Through the Eye of Some Western Scholars
by Grain

When I began doing research on Tibet, one of the first articles that I found was "Tibet, Myth and Reality", by Forest Stockwell, a very informative and brief recap of the propaganda that is being passed out here in the West on Tibet, and the truth.

For a more detailed study on Tibet, I read a good book titled

"The Making of Modern Tibet", by A. Tom Grunfeld, a professor of history at Empire State College of the State University of New York.

Grunfeld stated in his introduction:
"Absolute objectivity, however admirable, is unattainable" "But the impossibility of being objective does not necessarily invalidate the search for a middle ground." "I have made every effort to use materials from most, if not al, contending points of view. I therefore choose to call this book "disinterested and dispassionate history".

Upon reading "The Making of Modern Tibet", I agree that Grunfeld had succeeded in his attempt. On every issue or historical event, he often presented data from several sources. He detailed the intriguing political plays between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese communists from both view points. For anyone interested in finding out more on the events during the power struggle, this is a very good book.

For people who have never heard of the existence of "serfs" in Tibet, and are asking "Who were the serfs?" (One high school student wrote to me through the AOL board asking for information.), here are some quotes from Grunfeld's book. Many more fascinating historical details can be found in Grunfeld's book.

On serfs:
"The vast majority of the people of Tibet were serfs, or as they were known there, mi ser (literally "yellow person")." "Serfs were 'tied' to their masters. They received the right to work the land in exchange for taxes and ulag, corvee labor. So powerless were they that they required permission to enter a monastery and even to marry. If two serfs of different lords married, male offspring reverted to the father's lord, while female offspring went to the mother's." "Monasteries also had the right to take children to be initiated as monks if the voluntary supply was insufficient." (pp. 12-15)

"Sir Charles Bell, a British colonial official in India and a renowned Tibet scholar, acknowledged the existence of slaves:
Slaves are sometimes stolen, when small children, from their parents. Or the father or mother being too poor to support their child would sell it to a man, who paid them "sho-ring," "price of mother's milk," brought up the child and kept it or sold it as a slave....Two slaves whom I saw ... had been stolen from their parents when five years old, and sold in Lhasa for about seven pounds each." (p. 15)

"In spite of the claim made not long ago that "before the Chinese crackdown in March 1959, the normal Tibetan diet included an inexhaustible flow of butter, tea, large amounts of meat and various vegetables", a survey made in 1940 in eastern Tibet came to a somewhat different conclusion. It found that 38 percent of the households never got any tea but ether collected herbs that grew wild or drank "white tea"--boiled water. It found that 51 percent could not afford to use butter, and that 75 percent of the households were forced at times to resort to eating grass cooked with cow bones and mixed with oat or pea flour." (p. 16)

On Crime and Punishment in the early 1900's:
"There is no evidence to support these images of a utopian Shangri-la. A frequent visitor to western Tibet reported that brigands ran freely, another called robbers "a regular plague," while a former resident reported "thieves as thick in Lhasa as fleas on a dog," and yet another confirmed that account by relating that he never ventured out at night in Lhasa unless accompanied by a servant and unless carrying a sword and/or revolver because he "lived in constant fear of burglars..." Economics was not always at the root of the crime. Some believed that to kill a rich or lucky man was to acquire his good fortune. All Westerners were considered to be very rich and lucky." (p. 23)

"In Lhasa the jail was a deep underground pit from which the prisoners were only allowed out once or twice a year to beg for alms." "Another form of punishment favored in Tibet was torture and mutilation. Buddhist belief precludes the taking of life, so that whipping a person to the edge of death and then releasing him to die elsewhere allowed Tibetan officials to justify the death as 'an act of God'. Other brutal forms of punishment included the cutting off of hands at the wrists; using red-hot irons to gauge out eyes; hanging by the thumbs; and crippling the offender, sewing him into a bag, and throwing the bag in the river." (p. 24)

"A British woman who visited Gyantse in 1922 witnessed a public flogging and reported that the victim was then forced to spend the night exposed and tied down on the top of a mountain pass where he froze to death over night. A British resident of two decades reported seeing countless eye gougings and mutilations, while another resident in the late 1940's reported that "all over Tibet I have seen men who have been deprived of an arm or a leg for theft." The most graphic evidence readily available of a public torture can be seen in Life magazine, which carried photographs of a whipping (200-250 lashes) that occurred right in the middle of Lhasa in 1950." (p. 24)

For a report on a recent visit to Tibet, please see: "China Good? China Bad?", by Hank Hyena on Salon. I enjoyed reading this article very much. It's short, sassy, and presents characters that are archetypes representing various views on the Tibet issues. In addition, since I love video games, one of my biggest concern for Tibet is: Will the Tibetan kids be allowed to play video games?

Another article that shows a good understanding of the Tibet issue is by Pamela Logan: "Finally, the end of Tibet as a fairy tale". Pamela Logan is founder and president of the Kham Aid Foundation, a nonprofit agency that assists Tibetans. This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 08/26/99.  Here are some quotes from her article:

"At long last, we are seeing a change in media coverage of Tibet, and it's way overdue. In the past the situation in Tibet has been grossly oversimplified. Journalists presented it as a tale of good guys (Tibetans) and bad guys (Chinese) clearly delineated, a story with fairy tale appeal but little basis in  reality. As a result, US foreign policy has been handicapped by a public that has never heard the whole story."

"As president of a nongovernmental organization that brings foreign aid into Tibet, I have seen how Tibetans are hurt by the information blackout. When I try to raise money for repair of Buddhist monasteries, potential donors cite widely reported figures of 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 (take your pick) monasteries razed by the Chinese and are reluctant to believe there is anything left to repair. When I solicit donations on behalf of schools in Tibet, people object erroneously that schools do not teach Tibetan language and are therefore instruments of the Chinese policy of cultural annihilation. When I ran an art conservation program that rescued some rare and endangered Tibetan murals, some felt that because the Chinese government allowed this project, there must be something wrong with it and advised one of my volunteer workers not to participate."

"The American public has been conditioned to believe that the Chinese are utterly opposed to any sort of Tibetan cultural or economic advancement. Accurate reporting would show that this is simply not the case."

For readers who are interested in finding out how Pam's organization is helping the Tibetans, please visit:

Pamela Logan's Asia Adventure Page

Kham Aid Foundation:

Logan also wrote a book on her journey to Tibet:
Among Warriors: A Martial Artist in Tibet

Logan ended her article with:
"The Tibet issue is a thorn in the side of fragile Sino-American relations, which are pivotal to peace and security in the world at large. These are not small stakes. Let's hope that this new era of objective journalism in Tibet leads to a breakthrough in the deadlock between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. I believe that Tibetans, Chinese, and Americans will all benefit from it."

I agree very much with Logan that we Americans need to understand the Tibet issue in depth.  It's time we start having more responsible journalism in this country.  The future of our country and world peace may be at stake.

For a good book on Buddhism in contemporary Tibet, where, according to one reviewer, some courageous lama are working to revive the Tibetan tradition, please read:

Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet :
Religious Revival and Cultural Identity

by Melvyn C. Goldstein (Editor), Matthew Kapstein (Editor), Orville Schell

Melvyn Goldstein is considered one of the foremost American scholar on Tibet.  He helped Tashi Tsering write
"The Struggle for Modern Tibet", an autobiography of Tashi Tsering.