Sperling (continued)

This introduction will touch on some of what makes exile from Tibet more complex than is often perceived: the history of Tibet, and its role within the intellectual and nationalist struggle over Tibet's identity; the place within this history of the areas called Amdo and Kham by Tibetans and generally referred to as "eastern Tibet" (It is the area of the Tibetan plateau that has been home to most Tibetans for centuries, but that lies outside the borders of the modern Tibet Autonomous Region); the new cultural milieu of the dissent that often precipitates exile; and the dissonance that develops when the images and expectations of dissidents encounter the reality of exile in India.

There are exiles, of course, whose situation and history might well fit the plain description of the refugee in search of religious liberty. But for many, if not most, flight across Tibet's borders into Nepal and India is a much more complicated experience, and the images and accounts of exile contained in this volume reflect this fact. Religious feeling and sentiment is present; this is undeniable. But there is much more here that can bring to light a little bit of the complexity of life in Tibet that often goes unremarked in much of what is written about it. In essence, the issue of exile from Tibet cannot be characterized solely in terms of religious liberty, nor by the formula of "cultural preservation" that has gained currency in recent years. Exile for many is undoubtedly linked to nationalism, and this in turn is often expressed by Tibetans, both within the Tibet Autonomous Region and in the areas of eastern Tibet, who have benefited from real opportunities for education and intellectual activity --Tibetans who are acting within a Tibetan cultural milieu and with definite perceptions of their history as Tibetans.

Tibetan intellectual life, expressed in a distinctly secular manner, cannot be ignored. Across the Tibetan plateau a significant number of cultural and literary journals are published, some in rather out-of-the-way places. Yet balanced against this is the fact that educational and cultural opportunities still remain inaccessible to large numbers of Tibetans. And even more sobering is the undeniable evidence that when intellectual activity develops into serious dissent from Chinese policy on Tibet, particularly as it concerns China's historical rights to Tibet, the state does not hesitate to visit severe repression on dissidents. Freedom of expression is not extended to those who can in any way be construed as acting to "split" China. Imprisonment and torture are commonly used against Tibetans who take active nationalist positions, whether in secular or religious settings. This aspect of intellectual life in Tibet also cannot be ignored.

The historical argument largely underlies Tibetan nationalism, and nationalism in turn becomes the basis for proscribed dissent in Tibet (and thus a major reason for exile). As a result, the question of Tibet's history is a critical focus of strife between Tibetan dissidents and the government that rules them. One can easily conclude that China's insistence on its historical right to sovereignty over Tibet has itself inspired a Tibetan impetus to contest the issue on that same field. We can find many examples of Chinese rhetoric on the subject -- echoes of the common theme that Tibet, as everyone knows, has been an integral part of China since the thirteenth century. Against this sweeping statement, Tibetan dissidents have been arguing that history actually shows Tibet to be an independent state. And in fact, viewed from beyond the confines of the polemical struggle over Tibet's past, the briefest outline of Tibetan history clearly shows that the considerable contact between Tibet and China that has ensued for well over a millennium does not obscure the distinct path Tibet has taken quite independently of China. Indeed, a strong case can be made that prior to 1951, Tibet was at best one part of the empires built by the Mongol and later Manchu emperors who conquered China, but never an "integral" part of China itself.

The earliest substantive body of information on Tibet dates from Tibet's imperial period, the era during which the country became a serious international power. From the mid-seventh to the mid-ninth centuries the Tibetan empire was one of the great powers of the Eurasian landmass, extending beyond the Tibetan plateau into Inner Asia, controlling the silk road centers north of Tibet in what is today Xinjiang for long periods, and, along the Chinese border, absorbing into its domains large swaths of what were once Chinese territories. During this period, too, Buddhism developed into a substantive part of Tibetan society and Tibet's spiritual, political, and cultural life.

