Escape from the Land of Snows

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 January, 2011, 12:00am


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Escape from the Land of Snows
by Stephan Talty
Crown Publishers HK$208

Two of the 20th century's most extreme regimes faced each other across the barricades in March 1959, in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

On one side was the People's Republic of China, barely 10 years after accomplishing its revolution. In 1950, after driving the Kuomintang from the mainland, the People's Liberation Army moved swiftly to 'liberate our comrades in Tibet', and had remained in occupation. The revolutionary government considered the Tibetans a minority, like the Mongolians and Uygurs, to be reunited with the homeland. China had claimed sovereignty over Tibet since the early Qing, and exercised it with various degrees of plausibility, depending on the strength of the dynasty in the north. In 1959, China was in the grip of the Great Leap Forward, the modernisation policy that was to cost the lives of millions of Chinese, and of a personality cult centred on its godlike leader, Mao Zedong.

On the other side was a regime led by a very different godlike figure, a man of 23, who was believed by his people to be the embodiment of the Dharma. A peasant child from an impoverished village, he had been chosen at the age of two, after the death of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, with the help of an impressive battery of signs, omens and miracles; he was declared god-king and taken to Lhasa, where he began his spiritual education and lived a lonely and sequestered life in Tibet, where power belonged to the clergy, most people were poor, lived as their ancestors had and knew little about the modern world.

Stephan Talty's gripping book tells the story of Tibet and the 14th Dalai Lama. He was venerated by his people, even though he had almost no political experience and very little real power. The Chinese treated him well; in 1954 he spent a few months in China and met Mao. He seems to have found Mao impressive, yet disappointingly atheist. The encounter between these two leaders, each incapable of beginning to understand the other, seems like an allegory of the whole sorry tale.

Back in Tibet, there was growing resentment against the occupiers, and a small but rugged resistance force funded and equipped by the CIA. In 1959, a rumour that the Chinese were about to kidnap the Dalai Lama led to fighting in the streets of Lhasa, a four-day uprising, and its inevitable defeat.

In the confusion, the Dalai Lama decided to flee - characteristically, only after consulting an oracle and throwing dice. He escaped, with his entourage of tutors and courtiers, across the Himalayan mountain passes into India.

It is a sad tale, and its hero has had half a century to ponder it. In one respect, he deserted his people; in another, in the eyes of many, he permanently delegitimised the Chinese regime in Tibet.

Was the oracle right to advise him to go?