Modern Secularist vs. Religious Fanatic: Goldstein’s reading of Tibet, a review by Nicole Willock

[What does a modernist secularist reading of recent Tibetan history look like? How does such readings reinforce notions of Tibetans as religious fanatics or barbaric? Nicole Willock (2011) takes a stab at these questions in her review of Melvyn Goldstein’s (2007, 2009) history of Tibet. While she acknowledges his contributions, she also highlights the limitations of such a framing. Pointing out how such lens tend to reify notions of Tibetans as either modern or not-modern. One way of remedying this, according to Willock, is to engage Tibetans themselves, who engaged in practices of translations both past and present. This highlights how Tibetans were and continue to be agentive in translating and negotiating new terms such political and cultural moments spawned.  

The following essay is by Nicole Willock. It appeared under its original title “Two Recent Contributions and New Horizons in Modern Tibetan History” in International Journal of Asian Studies in 2011. I, Dawa Lokyitsang, approached the author and she gave permission for the essay to be featured on Lhakar Diaries. You can source the article as follows:

Willock, Nicole. 2011. “Two Recent Contributions and new Horizons in Modern TIbetan History.” International Journal of Asian Studies, 8(1), 81-87.]

TWO RECENT CONTRIBUTIONS AND NEW HORIZONS IN MODERN TIBETAN HISTORY

by Nicole Willock E-mail nwillock@odu.edu

A History of Modern Tibet: The Calm before the Storm, 1951–1955. By Melvyn Goldstein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Pp. 674. ISBN 10: 0520249410; 13: 9780520249417.

On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969. By Melvyn Goldstein, Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Pp. 264. ISBN 10: 0520256824; 13: 9780520256828.

Keywords: Tibetan history; Cultural Revolution

While the literature on modern Tibetan history is far from comprehensive, contributions to this field of studies have been formative over the last twenty years. With an everincreasing availability of Tibetan-language source material along with new theoretical insights, the horizons for understanding modern Tibetan history are still expanding.

Melvyn Goldstein is one of the first scholars to begin the process of demystifying modern Tibetan history by combining social scientific theory with data based on Tibetan- and Chinese-language source materials. His two recent works add to his long list of prodigious scholarship and contribute to our understanding of two complex periods in Tibetan history: the early 1950s and the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1969. Despite these advances there is still room for many new studies to shed further light on these periods, especially the watershed years of the 1950s. The recent availability of new source materials on regional histories can serve to balance Goldstein’s focus on the Lhasa-centric political elite. Moreover, new theoretical developments parsing out secularism vis-à-vis modernity can aid in understanding Tibetan engagement with multiple projects associated with modernity in contrast to Goldstein’s metanarrative on the inevitability of modernization in Tibet.

A History of Modern Tibet: The Calm before the Storm, 1951–1955 [Calm before the Storm] follows Goldstein’s A History of Modern Tibet, 1913–1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, and is the first volume in a two-part series on the decade of the 1950s. This work covers the first half of the decade that ended in the 1959 Tibetan uprising and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent flight into exile in India. Calm before the Storm focuses mainly on the involvement of the Chinese and Tibetan political elites in the processes leading up to the acceptance, and then implementation of the Seventeen Point Agreement. The Tibetan government is portrayed as fractured and without leadership: “There simply was no tactical or strategic planning at the top of the Tibetan government” (p. 190). In contrast, Goldstein illustrates Mao Zedong’s personal leadership, both in adopting a gradualist reform policy in Tibet and ensuring a unified Tibet under the Dalai Lama despite opposition within the Chinese military.[1]

Due to Mao’s strict orders to proceed slowly in altering Tibetan society, Central Tibet remained politically stable throughout this time period. The Seventeen Point Agreement gradually began to be implemented, and along with that came attempts at modernizing Tibet. Goldstein lists a number of efforts at modernization (establishing of new schools, founding of youth and women’s organizations, and building of new roads), which prior to Chinese-led initiatives were thwarted by conservative ecclesiastics.

