Windows on the world



History Lessons

(published in The Tibet Society Journal ~ Autumn 1999)


Central Government was adamant and ruthless. These mountain frontier people were obstinate and recalcitrant. In the interests of national peace and prosperity they would have to be subdued.

There were skirmishes, and casualties, but the real battle was waged over cultural identity: language ~ banned; costume ~ banned; religion ~ banned. I am talking about Westminster and the Scottish Highlands, of course, in the second half of the 18th century, although it was a similar story in Ulster. Whereas in the Highlands flocks of sheep soon outnumbered the Clans, in Northern Ireland the immigrant mainland Protestants would grow to outnumber the Ulster Catholics. We, in The West, have no exclusive right to any High Moral Ground when considering the "Tibetan situation".

Over the Great Wall

But before we look at current issues there is another lesson to be learned from the past. A few years ago I made the journey from Beijing to Chengde. I was following in the footsteps of Lord Macartney, who in 1793 had led the British Trade Mission to petition the Emperor at his summer resort. We both stopped to marvel at the Great Wall, for Jehol (now Chengde) in Inner Mongolia was well outside the old boundary of the Chinese Empire. In pausing we might both have speculated as to how territories outside the Great Wall were absorbed into China. Could it have been by what, in others, Beijing would denounce as expansionary policies?

Macartney travelled as the Ambassador of King George III of England, bearing gifts of goodwill. The Imperial Court insisted they were tribute, for the Emperor, as Son of Heaven, was far too exalted to accept gifts. Just as certainly the King’s Ambassador was not prepared to pay tribute, the impasse remained, and the trade mission was a failure.


Tribute, an established practice in China, and paid by many smaller Asian countries and regions, had never before been challenged. Several European nations with small trading posts in Canton regularly sent gifts, which the Emperor received as tribute. By extrapolation, therefore, all these nations were perceived as tributary nations of the Chinese Empire. Although the Emperor had little knowledge of, or interest in, the precise location of Europe, in his Celestial mind he ruled over France, Holland and Portugal just as surely as he did over Mongolia, Nepal and Tibet.

This had been the Chinese view of the world for a thousand years. If major European nations were content to go along with it, it is hardly surprising that Tibet never attempted to clarify the position. Tibet was quite content to play the undefined role of spiritual advisor to the Emperor.

In the light of this fundamental misconception discussions about historical claims of sovereignty become meaningless. It is unlikely that Communist Beijing will ever accept that the PLA invaded a friendly nation because the now-reviled Emperor thought he was the Son of God. It might be more productive to accept that Tibet was in urgent need of change, and although His Holiness The Dalai Lama had recognised this there was little sign of reform being instigated from within by 1950.

Cultural survival

Understanding is more helpful than indignation, righteous or rightful, and a different perspective can shed new light on old problems. Somehow the Scots, at home and in exile, maintained their own unique identity, and Highland traditions, language, kilt and bagpipe are now known throughout the world. Even in China itself the Hakka people still practice their own mixture of Daoism and Buddhism. In Tibet some of the great monasteries have survived. Although when I visited in 1995 the Potola was not much more than a museum, Tashi Lunpo and the Jokhang were still thriving places of worship. And outside Tibet her culture is not just being preserved, frozen in time, it is continuing to develop and grow, enriching western society in the process. Samye Ling, in south-west Scotland, has a profound effect on thousands of visitors each year.

History is littered with the rise and fall of civilisations. The Roman Empire crumbled in decadent stagnation. The Soviet Bloc imploded. The British Empire was re-born as a Commonwealth of Nations. The People’s Republic of China is already changing, becoming more democratic and forging trading links with capitalist countries. It is only a matter of time before a more enlightened Beijing will be unwilling or unable to hold its empire together by fear and force. And perhaps the British Commonwealth will provide a model for the establishment of an Asian Commonwealth, one which heals many old wounds.

Not by fighting

The struggle seems uneven: six million Tibetans against one billion Chinese, each side with different and conflicting values. Even the powerful western nations are unwilling or unable to intervene. But in essence the struggle is between a culture and an administration, and one of the attributes of both is impermanence. In 1320 the Scottish Earls declared at Arbroath: "It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom ~ for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself." Yet when the Scottish Parliament re-opened in 1999 it was not through fighting but by the wish of the people.

Having looked at the past where do we go from here? Perhaps by asking not what the world can do for Tibet, but what does Tibet have to offer the world? Tibetans have a unique combination of compassion and humour, which enhances society wherever they go. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is one of the few world figures who stands as a role model for spiritual values. China and The West are stuck in adversarial postures, but that does not have to continue: Beijing, in an unprecedented act of spiritual magnanimity, could offer the land of Tibet to the world as a spiritual national park and still collect money at the gate. The difficulties concerning independence and autonomy in the short-term would become less important.

When all involved are ready to let go of the past and move forward the balance will change once more. Meanwhile we can all help by preserving and nurturing, and by seeking greater understanding of the issues. Pre-1950 Tibet has gone forever, but after centuries of inertia Tibetan culture is evolving again. This time it is playing a role on the world stage.


© Harvey Tordoff
August 1999