Thursday, March 20, 2008

Book Review: Tibet,Tibet by Patrick French

Tibet is so much in the news these days so I thought it only fitting to republish the review I wrote for Patrick French's "Tibet,Tibet". My review was written in Sep 2005.

Tibet. What do you think of when you see or hear the word "Tibet"? For me, Tibet conjures up images of Lamas in bright purple and maroon robes, high mountains, beautiful men and women in braids with ruddy cheeks. I think of prayer wheels, beautiful monastaries, momos (tibetan dumplings), Buddhism, yaks and ofcourse, the Dalai Lama and his enigmatic smile. But after reading Patrick French's "Tibet,Tibet", I realize Tibet is so much more.

If any one should know Tibet, it is Patrick French. As a young man of 16, he had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama who visited the Christian monastery in Northern England where the author was studying. The Dalai Lama who was only 40, dark haired and uncelebrated at that time, made a huge impression on him and Tibet became the cause he became attached to, working as a political activist on behalf of its government in exile.


In 1999, French decided to go on a trip covering Tibet from west to east. THe purpose of this trip was to demythicise and deromanticise Tibet. He wanted to see it for what it really was and what he found may be disappointing to some because although it is every bit as scenic as we are led to believe, it is not the Shangri-la the Western world thinks it is. Also,although this a land adored for peaceful spirituality ("pacifist monks and nuns spending their days in learning, meditation and creativity..") it reveals a surprising early history of fierce war-making and its equally fierce monks aka. Dob-dobs.

"...Dob-dobs lived outside normal monastic rules, and were renowned for their aggressive behaviour. They exercised discipline in the monastaries and would paint rings of soot around their eyes, curl thier hair and smear it with butter. THey maintained order with the help of a curved blade and giant monastery keys, which were swirled like a martial arts flail...."


What makes this book so engaging is that Patrick French writes this as a part memoir, part history book, part travelogue, part narrative and part political analysis. As a historian he lays down a detailed and succint account of the Cultural Revolution in China and how it impacted Tibet, especially when the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet and take refuge in India. His headquarters in the Himalayas is known as the Dharmshala. The author also reminds readers that the Tibetan empire once stretched as far as Afghanistan and its soldiers laid siege to Samarkand. As Tibet's influence waned, its king was dragged in shame through the streets of Baghdad, like, French writes, 'a downed American pilot.'

And as a narrator he recounts conversations with rugged nomads, courageous young nuns, Tibetan Muslims, entrepreneurs, former (Tibetan) Red Guards, remnants of the old aristocracy and returned exiles. He also meets one of the last remaining Ragyabas, a group of Tibetans that we social outcasts. They did the jobs that no one else wanted to do, like depose of corpses that had met their deaths in unnatural ways and so on.


As a travel writer he paints us a picture of Tibet as a harsh, remote untouched land and nearly the most sparesly populated. A land of blue sheep ringed by snow peaks and impassable high-altitude deserts, dropping to fields of jasmine and turquoise lakes...quite seductive , I have to admit!

However, it's his political commentary and predictions that I found most interesting: He has little faith in Beijing ever allowing the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. Only a regime change in Beijing might make way for true autonomy. But, he laments, he doesn't see it coming any time soon. He opines that although the Dalai Lama has, in the past, let go of opporutnities to furthur Tibet's cause with Beijing, the cause will probably become totally irrelevant without his presence. As it is, Tibet's religious institutions have been damaged and its unique culture eroded. Also, India is under terrible pressure from Beijing to clamp down on the Tibetan exiles---it is only Indian cultural and religious reverence for the Dalai Lama which has so far stopped this from happening. When he dies, this protection will quickly disappear.


To me it appears that French has mixed feelings about the Dalai Lama. He has met the Tibet leader and spiritual father many times, and although he comes away feeling the Dalai Lama is well-meaning, he thinks the spiritual leader allows himself to be used as a marketing gimmick to sell everything from Apple computers to books that bear his image but are not written by him. He has this to say about His Holiness:

"...There’s an extraordinary aura and personal charisma about him. He uses his charm whilst reflecting on many serious questions. He knows how to relate to foreigners. In Dharamsala he is different, more like a father figure to his people. The Dalai Lama is hard to read: opaque, intuitive, wise, flippant, childlike, canny and disarming. After watching him for nearly 20 years I still felt some uncertainty about what motivated him, and what his real political strategy was for Tibet...."

In Patrick French's opinion, the only realistic hope for the future is for Tibetans to work within the Chinese system, to try to get as many of their countrymen as possible into good positions and wait for the day when there is reform in Beijing...

