Review: Books by two men who have served Tibet
While The Division of Heaven and Earth by Shokdung is about resistance within Tibet, A Life Unforeseen by Rinchen Sadutshang is about the author’s work for the government in exile
Shokdung is the pen name for Tra-gya. It means the “morning conch.” The translator, Matthew Akster, thinks it is meant as a wake-up call for Tibet, a call for a peaceful revolution against Beijing’s iron-fisted rule on the Tibetan Plateau. Indeed, the message of Shokdung takes the readers back to the 19th century when a powerful West confronted and encroached upon a weakened Manchu China. This humiliating encounter between East and West resulted in agonized soul searching among Chinese scholars on how to forge an effective response. Some scholars blamed the dead weight of tradition and Confucianism for China’s inability to confront the Western challenge. They pointed to two gentlemen, Mr Science and Mr Democracy, who could save China from further humiliation.
The argument Shokdung advances in his brave book is that Tibet is similarly weighed down by tradition and Buddhism. These two forces prevent Tibetans from developing an effective response to Beijing’s rule. His is a brave book because Shokdung writes from Tibet. It is a brave book in another sense because Shokdung targets the most cherished tradition of Tibet, its spiritual heritage, to the consternation of the spiritual establishment in Tibet. The American Chinese scholar, Dan Smyer Yu, calls Shokdung’s views on Tibetan culture “an anti-traditonalist imagining of modern Tibet.”
Shokdung shot to fame in Tibet and around the world in 2009 when his book The Division of Heaven and Earth was published. According to Tibet scholar, Francoise Robin, who provides a foreword to the English translation, “The book, with an initial print run of 1,000 copies, circulated unhindered in Xining and all over Tibet for six months, until the author was arrested on 23 April 2010.” Shokdung anticipated his arrest when he said, “I may lose my head because of my mouth.”
Shokdung’s comments on the nature of the party state in Tibet are brutal and unrelenting. That is why he got into trouble with the authorities. Shokdung writes, “We can see that there is no greater terrorist than the totalitarian regime… In particular, the terrorism of sealing down the bodies of the common Tibetan people, sealing up the mouths of the eminent ones, and sealing off the minds of the unthinking population, and the methods of state terrorism are something they have been practising for the last half century, so who can deny that it is their basic character?”
Shokdung writes that Tibet’s salvation lies in organizing a coordinated non-violent civil disobedience movement. “Whether or not there will be a Tibetan Gandhi, whether or not Satyagraha has any foundation there, whether or not non-violent non-cooperation will produce results, this we cannot know without an unfailing prophecy; but if the answer is to be affirmative, that prophecy is something that each Tibetan must keep in their heart. This is my belief.”
While Shokdung is a rebel and dissident who is fortunately now out of prison, the late Rinchen Sadutshang’s life was one of service to Tibet both within the country and in exile. He belonged to the fabulous Sadutshang family, which once dominated the wool trade ferried on the mule train between Tibet and India for final export to America and Britain. The family had a huge wool godown in Kalimpong, which was later transformed into a school for Tibetan refugee children.
Rinchen Sadutshang’s career in the service of the Tibetan government began in 1948 and spanned what his daughter calls “the defining moments of Tibet’s modern history.” This included the loss of Tibet and its laboured and painful reconstruction in exile. Because he enjoyed the benefit of a modern education at St Joseph’s College in Darjeeling, the author was involved in all the critical events to prevent Tibet’s current fate. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes in his foreword to the memoir, “He accompanied the Tibetan delegation to Beijing in 1951 when the Seventeen-Point Agreement was signed. Later, he was a member of the Tibetan delegation to the United Nations in 1959 and 1961.”
The Tibetan representation at the world body resulted in the UN General Assembly passing three separate resolutions on Tibet, the last being in 1965, that called on China to respect the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and their right to self-determination. The Tibetan lobby at the UN, against all odds, managed to raise the issue of Tibet for discussion and debate at the highest international level. Given the Tibetan exiles’ lack of firepower both in resources and manpower, this is an achievement to be proud of.
Later, the author was inducted into the Kashag, the highest executive body of the Central Tibetan Administration. He rounded off his career as the representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Delhi who liaises with the government of India.
As for his career in the service of the Tibetan people, Rinchen Sadutshang had this to say. “By the early 1980s, I had given the prime years of my life to the service of the Dalai Lama and my government. When I first started to work in Dharamsala, my salary was seventy-five rupees a month, barely enough to meet my own personal needs, let alone the needs of my family. Although my salary gradually increased, if I hadn’t had some money of my own, my family would have suffered. I had a wife and six children, but I put the needs of the exile government before theirs. As I mentioned, the government of Bhutan had offered me a potentially lucrative position, and the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation also offered me a good job. But I declined both opportunities because of my loyalty to my country and the Tibetan government in exile, which was sorely in need of officials who were familiar with India and who could communicate in English.”
Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute and author of Falling Through the Roof.