Book Review — Wolff — Tibet Unconquered

Wolff, Diane, Tibet Unconquered: An Epic Struggle for Freedom, Palgrave McMillan, New York, 2009, 248pp. Foreword by Robert Thurman.

The publisher kindly provided a copy of this book for review.

A year ago, my Holiday 2009 Book Roundup on chicagoboyz here recommended Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road as an outstanding overview of Central Asian culture from prehistory to the present day. Complementing that title is Diane Wolff’s new and approachable overview of Tibet’s relationship with China.

It’s hard to imagine an extended American family that doesn’t have at least one member who’s been fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism in some way. The Dalai Lama remains as one of the few religious leaders given wide respect in the Western world. His recent emphasis on the preservation of Tibet’s environment (which forms the headwaters of five major Asian river systems) gives him even more popularity with Greens. As Wolff notes, Buddhism has been the default “cool” religion in Hollywood for many years apart from the recent and occasional forays into Jewish Kabbalah by the Malibu crowd. In turn, Tibetan Buddhism also appeals to adolescents looking for a way to peeve their parents … without getting kicked out of the house.

A book that tries to give a general reader a solid historical understanding of Chinese-Tibetan relations is welcome. It’s a tangled and tragic piece of history, one fraught with opportunities missed on both sides and historical trends that have largely worked against Tibetan culture. We have a vivid “virtual Tibet” (in Orville Schell’s phrasing) but will we still have a Tibetan culture in 2050? Wolff offers a heart-felt and practical solution to the current style of Han occupation of Tibet. She’s also realistic enough to understand that the current generation of Chinese leaders may not be suited to making the adjustments and compromises necessary to pull a Tibetan thorn from the Chinese paw. A Fifth Generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders may be needed.

Wolff’s book is written for the non-specialist. It requires close reading (because she often approaches subjects thematically with a certain amount of bouncing back and forth between time periods) but Tibet Unconquered is pitched for mortal readers, without a forest of footnotes.

An intelligent high school student can easily make their way through this book, with profit. So if you’ve suddenly found your kids flying Tibetan prayer flags in your backyard, Diane Wolff’s book definitely belongs on your 2010 holiday book buying list. You can bask in some of that reflected “cool” yourself. It’s a very affordable, useful introduction to a fascinating subject. It works fine as a springboard to the specialist literature for motivated readers. Those interested in China’s capacity to adapt to a world demanding more transparency, more honesty and more credible self-reflection could hardly find a better ongoing touchstone than Tibet. Educating yourself about how things got the way they did in Tibet (and China) is therefore well worth the time. The Han Chinese have plenty of challenges facing them. Tibet is where the world proclaims they are most “uncivilized.” That’s a slur the Han cannot, cannot bear after a millennium ruled largely by northern barbarians and more recent humiliations by industrial nations. So the Roof of the World is where the Han must come to a successful solution without losing face. For them, let alone the poor Tibetans, the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s a situation worth watching.

Even better for those of you racing into the e-book world, Amazon offers an even more affordable Tibet Unconquered. Consider this title as a gift or for a thought-provoking bit of holiday reading.

To briefly discuss Ms. Wolff’s suggestions about a future Tibet, it’s also necessary to very quickly summarize the history outlined in the book. Needless to say, the book itself offers far greater detail, with greater precision.

Table of Contents

Maps vi
Foreword by Robert Thurman xi
Part I: Surging Storms: Tibet as the High Ground of Inner Asia 11
Part II: The Mongol Khans: China’s Claim to Tibet 45
Part III: Ming and Qing Dynasties: Tibetan Religious Influence in the Chinese Imperial System 71
Part IV: Tibet and the Great Game: The Manchu, the Raj, and the Czars 95
Part V: Early Twentieth-Century China: The Nationalists Adopt Imperial Policy in Tibet 113
Part VI: Mid-Twentieth-Century China: The Communists Retain Imperial Policy in Tibet 127
Part VII: Late Twentieth-Century China: Hu Yaobang and the Liberal Policies of the 1980s 171
Part VIII: The Twenty-First Century: A New Road Map for Tibet 191


Tibet Unconquered leads off with a chapter on the different “Tibets” that exist in the modern world … including the expatriate communities and the wider global influence of Tibetan culture and religion. The earliest state relations between Tibet and Tang China occurred during the ninth century when the Tibetans had a clear military advantage. Dynastic collapse in both Tibet and China led to a centuries-long pause in formal relations. The chapter concludes with a summary of Chinese dynastic history and the current state of relations between Tibet and China.

