Life

“China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama”

Originally published in L’Ernesto, 2003 Original text

The Dalai Lama in Tibet, 1950

Who is the Dalai Lama? And why does so much of the Italian left tend to accept his “sanctification” and not see his reactionary essence?

Celebrated and transfigured by Hollywood filmmaking, the Dalai Lama undoubtedly continues to enjoy a wide popularity: his last trip to Italy concluded with a solemn group photo with leaders of the parties of the center-left, who wanted to display their esteem or their reverence for the champion of the struggle for “liberation of the Tibetan people.”

But who really is he? To begin with, he was not born in the historical territory of Tibet, but rather in unquestionably Chinese territory: to be exact in the province of Amdo. In 1935, the year of his birth, it was administered by the Kuomintang. At home his family spoke a regional dialect of Chinese, so our hero learns Tibetan as a foreign language, as he is forced to do from the age of three years, i.e. from the moment he is recognized as the 13th incarnation of the Dalai Lama. At this point he is taken from his family and segregated in a monastery where he is exposed to the influence of the monks who taught him to feel, to think, to write, speak and act like the God-King of Tibet or as His Holiness.

I infer this information from a book (Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet), which has a semi-official character (culminating in the “Message” in which the Dalai Lama expressed his gratitude to the author) and has contributed greatly to the construction of the Hollywood myth. In its own way it is an extraordinary text, which can transform disturbing details into great moments of a sacred history.

An appalling “paradise”

In 1946 Harrer met the parents of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, where they had moved some years earlier. They have not yet become Tibetans: they drank tea in the Chinese style and continued to speak a Chinese dialect. To communicate with Harrer, who spoke in Tibetan, they needed the help of an interpreter. Of course, their lives changed dramatically: “It was a big leap to go from their little cottage in a remote province to the palace that they now inhabited and the large farms that were now owned by them.” They had given to the monks a child of tender age, who later came to realize, as he said in his autobiography, that he had suffered much from this separation. In return, the parents had enjoyed a prodigious social advancement. Are we in the presence of questionable behavior? Never let it be said. Harrer immediately hastens to emphasize the “innate nobility” of this pair (p. 133): how could it be otherwise, given that it is the father and mother of the God-King?

But what society is this one which the Dalai Lama was called upon to govern? Albeit reluctantly, the author of the book finally acknowledges that “The supremacy of the monastic order in Tibet is absolute, and can be compared only with a strict dictatorship. The monks are wary of any influence that could endanger their domination.” Those who are punished include not just those who act against the “power” but “anyone who calls it into into question” (p. 76). Let’s take a look at the social relations. It seems that the cheapest goods in Tibet are servants (more accurately — slaves). Harrer cheerfully describes a meeting with a senior official: even though he is not particularly important, he still has “more than thirty male and female servants.” (p. 56) They are subjected to hardships that are not only bestial but even unnecessary: “About twenty men were tied by their belts to a rope and dragged a huge trunk, singing in chorus their slow dirges and advancing hand in hand. Panting and drenched in sweat they could not linger to seize breath, because the leader did not allow it. This backbreaking work represents a portion of their taxes, a tribute to the feudal system.” It would have been easy to make use of the wheel, but “the government did not want the wheel,” and, as we know, to oppose or even just to question the power of the ruling class could be very dangerous. But, according to Harrer, it makes no sense to shed tears for Tibetan people at that time: “Maybe they were happiest like this.“ (pp. 159–160).

The gulf that separated the servants from their masters was unbridgeable. For ordinary people, it was forbidden to address or even look at the God-King. During a procession, “The doors of the temple opened and the Dalai Lama slowly emerged […] The devoted crowd bowed immediately. The rites require that people throw themselves on the ground, but it was impossible to do so because of lack of space. Thousands of people instead bent over, like a field of wheat blown by the wind. No one dared to raise his eyes. Slowly and in a measured way the Dalai Lama began his tour around Barkhor […] The women did not dare to breathe. “

After the procession, the picture changes dramatically: “As if awakened from a trance the crowd suddenly went from order to chaos […] The soldier-monks went straight into action […] wildly flailing their sticks into the crowd […] But despite the hail of shots, those who were beaten kept returning as if they were possessed by demons […] Now accepting blows and whipping as a blessing. Smoky torches of pitch fell on their heads, some screamed in pain, and here and there was a burned face among the groaning trampled!” (Pp. 157–8)

It is worth noting that our author’s tone in describing this spectacle is admiring and devoted. Not surprisingly, the whole thing is contained in a paragraph with the eloquent title: “The hand of a god rises, bestowing blessings.” The only time when Harrer takes a critical stance occurs when he describes the condition of hygiene and health of Tibet at the time. Infant mortality was high, life expectancy incredibly low, and medicine unknown, with a single exception: “the lamas often anoint patients with their own holy saliva, or tsampa and butter are mixed with urine of holy men to get a kind of emulsion that is administered to patients.” (p. 194). Here even our devoted and pious author draws back a bit in puzzlement: if even the “God-Boy” had to be “persuaded to believe in reincarnation” (p. 248), how can they “justify the fact that you drink urine of the Living Buddha” and that of the Dalai Lama? He raises the problem with the Dalai Lama himself, but with poor results: the God-King “alone could not combat these habits and customs, and basically did not worry too much.” Nevertheless, our author, who is content to just put aside his reservations, imperturbably concludes: “In India, moreover, it was a daily spectacle to see people drinking the urine of sacred cows.” (p. 294).

