western outlook, and the touch of humor and humaneness, present throughout the book.

The full title of the English translation is One Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet, by Tsepon Wangchuk Deden Shakabpa and translated and annotated by Derek.F. Maher. Published by Brill Tibetan Studies Library, Leiden in 2010, the book has been ably translated by Maher who is the Associate Professor and Director of the Religious Studies Program, at East Carolina University.

There are some minor errors in the translation: “mepo dhampa” Gandhi should not have been translated as “grandfather” Gandhi. The Tibetan term is generally used to mean “founding father” or “father of the nation.” This sentence “The governor of Sikkim, Sir Charles Bell, came to Lhasa to deliver a letter on behalf of the Indian Ambassador” should be “The Political Officer of Sikkim, Sir Charles Bell, came to Lhasa to deliver a letter on behalf of the Viceroy of India.” The phrase “Annual taxes which Castle and estates had to pay…,” should have used the word “district” or “district headquarters” instead of “castle.” The Tibetan world “dzong” can mean castle, but not in this instance. “…The phrase “British government owner of India” should be “government of British India”. Also “makchi” is commander-in-chief not “minister of defense”.

Maher has problems with some of the contractions that Shakabpa uses which is sometimes difficult even for native Tibetan speakers, if they are unacquainted with the source terms. For instance Maher translates “dochi” as Do governor. This is actually the contraction for “do-may chikyap,” or “ the Governor-General of Eastern Tibet”. In the same way Maher’s “do region” should have been translated as Eastern Tibet or Kham. Shakabpa’s contraction of Chakpori is rendered by Maher as “Jakri” mountain, and Ramoche tsuglakhang as “Rache” tsuglakhang, which might be a problem for the non-Tibetan reader.

The English spelling of people and place-names are unnecessarily confusing. Maher should perhaps have stuck to the system used in the Yale history, where Tibetan names were written in the basic phonetic system that earlier scholars on Tibet as Charles Bell, Hugh Richardson and others had used. The Yale history also provides a very useful transliteration of Tibetan names (Wylie system) in the index, which nails down the Tibetan spelling. Maher could have followed this system and used the actual Tibetan script in the index, which is possible these days.

Hence in Maher’s translation the 13th Dalai Lama’s prime minister, Shatra Paljor Dorje, is written as Shedra or Shedrawa Peljor Dorje. The famous merchant Pangdatsang is rendered variously as Pomda, Pomdabu and Bomdawu. The Dalai Lama’s nephew Drumpa is given as Bhumpa, the resistance leader Andrug Gompo Tashi is written as Amdruk Gompa Tashi, and the Quoshot Mongol ruler of Tibet, Lhasang (or Lhazang) Khan is written as Lozang Khan.

The suffix “wa” or “pa” that often occurs at the end of a name just means “of” or “from” and perhaps should not be included in the translated English text, as they could confuse. The exception being names where such suffixes have become intrinsic through usage. I have put the suffixes in parenthesis to highlight the problem: Shedra(wa) Peljor Dorje, Ngapo(pa) Ngawang Jikme, Namse’ Ling(pa),Tsarong(pa), Gapzhi(wa), Tretong(pa), and the mouthful Troggawo(wa). But this is offered as a suggestion for the reader’s comprehension, and not as a correction.
While on the name of Tretong or rather Tethong, I think it is incumbent on Western (and Chinese) academics not to supplant the specific English spelling that Tibetans themselves have used (since the beginning of the last century) for their names, especially surnames: Tethong, Tsarong, Shatra, Surkhang, Pangdatsang and so on. Melvyn Goldstein in his The Demise of the Lamaist State also transgresses with Norbhu for Norbu, Cawtang for Chogten, Canglocen for Changlochen, Tricang for Trijang, Jayan for Jamyang and Trentong for Tethong.

Maher strays from the norm in spelling certain place-names: Pakri for Phari, Zhikatse’ for Shigatse,’ for Thuna, “Trashi” lhunpo for Tashilhunpo, and Gulok for Golok. Tibetan pronunciation of Chinese and Indian place names should not have been carried over to the translation, as “Lendru” for Lanzhou (or Lanchow), “Drungchin” for Chongqing (or Chungking) and “Drintu” for Chengdu. Kurseong, in Darjeeling district is given as “Kharshang”, though Maher correctly renders Shakabpa’s contraction “Ka-Bug” as Kalimpong. There is also some confusion with the names of British officials. Shakabpa’s Mr. Pal and Mr. War are probably A.W. Paul and J.C. White.

