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Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land    by Patrick French order for
Tibet, Tibet
by Patrick French
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I've read quite a few books on Tibet over the years, from Peter Fleming's account of the 1904 British invasion, Bayonets to Lhasa, to Heinrich Harrer's famous Seven Years in Tibet and Return to Tibet, and even Western perspectives on Buddhism such as that given in Circling the Sacred Mountain, by Robert Thurman & Tad Wise.

At times the Western promotion (and acceptance without question) of all that is Tibetan has made me uneasy in its naiveté, so that I welcomed Patrick French's much more balanced, though still sympathetic, point of view in Tibet, Tibet (he refers to the movie Kundun as 'a beautifully crafted piece of Dalaidolatry'). The author has met the Dalai Lama on several occasions, has travelled in Tibet (not only to Lhasa) and has interviewed Tibetans around the world. He shows us different ways in which Tibetans are coping with Chinese rule, and how new generations are changing in exile, within the larger context of both Tibetan and Chinese history. This is interspersed with personal recollections of individuals met and experiences of travelling in China and Tibet. And the author also explores the why of our fascination with this remote land, its peoples, and with 'the mind's Tibet'.

The political and bureaucratic jargon that Tibetans must kowtow to in their own country is depressing, along with the ongoing pressure to betray fellow countrymen. French tells us that 'The place was ruled not by terror, as it had been once, but by constant mental supervision; the absence of freedom.' Many young Tibetans have Chinese friends; 'It's not the Chinese that are the problem ... it's the Communists.' The author discusses their options, making the point that if Gandhi had tried civil resistance 'against Mao or Stalin, he and his followers would have been rounded up and shot'; his approach would not work against a Communist regime. French also emphasizes that Western tactics in support of Tibetans have often stimulated an increased repression against them. And he shows us what has happened to minority groups like Lhasa Muslims and the 'Ragyabas' (the Tibetan version of Indian Untouchables).

French does not view Tibet through rose-colored glasses. He introduces us to the country's martial past, discusses the convenience of many selections of reincarnate lamas, speaks of the unedifying conduct of the old ruling class when they endorsed the 1951 'Seventeen Point Agreement' with Beijing, and quotes Hugh Richardson as saying that the 'British government ... sold the Tibetans down the river' in the 1950s (the US and CIA did much the same later on). He talks about the half million Tibetan deaths resulting from Chinese rule, but also shows what the Chinese themselves went through during the Cultural Revolution (he calls Mao 'a key historical figure ... but he was also a capo'). There is much that is shocking - not only individual voices that speak of past horror, but also an overview of the extent of 'communal cannibalism' (not from hunger but 'to prove a revolutionary point') during the mid-60s in China.

The book opens and closes on a horrific event that stayed with the author - the self immolation of a Tibetan whom he knew - and brings home the ultimate tragedy of all that has happened to these people. Tibet, Tibet is a must read for anyone interested in the country. What I most liked about it was that, like Eliot Pattison's remarkable Tibetan mysteries (which began with The Skull Mantra) the author avoids demonizing the Chinese, but sadly makes the point that the old Tibet is undone and the country must wait for reform in Beijing to re-assert its unique identity.

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