The collapse of the Tibetan empire in the mid-ninth century left the Tibetan plateau without a single unifying regime. Power fragmented quickly, and there arose a number of Tibetan principalities in different parts of the plateau. At times, some of these small states played significant international roles in a shifting political and economic climate that found China beset by strong foreign forces and states to its north and conquest dynasties established in part on its territories. During this period of fragmentation, the transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet continued, giving rise to broader developments of the faith as it grew within Tibet. Clear sectarian divisions appeared, signs not of degeneration and breakdown, but of vibrant, intense spiritual and intellectual engagement with the tenets coming into the country. With the decline of Buddhism in India, Tibetan Buddhism came to be seen as the preeminent esoteric vehicle for empowerment. And with that came the beginnings of Tibetan Buddhism's involvement with political power in the wider world beyond the plateau.

First in the realm of the Tanguts -- a people whose state was to be so utterly destroyed by the Mongols in 1227 that the reconstruction of its history and language remains an ongoing enterprise at the end of the millennium -- Tibetan lamas became the spiritual instructors to the emperors at the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries. With the appearance of the Mongols, lamas began to fulfill a similar function at the courts of several Mongol Khans. In an age of faith, this did not mean simply imparting aphoristic homilies or bare articles of faith: it meant intimate, esoteric religious initiations that would, within the Buddhist worldview, empower the ruler in the mundane world to serve the dharma. As such, Tibetan Buddhism took on a distinct role in the realms of political and religious power, well beyond Tibet's borders. It is this phenomenon that lies behind Marco Polo's descriptions of the marvels that Tibetan lamas were able to work at the court of Khubilai Khan. They were held to be, quite simply, in possession of supramundane powers.

The imperial fascination with Tibetan Buddhism can be seen not only in the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) but also in the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). As a result, some have described the nature of Tibet's relationship with China as uniquely religious, circumscribing it within the bounds of Buddhist roles and characterizing it as a "priest-patron" relationship between a lama and a ruler. However, this cannot obscure the fact that there were indeed political links binding Tibet to the Mongol and Manchu rulers of China resulting from the actual incorporation of Tibet into the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century and its absorption into the Qing realms in the eighteenth.

Both Tibetan and Chinese pre-modern sources testify to the reality of Tibet's subordination. But this domination leaves much space for arguing, as many do, that being part of the Qing Empire -- which collapsed only in 1911 and is thus a significant factor in perceptions of Tibet's status in the twentieth century -- was in no way equivalent to being an "integral part of China," the preferred formulation for Tibet's status in modern Chinese polemics. Indeed, Mongolia, which was in many ways far more closely bound to the Qing state and to Qing structures, emerged from the Qing collapse as an independent state, which it remains today, recognized as such by China.

After 1911, too, the Dalai Lama's government, which had governed Tibet since the mid-seventeenth century, ruled independently in the area under its jurisdiction. But the large areas in the eastern portion of the Tibetan plateau, which the Qing had placed outside the purview of the Tibetan government in the early eighteenth century, fell under the sometimes anarchic rule of officials and warlords of the Republic of China and were attached to or converted into Chinese provinces. This division remains a particularly sore spot: Tibetans remain attached to "the eastern areas" as part of Tibet, while China considers only the modern Tibet Autonomous Region (essentially the area that had been ruled by the Dalai Lama's government since the eighteenth century) to be Tibet.