Maher cannot avoid the problem that even Tibetans have with the lack of spacing between printed words, which sometimes causes people to read suffixes for prefixes (and vice versa) among other things. Maher’s Elha Gyari should be E’ Lhagyari, Tögar Pön Gapzhi should be Tö Garpon Gapzhi, Gartong Tsen should be Gar Tongtsen and Lhato Tori Nyentsen should be Lha-totori-Nyentsen.

Shakabpa, in the introduction to this book, is clear about his purpose in writing his history. He did not see it just as a “neutral” academic work but as a means of making the world understand the true independent status of Tibet. I may be challenged on this, but I am convinced that this patriotic declaration of intent gives Shakabpa’s work its intellectual clarity and strength. Whether you agree or disagree with him on this one or other statement or opinion, it is clear that Shakabpa has no hidden agenda, nor that he is laying claims to the kind of rarified objectivity that quite a few academics in Tibetan studies insist on making about their work, which I feel only serves to demonstrates the accuracy of Lun Xun’s observation that “whoever thinks he is objective must already be half drunk.”

Shakabpa in his introduction clearly tells us that the inspiration to write his history was a patriotic one. In January 1946 he traveled to India and Nepal with his family on a pilgrimage, at the cusp of the freedom struggle, the year before India became independent. Shakabpa was in Bombay at the time when the Congress organized a mammoth political rally at the Gateway of India where Nehru, Patel, Sarojini Naidu and other nationalist leaders addressed the enormous gathering. Shakabpa was profoundly moved by the experience, and by the passion and dedication of the Indian people. It was then that the idea of writing a political history of Tibet first began to take shape.

He had earlier, in 1931 as a junior official in Lhasa, been summoned by his uncle the senior minister Trimon, who presented him with a pristine khadagand a large collection of documents relating to the 1914 Simla conference, which Trimon had attended as assistant to the Prime Minister Shatra. After a long conversation Trimon told his young nephew that he should study these important documents and consider writing a political history of Tibet. Shakabpa mentions that he enjoyed reading biographies, histories and the Gesar epic, but he did not take his uncle’s request seriously at the time. His later Indian experience finally focused his mind on the idea of writing a political history of Tibet.

This is perhaps a convenient point to provide the reader a brief account of Shakabpa’s official career. He became a tsepon or Finance Secretary, in 1939, and also headed the national mint at Drapchi. In 1947 he headed the Tibet Trade Mission that visited India, China, USA and Britain which had a “two-pronged aim to develop trade relations with the West as well as propagate (the fact of) Tibet’s independence.”[3] He met and spoke with such world leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Secretary of State General George Marshal, Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and also Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In September 1950, Shakabpa was sent by the Tibetan government to open negotiations with China, to forestall the imminent invasion of Tibet by Communist China. But his efforts were to no avail and a month later on 6th October 1950 the PLA attacked the small Tibetan force at Chamdo. Shakabpa remained in India after the invasion and began to write his political history.

In Kalimpong he also joined forces with Gyalo Thondup and another official and launched the “Tibetan Welfare Organization” to carry on the freedom struggle from outside. This clandestine organization managed to provide support to resistance groups within Tibet, and also made the first connection with the CIA. After the 1959 Uprising, Shakabpa and Gyalo Thondup travelled to New York to present Tibet’s case before the General Assembly of the United Nations. Through the sponsorship of Ireland and Malaya, and the support of the United States and other nations, three resolutions on Tibet were eventually passed. In 1963 Shakabpa resigned from official duties to complete his history. He died on February 23, 1989.