Mongol Rule and Tibetan Buddhism

With the appearance of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Yuan dynasty governing China, Tibetan Buddhists became very influential in the Chinese court. Tibetan Buddhism had been adopted by many of the nomadic peoples north of China, which placed Tibetan religious authorities in the role of “honest brokers” to those peoples in coming centuries. The imperial descendants of Chinggis maintained a close relationship with Tibet, even as their relationship with the subject Han grew more unstable.

Because the Mongols themselves were northern peoples, and non-Han, the Tibetans became inadvertently aligned with “foreign” invaders generally, and thus in relentless conflict with the Confucians and Daoists who also provided secular and religious advice to Chinese emperors. Nonetheless, the Yuan dynasty formalized a Chinese relationship with Tibet that for many centuries took the form of priest-patron (chö-yon, in Tibetan) … a Tibetan lama presided over the enthronement of Khubilai Khan. Most importantly, for modern discussions of Tibet’s independence, the Mongols stationed a garrison in Tibet and collected tribute, but otherwise left the Tibetans to themselves — an autonomous province. Though having a special relationship with the emperor of China (and most of central Asia!), the Tibetans were not directly administered by the Yuan dynasty’s bureaucrats.

The Ming and Qing

Ms. Wolff describes the change in China-Tibet relations as anti-Mongol forces eventually rose to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty and form the ethnic Han “Ming” dynasty. This empire was much smaller than either the preceding Yuan/Mongol dynasty or the subsequent Qing/Manchu dynasty. Ming emperors were to continue the chö-yon ties between China and Tibet, especially since they were under continued pressure from northern horse peoples and needed Tibetan priestly co-operation as intermediaries. The much-reduced Ming boundaries meant that they had no administrative control over Tibet at all … not even the “loose-reins” style of the Mongols. In Tibet, the final civil struggles between the Karmapa (head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism) and the Dalai Lama (head of the Gelugpa lineage) concluded. The Dalai Lama became the secular head of Tibetan traditional government. Formal relations between the Tibetans and Ming court finally fell apart in the sixteenth century as the Confucians and Daoists at the Chinese court gained overwhelming influence. The Ming lasted from 1368 to 1644, falling to Manchu invaders from northeastern China, ethnic relatives of the Jurchens who formed the earlier Chin (Jin) dynasty (1115-1234).

The Fifth Dalai Lama made a treaty with the new Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to maintain regional peace and assist with the never-ending negotiations with the northern pastoral peoples, among whom were many Tibetan Buddhists. Tibet accepted Chinese overlordship (suzerainty) by accepting a renewal of the chö-yon titles that bound Chinese Emperor and the senior Lamas of Tibet. These treaty obligations also permitted tribute and trade relations to continue undisturbed.

The Qing appear in a period of world history that verges on the modern. Russian expansion to their north, propelled by gunpowder and new technology was matched by the Zunghar (Junghar) Mongol conquests to the northwest of China that threatened to cut off Qing access to Silk Road profits. The Qing, while largely isolationist on the coast of China, were militarily aggressive on their western borders. They conquered (indeed exterminated) a number of nomadic peoples in the west … many of whom were “unified under their Buddhist faith and united in their devotion to the Dalai Lama.” By 1696, the Qing had expanded their territorial boundaries to their maximum.

The disruption of the Zhunghar power structure had a secondary effect on Tibetan politics to the southwest. The Dalai Lama was murdered and a successor was chosen under suspicious circumstances. The Zunghars looked set to reconstitute themselves in the west. Qing imperial troops reached Lhasa in 1720 and occupied the capital. This marked the beginning of direct Chinese intervention in Tibetan administration and in the selection of religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama. As long as Mongol peoples continued as Tibetan Buddhists, the Qing would pay close attention to events in eastern and central Tibet.

The rest of the chapter deals with Qing foreign policy in light of the expansion of the British (moving north from India in the late 1700s) and the Russians, moving east and south. With the conquest of the Zunghar, the central Asian steppe was finally purged of the feared cavalry archers who had threatened so much of the settled world (east and west) for 1500 years. While Japan was ultimately forced to open itself to Western ideas and technology, the Manchus were largely able to resist the outside world through the 19th century. Though Tibet could be maintained as a “forbidden kingdom,” a series of humiliating wars in the mid-1800s established European trading centers along the coast of China. The Nepalese Ghurkas continued to press against Tibet’s southern border and after a second invasion of 1842, concluded a treaty with Tibet that insisted on its separation from Chinese protection. Direct Qing occupation of Tibet came to an end.