In October 1950, following the victory of Chinese Communist forces over the Nationalist government and the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) one year earlier, the Chinese army crossed into Tibetan government-controlled territory. Routing the small Tibetan forces there, they left the Tibetan government with little choice but to accede to terms for the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet. The situation that followed was very much affected by the cleavage between central Tibet, under the Dalai Lama, and "eastern Tibet," under Chinese provincial rule. The region ruled by the Dalai Lama was shielded by the terms of the "peaceful liberation" agreement from the harsh methods of imposed class struggle and land reform implemented in the east. Economic and social structures viewed by cadres elsewhere in the PRC as feudal and backward remained largely untouched in the Dalai Lama's realm. At the same time, the application of policies derived from conditions in China proper (where land ownership in the midst of tremendous population density was in great measure inherently exploitative) to eastern Tibet (where the fact of sparse population strongly mitigated the situation) had an effect wholly opposite to what the Chinese government had hoped for. Rather than fostering class solidarity that would link Tibetan peasants and herders to the Chinese peasantry, it fostered allegiances between socially and geographically distinct Tibetan groups that all faced harsh measures introduced from China. And this in turn focused attention on the divide between Tibetan populations in the east and in central Tibet.

During the 1950s a revolt against Chinese policies developed in the east, inevitably spilling over into central Tibet and erupting in Lhasa in 1959. Clearly, this uprising would not have occurred or taken the direction it did had Tibetans from the eastern portions of the plateau not considered themselves Tibetan. One might add that both the Dalai Lama and the then Panchen Lama were drawn from the eastern regions -- the Dalai Lama himself coming from an area and a family that were not Tibetan-speaking.

In the wake of the Lhasa uprising, the Dalai Lama's government was abolished and central Tibet ceased to enjoy the protections it had previously had against many of the harsh policies implemented in "eastern Tibet." The Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetans went into exile in India, beginning a new phase in the confrontation between Tibet and China. While armed Tibetan resistance was carried on at a much reduced and sporadic level into the early 1970s, the polemical struggle over Tibet's history took on greater emphasis in both the internationalization of Tibet's case and in the shaping of fixed views. The Chinese government studiously ignored the difference between historical influence and sovereignty, as well as the implications of Tibet's place as an imperial possession of Manchu and Mongol rulers, rather than as an "integral" part of China. For their part, Tibetan exiles highlighted facts that supported their case (e.g., the thirteenth Dalai Lama's proclamation of Tibetan independence in 1913), while those that damaged it (e.g., the Tibetan government agreeing to have its representatives in China in the 1930s and 1940s paid by the Chinese government, essentially making them Chinese officials) were suppressed. The received truths of Tibet's history shaped within the Tibetan exile community have filtered back into Tibet. Positions on the historical status of Tibet from inside Tibet generally make use of the same facts as those voiced in exile.

In this environment, the position of eastern Tibet -- the regions placed outside the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama's government in the early eighteenth century, which are today outside the boundaries of the Tibet Autonomous Region-has taken on particular significance, so much so that the exile account of when China launched its initial attack on Tibet has had to be altered to accommodate the incorporation of eastern Tibet within Tibetan territory.

Of course, when those territories were transferred from Guomindang provincial domination to rule by the PRC in 1949, the Tibetan government in Lhasa sounded no alarms and sent out no appeals. That only occurred in October 1950, when the Chinese army crossed into the area actually ruled by the Tibetan government. In fact, for years afterwards the exile government dated the Chinese attack to 1950, only later altering its position on when it happened. There was effectively no Tibetan government rule over most of eastern Tibet for more than two centuries before 1949. But Qing and Nationalist Chinese rule there was often light, and for most of its duration the identity of the local populations as "Tibetans" was not an issue. As noted above, much that has happened in Tibet in the twentieth century would not have transpired had the people in these regions not considered themselves Tibetan. In short, "eastern Tibet," though standing outside the geographical limits of Tibetan government control and the borders of the modern Tibet Autonomous Region, has played a large and crucial role in much of Tibet's modern history. It cannot be written out of that history.

These regions have had their own distinctive identities and fates since the fall of the Tibetan empire. Indeed, from the debris of that collapse, Tibetan states emerged in the northeast that played a significant role in international affairs in the period before the rise of the Mongols in the thirteenth century, sustaining vital trade routes and supplying horses to trading partners in China. Though subsumed into the Mongol Empire, eastern Tibet became by the fourteenth century economically important as contact with India decreased with the demise of Buddhism there. As a result, Tibet's eastern border, the Sino-Tibetan frontier, took on greater economic and demographic significance. From around the thirteenth century the burgeoning trade in Chinese tea for Tibetan horses received renewed impetus. These developments most likely precipitated a demographic change felt even today: up to the end of the twentieth century, the majority of the Tibetan population has lived in the eastern portions of the Tibetan plateau.