Because of Shakabpa’s “patriotic declaration of intent” that I mentioned earlier, and the deep love for Tibet that manifestly pervades his work, I have on occasion heard Shakabpa being referred to as a “nationalist historian”, with the unstated pejorative that accompanies the label. Besides the fact that patriotism is here being confused with nationalism, I think that such a viewpoint demonstrates a lack of understanding of the political mentality of people who lived in a pre-modern society. Orwell wrote that “… the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written is peculiar to our own age” by which Orwell meant the age of modern nationalism – of Hitler, Stalin, even Mao – and by extension the present era of Chinese neo-nationalism: from the officialminzuzhuyi to the fenqing phenomenon.

Shakabpa comes from an age far earlier than the period of the Great War that Orwell was discussing in that passage, not in time of course, but in the pre-industrial and medieval nature of traditional Tibetan society and government. Because Shakabpa is such a capable historian and moreover as his book first came out in English, many readers unconsciously assume that he was someone with a modern or Western education. And this where I find reading Shakabpa such a fascinating experience.

His patriotism is of an old fashioned kind, lacking the self-righteous vitriol of the modern nationalist. He is incapable of the kind of calculated dishonesty and aggressive, even abusive language that pervades present-day Chinese writing on Tibetan history. Shakabpa is so old world that when discussing the emperors of China, the leaders of the PRC, or even the much hated Manchu ambans, he provides proper titles and does not allow himself any passing barb or ideological labeling, so ubiquitous in “nationalist” historiography in general, and which at times, even slips through in Western academic writings on Tibet.

Shakabpa, like many other Lhasa aristocrats, seemed to have been involved in the factional politics of his time. In the forties he belonged to the group supporting the Taktra regency and was opposed to the former regent, Reting. Yet in his history he is conscientiously fair to both sides, as Hugh Richardson notes: “Tsipon Shakabpa, although to some extent parti pris as an important official and as a kinsman of the Changkyim bKa’-lon bla-ma whom the ex-regent had brusquely dismissed from office in 1940, provides well-informed and balanced information.”[4]

Later in Kalimpong, Shakabpa allied himself with the Dalai Lama’s brother Gyalo Thondup and they were sometimes in disagreement, if not competition, with the exiled Prime Minister Lukhangwa. Yet Shakabpa not only describes, at great length, the many occasions that Lukhangwa courageously stood up to the Communists in Lhasa but also his later work in Kalimpong in attempting to unify Tibetan refugees and exiles, and petitioning the government of India to allow the Dalai Lama sanctuary in India. I mention this since I had earlier written critically of the exile leadership (including Shakabpa and Gyalo Thodup) for its shabby treatment of Lukhangwa, especially during the period before his death.[5]

Corrections and revisions are part of any scholar’s intellectual regimen, though perhaps not to the point where one feels obliged to highlight earlier mistakes. But Shakabpa is painfully honest. One example, in the Advanced HistoryShakabpa “confesses” to an error in his previous work. “I wrote that Regent Demo was susceptible to occasional mental disorders. That statement was mistaken. The person referred to as the ‘crazy Demo’ seems to have lived from 1825 until 1860. He did not serve as the regent.”[6]

The native historians we have had in the 20th century from Africa, India, the Middle East and even China, were (or are) all scholars educated in a modern if not Western milieu. Probably the only non-Western contemporary historian we have who was completely educated and formed in his own traditional society is Shakabpa. In this he is a rara avis, a curiosity, a genuine throwback to a pre-nationalistic age, where for all its many drawbacks, the idea “that history couldbe written truthfully…” as Orwell points out in his essay “Looking Back at the Spanish War”, … had not been entirely abandoned.

The fact of Shakabpa being a traditional historian is important for Tibetans to appreciate. It goes to demonstrate that, accomplished as Shakabpa was as a historian, he did not emerge from an intellectual vacuum. That, despite propaganda to the contrary, Tibet had a long and sophisticated tradition of history writing, on which, in large measure, Tsepon Shakabpa built his great work.

The late scholar on Tibet and Bhutan, Michael Aris of Oxford had this to say of the Tibetan historical tradition “… it is clear that, by comparison with many other peoples of the east or west, they (Tibetans) maintain a high level of historical consciousness and a deep sense of the vitality of the living past”.[7] He also points out the intellectual rigor of that tradition “For instance when writing his monumental history of Amdo, The Ocean Annals, (dhepter gyamtso) completed in 1865, the author Dra-gon Konchog,[8] provides a list of no less than six hundred or so sources he had consulted for this work.”

