Monday, October 27, 2008

Good Read: Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet"

I don't get to read "for fun" as much as I would like to. One good thing about train trips is that as long as there is no work that needs to be done, it is a good time to read a good book. Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama" is such a good book.

Through Laird's interviews, the Dalai Lama himself recounts Tibetan history. That history unfolds as an expression of the Buddhist version of "Divine Provenance." Along the way, one learns about the long alliance between the Mongols and Tibetans. One can easily imagine that long memories about Mongol subjugation of the Chinese perhaps helps explain China's uncompromising efforts to subjugate Tibet. China may have lost out on controlling much of the Mongolian homeland based on Russian support for the Mongols in the 1920's, but Tibet lacked strong foreign support against the Chinese invasion in 1951. At the time, world powers most likely to help were busy fighting off China's efforts to dominate the far more strategic Korean Peninsula.

For those interested in cultural property issues, the book provides a stark record of China's efforts to destroy Tibetan culture by destroying most of its monasteries and temples along with thousands and thousands of ancient religious artifacts. The Dalai Lama himself recounts a particularly poignant story:

The Dalai Lama said, " A large clay statue of Chenrizi [a Buddhist savior for Tibet] was made in Jokhang [the site of the first and most important Buddhist Temple in Tibet], and that wood statue of Buddha from Nepal [associated with an early Tibetan king, Songzen Gampo] was put inside the bigger one." These two statues, a tiny wooden one nested in the larger clay one, sat in the Jokhang undisturbed for thirteen hundred years... "The large statue, like nearly all of those in the Jokhang, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. When they destroyed the larger clay statue, they found the small wooden statue at the center. Some Tibetan kept it after the larger one was destroyed and then sent it to me, which is very good."

Laird, supra, at 40. No wonder the Dalai Lama himself has praised Western collectors for their efforts to help preserve Tibet's past. Why, then, have members of the archaeological community supported China's efforts to seek import restrictions on virtually all Chinese archaeological and ethnological items, including those from Tibet? Could it be that the prospect of cooperation with Chinese archaeologists silences any inclination to speak out? If so, such archaeologists are little different than many of the "foreign policy experts" that appear in the media. Id. at 365-66. Laird reports that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party stressed that one of the main targets for its external propaganda were foreign experts as "propaganda created by foreigners is more powerful" than propaganda produced by Chinese. Id. at 366. I suspect the same can be said for the efforts of some members of the archaeological community to plead China's case for control over Tibetan cultural artifacts reaching this country.

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