By Charlotte Bence
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Tibet: A History

This article is over 12 years, 6 months old
Sam Van Schaik
Issue 359

Tibet is arguably most famous for its relationship with China, and for the Dalai Lama – but there is a lot more to it than that. You can only understand Tibet in the 21st century if you have an understanding of its fascinating history. Sam Van Schaik’s book is a fabulous introduction to that rich history.

Van Schaik brings the history of Tibet to life by telling the stories of the people involved, which makes for an engaging and exciting read. Chapters on the Holy Buddhist Empire and the emergence of Tibetan Buddhism are especially interesting. Even those who consider themselves relatively familiar with the history of Tibet are sure to learn something new, thanks to Van Schaik’s meticulous research.

The early parts of the book tell the story of a culturally rich and fascinating country, which helps to set the tone for the later chapters which deal with the country’s submission to Chinese rule in the 1950s and makes the story of Tibet under the yoke of Chinese imperialism all the more distressing. And, of course, let us not forget the interference of the British Empire in 1903 and 1904 – part of the “Great Game” played between the British and Russian empires.

It is the final chapters on the subjugation of Tibet by the Chinese that are the most powerful in the book – not only for the descriptions of Tibetan suffering at the hands of the Chinese, but also for the stories of those who left Tibet, and how Tibetan culture in exile has been kept alive.

There is the example of the imprisoned tenth Pachen Lama, who became a heavy drinker after his release, then rejoined public life and suddenly died. Then, of course, there are the monks and Tibetan intellectuals who were courted by Western academics and brought over to various institutions to study and teach. This led to the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, although as Van Schaik points out, Westernised interpretations were sometimes tinged by excessive consumption of LSD. To each his own, but various Tibetans were unhappy with this, with one remarking, “How can you travel the path of the Dharma? You can’t even travel on a bus without everybody freaking out.”

The only thing missing from the book is a study of the Dalai Lama’s relationship with Tibet and, by extension, China. It is not that the book is incomplete without such information, but it would have been enhanced by the inclusion of such analysis. I still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Tibet: A History as an introduction to the country, but look elsewhere for information on the Dalai Lama.

Tibet: A History is published by Yale University Press, £25

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