To get a feel for this enormous “ocean” (gyamtso) of indigenous historical writing one should browse through Tibetan Histories[9], by Dan Martin, a former student of Taktser Rimpoche and an accomplished Tibet scholar. This bibliography provide valuable information on over seven hundred Tibetan-language historical works. The listing does not include biographies, and old Tibetan works of historical nature and documentary sources generally referred to as the Dunhuang documents. This book is out of print but you can access it on Google books. The author has also worked on updating and correcting his opus, even adding another couple of hundred entries. Dan Martin also provides a useful breakdown of the various genres in Tibetan historical writing, which readers will find enlightening. Also invaluable in this regard is “Tibetan Historiography” by Leonard W.J. Van der Kuijp in the collection, Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, a recommended vade mecum for all Tibetan scholars, historians, poets and writers.

One of the reasons that led to Gibbon being called “the first modern historian of ancient Rome” was his unprecedented and extensive use of primary sources, among other things. Shakabpa’s work is invaluable to us because of the enormous archival sources he had access to (and which he fully utilized in his tome) and which probably no Tibetan historian till then, and certainly no Western scholar had had the opportunity to use. The most important of these are, of course, the various official archives in Lhasa and other centers and monasteries, now inaccessible to exile Tibetan and international scholars, but which in recent years have been partially and intermittently opened to a select few Chinese and Tibetan academics. Shakabpa also gained access to other sources such as the royal archives in Bhutan, Kathmandu and Sikkim, the Bihar Research Society Library in Patna, the National Archives in New Delhi, and other libraries and archives in London, New York, Washington D.C., and Paris.

Though a traditional scholar Shakabpa was able to personally meet and draw upon the knowledge of international experts as Peter Aufschnieter, the anthropologist Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, Hugh Richardson, R.A Stein, Guiseppe Tucci, Rahul Sankrityayan, Turrell Wylie and Luciano Petech. He also seems to have met such present-day scholars as Mathew Kapstein and David Jackson (both of whom pleasantly surprised him by speaking to him in Tibetan) and others.

Of course Shakabpa’s access to the important Tibetan personalities in modern Tibetan history was, enviably, in a class of its own. But he was even able to consult and discuss his work with a large number of great Tibetan scholars and historians. First of all there was his uncle the minister Trimon who was a participant in the Simla conference, as well as the 13th Dalai Lama’s physician Ngoshi Jampa Thubwang who accompanied His Holiness to Darjeeing. Later there were other eminent scholars as Trijang Rimpoche, Khunu Tenzin Gyaltsen Rimpoche, Dhingo Khentse Rimpoche, Dudjom Rimpoche, Banyak Athing, and many others that Shakabpa unfailingly acknowledges and thanks throughout his book.

Besides the affinity to Gibbon in his pioneering use of primary sources, Shakabpa’s history might be lauded for its literary merits. I am not qualified to make this evaluation but many Tibetan intellectuals whose judgment I respect, and indeed his own translator, were struck by how “The book is quite beautifully written, with rich poetic expression, extensive vocabulary, and often clever and amusing adages and similes. The Tibetan text makes very wide use of quotations, and so as the narrative moves through the centuries, it employs many distinct styles of Tibetan.”

Of course, as much as I do not read Tibetan well enough to appreciate Shakabpa’s qualities as a writer, there are many young Tibetans who would find it daunting, for one reason or the other to plough through the massiveAdvanced History, even in its English translation. For them and for all the older Tibetans who may be literate in their own language but find it difficult to read scholarly tomes, I can provide a solution that is not only convenient and enjoyable, but eminently traditional as well.

In 1985 Shakabpa gave a lengthy series of lectures at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) at Dharamshala. For about two months, from March 22 to May 18 he lectured daily, probably from nine to three (four?) pm, five days a week. It wasn’t really a lecture series in the Western academic sense but more of an expository teaching, of the kind that Tibetan lamas give to their follower, where using a Buddhist work, say Nagarjuna’s Commentary on Bodhicitta (jangchup semdrel), the lama will read passages from the text and then launch into lengthy explanations.