At this point, Harrer can proceed without hindrance in his work of transfiguring pre-revolutionary Tibet. In reality this society was full of violence and did not even recognize the principle of individual responsibility: punishment could also be taken out on relatives of an offender for very slight or even imaginary wrongs. (p. 79) But what happens when the crimes are more serious? “I was told of a man who had stolen a golden butter lamp from one of the temples of Kyirong. He was convicted of the offense, and what we would have considered an inhuman sentence was completed. His hands were publicly severed, and while his mutilated body was still alive, he was wrapped in a wet yak skin. When it stopped bleeding, was thrown over a cliff.” (p. 75). But even minor offenses, such as gambling, can be ruthlessly punished if committed in the days of the solemn feast: “the monks are relentless in this regard and greatly feared, because more than once it was the case that someone died under their strict flogging, which was the usual punishment.” (pp. 153–3) The most savage violence characterizes the relations not only between “demigods” and “inferiors,” but also between the different factions of the ruling class: the heads of the frequent “military revolutions” and “civil wars” that characterize the history of pre-revolutionary Tibet (the last occurring in 1947), are made to “have their eyes carved out with a sword.” (pp. 224–5) And yet, our zealous convert to Lamaism not only declares that “the punishments are rather drastic, but seem to be commensurate with the mentality of the population” (p. 75). No, the pre-revolutionary Tibet is, in his eyes, an enchanted oasis of non-violence: “After a while in the country, it is impossible for you even to kill a fly without thinking. I myself, in the presence of a Tibetan, would never even dare to crush an insect.” (p. 183) In conclusion, we are in the presence of a “paradise.” (p. 77) As well as Harrer, this is also the opinion of the Dalai Lama, who in his “Message” finally yields to his yearning for years lived as the God-King: “We remember those happy days we spent together in a happy country” or, as in the Italian translation, in a “free country.”

The “invasion” of Tibet and attempted dismemberment of China

Of course this “happy” and “free” country, this “paradise” was transformed into a hell on earth by a Chinese “invasion.” The mystifications never end. Is there really any sense in speaking of an “invasion”? Which country had recognized the “independence” of Tibet and maintained diplomatic relations? In fact, in 1949, in a book published on US-China relations, the U.S. State Department enclosed a map which speaks for itself quite clearly: both Tibet and Taiwan were entered as integral parts of that large Asian country, which was committed to put an end once and for to the territorial amputations imposed by a century of colonialist and imperialist aggression. Of course, when the Communists come to power then everything changes, including maps. Any falsification of history and geography is lawful if it can revive the policy which began at the time began of the Opium War and to advance with it in the direction the disintegration of Communist China.

This goal seemed about to be realized in 1959. With a radical departure from the policy followed until then, which had seen the Dalai Lama collaborate with the new government in Beijing, he now chose the path of exile and began to wave the flag of independence of Tibet. Is this really the basis for a claim to national awakening? We have seen that the Dalai Lama himself is not of Tibetan origin and is forced to learn a language that is not his mother tongue. But also let us focus our attention on the indigenous dominant caste. On the one hand, despite the widespread extreme poverty of the people, those few at the top can cultivate refined cosmopolitan tastes: at their banquets one will encounter “delicacies from all parts of the world” (pp. 174–5). These parasites display refined taste indeed and are ostentatious with their pomp, giving no sign of provincial narrowness: “blue foxes from Hamburg, cultured pearls from Japan, turquoise from Persia via Bombay, coral from Italy and amber from Berlin and Königsberg.” (p. 166) But while this resembles similar parasitic aristocracy from all over the world, the Tibetan ruling class looks at their servants as a different and inferior race, yes, “the nobility has its strict laws: it is allowed to marry only those who are of the same rank.” (p. 191) What is the point then speak of a struggle for national independence? How can there be a nation and a national community if the noble “demigods” of pre-revolutionary Tibet, far from recognizing Tibetan servants as fellow citizens, bullied them and saw them as “lesser beings”? (pp. 170 and 168)

Furthermore, for which Tibet is the Dalai Lama waving the flag of independence? It is the Greater Tibet, which would include large areas outside of Tibet proper, annexing the populations of Tibetan origin living in regions such as Yunnan and Sichuan, for centuries an integral part of Chinese territory and the historic cradle of this multisectoral and multinational civilization. Clearly, the Greater Tibet was and is an essential element of the project of dismemberment of a country that, since its rebirth in 1949, continues to trouble Washington’s beloved dreams of world domination.

