Serfdom in Tibet Controversy - Competing Versions of Tibetan History

Competing Versions of Tibetan History

It is difficult to find academic consensus on the nature of society in Tibetan history. Sources on the history of Tibet are available from both pro-Chinese and pro-Tibetan writers.

Pro-Chinese materials may be published by mainstream Western printers, or within the People's Republic of China. Tibetan materials, similarly, may be published by mainstream Western printers, or by the Tibetan Government in Exile. In both cases, the materials published by mainstream Western printers are moderate in their tone and content, compared to the other materials. Both sides hope to persuade foreign readers to support their own point of view through these publications.

Many of the pro-Chinese works in English on the subject were translated from Chinese. Translators are not named, but censors are. Asian studies scholar John Powers concludes that ideology was the most powerful influence on the translations: "In contemporary China, the Communist Party strictly controls the presentation of history, and several formal 'Resolutions' have been issued by the Central Committee, which are intended to guide historians in the 'correct' interpretation of historical events and actors." The writings of contemporary Chinese historians conform to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, which asserts that societies progress from primitive communism, to slave societies, which are then overthrown and replaced by feudalism, which are in their turn overthrown and replaced by capitalism, which is followed - via rebellion, again - by socialism, which may progress peacefully toward communism. Several Chinese sources insert peasant rebellions into their accounts of Tibetan history, to achieve conformity with this structure required by political dogma. Historians in China are prevented from performing research that could challenge orthodoxy. Marx condemned religion as "the opiate of the masses", and this doctrine is also infused in Chinese writings on history. In accordance with their political perspectives, Chinese sources claim that the common Tibetans suffered appallingly before the Chinese takeover.

Western authors typically claim fact-oriented objectivity in their writings on Tibetan history, but often turn out to be just as rhetorically polarized. For example, whilst Hugh Richardson, who lived in Lhasa in the 1930s and 1940s, before the takeover by the PRC in 1951, writes in Tibet and Its History that Chinese versions of Tibetan history are contemptible and he considers the Chinese rule brutal and illegal, Israel Epstein, a naturalized Chinese citizen born in Poland who similarly claims the authority of first-hand knowledge, although following the Chinese takeover, supports Chinese rule. There are few academic assessments of the recent history of Tibet. Anthropologist and historian Melvyn Goldstein, who is fluent in Tibetan and has done considerable fieldwork with Tibetans in exile and in Tibet, considers pre-1950 Tibet to have been a feudal theocracy impaired by corrupt and incompetent leaders. It was de facto independent of China from 1911 to 1949, but not recognised as de jure independent of China by any nation, including its protective power Great Britain.

The Chinese side seeks to persuade international perception as to the appropriate nature and justifiability of Chinese rule in Tibet. Their position is that Tibet truly and historically belongs to China, and that affairs of Tibet are internal matters, the Tibetans seek to internationalize their cause, in part by convincing readers that Tibet was independent. Concentrating as it does on questions of national sovereignty, the Tibetan Government in Exile, position is more moderate in tone than some of its more extreme supporters who conflate the rule of the lamas with Tibetan Buddhist ideals, seeking to promote a Buddhist dogma that competes with the Marxist dogma of 'feudal serfdom' by portraying Tibet under the lamas as, in Robert Thurman's words: "a mandala of the peaceful, perfected universe".

Tibetologist Robert Barnett writes:

"Chinese references to preliberation conditions in Tibet thus appear to be aimed at creating popular support for Beijing's project in Tibet. These claims have particular resonance among people who share the assumption—based on nineteenth-century Western theories of "social evolution" that are still widely accepted in China—that certain forms of society are "backward" and should be helped to evolve by more "advanced" societies. This form of prejudice converges with some earlier Chinese views and with vulgar Marxist theories that imagine a vanguard movement liberating the oppressed classes or nationalities in a society, whether or not those classes agree that they are oppressed. Moreover, the Chinese have to present that oppression as very extensive, and that society as very primitive, in order to explain why there were no calls by the Tibetan peasantry for Chinese intervention on their behalf.
The question of Tibet's social history is therefore highly politicized, and Chinese claims in this respect are intrinsic to the functioning of the PRC, and not some free act of intellectual exploration. They have accordingly to be treated with caution. From a human rights point of view, the question of whether Tibet was feudal in the past is irrelevant. A more immediate question is why the PRC does not allow open discussion of whether Tibet was feudal or oppressive. Writers and researchers in Tibet face serious repercussions if they do not concur with official positions on issues such as social conditions in Tibet prior to its "liberation," and in such a restrictive climate, the regime's claims on this issue have little credibility."

Read more about this topic:  Serfdom In Tibet Controversy

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