Despite Goldstein’s thick description of these events, we are left with an overall portrait of Tibetan government officials clinging to a dying “lamaist” system.[2] The intentions of Tibetan bureaucrats in the deliberations over the Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa (following the controversial signing of the Seventeen Point Agreement) are summarized as, “. . . in the end, most officials, along with the gods, saw the Dalai Lama’s return as Tibet’s best hope of preserving the essence of their lamaist state and way of life” (p. 146). Tibet’s religious system is reified, and thereby creates a dichotomy between “Tibet” as “religious” as “antimodern” vis-à-vis “China” as “secular” as “modern”, which relies on a vision of modernity so close to that of the Chinese nation-state that Tibetan-exile intellectuals have charged Goldstein with being anti Tibetan.[3] I read Goldstein’s intentions to be objective on the Tibet Issue as sincere, and do not deny well-documented acts of religious conservatism. My difficulty with this metanarrative of modern Tibetan history is its Geertzian-like reification of a political-religious system, that obscures agentive moral accountability and dynamic sets of processes involving multiple actors, laws, technologies, etc.[4]

In addition, as Calm before the Storm focuses mainly on elite politics centered in Lhasa, scant information is given on how (or if) the political policies of the early 1950s affected the majority of Tibetans living across a territory as large as Western Europe, that is, if one includes ethnic Tibetan areas outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.[5] By the mid-1950s democratic reforms in eastern Tibet sparked the first revolts opposing Chinese rule, which then precipitated the 1959 uprising in Central Tibet. The availability of Tibetan-language primary and secondary source materials on regional histories can serve to balance Lhasa-centered histories of the 1950s. Not only are Tibet and ethnically Tibetan areas relatively accessible to conduct research, but there are a host of online resources and library collections literally at our fingertips. The largest collection of material focusing on the modern-contemporary period is housed at Trace Foundation’s Latse Contemporary Tibetan Cultural Library in New York City. This includes an extraordinary collection of Chinese-, Tibetan- and western-language source materials in all fields of study; especially abundant are recently published local histories from eastern Tibet.[6] This goldmine of available primary and secondary source material is unprecedented, and remains largely untapped.

A fascinating sub-narrative within Calm before the Storm concerns an early history of the Tibetan independence movement. Goldstein asserts that two of the Dalai Lama’s brothers were “plotting to start a secret anti-Chinese government organization in exile without the knowledge of the Tibetan government or the Dalai Lama” (p. 377). At around the same time, the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother Taktse Rinpoche, a well-known advocate of the subsequent Tibetan independence movement, reported to the US Government that the Dalai Lama was “organizing resistance to the Chinese Communists” (p. 381). Goldstein convincingly states, “Given what we know of the Dalai Lama’s lack of direct involvement in the direct affairs at this time . . . it does not seem credible to suggest that he was really organizing a secret resistance movement in Tibet” (p. 381). This new information shows the need for a comprehensive study on the development of the independence movement, which seems to have started at this time without the Dalai Lama’s knowledge or consent.[7]

The Calm before the Storm, 1951–1955 details the high point of Sino-Tibetan relations in modern history; the next volume in this series will undoubtedly shed light on one of the lowest points – the 1959 uprising. As Goldstein aptly points out the history of Tibet during the 1950s has not previously been studied in depth. Thus this first volume on that decade fills a major gap in scholarship. Yet as I will outline below, there is still further research to be done on the watershed years of the 1950s.

Goldstein takes on a period of grotesque complexity in On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969 co-authored with Ben Jiao and Tanzen Lhundrup.[8] The so-called “Nyemo incident”[9] takes place in June of 1969 when a group of villagers, incited by Trinley Chödrön, attack and kill Chinese government officials and PLA troops stationed in Nyemo. Drawing upon two new sets of data – oral interviews conducted within the PRC and newly available Chinese documents – the authors claim to “present a detailed examination of what actually transpired” (p. 7). Similar to Calm before the Storm, the metanarrative tacitly accepts secularism as a political doctrine while obscuring moral responsibility. In Nyemo secular agents are generally accorded a rational position in their struggle for power and control, while the majority of “religious (superstitious) reactionaries”, including the main protagonist the nun/oracle Trinley Chödrön, are viewed as “duped” and “insane” – inimical to reason.