But what would have happened in Tibet proper if the ambitions of the Dalai Lama had been satisfied? Let us consider the question from the point of view of the servants and “inferiors” to whom the followers and devotees of His Holiness clearly do not pay much attention. By all accounts pre-revolutionary Tibet was a “theocracy” (p. 169): “a European can hardly understand how much importance attaches to the slightest whim of the God-King.” (p. 270) Yes, “the power of the hierarchy was unlimited” (p. 148), and it was exercised on any aspect in existence: “the people’s lives are controlled by the will of God, whose only interpreters are lamas.” (p. 182 ) Obviously, there was no distinction between the religious and the political sphere: the monks allowed Tibetans to marry a Muslim “only on the condition that the Tibetan not recant” (p. 169); they were not allowed to convert from Lamaism to Islam. Together with marital relations, sexual life too knows a watchful regulation “for adulterers they apply very drastic penalties, such as the cutting off the nose.” (p. 191) Is clear: in order to dismember China, Washington did not hesitate to make use of fundamentalist Lamaism and the Dalai Lama.

Now, His Holiness has had take note that the secessionist project has essentially failed. And so the statements he releases now claim that he would be happy with “autonomy.” In fact, Tibet has been an autonomous region for a long time. And not just in words. Already in 1998 Foreign Affairs, the magazine close to the State Department, released an article by Melvyn C. Goldstein which although critical has let slip some important accomplishments: in the Tibet Autonomous Region 60–70% of the officials are of the Tibetan ethnic group and they apply bilingualism in practice. Of course there is always room for improvement, but the fact remains that as a result of the spread of education, the Tibetan language is spoken and written today by a number of people far higher than in the pre-revolutionary Tibet. It should be added that it was only the destruction of the old order and the caste barriers separating the “demi-gods” from the “inferiors” which made possible the emergence of broad-based cultural and national identity of Tibetans. The current propaganda is the reversal of the truth.

While enjoying broad autonomy, Tibet, thanks to the massive efforts of the central government, has passed through a period of extraordinary economic and social development. Together with the level of education, the standard of living and life expectancy, there is also an increasing cohesion between different ethnic groups, as is confirmed inter alia, by increased intermarriage between Han (Chinese) and Tibetans. But this is the new workhorse of the anti-Chinese campaign. We find a striking example in the article by Bernardo Valli of La Reppublica published on November 29th. Here let me just quote the summary: “The integration between these two peoples is the ultimate weapon to annihilate the ancient culture of the country on top of the world.” Clearly, the journalist is left dazzled by the image of Tibet defined by ethnic and religious purity which is the dream of fundamentalist groups and secessionists. To understand the regressive character, just turn it back to the reporter who inspired Hollywood. In pre-revolutionary Tibet, in addition to Tibetans and Chinese “one may also encounter lhadaki, Bhutanese, Mongolians, Sikkimese, Kazakhs and so on.” There is a significant presence of Nepalese: “Their families are almost always in Nepal, where they return from time to time. In this they differ from the Chinese, who willingly marry Tibetan women, leading an exemplary married life.” (pp. 168–9) The greater “autonomy” that is demanded (which no one knows if it is for Tibet itself or for the Greater Tibet) — should it also include the possibility for the regional government to ban mixed marriages, and achieve ethnic and cultural purity that did not exist even before 1949?

The co-optation of the Dalai Lama by the West, and the white race’s fear of the Yellow Peril

The article from La Reppublica is valuable because it allows us to grasp the subtle racist vein that runs through the ongoing anti-Chnese campaign. As you know, in the search for the origins of the “Aryan” or “Nordic” or “white” race, the racist mythology of the Third Reich directed their special interest to India and Tibet: for it was here that the triumphal march of the master race began.

In 1939, following an SS expedition, the Austrian Harrer arrived in Northern India (now Pakistan) and from there entered into Tibet. When he meets the Dalai Lama, he immediately recognizes and celebrates him as a member of the superior white race: “His complexion was much lighter than that of the average Tibetan, and even somewhat whiter than the Tibetan aristocracy.” (p. 280) On the other hand the Chinese are completely foreign to the white race. The first conversation that Harrer has with His Holiness is really something remarkable: he was “for the first time alone with a white man.” (p. 277) As essentially white, the Dalai Lama was not inferior to the “European” and was still “open to all Western ideas” (pp. 292 and 294). Quite different are the the Chinese, those mortal enemies of the West. This is confirmed to Harrer by a “minister-monk” of holy Tibet: “in ancient writings, he said, we read a prophecy: a great power from the North will wage war in Tibet, destroy religion and impose its hegemony in the world.” (p . 141) There is no doubt that the denunciation of the Yellow Peril is the main theme of the book that inspired the Hollywood legend of the Dalai Lama.

Back to the group photo that ended his recent trip: although they are physically absent, the photo reflects the glow of Richard Gere and other Hollywood stars, flooded with dollars to celebrate the legend of the mysterious God-King from the East.

It is painful to admit, but we must make note of it: a certain section of the left turns its back on history and geography and nourishes itself on theosophical myths and films, not even taking care to distance themselves from the most turbid cinematographic myths.

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