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Understand Tibet

Posted by in on 5-27-13

Tibet spans the world’s largest and, with average heights of over 4,000 m, also the world’s highest plateau. The Tibetan Plateau also spans most Qinghai, western Sichuan provice, northern Yunnan, and lasty southwestern Gansu. Consequently, Tibet is often referred to as the “Roof of the World”. Parts of the region (northwestern region) are so remote they remain uninhabited to this day.


In the mid-7th century, Songtsan Gampo established the unified Tibetan Empire, and married two princesses, one from China and one from Nepal. Tibet and Tang China fought repeatedly for control over the Silk Road during this time. Although the country was unified, it was seldom peaceful and between the 9th century and the mid-17th century it was often embroiled in turmoil. This period finally drew to a close when the Dalai Lama invited a tribe of Mongols to intervene. The Mongols under Altan Khan created a symbiotic patron-priest arrangement, whereby the Mongols provided military and governmental leadership and Tibetans would provide religious instruction.

In the early 18th century, Tibet was again in turmoil, and seeking to replicate the success of the earlier means of restoring peace, the Dalai Lama invited another tribe of Mongols to take control. However, the emperor of Qing China was unhappy with this arrangement, and ordered an invasion. The Mongols were expelled, and the Chinese and Tibetans began a special relationship which was maintained until the end of the Qing dynasty. The institution of the Dalai Lamas was first created at this time; Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning “ocean.” Sonam Gyatso was recognized as the Third Dalai Lama in 1578; his two previous incarnations are considered the first and second Dalai Lamas.

The British invaded Tibet in 1904, while the Qing emperor carved out states from areas under Tibetan control in the north and east. With the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Tibet declared independence from China under the authority of the 13th Dalai Lama and remained an isolated de facto independent nation for over thirty years. Its borders were slightly larger than the current TAR and included what are now portions of Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan.

After the retreat of the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949, the Communists turned their attention towards Tibet as they wished to consolidate control over all former Qing dynasty territories. In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) liberated Tibet. In the UN Security Council, the Nationalists (who still had China’s seat) vetoed a motion that would have censured the liberation; they too considered Tibet part of China. In 1951 an agreement was signed to liberate Tibet, offering Tibet — on paper — full autonomous status for governance, religion and local affairs. The newly established Communist Chinese Government even installed the current Dalai Lama as the vice-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950′s.

Communist reforms and the heavy-handed approach of the People’s Liberation Army lead to tension with the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers. Following the Tibetan uprising in March 1959, the Dalai Lama and many of his followers went into exile in India, setting up a government in exile in Dharamsala. Tibet’s isolated location did not protect it from the terror of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Tibet’s rich cultural heritage as well as much of neighboring Chinese ancient culture lay in ruins due to the Communist government inspired chaotic Cultural Revolution movement.

Since Deng Xiaoping and the “reforms” took control in Beijing, the situation in Tibet has calmed considerably, though it still remains tense. Instead of pure brute force, Chinese tactics have switched to assimilation. However, slowly, monasteries are being rebuilt and a semblance to normality is returning to the region. Despite this, Tibet still suffers from independence-related civil unrest, most notably in 1987, 1989 and most recently in 2008. The Chinese authorities often close Tibet to foreign tourists, usually in March, the anniversary of this Tibetan Uprising. Tourists wishing to tavel to Tibet face an ethical dilemma. If they go to Tibet they are implicitly supporting the Chinese regime and their money goes mainly only to Chinese authorities. However the Dalai Lama has always strongly encouraged foreigners to go, so that they can see the situation for themselves and also because Tibetans welcome their presence. Tibet is also becoming more and more popular a travel destination among the Chinese themselves. While very few Chinese support the secession of Tibet, you will find many younger Chinese very open to the idea of fair and real autonomy for this special place in the world.

Recently, Tibetans have undertaken a series of self-immolations [1] to protest Chinese rule and lack of religious freedom. In addition, the Chinese regime continues to draw human-rights criticism to itself with its policies, including brutal repression of protests and extra-legal detentions [2], [3].


Peter Aufschnaiter’s 8 Years in Tibet by Peter Aufschnaiter and Martin Brauen ISBN 9789745240124
Dialogues Tibetan Dialogues Han by Hannü: Tibet through the Tibetans with a Han traveller ISBN 9789889799939
Tears Of Blood: A Cry for Tibet by Mary Craig ISBN 978-158243102

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