The authors focus on the power struggles between Gyenlo and Nyamdre, the two main revolutionary factions present in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Gyenlo’s loss of power in Lhasa led them to recruit members in Nyemo County. Goldstein et al. argue Trinley Chödrön and cohorts join Gyenlo due to Gyenlo’s “cunning agenda to adopt pragmatic strategies” to recruit the “disgruntled masses” based on their platforms of opposing communes and sales grain obligation (p. 162). After initial success against Nyamdre, Gyenlo with Trinley Chödrön adopt the name “Gyenlo’s Army of the Gods” as Gyenlo’s agenda “was too important not to use every method, including superstition . . .” (p. 95). Although four different member-types of Gyenlo’s Army of the Gods are identified, the second category, “those who were deeply immersed in the imagined Gesar world and fanatically committed to the gods,. . . were unbalanced to some unknown degree” (p. 169). This focus on the pragmatic-rational political factionalists vs. “religious fanatics” does not pay adequate attention to the extreme and desperate circumstances that people faced following the 1959 uprising, and subsequent ultra-leftist political campaigns during the first phase of the Cultural Revolution. So, although the authors should be lauded for contributing new data, I agree with another reviewer of this book when she states, “their own profoundly statist and modernist perspective forces them to swing the pendulum too far the other way.”[10] I find this charge especially palpable in their presentation of Trinley Chödrön’s “mental illness”, which they pragmatically seek to prove as fact without due consideration of the category of “mental illness” as being socially constructed. Despite its theoretical shortcomings, this work adds to our scant knowledge of this tragic and violent time in Tibet.

Overall, A History of Modern Tibet: The Calm before the Storm, 1951–1955 and On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969 are landmark works in the turbulent history of modern Tibet. In addition to these new works, there are a host of recent publications in Tibetan studies which touch on various aspects of modern Tibetan history.[11] Here I will highlight two approaches to studying modern Tibetan history that I view as particularly promising due to newly available material as well as theoretical advances stemming largely from post-colonial studies.

In contrast to Goldstein’s vision of secularism in China’s Tibet, several new works examine the vexed relationship between “religion” and “the state” in the broader context of modernity in China.[12] Their theoretical innovation builds upon Talal Asad’s “anthropology of secularism” and Prasenjit Duara’s scholarship challenging the construct of history in the making of the Chinese nation.[13] Following Talal Asad’s theoretical framework, which rejects the universality of modernity and views “religion” as a constructed category, Ashiwa and Wank suggest an alternative approach to a dichotomous framework by looking at the process of institutionalization of religions. Although this theoretical lens has not yet widely been applied by Tibet specialists, José Ignacio Cabezón’s recent article takes this approach by analyzing state control of the densas, the three large Tibetan Buddhist monastic institutions near Lhasa.[14] A set of provocative questions arise from this type of analysis, for example: will the assumption that “religion” is a defining feature of Tibetan identity change as our scholarly perspective on “religion” shifts with a new understanding of secularism? It may not be possible to answer this now. Nevertheless, this theoretical lens will likely become increasingly useful in the study of modern Tibetan history as scholars seek to understand “religion” and “the secular” in the context of Tibetan societies.

Finally, I highlight a second, slightly different but related, approach to gain further understanding of modern Tibetan history – acts of translation. Crucial to Tibetan engagement with any aspect of modernity are incongruent acts of translating these ideas into the Tibetan language. In the early half of the twentieth century, Tibetan monastics played key roles as translators in creating the Tibetan neologisms for “modern” concepts such as “the people”, “socialism”, “liberation”. Lauran Hartley (2003, 2008), Gray Tuttle (2005) and Heather Stoddard have shown that segments of the educated monastic elite, for example Geshé Sherap Gyatso, were deeply committed to “both bringing Tibet ‘to enter the new age’ and for China to gain a sympathetic understanding of Tibet.”[15] Lydia Liu’s analyses of translation, not in terms of commensurability between two languages but for the value in that exchange, have been helpful in understanding Chinese intellectuals’ engagement with concepts related to “modernity”.[16]

Aside from the above-mentioned studies,[17] scant attention has been given to translingual acts of communication in the Tibetan context. Often acts of translation are viewed as a mundane rendering of terms between two languages.[18] Yet in the 1950s, some Tibetan monastic scholars seem to have been genuinely interested in creating the correct neologism, and debated over various terms.[19] This was an ongoing process in Tibet, with an increasing level of professionalization as the CCP gained further political control. For example, as early as the 1940s, Tibetan monastics engaged in debate as to how best to translate “the people” as a collectivity. To this end, the controversial term mi-ser, which Goldstein translates as “serf” and Shakya (1999) as “subjects”, seems to have been employed.[20] After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, translation efforts became increasingly institutionalized with the creation of translation teams working, for example, on the 1954 PRC Constitution and Mao Zedong’s Collected Works. Monastically trained scholars were members of these translation teams (Hartley 2003, pp. 61–76). More questions remain unanswered on how and when Tibetan-language speakers across the huge landmass of the Tibetan plateau came to understand various concepts related to interlinking projects of modernity.