I don’t know of any lama who has done this for approximately 250 near-continuous hours as Shakabpa did in Dharamshala. He read passages from hisAdvanced History and then analyzed and expounded on the events and personalities at length, and explained his source materials. He also went into lengthy discussions on controversies and even associated gossip and rumors, which he could not have included in his book. Unlike religious teachings, Shakabpa also took questions, first thing in the morning, on what he had discussed the previous day. It was all wonderfully fascinating stuff. And the very fortunate thing is that the LTWA made high quality audio recordings of this work, now available on DVD/CD.

I have downloaded the digital files on my IPod and listen to them when I’m at the gym or I am driving, especially long distances. I would strongly advise all Tibetans to buy the CD’s from Dharamshala. I know many Tibetans in Europe and America have parents who feel bored, lost and isolated living in the West. Even if, let us say, your pala or amala may not be intellectually inclined, just hearing Shakabpa’s voice, his impeccable Tibetan and his Lhasa dialect, should give them much joy. He is not a dry-as-dust pedant, but someone with a great sense of fun, and a fund of amazing stories and anecdotes about their homeland, many of which they’ve probably never heard before. At one point Shakabpa even sings the old accountant’s song – for he had started his official career in the financial department. His voice quavers slightly, but considering his then 78 years, he manages surprisingly well. A notebook and pencil are essential for profitable listening. Just the incidental information he unconsciously drops throughout the lectures adds up to a treasure trove (ter-dzoe). Did you know bananas grew in Tibet and were called “hangla”?


I find it difficult to find fault with an author who has given me so much knowledge and even pleasure. Once upon a time I might have frowned on Shakabpa’s inclusion of dragons and snow-lions in his list of Tibetan fauna, but these days I am just delighted at the impressive textual references he unearths to support such improbabilities; one of them even being a pecha published by my grandfather, a biography of the 6th Dalai Lama, in which there is mention of one of his entourage seeing such a fabulous beast.

But if I have to take issue with Shakabpa on one thing, it is on his view that the “patron-priest” (cho-yon) relationship was a mutually beneficial alliance that a free and independent Tibet maintained with the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and later the Manchu Qing Dynasty. And that only during the latter period of the Manchu Empire and under the Nationalist government “a perverse understanding of the preceptor-patron relationship between China and Tibet developed,” and Tibet’s independent status was violated.

Of course, Shakabpa was unbending in his insistence on the issue of Tibetan independence, which is directly at odds with present day advocates of cho-yonwho only require Tibet to be an “autonomous entity” within the PRC. Nonetheless, what Shakabpa fails to grasp is that such a relation between a militarily and economically powerful empire and a weaker dependent state, even if the latter received some form of spiritual consideration, even respect, is essentially a relationship between unequal partners, hence a relationship between an overlord power and a protectorate or a colony.

Of course, there were instances in the relationship, as between the Ming court and the 5th Karmapa, when Chinese sovereignty over Tibet was non-existent, as the authoritative scholar on Sino-Tibetan relations, Elliot Sperling, pointed out to me. We also have the historical case that official exile publications often cite, where the Shunzhi emperor received the 5th Dalai as an equal sovereign. But such instances were the exception. The overriding reason why such a pernicious relationship as the patron-priest institution was accepted on the Tibetan side, besides the fact of China’s military dominance, was the economic and political advantages it conferred on the Tibetan clergy.
But Shakabpa as a traditional scholar, steeped in his Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, regarded the relationship as a unique one without parallel in Western history, and that “…(the) Westerners’ manner of approaching political affairs cannot explain this situation.” Shakabpa may be excused for this conviction as even a European writing on Tibetan history as Michael Van Walt claims that Tibet’sCho-Yon relationship with the Yuan and Qing was sui generis, or without origins in any other system. Van Walt cites Shakabpa, but perhaps a reading of European history would have been in order.

