Tibet: A History

Tom Neuhaus welcomes a new history of Tibet and the religion for which it is famous

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Reviewed by: Tom Neuhaus
Author: Sam van Schaik
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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When most readers think of Tibet they will think of peaceful Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama and, more recently, about Chinese oppression.

In this respect, the west has all too often constructed myths and fantasies around the so-called ‘roof of the world’. At the same time, Tibetan history has become a political tool in debates about Tibet’s status within China, as Chinese historians have looked for evidence of Tibetan dependence on China in past centuries.

In Tibet: A History Sam van Schaik provides an overview of its past from the seventh century AD to the present, calling into question many preconceptions the general reader may have about Tibet, its religion, its society and its politics.

Two of the most important aspects of Tibetan history stand out most prominently in van Schaik’s work: the sheer variety of Tibetan Buddhism and the fact that Tibet has been marked by constant interactions with outside powers.

From the seventh century, under Songtsen Gampo and his successors, the Tibetan empire grew significantly following a successful military campaign against the Chinese. The subsequent centuries saw the gradual introduction of a variety of different sects of Buddhism, with many diverse ways of worshipping. Religious diversity grew greater still after the fall of the Tibetan empire, as different priests relied on both local and foreign rulers as patrons.

From the 16th century, the Gelugpa sect and the associated figure of the Dalai Lama began to emerge as the most significant players in Tibetan Buddhism, largely as a consequence of their good relations with the Mongols and later the new Manchu dynasty of China.

As the Chinese empire began to disintegrate, however, new configurations of power emerged, marked by competition between Britain and Russia and, later, by an increasing sense of caution toward nationalist and then communist China.

The invasion of Tibet by communist China and its subsequent integration into the People’s Republic throughout the 1950s, have thrown up a new set of questions about the identity of Tibetans, their place in international relations and the fate of Tibetan Buddhism – questions which are yet to be answered.

While few passages of the book make original points in an academic sense, it has a lot to offer to the general reader. Throughout, readers may find that their ideas about Tibet are constantly being challenged.

We encounter Tibetans as warriors, ruling over a vast empire that stretched far into present-day China and Mongolia. We learn that only the fifth and the 13th Dalai Lama actually played key roles in politics. We are told about the many different modifications to Buddhist teachings across the century, demonstrating quite clearly that present-day Tibetan Buddhism, like all other religions, is a historical construct.

To the uninitiated reader the extensive cast of historical figures which van Schaik draws upon may at times seem bewildering. More material on the lives of ‘ordinary Tibetans’, even if difficult to come by, would have been interesting. Equally, the fact that the book draws heavily on Tibetan stories and legends may seem strange to those readers who are used to western ways of writing histories.

Yet, at the same time these stories and legends are precisely what will make this book an entertaining read for a wide audience.  

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Dr Tom Neuhaus, University of Derby