I consider this book a must-read for all those interested in Tibet, its history, land and people. With his competent research Patrick French has truly shed a magnificent light on this beleagured magic kingdom and I am grateful to him for doing so.

26 comments:

Its All Just A Ride said...

French's book is great. I loved it. I think it's one of the best books so far on the subject. Glad to hear you liked it as much as I did.

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes,I found French's book quite enlightening. I also have "The Search for Shangri-la" by Charles Allen sitting on my desk, perhaps I'll start that next week. Will visit your blog soon.

Sanjay said...

Hey buddy Thank you for a most wonderful review! You have captured not just the authors intent, but also the entire Tibetan story (incl the history, culture) in a succinct manner. I learned so much about Tibet by just reading your review. I always learn something new here. And I must say like you Tibet is on our minds. For me the feeling is mostly of impotence at watching the Tibetan issue get swallowed by realpolitik of the rise of China as a power and the dependence of the US (and Canada) on cheap Chinese goods.

As a travel writer he paints us a picture of Tibet as a harsh, remote untouched land and nearly the most sparsely populated
This is sadly not as true anymore. While Tibet may still be sparsely populated, the Chinese have built the Tibetan railroad (an engineering marvel) that connects Beijing to Lhasa. I think you may have read the excellent piece by Pankaj Mishra in the New Yorker describing his journey on the train to Lhasa and the changes in Tibet. link.

China has slowly and systematically proceeded to marginalize Tibetans and their culture by encouraging the movement of ethnic Han Chinese to Tibet. Modern day Lhasa as per news reports can look like any Chinese city. The violence there has not surprised me. The folks who adhere to the teachings of the Dalai Lama are mostly slightly older I think and the younger ones may not have the patience for his peaceful methods?

I find myself in agreement with French's thoughts about Tibet. I have never believed Tibet will be free or the Dalai Lama can comeback to Tibet. The Tibetans agree to exist within China as long as they are granted autonomy. But it requires enlightened and pragmatic leadership from China which will be a long time coming.

I agree that the Dalai Lama is a more complicated figure than we think. I always wonder at the fascination the West has with him. Interesting to see him be courted while folks play lip service to the Tibetan cause. Also wondered why he lent himself to that? Perhaps because that is the only way to keep the issue alive.

I am afraid we have not see the last of this kind of protest from the Tibetans.

I surely want to read this book and educate myself some more about that land that fascinates many of us. And your review and the topics you bring up are very relevant today.

Lotus Reads said...

THanks, Sanj, for always making time to read what I have to say. Glad you liked the review, ofcourse, because it was written in 2003 certain things might be dated but other facts are still extremely relevant.

As a travel writer he paints us a picture of Tibet as a harsh, remote untouched land and nearly the most sparsely populated
This is sadly not as true anymore. While Tibet may still be sparsely populated, the Chinese have built the Tibetan railroad (an engineering marvel) that connects Beijing to Lhasa. I think you may have read the excellent piece by Pankaj Mishra in the New Yorker describing his journey on the train to Lhasa and the changes in Tibet.


Yes, I did read that excellent piece and you're right, this train has made a huge difference. The Tibetans who have always insisted that they are completely removed, both ethnically and culturally from the CHinese are now finding themselves immersed in all things Chinese...must be very difficult for them.


China has slowly and systematically proceeded to marginalize Tibetans and their culture by encouraging the movement of ethnic Han Chinese to Tibet. Modern day Lhasa as per news reports can look like any Chinese city. The violence there has not surprised me. The folks who adhere to the teachings of the Dalai Lama are mostly slightly older I think and the younger ones may not have the patience for his peaceful methods?

It's true, while the Dalai Lama will always be an inherent part of the Tibetan Cause, the younger Tibetans are realizing that non-violence hasn't got them anything thus far. I do suspect there will be a change in how they handle negotiations henceforth. The Dalai Lama has threatened to resign if the violence continues and ironically enough his resignation might hurt the Chinese more than the Tibetans because he (the Dalai Lama) is all for the autonomy of Tibet under Chinese rule (in other words, he is willing to tow the Chinese line for autonomy). Other, younger Tibetans might not be that willing to compromise.

I agree that the Dalai Lama is a more complicated figure than we think. I always wonder at the fascination the West has with him. Interesting to see him be courted while folks play lip service to the Tibetan cause. Also wondered why he lent himself to that? Perhaps because that is the only way to keep the issue alive.

I guess it's because cheesy publicity is still publicity. The Dalai Lama probably has one of the most recognized faces in the world which is an excellent thing for the Tibetan Cause.

What I don't get is this: if Hongkong can exist so peaceably with China in an autonomous state, why can't Tibet? I suppose Tibet is more like Taiwan, I don't think China will ever get it to submit, except by force.