Theodor Mommsen in discussing the Roman province of Judaea noted that the region “… had long before the Roman period developed under the government of the Selucids the so-called Mosaic theocracy, a clerical corporation with the high priest at its head, which, acquiescing in foreign rule and renouncing the formation of a state guarded the distinctiveness of its adherents, and dominated them under the aegis of the protecting power.”[10] Then we have the long conflict between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, and every other possible variation on the patron-priest relationship being played out in European politics, up to the time of Mussolini and the Lateran Treaties (1929) when the sovereignty, power and position of the Holy See was finally settled, ending the “Roman Question.”


The most hostile and extensive body of critical writing on Shakabpa’s history has come largely from inside the PRC. In exile society there was, for a time, much show of appreciation for the man and his work but little intellectual discussion. In the last couple of decades, he has been studiously ignored. The Tibetan world these days is one filled with awards and honors, but I don’t think Shakabpa ever received anything, official or otherwise. Hence this review essay is my one-man Festschrift for Tibet’s greatest modern historian. Perhaps I should use the term Gedenkschrift, since this is more in the way of a memorial than a celebration.

Such a memorial, recalling his unequaled contribution to Tibetan historiography is necessary since he was attacked, posthumously, a few years ago, with a degree of viciousness and dishonesty that even his Communist Chinese critics could not quite achieve. A former member of the exile-parliament and scholar from Amdo, Hortsang Jigme, accused Shakabpa, in print[11], of basing his entire history on writings and manuscripts stolen from the great Amdo scholar and poet, Gendun Chophel (GC). He claims that the aristocrat Kapshopa had acquired drafts of GC’s historical texts and had divided up these copies of GC’s writings with Shakabpa who used them in his Political History. Hortsang Jigme does not provide anything in the way of credible evidence to back up his claims. One “proof” he offers is that that the full title of GC’s work is The White Annals: A History of Greater Tibet as Concerns its Political Traditions, but that strangely enough Shakabpa’s work “…has the title Tibet: A Political History, on the cover of his book”. The irrefutable connection between the two books presumably being the two words “political” and “history”. Hortsang Jigme sarcastically remarks “…isn’t this a sign of knowing how to steal, but not knowing how to cover it up.” The overall language and reasoning of Hortsang Jigme’s diatribe serves only to remind us of the nastiness, the dishonesty and the mind-numbing inanity of Cultural Revolution rhetoric, that even after four decades still unfortunately lingers on in Tibetan political and intellectual discourse.

Simpleminded Tibetans believe that GC had built an airplane out of leather and wood and even flown it over the Jangthang. Within this corpus of fantastic tales about GC, is one that he had written a political history of Tibet that absolutely and incontrovertibly proved Tibet’s independence and which on production before the UN would have compelled China to leave Tibet. Tragically this history was lost or stolen. Even some educated Tibetans buy into this story, or at least a part of it. Samten Norboo who translated the White Annals into English mentions in his introduction that “According to the testimony of Professor Ngawang Jinpa of St.Joseph’s College, Darjeeling, this large compilation had been completed and the manuscript in the custody of Mr. Ma-nang A-po, an associate of the author. Unfortunately we have lost track of the manuscript, following the demise of Mr.A-po.”[12]

Probably the most authoritative account of GC’s life during this tragic period is the one written by Sherab Gyatso, who was his student, close friend and constant companion, especially during the last years of his life.[13] (Note: this is not the geshe Sherab Gyatso who was GC’s dialectics teacher at Drepung) “This biography has been cited by Western and Tibetan scholars who have written about GC’s life and works.”[14] Sherab Gyatso mentions that GC’s aristocratic patron and close friend Horkhang, put together and copied such works as the White Annals from GC’s notes and jottings. During his imprisonment GC sent a message to Horkhang telling him to stop his copying and write at the end of the history, “The unfinished composition of the Tibetan history is concluded for the time being.”[15] No further reference is to made to the history by Sherab Gyatso. There are only two other biographical accounts of GC by people who actually knew him personally and were around him during this period. One is by his student and patron Horkhang (who publishedThe White Annals), and the other Rakra Thupten Chodar, an incarnate lama who studied under him. Both biographies make no mention of GC’s manuscript being stolen, much less by Shakabpa.