For centuries "eastern Tibet," with its mix of effectively independent petty states, large and small monasteries, towns, and nomad groups, has been quite distinct, socially, politically, and linguistically, from central Tibet. At the same time it has had to deal much more intimately with China along the traditional Sino-Tibetan frontier. Over the centuries, local Tibetan rulers in various places along that border have often found themselves dependent upon dynastic China, with titles and duties that bound them to the Chinese state. At the same time, the nature of these bonds has ultimately been quite feeble. This was evident in the last years of the Qing Dynasty. During the 1950s, when the PRC tried to assert its own norms of class struggle over the area, eastern Tibet became ground zero for the outbreak of armed Tibetan resistance to China.

Today eastern Tibet is firmly under Chinese provincial administration. However, it is organized within Tibetan or semi-Tibetan autonomous units, and remains very much a center of Tibetan cultural activity. Particularly in the area known as Amdo, which has long been famous for the many scholars and cultural figures who have sprung from its soil, serious modern cultural and literary activity continues. To some this might seem an odd statement, given the charges of "cultural genocide" in Tibet that are common in exile circles and in the West. But the cultural activity taking place all over the Tibetan plateau cannot be ignored, even though it takes place against a background of harsh political repression directed at expressions of separatist sentiment, and with a growing, deleterious Chinese presence in many Tibetan areas.

The severe repression of previous decades eased considerably in the late 1970s, and by the early 1980s it was clear that Chinese policies in Tibet had changed drastically -- as they had throughout the PRC. Education, using Tibetan as the language of instruction, at least in fields such as Tibetan language and literature, started to receive greater emphasis than in previous years (though this has assuredly not been the case in fields such as the modern sciences). Traditional scholars began to teach again-some of them within the setting of higher education and research institutions -- and monasteries that had been shut or destroyed began to function again.

These developments are offset by the migration of Chinese people into Tibetan areas. This influx has had -- and continues to have -- a marginalizing effect on the role of the Tibetan language, not to mention its effect on Tibetan economic aspirations and expectations or its role in diluting the Tibetan character of such crucial hubs as Lhasa. Nevertheless, Tibetan publications continue to circulate and grow in numbers. This is in part due to the development of secular educational and cultural institutions accessible to Tibetans within the PRC -- though it should be noted that access to education for large numbers of Tibetans is still limited, and most of the higher education opportunities for Tibetans involve study outside the Tibetan areas of the PRC. Still, this is something unprecedented in Tibet and has brought about the growth of what for Tibetans are new literary forms. Modern novels and short stories are being written by a new breed of Tibetan literati, born and raised under PRC rule, while essays and research articles on a wide variety of subjects find homes in the increasing number of new Tibetan-language journals and magazines.

This cultural activity demands to be noticed. All too often people outside Tibet equate Tibetan culture largely with clerical and monastic life, or with what might be termed folk culture. In Tibet today this is no longer tenable. It is this petrified view, though, that seems to lurk behind many of the calls for the preservation of Tibetan culture as the goal of both the Dalai Lama's government and foreign diplomatic moves. Tibetan culture, like any other, is dynamic. Calling for its "preservation" automatically brings forth the need for it to be defined, which in turn evokes a stuffed-and-mounted item fit for a museum. Tibetan culture does not need to be frozen in time, but Tibetan cultural life needs to be protected from measures that repress literary and artistic expression. In Tibet today secular writers and artists, working with modern forms, are every bit a part of the Tibetan cultural scene.