I surely want to read this book and educate myself some more about that land that fascinates many of us. And your review and the topics you bring up are very relevant today.

I would be more than happy to lend you my copy!

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this issue Sanj, I appreciate it.

jenclair said...

This sounds excellent and timely. I'm not sure that getting along with China is as easy for the deeply religious as it is for the more worldly cultures. Thanks, Lotus, I'm adding this one to the list.

Sanjay said...

Thanks buddy for your response. You are right this book is still very relevant.
I think with re to HongKong, it was always known that it was a part of China and would revert back no?

But China annexed Tibet and they are as you said completely distinct from the Chinese in many ways. I am sure the Chinese have something to say about this.

I agree the younger Tibetan generation may not be able to stand by and watch their culture be decimated and them being treated as second class citizens.

Thank you for the generous offer of the book, I would love to borrow your copy. Thanks! :)

tanabata said...

This book sounds fascinating, thanks for posting your old review. I'm adding it to my wishlist. BTW, hope you're keeping well. :)

Olivia said...

Although I have seen interviews with and documentaries about the Dalai Lama, he continues to be an elusive mystery to my mind, and obviously I am not the only one.

That is the best way to keep people coming back, and close to what Sanjay says about "keeping the issue alive"...

chyma said...

I caught this author last night in BBC discussing as an expert on the current agenda of Tibet with the supportive stand for the locals' uprise. I kept the title of the book and his name in mind for this sounded like a curious book for me.

Lotus Reads said...

@Jenclair ~ So true, in many ways, Hongkong, Taiwan and even the Portuguese colony of Macau found it much easier to integrate with China because of the common language, culture, etc. Tibet is quite unique and shares very little with its large neighbor, this is why, I suppose, China has to send in large numbers of Chinese peasants to live there. In a few years, Tibet will be so full of Chinese people, it will be hard for its own unique culture to survive.

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~ You're welcome! One other thing that bothers me is how some Tibetans are persecuted by the Chinese to give up their unique traditions and way of worship. It's one thing to annexe a state that isn't it yours, but it's unforgivable when you insist the annexed give up all they hold dear to them.

Lotus Reads said...

@Nat ~ Hello!!! Konnichiwa? :) I am well, thanks! Just been mad-crazy busy! Will pop by soon!

@Olivia ~ Good observation! I think the Tibetans too are wondering the same thing. Who really is the Dalai Lama and what is his real stance on Tibet? All this while he has preached non-violence, but what has that got them? Nothing. The younger generation of Tibetans are all for agitation. While it is true that Gandhi is credited with using non-violence to drive away the British from India, what many people don't realize is that there were other violent forces also pushing the issue. I personally don't subscribe to violence, but if the Dalai Lama's strategy is not working, they have to sit down together and think of some other way to protest.

Lotus Reads said...

@Chyma ~ THanks for letting me know about this. How I wish I had caught the program too! French is definitely an authority on Tibet. Maybe I can check their archives? Hopefully they are storing this interview somewhere on the web.

heather (errantdreams) said...

What a wonderful look into the reality of Tibet, rather than what the movies show us. Thank you so much for bringing this one to our attention, lotus!

Louise said...

I haven't check your blog for a couple of years. I am sooo impressed!!! Your book reviews are absolutely fantastic, great job...congrats!!

Thanks to you, I'll be ordering some new books!

Take care.

Id it is said...

With all that's happening in Tibet this is another 'must read'. Thanks for reposting it.

Lotus, here's something on the same subject that might interest you
http://www.worldhum.com/weblog/item/first_train_completes_journey_to_tibet_20060706/

MBN said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MBN said...

There is another agenda behind China's annexation of Tibet. Water. Tibet's vast glaciers and high altitude is the source of the world's greatest river systems. Its rivers are the lifeline of China, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. You control that vital resource you are pretty much in control of everything else. Tibet's dreams of autonomy or freedom would stay pretty much as a dream. No one seriously believe that the powerful and influential world nations will do anything more than mere lip service since their economic self-interest and business interests are at stake in big time. Against that human rights, liberty, freedom etc take a back seat. Apparently Bhutan had learned from the mistake of Tibet. Read that here http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/msid-2894857,prtpage-1.cms

Regarding the elusive mystery of Dalai Lama, one can understand it if one can grasp the Buddhist ideas of impermanence and non-attachment. Dalai Lama is a monk not a career politician. Circumstances forced him into politics. And he engages in politics only in the way he knows – the Buddhist way. So did Gandhi. He fought for freedom in the way he knew and never claimed that it was his efforts that gave freedom to India.

