Features | Politics | East Asia

Hat Tricks

Tibet is much more than just the Chinese-controlled province of the TAR. Taking into account the real size of Tibet…

By Ben Bohane for

“It is dangerous here now,” whispers the young Tibetan man who has pushed through the crowd in Yushu town to speak with me. “The army is arresting many monks. They are killing people. We are afraid”.

China’s crackdown on the biggest Tibetan uprising since 1959, when an estimated 86,000 Tibetans were killed by the People’s Liberation Army, has once again sealed off this vast Himalayan land from outside eyes. The entire Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) province has been closed since April and is unlikely to open again until after the Olympics are over, lest it further embarrass China’s moment in the sun.

But Tibet is much more than just the Chinese-controlled province of the TAR. Taking into account the real size of Tibet, its people, culture and historical empire, the boundaries extend at least two or three times into what is now northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, and surrounding Chinese provinces such as Sichuan, Xinjiang, Quinghai and Yunnan. Much of the recent uprising has in fact been in Tibetan dominated towns in western China.

Soon after the riots began I journeyed 2500km through Quinghai province where the Chinese army and police have been mobilised to quell further disturbances. Local defiance continued in pockets: shootings, Tibetan flag-raisings and protests. But mostly people were afraid to publicly demonstrate their feelings. With so few foreign observers in this huge area, it is difficult to determine the full extent of the uprising and its casualties, although figures of up to 200 dead and thousands arrested seem credible.

Hundreds of monks have been arrested and monasteries raided and occupied by troops. At Gun Ya monastry near Nanchen, I found monks hesitant to speak openly about the situation since the Chinese army had only left their monastery the week before, having marched in and stayed for two weeks. The Abbot says as a Buddhist he was opposed to the riots and uprising: “These riots in Lhasa are the wrong path. We must continue the non-violent way and eventually we will win our freedom.”

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Although the Abbot is from the Kagyupa (“black hat”) order, he expressed support for both the Dalai Lhama (who is from the Gelugpa or “yellow hat” order) and the Karmapa Lhama, the leader of the Kagyupa order. The Karmapa fled Tibet in 2001 and is now living in exile in northern India not far from the Dalai Lhama’s base in Dharamsala. 

Tibetan Buddhism has four main sects; Kagyupa (black hat), Gelugpa (yellow hat), Nyingma and Sakya (both red hat). A glance through Tibetan history reveals tension and periods of open violence between these orders during Tibet’s feudal theocracy, particularly between the yellow and black hat orders.

The Dalai Lhama’s Gelugpa order, for instance, consolidated power in 1642 when the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lhama invited in a Mongol army under Gushri Khan. In unifying Tibet they forcefully suppressed the other orders. Much of the fighting occurred not over theological issues, but over political power and control of land and wealth.

Ironically, though, the Chinese laid the groundwork for their current battles with the Dalai Lhama. China’s Qianlong Emperor decided in 1751 to dismantle the then secular rulership of Tibet by its kings in the hope that it would stop further uprisings. Under his the Dalai Lhama, advised by Chinese ambassadors, assumed full temporal control over Tibet. The Emperor simultaneously announced a Chinese protectorate over Tibet.

From a Chinese perspective, the Tibetans were a nomadic and illiterate mob who, like the Mongol hordes, were forever threatening Chinese lowland civilisation. They remember a time when, in 763AD, the Tibetans invaded and sacked the Tang Dynasty’s capital at Chang’an (today Xian) and installed their own puppet ruler for a time. The Tibetan empire was then at its zenith following its unification under King Songtsen Gampo, Tibet’s national hero, who forged an empire equal in size to the Roman empire.

What the Chinese prefer to forget, however, is the Tibeto-Tang pact signed back in 822AD by the then-Emperor Daizong and the son and heir of Songzen Gampo, Trisong Detsen. The language is clear: “Both Tibet and China shall keep the country and frontiers of which they are now in possession … From either side of that frontier there shall be no warfare, no invasions and no seizure of territory.”

The question now is what is the likely leadership of Tibet, in a future beyond the current Dalai Lhama?

The Dalai himself has mooted the idea of abandoning Tibet’s traditional re-incarnated theocracy in favour of parliamentary democracy, with a prime minister or president directly elected by the people. But this will be a hard sell, given the Tibetans’ historical desire for a combined spiritual and political leader, and the great devotion they hold for the current Dalai. 

Tibet faces several problems around the succession issue. Traditionally the Dalai Lhama and Panchen Lhama (both Gelugpas) follow each other to keep continuity, depending on their age. For instance if the Dalai Lhama is a child, then the Panchen Lhama in his “majority” will rule, and vice versa. The Gelugpas currently face a crisis since both the Panchen Lhama appointed by the Dalai and a rival one appointed by the Chinese are both controlled by China, living under house arrest.

With no free Panchen Lhama and the current Dalai heading into his 70s, the Gelugpas may lose their chance to continue the leadership they have enjoyed for more than 300 years. Many Tibetans are now looking towards the Karmapa Lhama, 27 year old Urgyen Trinley, leader of the black hats, as the future leader of Tibet once the Dalai goes to the great monastery in the sky. 

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The Karmapa appears to have the blessing of the Dalai too – smiling photos of the two together are popular and found in monasteries and homes everywhere. It is at once a sign of unity among rival orders and perhaps a hint of the leadership to come. But even this is not so simple as the Kagyupa order is itself divided. Some senior monks have nominated a rival Karmapa who sits on the throne at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim in India, the most important black hat monastery outside Tibet. In 2003 there was an open brawl between monks loyal to rival Karmapas for control of the monastery which has so far seen Urgyen Trinley locked out.

This division represents part of the frustration among many young Tibetans, who sense they may have to take the struggle up a notch if they are to stem the Han Chinese domination of their land. Everyday 2000 Chinese arrive by train to Lhasa where many will stay to open businesses. 

Tenzin, a 21 year old Tibetan, is typical of his generation when he tells me that young people are frustrated and many supported the recent riots and demonstrations. They have much respect for the Dalai but acknowledge that so far he has delivered very little in terms of getting Tibet back.

“I am prepared to fight,” he tells me in a cafe as we watch riot police patrol the snowy streets outside. “I support the Dalai Lhama but the reality is that he lives in India and we have to live in China. So we have to do something.” Older Tibetans are more cautious, remembering a time from the 1950s when the CIA supported Tibetan guerrillas without much success.

Yet there is growing support for more militant groups today, like the Tibetan Youth Congress. Combined with a possible resumption of leadership by the Karmapa and the black hats – historically renowned for their militancy and use of black magic and sorcery – the era of “non-violence” advocated by the Dalai Lhama during his reign may well come to an end once he is gone.
The mysterious black hat worn by the Karmapa is said to have been woven by 1000 female deities and is so powerful he must hold it down lest it fly off. Tibetans will need all the power they can summon if they are to eventually throw off Chinese rule.