Books, DHARAMSHALA, REVIEWS, Tibet books

Tibet: A History – Sam van Schaik


The book starts with a dramatic moment. In the eighth century a brand new Tibetan empire burst out of the plateau, taking everyone by surprise when it captured the Chinese capital in 763. The Tibetans have never forgotten, and it’s unlikely the Chinese have either. The story of Tibet had actually begun a century earlier, when Songtsen Gampo, holder of the quasi-divine office of tsenpo, united the country’s warring tribes for the first time. But the capture of Chang’an sets the tone for this highly readable and thought-provoking history.

A Tibet scholar at the British Library, Sam van Schaik displays enormous skill in bringing the far-off, convoluted and complex history of Tibet vividly to life. The characters are nuanced, the judgments are balanced, and the descriptions are memorable. The assassination of the anti-Buddhist leader Lang Darma by a monk dressed in black who then escaped wearing white has the immediacy of cinema. The encounters between the Panchen Lama and British emissary George Bogle are suffused with humour, while the account of the Sixth Dalai Lama’s life is high drama leavened with poetry, tragedy, love and alcohol. The development of each major school of Tibetan Buddhism is treated clearly and succinctly, without digression into arcane detail.  The book covers the entire span of Tibet’s history, from the seventh century to 2010, and the themes that van Schaik identifies – the tradition of divine rulers dating to the earliest times, the readiness to allow in other people’s armies – are intriguing.

The book spends a lot of time on the country’s relations with other powers. Far from being an isolated land of mystery, for upwards of a millennium Tibet manipulated, instructed, frustrated, negotiated and fought with its various neighbours, including the Chinese, the Nepalese, the Arabs, the Manchus, the Mongols and British India. Some of these powers were able to exercise influence within Tibet, including by military means. The Mongol leader Goden, grandson of Genghis Khan, installed the Sakya dynasty as proxy rulers in the thirteenth century. Later, a different set of Mongols would confer authority on the lineage they named the Dalai Lamas. The Manchu emperor, after he took power in Beijing in 1644, sought the Dalai Lama’s patronage to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Mongols. His successor even asked for a loan of Tibetan and Mongol troops. The Dalai Lama turned him down.

Soon enough the armies were marching in the opposite direction, as Beijing became the power underpinning the Dalai Lama’s rule. The Qianlong Emperor sent in a force to beat off a Nepalese invasion, and began the practice of manipulating the selection of prominent reincarnations that persists to this day. But, argues van Schaik, ‘He was not contemplating making “Tibet” a part of “China”: the idea of “China” as a nation state had not yet come into being. While a nation state conceives of everyone within its borders as subjects of its government, an empire is a much looser structure.’ Under the Manchus Beijing asserted authority over Amdo and Kham, wishing to maintain control over the border areas, but left central and western Tibet largely to their own devices. The Manchu dynasty collapsed in 1912, and imperial China along with it.

The Dalai Lama declared independence, but in doing so exposed the central weakness of his position. Tibet had no army, having for so long relied on its neighbours for reinforcements whenever they were required. Attempts to develop a military foundered, partly through ignorance – few in power understood the nature of the threat they faced – but more for reasons of politics. The Dalai Lama’s powerbase, and after the death of the 13th, that of his court, lay in the enormous monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden. A professional military would be a threat to their position and their armies of dob dob, or fighting monks.

When the end came, it was devastatingly swift. The Lhasa élite, accustomed to the idea of China as a patron rather than a coloniser, was slow to stir itself. As the PLA marched on Chamdo, the Kashag or governing council was enjoying its annual picnic. With Kham’s capital gone, Lhasa agreed to negotiate. Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, patronised by the aristocracy and thrown into the teeth of the communists to negotiate a settlement, signed the 17 Point Agreement without a proper line of communication to the Kashag, which was huddled in Yadong on the Sikkim border. Lhasa’s position was that Tibet must retain its independence; Beijing responded that this wasn’t even open for negotiation. Tibet had always been part of China.

While the book starkly refutes China’s claims to Tibet, it offers new and interesting interpretations on the events of the 1950s, including the causes and sequence of the uprising which triggered the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile. It casts a sceptical eye over other matters of pro-Tibet orthodoxy as well, such as the theory that the Tenth Panchen Lama was assassinated. Both Ngapo Ngawang Jigme and the Dalai Lama’s controversial elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, are written about with some sympathy. Doubtless van Schaik’s interpretations of earlier periods will also be vigorously contested by both sides. This is good. The debate needs authors with whom both sides can disagree.


About moonpeak

Moonpeak is an online and print magazine published in McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. It features articles and interviews about travel, photography and books, with a focus on South Asia and Tibet. The magazine is based at Moonpeak cafe, restaurant and gallery on Temple Road, McLeodganj.



  1. Pingback: Favourite books on Tibet and Dharamshala « moonpeak - 6 January, 2013

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