The Great Game

The late 19th century and early 20th century were the heyday of competition between the British Empire (with Ghurka proxies), the Russian Empire, and a dwindling Qing Manchu empire. Tibet had become the jam in the sandwich. Like the Qing, Tibet felt that it could close itself off from the outside world. That isolation, however, convinced all neighboring empires that their competitors were secretly expanding in Tibet. The British sent a series of Asian “surveyors” to secretly explore and map Tibet. Convinced that the Russians were moving into Tibet, as they were in the rest of central Asia, the British finally sent an armed mission to Lhasa in 1904. At the cost of many Tibetan lives, the British were able to discover that the Russians were nowhere to be found. An Anglo-Tibetan Convention (treaty) was signed to keep it that way. Simultaneously, the British signed agreements with Russia about Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet to reassure the Russians that Tibet was not about to become a British protectorate.

Tibet couldn’t count on protection from China (and indeed had dispensed with Chinese oversight fifty years earlier). The British and the Qing dynasty however signed a new agreement expanding the Chinese role in Tibet in 1906 (an Adhesion Agreement) which gave the British some civilian access (and allowed them to explore more of central Asia), and kept the Russians out. The British army withdrew, a Qing special commissioner arrived in Lhasa, and Qing armies occupied eastern Tibet provinces (which to this day have large ethnic Tibetan populations). Tensions grew … the Dalai Lama of the time was to leave Lhasa for India (Darjeeling) in 1910 in response to a Qing edict deposing him. With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, however, Tibetans expelled the Chinese from Lhasa and the Dalai Lama returned.

The 20th Century

Tibet’s independence, between the fall of the Qing in 1911 and the rise of the Chinese Communists in 1949, occurred during the turbulence of World War One and Two. For a region that was geographically remote from the world’s oceans and from the technological changes of the era, a return to self-sufficiency was doomed to be fleeting. With the completion of World War 2 and the Chinese civil war, China was to fall under Communist rule. Stalin had peeled off large parts of Mongolia into the Soviet Union (or established a client state in Inner Mongolia). Mao was convinced that Stalin would move on to control as much of northwest China as possible. Mao’s exposure to Tibetans during the Long March had not left him positive toward minority rights, nor towards the Tibetans specifically.

It’s with the reassertion of Communist control in Tibet in 1950 (just as the Korean War was heating up) that the arguments about the Chinese right to control Tibet take their modern form. After having reviewed the history of Tibet-Chinese relations through the centuries, Wolff walks the reader through the ups-and-downs of Communist control of the region in the last fifty years. The Chinese have variously tried loose and tight control of Tibetan ethnic areas. They have had shifting views of ethnic minorities rights in a socialist state (as did Lenin and Stalin) … often in response to their own political initiatives (the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, post-Tiananmen) which either limited Han resources or provoked greater Han chauvinism (masked under the principles of international socialism).

They have sought to legitimize their rights of control by referring to earlier Mongol and Qing rule in the region … ironic in that the Han autarchs of the Communist Party are using the “northern barbarian” empires as the foundation for legitimacy of their own rule. To accommodate this, Han political mythology has shifted to claiming that the Chinese consist racially, in fact, of five peoples … including Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs, etc. Thus any efforts at modernization and socialism need not accommodate the religions, cultures, and languages of people who are (effectively) Chinese. A rejection of this manufactured Chinese identity, whether by Muslims in the west of China or by Tibetans, is therefore seen as political rebellion and intellectual backwardness.

The Communists have sought to establish their boundaries as close to the maximum established by the Qing/Manchu as possible. This was initially a matter of controlling the expansion of the Soviet Union, but as the Cold War progressed, and the 14th Dalai Lama escaped to permanent exile in India in 1959, the border with India and Nepal became a boundary of ideology and world-view. The inactivity of the United Nations in the face of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 was governed by the circumstances of the time. India had gained independence in 1947 and wasn’t interested in antagonizing the Soviet Union or Communist China. Indeed, there was considerable friendship amongst these countries. As a result, whatever interest that Britain (and to a lesser extent, the United States) might once have had in supporting an isolated land-locked country’s independence from Russian or Chinese rule no longer pertained. No large power in the post-WW2 world had an interest in expending resources to help the Tibetans. The United Nations did pass resolutions calling on Communist China to respect Tibetan human rights but since China wasn’t a member of the UN at the time, the words meant little or nothing. And since Communist China has become a member of the UN and the Security Council, Tibetan concerns have been addressed more by public relations than by international or diplomatic organizations.

As late as 2008, there have been widespread protests through eastern and central Tibet as Tibetans have bridled under an influx of ethnic Han into Tibet. By education and language, these immigrants have come to dominate the political or economic structure of the region. Tibetans are now cast as backward folk in their own land.