In conclusion, the unprecedented availability of primary source resources on the study of modern Tibetan history is testimony to the resilience of Tibetan culture, society, and intellectual traditions despite moments of tremendous violence and tragedy. These data resources are largely due to the hard work of Tibetan-language savants. With these new resources both in terms of data and theoretical insights, our understanding of modern Tibet hopefully will continue to grow.


I would like to thank Holly Gayley (University of Colorado at Boulder), Nancy Lin (University of California at Berkeley) and Kathryn Ottaway (Indiana University) for their insightful comments and suggestions in the writing of this article.

[1] A nuanced perspective is given on the intricate top-level negotiations between the PLA elite and the Chinese Central Government on policy operations in what is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The frictions between the Dalai Lama supporters at the Southwest Bureau led by Zhang Guohua, and the Panchen Lama supporters at the Northwest Bureau under Fan Ming, are representative of the discord within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on policy implementation.

[2] For a critique of the use of the term “Lamaism,” cf. Donald Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 15–45.

[3] For another interpretation of Goldstein’s works see Jamyang Norbu’s “The Black Annals” on his blog “Shadow Tibet”. Norbu has critiqued Goldstein’s metanarrative on the historical inevitability of modernization as being a mouthpiece for the CCP. See Jamyang Norbu’s blog, http://www.jamyangnorbu.com/blog/2008/07/27/black-annals-goldstein-the-negation-of-tibetan-history-part-ii/ as of 10 July 2010.

[4] Asad views “modernity as a series of interlinked projects – that certain people in power seek to achieve. The project aims at institutionalizing a number of (sometimes conflicting, often evolving) principles: constitutionalism, moral autonomy, and secularism.” Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 13.

[5] Goldstein only applies the name “Tibet” to Central Tibet (dbus gtsang) and explicitly not to the eastern Tibetan ethnographic areas called Domé (Tib. mdo smad) and Kham (Tib. khams) now administratively located across Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. Melvyn Goldstein, “Change, Conflict and Continuity among a Community of Nomadic Pastoralists: A Case Study from Western Tibet, 1950–1990,” in Resistance and Reform in Tibet, eds. Robert Barnett and Shirin Akiner (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1994). The monastic scholar Tseten Zhabdrung Jigmé Rigpé Lodro, however, refers to Domé as part of “Tibet, the Land of Snow” (Tib. Bod kha ba can) in a local monastic history written in 1956. “Mdo smad grub pa’i gnas chen dan tig shel gyi ri bo le lag dang bcas pa’i dkar chag don ldan ngag gyi rgyud mngas” in ‘Jigs med chos ‘phags, ed., Tshe tan zhabs drung rje btsun ‘Jigs med rigs pa’i blo gros mchog gi gsung ‘bum, vol. 3 (Beijing: Nationalities Publishing House, 2007), p. 280.

[6] Additionally, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in India continues to serve as an excellent resource on all aspects of Tibetan history, culture and society. Some of the most seminal online projects include: Goldstein’s Tibet Oral History Archive (forthcoming), the ongoing Tibetan Himalayan Library, and the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.

[7] The recent publication of Carole McGranahan’s Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010) makes a significant contribution to understanding the Tibetan resistance movement.

[8] Ben Jiao earned his Ph.D. at Case Western University under the guidance of Melvyn Goldstein and now works at the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa. Tanzen Lhundrup is Deputy Director of the Social and Economic Institute at the Beijing Tibetology Center, Beijing.

[9] “The Nyemo incident” is the official Chinese term for the series of events. The Nyemo incident has been interpreted by different scholars ranging from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) side initially labeling the event as “a counter-revolutionary revolt (and later ‘incident’)” to western academic circles which tend to characterize the events as a “popular revolt of Tibetans against the Han oppressors” (pp. 3–5).

[10] Charlene Makley, “Review of On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo Incident of 1969,” China Journal 62 (2009), p. 130.

[11] The following list includes some of the current English-language academic scholarship that draws upon primary source material either in Tibetan or Chinese, or both languages, and simultaneously offers new theoretical insights. On the importance of language and literature in contemporary Tibet, as well as the birth of modern Tibetan literature, see Lauran Ruth Hartley, Contextually Speaking: Tibetan Literary Discourse and Social Change in the People’s Republic of China (1980–2000) (Bloomington: Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 2003); Lauran R. Hartley and Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani, eds., Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). On Tibetan cultural revival, see Åshild Kolås and Monika Thowsen, On the Margins of Tibet: Cultural Survival on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2005); Melvyn Goldstein and Matthew Kapstein, Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). On the modern history of the monastic estate Labrang Tashkyil in eastern Tibet through the lens of gender studies theory, see Charlene Makley, Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). For an account of China’s “borderlands” focusing on Chinese Republican era politics, see Hsiao-Ting Lin, Tibet and Nationalist China’s Frontier: Intrigues and Ethnopolitics (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006). On the activities of Tibetan Buddhist leaders in Republican era China see Gray Tuttle, Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). For the most comprehensive history of modern Tibet to date, see Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). Reprinted from New Left Review, the debates between Tsering Shakya andWang Lixiong offer insights into a number of issues on modern and contemporary Tibetan history. Wang Lixiong and Tsering Shakya, The Struggle for Tibet (London: Verso, 2009).