The contours of dissent in Tibet and its repression by China are not shaped by calls for cultural preservation or cultural autonomy, but by calls for Tibetan independence. In fact, within certain limits the PRC does make efforts to accommodate Tibetan cultural expression. But when perceptions of separatism (which Chinese documents have termed "splittism") are brought into play, repression is harsh indeed. Thus, while the government has allowed Tibetans leeway in various areas of religious practice, there is no space for any move perceived to undermine the state's authority. When the government puts monasteries under surveillance, tries to limit the numbers of monks and nuns, and conducts "patriotic education" campaigns, it is trying not so much to interfere in religious practice or doctrinal issues, but to prevent any effort to undermine the state's position as the ultimate controlling power over religion. A key aim of the ongoing repression in Tibet is to purge Tibetan religious life of the authority of the Dalai Lama, who continues to symbolize an alternate authority to the Chinese government.

For Tibetans involved in nationalist activities, exile often does become the sole option. But here, too, popular notions tend to diverge from the reality of exile. For many Tibetans who do reach India, exile is not, in fact, a final decision. A number of those who leave Tibet for non-political reasons do indeed go back to Tibet, even if they left Tibet illegally. This is more common now than one might imagine, since changes in India's regulations governing the entry of Tibetans into India no longer guarantee residency for them. Not all who leave Tibet do so for political reasons; some want simply to have an audience with the Dalai Lama or to bring children into the exile Tibetan school system. Others come for economic reasons, although they may well blame the Chinese government for their economic circumstances. Some manage to travel to India several times, even though the border crossing from Tibet must be done surreptitiously and at great risk. Again, such facts underline the nuanced way in which the situation in Tibet must be understood. It is not one of absolute despair and oppression for all around. But for those believed to have crossed the line into active and overt nationalism, whether centered around simple allegiance to the Dalai Lama and the child recognized by him as the Panchen Lama, or the assertion of Tibet's historical right to independence, the weight of oppression can be heavy indeed. As is obvious from some of the narratives in this volume, under these circumstances flight from Tibet looms as the only viable alternative.

The risks taken by political exiles are by nature greater than those taken by others. Capture, particularly when one is already wanted, can lead to horrendous consequences. But once in exile different anxieties can come to the fore. Some are particular to the very state of exile and not unique to the Tibetan community, though they have their own distinctive manifestations within it. It is not unusual to find a sense of letdown setting in for exiles after some time. There are a number of circumstances in which this happens: some find the educational qualifications they acquired in Tibet insufficient to guarantee a reasonable job in the crowded job market of the exile community; some don't have an adequate knowledge of English; some find their intellectual capabilities and accomplishments underappreciated or ignored in exile.

These sentiments are exacerbated by other aspects of Tibetan life in exile. Those who struggled and suffered for Tibetan independence inside Tibet are certainly aware of the irony of the repudiation of independence as a goal by both the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. The corruption and nepotism at high levels in the exile government have given many pause for reflection about the gap between what they were trying to do in Tibet and the often unsavory aspects of Tibetan exile politics.

And so we return to the original point: that the experience of exile among Tibetans is more complex than often presented. Dissent in Tibet and the exile it causes grow out of an environment that includes new cultural developments, specific views of Tibet's history, and a definite sense of nationalism. The accounts and images compiled in this volume illustrate this, but it is important to note that those profiled in these accounts are not the only ones who have suffered. The arrests and torture of Tibetan dissidents affect families and friends who also must contend with the heavy hand of the government, and with the suspicion and harassment such arrests generate. Moreover, the depredations experienced by dissidents in Tibet resonate broadly among Tibetans within and beyond the borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region. They serve to link those in the present with widespread communal memories of brutalities suffered during earlier years of PRC rule, and imbue the notion of nationalist dissent in Tibet with a strongly felt sense of resistance to oppression and injustice. And this, in turn, adds to a milieu in which nationalism, dissent, and exile are generated anew.

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