A Solution for Tibet

Having glossed over so much of the author’s careful historical summary at high speed, regrettably I must also race through the author’s suggestions for mode of governance that would satisfy all parties as much as possible.

As a model, Wolff turns to Hong Kong and Macao and the “Special Economic Zones” established by the Communist Chinese to control but not stifle economic and technological activity along the Chinese coastline. These zones, offering “two systems, one country” have worked well up to now, though outsiders wonder how long this pattern will continue as the rest of China catches up.

Wolff sees the solution in Tibet to recasting its role in the Chinese mind from “rebellious western province” to “special coastal zone.” Tibet’s specialness comes from its religious, ethnic, and cultural distinctiveness from the rest of China. It also has tremendous ecological importance to a wide swathe of Asia because it forms the headwaters of so many river systems. If those distinctions can be harnessed for sustainable economic prosperity, then the economic, military, and diplomatic burden that Tibet places on China can be relieved. Wolff envisions a Special Ethnic, Trade, and Ecological Zone (SETEZ) that would offer the Chinese sovereignty over the geography for political and national security purposes, but allows the Tibetans to evolve their economy in ways that place less pressure on the environment (water, food, forests, etc.) while maintaining their language, culture and religious tradition. Indeed, it is the combination of Tibet’s remoteness, natural beauty, and its culture that have made it a source of international fascination even as it is largely out of reach for the wealthier tourists of the industrialized world.

Wolff considers carefully whether the life experience of the current generation of Chinese leaders (the Fourth) would allow them to support such a unique status for Tibet … one that reflects the “loose reins” philosophy of control used by the Mongols … rather than the typical “police state” that was the model of governance through much of the 20th century in Communist states. She sees hope in a coming Fifth Generation of leaders in China, who have seen more prosperity for China with a loosening of control over economic activity, and might be convinced that Tibet is simply not worth demolishing at the expense of international prestige and a skittish set of regional allies such as Pakistan and Iran.


Tibet Unconquered isn’t dispassionate. It seeks out a best possible solution for both the Chinese and Tibet.

The Chinese cultural experience over the last few thousand years has led them to dread instability created by external “barbarians.” In the last thousand years, they’ve been ruled for long stretches by ethnic groups they only now (for the sake of geopolitics) pretend to be genetically part of themselves … the Han peoples of eastern China. Thomas Barfield’s The Perilous Frontier is a great reference to consult on this historical theme, as is the aforementioned book by Beckwith on Empires of the Silk Road. Similarly, Edward Luttwak’s recent book on the Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire reviews in detail how devastating mounted archers using compound bows were on the various empires that surrounded central Asia. As the nomads sailed on endless oceans of grass, unreachable and unconstrained by the Chinese, the Romans, the armies of Islam … so the English-speaking peoples of the world have sailed the oceans of water and had several centuries of geopolitical freedom where their enemies could barely reach them, and rarely contain them. The Chinese experience of history, geography, and such nomadic peoples has been altogether less positive. Their paranoia over the significance of Tibet’s location and its appetite for restored independence may not be admirable but it is at least comprehensible.

From the Tibetan side, the ironies abound. The one ally that could have stood them in good stead through the 19th and 20th century was the one that they largely, successfully resisted. The British Empire’s relationship with its colonies and protectorates around the world have often been traumatic but when one looks at the overall impact of the ties to England fostered in small countries around the world, it’s hard to imagine that the Tibetans would have been worse off in 2010 as some large variant of Nepal … filled with prosperous, well-intentioned English-speaking tourists and NGOs keen to see the sights, and do good. Instead, those tourists make the pilgrimage to Dharamsala in India to see the 14th Dalai Lama. And around the world, they sit on prayer cushions at Tibetan religious and cultural institutions quietly or string up prayer flags on scenic mountain tops a world away from the Himalayas.

Independence at the interface between three great empires was never very likely after gunpowder and railways put a permanent end to the great nomadic warrior cultures. Now Tibet sits under a Han boot and must try to convert its “mystical underdog” status in the wider world into something that can withstand a fervent Chinese effort at cultural re-education.

The Chinese have big problems of their own, of course, irrespective of the choices they make, or are forced to make, in Tibet. China has had an ongoing crisis in governance … as noted in a chicagoboyz review of Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition. It also has a terminally toxic set of business ethics in its manufacturing sector that are unsustainable, as noted in a chicagoboyz review of Midler’s Poorly Made in China. China also has a spiritual crisis that will only grow worse if it cannot maintain a torrid pace of economic expansion. When matched with a population that will age rapidly in the next few decades, it’s been widely noted that “China will get old before it gets rich.”

