Beyond Dreamland

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ISABEL HILTONIt will be 40 years in March since the uprising in Lhasa that forced the 14th Dalai Lama to flee Tibet. It was a drama that precipitated the exodus of nearly 100,000 Tibetans from their native land. Most went to India, where they settled in what they thought would be temporary exile. A few moved on--to Nepal, Europe, the United States. Almost none returned to live in Tibet. If the Dalai Lama were ever to go back--an event that grows ever more doubtful--he would scarcely recognize the Tibet he left as a young man. His departure in 1959 opened the way for the full force of China's occupation. Only then did the real battle between millenarian socialism and Tibetan traditions, including its religion, begin. The Chinese, bent on transforming Tibet, discovered that the main obstacle to a socialist, materialist Tibet was the deep attachment Tibetans felt to their very unmaterialist religious faith.

Tibet was to become a highly polemical issue, about which Beijing remains sensitive to the point of neuralgia. In the propaganda war, the exiles, led by the Dalai Lama, have retained the moral authority, while losing the material battles. But Tibet's role as an international issue and cause has obscured the reality lived by the Tibetans themselves. The voices of Westerners talking about Tibet are loud; the voices of Tibetans, especially of those in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, are curiously mute. There are many reasons for this. Beijing discourages serious investigation in Tibet by outsiders, and journalists and scholars who try to gain access must choose between the equally unattractive options of trying to sneak past official scrutiny or making a kind of Faustian pact with Beijing. Besides, the study of Tibet is still a minority pursuit, and the analysis of today's Tibet--as opposed to the favored Western preoccupations of religious Tibet or dreamland Tibet--is rarer.

For all these reasons, the appearance of two new, very different books on Tibet can only be welcomed. The exiled Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya has published in The Dragon in the Land of Snows, (Random House, 592 pages) the first scholarly history of Tibet under Chinese occupation. It is a book that will undoubtedly become the standard for its topic. Steve Lehman's The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive (Umbrage, 200 pages), is a personal photo-history, informed by Lehman's decade of covering Tibet and enhanced by personal testimonies from people the photographer has encountered.

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Both works avoid the pitfalls of their respective genres: the sterile quest to settle the legal argument over independence or the descent into polemic. They prefer to describe what both agree is an experience of colonialism, and they give readers the tools with which to decide the rights and wrongs of the issue. Lehman was on hand when Lhasa erupted in 1987, an uprising that would mark the end of the liberal policy Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang had inaugurated. The young monks who poured onto the street outside the Jokhang Temple demanding Tibetan independence were a new generation, brought up under Chinese occupation and too young to have experienced the repression of the '60s. They were the voices of China's Tibet, and they reached their own conclusions about what was right. Lehman also documents what followed: martial law, the plunder of natural resources, the mass-migration of Han Chinese, the explosion of prostitution, the destruction of the old city of Lhasa and the erection of a gimcrack city, half karaoke kitsch, half utilitarian settlement.

China has now abandoned the creed of Mao, in whose name so much of traditional Tibet was destroyed. But it has not relaxed efforts to make Tibet conform to market socialism, Beijing's latest ideological adventure. In 1997, Chen Kuiyuan, Party leader in Tibet, proclaimed the theory that Buddhism, which has been rooted in the culture for nearly 1,000 years, was foreign to Tibet. How long does it have to be around before we are sure it's not just passing through?

Chen's eye-catching analysis was directed, of course, against the Dalai Lama, whose position as a symbol of Tibetan culture and autonomy remains so powerful inside Tibet that it still has to be attacked. Having failed to replace the Buddha with Karl Marx or Chairman Mao, the Party has opted for the diversions of the global marketplace--Michael Jackson, disco dancing, karaoke. But as China tries to eliminate Tibetan identity, its repression is only helping to forge the new generations of activists Lehman documents. As Robbie Barnett, founder of the Tibet Information Network, writes in a thoughtful essay in the book, it seems to be their determination to be so that makes them Tibetan. If that's so, the story isn't over yet.

Isabel Hilton is a London journalist whose book, The Search for the Panchen Lama, will be published by Viking in September

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