[12] Yoshiko Ashiwa and David L. Wank, eds., Making Religion, Making the State: The Politics of Religion in Modern China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, ed., Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[13] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995). Dominic Sachsenmaier, Jens Riedel with Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese and Other Interpretations (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

[14] In Mayfair Mei-hui Yang 2008.

[15] Heather Stoddard, “The Long Life of rDo-sbis dGe-bšes Šes-rab rGya-mcho (1894–1968),” Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Fourth Seminar of the IATS (Munich 1985), p. 469. Sherap Gyatso oversaw the translation of important Tibetan texts into Chinese, for example Tsongkhapa’s (1357–1419) Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam rim chen mo).

[16] See Lydia Liu, “The Question of Meaning-Value in the Political Economy of the Sign,” in Lydia Liu, ed., Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 34–35; Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture and Translated Modernity – China, 1900–1937 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009). Drawing on Liu’s theoretical framework, James Liebold demonstrates some of the conceptual confusion caused by the Chinese neologism minzu民族, used both for “nation” as in Zhonghua minzu, that is, all the “nationalities” of China, and minzu as in ethnic group. See James Liebold, Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism: How the Qing Frontier and Its Indigenes Became Chinese (New York: Palgrave MacMillan), p. 8. Chinese scholars have duly noted the conceptual confusion induced by this. Chinese intellectuals used minzu and related neologisms to translate a number of different but related terms, for example “nation”, “race”, and “ethnic group”. Indeed, Ma Rong thinks it is best to introduce a term for ethnic group, zuqun, and get rid of the status of minzu for ethnic minorities. Ma Rong, “A New Perspective in Guiding Ethnic Relations in the Twenty-first Century: ‘De-politicization’ of Ethnicity in China,” Asian Ethnicity 8:3 (October 2007), pp. 201–02. The way in which Tibetans perceive this concept of “minzu” vis-à-vis “renmin” has yet to be adequately treated.

[17] Although these studies do not draw upon Liu’s theories per se, they give attention to the importance of translation in negotiating various understandings of modernity by Tibetan intellectuals.

[18] Goldstein (2007), for example, states: “The Tibetan term for ‘the people’ mimang is actually a neologism that been coined by the Chinese Communists to translate the Chinese term ren min . . . such a term was needed, because Tibetan had no exact term for “the people” as a collectivity . . .” (p. 317).

[19] The monastic scholar Tseten Zhabdrung Jigmé Rigpé Lodro (1910–1985), a member of the Chinese to Tibetan translation team of the 1954 PRC Constitution, debated with Sherap Gyatso over how to translate renmin in Tibetan. Sherap Gyatso at first argued that bang-mi (Tib. ’bangs mi) “common people” (Chi. baixing ) was the best term, but eventually conceded to Tseten Zhabdrung’s suggestion of mi mang (Tib. mi dmangs, Chi. renmin).

[20] A copy of a 1943 Chinese–Tibetan bilingual abridged version of Sun Yatsen’s great treatise on Chinese nationalism Three Principles of the People (Chi. Sanmin zhuyi) attests to mi ser for “min”. The term minzu zhuyi, often translated in English as the principle of “nationalism” is mi ser gyi rigs rgyud; Meng ZangWeiyuanhui, Sanmin zhuyi yaoyi (Taipei: Taiwan, 1971), p. 8. The Tibetan language section of the publication information (but not the Chinese language section) states that this translation was undertaken in 1943 by the Frontier Languages Translation Committee (Tib. mtha’ mtshams skad yig rtsom sgyur lhan khang) of the Guomindang’s Central Organization Department (krung go go ming twang dbyang rtsa ‘dzugs las khung). This 1971 print of the 1943 translation may well be a copy of the text that circulated through Lhasa by late 1944. Cf. Stoddard 1985. I am very grateful to Professor Elliot Sperling for sharing this text as well as communication between him and Professor Gray Tuttle on this important text.