Sherab Gyatso only mentions Shakabpa once and that in a very positive light “One day I received a letter from prison. GC had written, ‘I have heard that Shakabpa is well acquainted with Tagdra (the regent). See if you can ask for my release through him.’ I visited Shakabpa, who said, ‘The case has been sent to Neushar Thuptan Tharpa, the official of the Foreign Affairs office. Now it won’t take long.’ Just as he said GC got out of prison after about seven or eight days.”[16]

Sherab Gyatso mentions what happened after his friend’s release “At about this time, the cabinet of the Tibetan Government gave GC a coupon to get three khal of grain and a little money for tea and butter per month.”[17].
Professor Donald Lopez who has authored two books on GC’s writings does not mention any official conspiracy to steal GC’s manuscript or to prevent him from writing his history. Lopez states that after GC was released from prison “The government eventually provided him with rooms behind the Jokhang, above the Ministry of Agriculture, along with a stipend of money and grain, with the instruction that he resume work on The White Annals. He did not do so. Anecdotes from this period deal for the most part with his heavy drinking…”[18]

But the most convincing argument against GC’s work being stolen by Shakabpa is that whatever historical material GC had, and whatever he had written, was exclusively about the early imperial age. Shakabpa on the other hand only devotes one chapter to this period. In this chapter his sources are the standard Tibetan histories, and Western and Chinese sources. On a number of occasions he quotes from Gedun Chophel’s White Annals, and respectfully refers to the author as “khewang” or “great scholar”. The bulk of Shakabpa’s history, is based on archival material, which he had access to as an official, and which Gedun Chophel as a “mendicant” poet and scholar from distant Amdo, absolutely did not.

Why didn’t the government-in-exile speak out against this attack on its official history and official historian? In 1988, Shakabpa, in the most respectful way possible, expressed his disagreement with the Strasburg Statement. I was told he was in tears when he heard that the Dalai Lama had surrendered the cause of an independent Tibet. That same year he and another scholar, Yonten Gyatso, co-authored a small booklet that they printed and secretly distributed throughout Tibet, “urging the Tibetan people to continue their struggle for independence”.[19] In the atmosphere of sycophancy and intrigue in Dharamshala, such an initiative could have been deliberately misconstrued as “opposing the Dalai Lama” (Gyalwa Rimpoche la ngogoe), and it is possible that the attack on Shakabpa had official approval, if not encouragement. Another Tibetan who opposed the Strasburg Statement (namely myself) was also attacked by Hortsang Jigme, this time in a pamphlet in 2003.[20] This publication even featured an official introduction by the kashag secretariat, seal and all.


Hence Shakabpa’s history can be read not merely as a record of the past but as a powerful revolutionary document, that even now, twenty-two years after the author’s death, is deeply disturbing to Beijing, and which frustrates and confounds those Tibetans attempting a final handover of Tibetan sovereignty to China.

One reason why so many in exile seem so unconcerned, so blasé about giving up the struggle for independence stems, in large part, from their appalling ignorance of Tibet’s history. It is not just that history was and is so badly taught in Tibetan schools, but also arises from the near absence (these days) of history being valued as an intellectual or literary activity. If you go to the website of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, our premier academic institution, you will find it divided into ten departments, including even a Science department – but no History.

It is this ignorance of, even contempt for, history which I feel is the source of those bizarre statements emanating from the likes of our former prime-minister Samdong Rimpoche, as that “the Tibetan issue is the internal affair of China”, and from the Dalai Lama that Tibet had to be a part of China because it was a “landlocked country.” In the past the Gelukpa church regarded history as an unnecessary distraction, and discouraged monks and geshes from reading historical works. When His Holiness visited Paris in 1988 (9?) he was received by such eminent French Tibetologists as R.A. Stein, Madame Macdonald and others at the Institut National des Langues et Cultures Orientales (INALCO), one of France’s grands établissements. They showed him the research they had been conducting on ancient Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang, a specialty field of French scholars in the world of Tibetan Studies. His Holiness, I believe, told them that it would be more useful if they studied Buddhist texts.
I began this long essay by describing how Shakabpa’s history seemed to have helped awaken all those people in Tibet who had been reduced to a “catatonic”, or to put it in Buddhist terms a near “yidak” or “preta”, condition under Communist indoctrination and oppression. But it has become evident that since 1987, 1989, 2008, and now this year, the people in Tibet are all wide-awake. Their courage, commitment and sacrifices have more than demonstrated this to the whole world.