Somehow, amidst the brittle, tenuous communist rule from Beijing, it’s hard to imagine Tibet being able to create some elbow room for its cultural survival. Perhaps economic and political setbacks in China will once again free Tibet from control. Perhaps the toxic nationalism and racism of modern China that currently replaces religion and cultural confidence will pass away. Perhaps the Tibetans will cease to be a fundamental ideological and philosophical affront to Chinese Communism and become something else. Certainly they could become an idealized Asian novelty and source of modest Chinese pride … a role into which indigenous peoples around the world have largely been cast (willingly or not). One can, after reading this book, hope for an easier path for Tibet and Tibetans than they’ve had for many years.

Tibet Unconquered recounts a harrowing tale from a rugged land where ideals have rarely had their just reward. A land all too well suited to Buddhism, one suspects.

4 thoughts on “Book Review — Wolff — Tibet Unconquered”

  1. Prosaic prescriptions and the standard “Free Tibet” boiler plate policy recommendations. Wake me up when someone actually recommends a novel solution to the Tibet issue that doesn’t involve hippy fantasy scenarios completely at odds with human nature.

  2. James, thanks for this. I am puzzled by Jing’s comment, unless he just reflexively attacks anyone who writes about Tibet at all. I must say, you never struck me as any kind of hippie.

    I think Wolff is doomed to disappointment. The Chinese are becoming increasingly, not less, nationalistic and determined to assert themselves. A low cost way to show the rest of the world who is really in charge would be to swamp Tibet in Chinese colonists, and do so with no apologies. No one will lift a finger to help the Tibetans, as the Chinese surely realize. It is better to be feared than loved in politics, especially international politics, and showing a willingness to be brutal is something that the Chinese leadership will benefit from when dealing with its neighbors. They can offer carrots to others without seeming weak, having shown a hard stick to the Tibetans.

    If I were a Chinese citizen, I would want my country to break up the US-led encirclement by any means necessary. First that would mean securing the lands currently held by China. Making Tibet unambiguously Chinese, by removing the Tibetans and moving Chinese int, by the train-load if necessary, would be part of that strategy. Then, the same treatment for Sinkiang. Then Mongolia. Then a naval, air and missile build-up and when the USA is weak and distracted at some point, a clear demand that the USA get out of Taiwan. It is too early for that now, unfortunately for China. They may not be blessed with a president as feckless as Obama for some time.

  3. My snark was directed at Wolff’s recommendations on potential Tibetan autonomy being modeled on Hong Kong or Macau. Hong Kong and Macau’s present status is the result of negotiated settlement between the Chinese and British and Portugese governments. Why will China bother negotiating with the Dalai Lama when 1) it does not recognize his legitimacy in deciding Tibet’s fate and 2) it already holds Tibet. The special economic zones are even more irrelevant comparisons considering that they are singularly economic entities and not political ones.

    Wolff’s recommendations are as retarded as professor Thurman’s book recommending that Tibet be turned into a nature preserve or giant Asian Switzerland complete with banking sector but just as unrealistic. Id like to see you build an industrial economy on ecological conservation, feel good feelings, and do-gooderism. There is already one failed example of that in Bhutan.

    The autonomy that the Dalai lama and his herd of useful idiots preach isn’t autonomy at all. Just as calling anal rape “posterior tickling” doesn’t make the event feel any better. Advocating Tibetan “autonomy” is really just full fledged independence in disguise, actually it’s probably worse. If anyone has actually bothered to read his definition of autonomy, one would realize that it entails setting up completely parallel organs of state, a new currency, withdraw of all Chinese armed forces, Tibetan foreign diplomatic missions, ethnic cleansing of several million Chinese from “Greater” Tibet, oh and economic subsidies from China to pay for all of it.

    Now suppose five months down the road the Tibetan “autonomous” government decides to abrogate and declares full fledged independence. What recourse does China have besides armed invasion which will inevitably draw more foreign censure. Agreeing to exile Tibetan demands is like agreeing to the demands of a vindictive ex-wife. Nothing good will come of it besides emasculation and debt servitude.

    Tibet is neither an economic, military, or political burden for China. It is an asset. By controlling the plateau China controls the headwaters of most major Asian rivers. It adds strategic depth to China’s populated eastern sector. It provides vast untapped natural resources to be exploited. It is only a political liability if you actually cared about Richard Gere’s opinion of you, which I suspect the politburo standing committee does not.

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