Ahimsa or non-violence is just a myth. In the written history of this world nowhere it has been proved unambiguously that such a thing really exists. But it is a very powerful myth. Powerful enough to inspire and stimulate people's mind to tun away from the path of hate and violence.

Lotus Reads said...

@Heather ~ You're more than welcome, thanks! How have you been?

@Louise ~ Hi! I remember you! We met at Bookcrossing, did we not? HOw are you? The kids? Thanks so much for stopping by, it's lovely to hear from you again.

@Id ~ Thank you for pointing me to that article on Worldhum. That China has brought modernization to Tibet is not in doubt...it's the persecution that the Tibetans endure over practicing their religion which is alarming. The TIME magazine has a nice article on the journey of the Dalai Lama...the Chinese are very lucky they have him leading the Tibetans...violent protests would be have been much more frequent and terrible if he didn't reign the Tibetans in with his moderate stand.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, PL

Thanks very much for your illuminating response. Yes, I have read that the origin of many big river systems are in Tibet and since water is going tomorrow's oil, China is going to be in control of vast resources of it with Tibet in their hands. If they start damming those rivers, India is the first country that is going to feel the brunt of it.

I would have loved to have read that article on Bhutan but unfortunately I couldn't access the link. Bhutan was in the news recently...it appears that the king wants to give his people a democratic way of government but the people are rejecting it in favor of the king's rule. I know they really,really loved the king's father, but it seems to me that they love this king just as much.

And I agree with you about non-violence or ahimsa being a myth, but it certainly does work. There are examples in history where governing systems have collapsed overnight with no violence (some countries of the former Soviet Republic for example).

Hollydolly said...

Hi Anjali:

What a super review of Tibet Tibet, I remember when you first posted it, what a perfect time for a repost. It is a book I have long wanted to read, maybe the time is now.
Such amazing posts you have here, one in particular captured my interest. MBN...I read the words and they capture so well my views, in particular, the following.

"The Dalai Lama is a monk not a career politician. Circumstances forced him into politics. And he engages in politics only in the way he knows – the Buddhist way."

Those words are so true. He cannot condone the violence within Tibet, even though he knows the younger generation are on a different thought level. There has to be dialogue with the Chinese, this he has repeatedly asked for, but his words fall on deaf ears. I had hoped, foolishly perhaps, that with the Olympic games looming, and the world watching, China might at least agree to talk with His Holiness, but I guess when you are dealing with a Country, who to my mind have nothing but arrogant thugs at their head, this is just a dream. Just think back to Tiananmen Square and the world should know what type of regime they are dealing with.

Daily my prayers are with the people of Tibet, I do not think anyone can really understand the horror of what they are going through. To face each day as they do with a smile on their face, makes me feel very, very humble.


"
Nonviolence does not mean that we remain indifferent to a problem. On the contrary, it is important to be fully engaged. However, we must behave in a way that does not benefit us alone. We must not harm the interests of others. Nonviolence therefore is not merely the absence of violence. It involves a sense of compassion and caring. It is almost a manifestation of compassion.

Dalai Lama.........

pippala leaf said...

Butan article: read it here

Lotus Reads said...

@Sylvia ~ Lovely to see you here, how have you been? I thought so much of you as I re-posted "Tibet,Tibet", I know how your heart bleeds for the Tibetan people. I so appreciate your input and for including that beautiful quote from the Dalai Lama. Have you ever visited Dharmshala in India?

@PL ~ Thank you for the link...will check it out pronto!

Anonymous said...

It seems a very interesting book, I'll get it at once.

However, there are also several other books, more or less focussed on Tibet history, and fact-finding, also interesting. Two of them are: "Making a new Tibet" by Tom Grunfeld, and "CIA, the secret war in Tibet" by several then (1959) CIA field officers.

I completely agree that Dalai Lama is a bright, charismatic religious leader. However, on the other side he is a "lousy" political leader. He has been used by CIA, and other organizations (such as the Color Revolution etc.) unconsciously or undetectedly. The people surrounding him have different agenda as his. That is the true tragedy for him and for his people.

gs said...

for some unknown reason, i totally sympathise with the tibetan cause.maybe the fleeing away of the dalai lama from tibet and the persecution of the tibetans by the chinese impacted my then young mind.i look forward to reading this book as soon as i finish reading the two books on my hands.hasn't pico iyer also written a book on tibet very recently? there are some people who are drawing a comparison between tibet and kashmir and question our sympathy for the tibetans while we do not seem to share the same feelings for the kashmiris.

Shanna said...

I had stumbled on your blog a while ago from ZZZ's page, and I'm glad I took another look. I've already added half a dozen books to my wishlist.

I loved Tibet, Tibet, the closest I've gotten is the Tibetan quarter of Kathmandu.