This time around it is those of us in exile (especially the leadership) who need to be awakened from our current sleep-walk along a very treacherous path. But, of course, there is no need to look far for a bracing wake-me-up and a fresh set of directions. In the last line of the author’s preface, Shakabpa tells us exactly what he wants his history to accomplish: “It is my fondest wish that this book will be like a compass that indicates the path to recovering our independence.”

This essay was written during my residency at the International Writer’s Program at the University of Iowa. I would like to thank the Writer’s Program and the Shelly & Donald Rubin Foundation, for their support. Professor Elliot Sperling took time off from his busy schedule to go through my work and offer valuable criticism and suggestions.)

[1] Chinese Communist propaganda has, on little evidence, insisted on describing traditional Tibetan society as a “slave society.” Marxist theory of historical materialism identifies five successive stages of human history, the second stage being “slave society”. Since pre-revolutionary China was, according to official Communist doctrine, on the more advanced third stage of “feudalism”, Tibet could be depicted as being an entire historical stage behind China – even feudal China.
[2] I received this information in a telephone conversation with Dzachutsang Sonam Topgyal, a former prime-minister of the exile government, who was the secretary of the Department of Information of the exile government, when Tibet first began to open up in the mid eighties.
[3] Karma Gyatsho, “Tsepon Wangchuk Deden shakabpa (1908-89): A Brief Biography”, Tibet Journal, Vol XVI No.2 Summer 1991, Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, Dharamshala.
[4] H.E Richardson “The Ra-sgreng Conspiracy of 1947”, in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson. Proceedings of the International Seminar on Tibetan Studies Oxford 1979. Editors Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi, Aris & Philips Ltd. Warminister England, 1980.
[5] Jamyang Norbu, “Moulting of the Peking Duck”, Tibetan Review, April 1979.
[6] Shakabpa, One Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet, Brill Tibetan Studies Library, Leiden, 2010. p. 565
[7] Dan Martin (with Yael Bentor), Tibetan Histories: A Bibliography of Tibetan-Language Historical Works, Serindia, London, 1997.
[8] Brag-dgon Dkon-mchog-bstan-pa-rab-rgyas (b. 1800/ 1-1866), Deb-ther Rgya-mtsho (A mdo Chos-‘byung, Yul Mdo-smad-kyi Ljongs-su thub-bstan Rin-po-che Ji-ltar Dar-ba’I tshul Gsal-bar brjod-pa deb-ther Rgya-tsho). Published with Added English title: The Ocean Annals of Amdo, ed. By Lokesh Chandra (new Delhi 1975), in 3 volumes.
[9] Dan Martin. Ibid.
[10] Theodor Mommsen, The Provinces of the Roman Empire. First published 1885, republished 1909, Barnes & Noble, USA, Page 161.
[11] Hortsang Jigme, Drang den gyis lus pae slong mo wa. (The Beggar Beguiled by Truth), Chapter 16. “A Brief Inquiry Into the Question of Who WroteTibet: A Political History.”
[12] Samten Norboo, The White Annals (translation) LTWA Dharamshala, 1978. p 11.
[13] Irmgard Mengele, dGe-‘dun-chos-‘phel: A Biography of the 20th-CenturyTibetan Scholar, Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, Dharamshala, 1999. This work is based on the biography of Gedun Chophel written by Sherab Gyatso in 1972 and published in the Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, Dharamshala, 1973 .
[14] Mengele, p. 17
[15] Mengele p. 74
[16] Mengele. p. 68
[17] Mengele. p.72
[18] Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Madman’s Middle Way. University of Chicago Press, 2006. P45.
[19] Tsipon Shakabpa, & Yonten Gyatso, The Nectar of the Immortal Gods Inducing Recollection in the Bretheren Living at Home in the the Three Provinces of Tibet and Living in Exile. Published by the authors and distributed secretly in Tibet. 1988.
[20] Hortsang Jigme, Jam dbyangs nor bu rjes ‘brang dang bcas pa’i grib ma dgrar lang la brtags pa’i tshoms, Dharamshala, 2003.

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