Ever since the late eighteenth century, Tibet has exercised a particular hold on the Western imagination. A Himalayan kingdom, difficult to reach, it remained seemingly faithful to its age-old traditions, high above the great changes sweeping over the modern world. The Shangri-la of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon in 1933 was not his invention; the pacific, magical realm was already there as the land of Kim’s lama, described by Rudyard Kipling in 1901, as well as in the accounts of the few Western travelers reaching it.

The myth of Shangri-la says more about Western imagination than Tibetan reality, of course. In fact, the region has a perfectly good history of violence and oppression, of political infighting and conniving, the same as other lands. From 1804 to 1876, for example, four successive Dalai Lamas died mysteriously before reaching maturity. The Great Thirteenth, on the other hand (1876-1933), proved adept in using the rivalries among Britain, Russia, and China to secure a breathing space for his land and people, though shortly before his death he issued a prescient warning of the troubles facing Tibet if it did not change.

Other myths still hang over the mountain fastnesses. One holds that Tibet has always (or almost always) been independent. Another-zealously propagated by both the Chinese Communists and their Nationalist predecessors-that Tibet has always been part of their nation. Yet what does “always” mean, and what does “independent” mean? Finally, what is the “Tibet” to which these modifiers apply?

Has Tibet been a sovereign country? Or, alternatively, has China exerted sovereign power over a region called Tibet? Put thus, the question simply made no sense until about a century ago. Sovereignty and nationhood are relatively modern concepts, emerging from the wreckage of Europe’s seventeenth-century wars, and they are difficult to apply beyond the West. Zhuquan, the Chinese term for “sovereignty,” did not come into common use until the late nineteenth century. For a millennium or more, it would have been impossible to define clear boundaries between, say, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Manchuria, and so forth. Certainly, Mongols, Tibetans, Chinese, and others usually lived in territories that had some general cultural and even ethnic cohesion. Yet no clear frontiers separated their lands, which were frequently contested, often to China’s disadvantage. In 763, for example, a powerful Tibetan army fought its way into the great Tang capital of Chang’an. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that foreign dynasties ruled China for almost four of the six and a half centuries between 1279 and 1912.

Though the Yuan established some degree of authority over Tibet in the thirteenth century, theirs was a Mongol, not a Chinese, dynasty. And while the Qing dynasty (1644-1912)-itself Manchu-occasionally exerted influence in Tibet, by and large the region was left to its own devices. From 1912 until 1950, Chinese authority was very shadowy indeed. On the other hand, no foreign nation-the United States included-ever formally recognized Tibet as an entity independent of China (though the British, at least, were also careful not to admit to Chinese “sovereignty” over Tibet).

What precisely makes up Tibet? Does the term mean simply what Beijing considers the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)-central Tibet, with its capital at Lhasa? Or does it include what’s sometimes called Greater Tibet, or ethnographic Tibet, embracing the Tibetan-peopled regions of western provinces like Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan? Today, when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama calls for Tibetan autonomy (not independence), he appears to mean this larger Tibet, which, he believes, should be permitted to retain its own culture and institutions, while Beijing would remain in control of foreign and military policy.

Yet if the idea of national sovereignty, whether Chinese or Tibetan, had little meaning before modern times, a conception of Tibetan separateness (whether or not as part of a Chinese empire) makes a good deal of sense, historically, ethnically, geographically, and above all, culturally, the last quality most evident in Tibetan Buddhism. Generally speaking, prior to communism, even when China has claimed, or exercised, some degree of control over Tibet, its institutions have been left alone. That all changed after 1950, and more particularly after the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 and the terrible years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1965-1976, roughly) when thousands of Tibet’s monasteries were destroyed. Although things improved after that, the heavy hand of Sinicization has led to outbursts of protest and violence, most notably in 1989, when Chinese forces used gunfire to quell disturbances. Tibet’s Party secretary, Hu Jintao, who gave the orders at that time, has been chief of the Communist Party since 2002 and China’s president since 2003.

This year, even more serious disturbances have erupted, including fatal attacks by Tibetans on Lhasa’s Chinese and reprisals that have brought perhaps more than a hundred Tibetan deaths at the hands of Chinese forces. Moreover, there have been outbreaks of violence in the Tibetan regions beyond the TAR, and indeed among the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang province. Beijing has been quick to condemn these “riots” as the work of the “Dalai clique” (Dalai jituan), and though the Dalai Lama disclaims all responsibility, the Toronto Globe and Mail reports that a meeting of Tibetan exiles and their supporters in Brussels last year drew up plans for using the forthcoming Beijing Olympics to bring their grievances to international attention.

If that’s true, they’ve already succeeded. Despite rigid security, demonstrations have accompanied the Olympic torch since its lighting in Greece, notably in London and Paris (San Francisco changed the route at the last minute to ensure peace). By early May, the flame returned to China. The plan was for it to pass through much of the country, including Lhasa, and over the top of Mount Everest (some cynics suggest it was previously photographed on the world’s highest point, just in case). The earthquake in Sichuan on May 12 forced the government to modify the torch relay.

China, of course, is enraged at outside checks on its great celebration, and angry at suggestions of boycotts, either of the games themselves, or at least of the opening ceremonies. Thus its deployment of the full force of chauvinistic nationalism among its people as it cracks down on dissidents (the jailing of the writer Hu Jia on April 3 was a clear warning to others not to make trouble), while calling for a wall of separation between sports and politics. Disingenuously, as it turns out, for within China, the torch is scheduled to pass through not only great cities like Tianjin, Shanghai, and Wuhan, but also several revolutionary sacred sites, such as Jinggangshan and Ruijin in Jiangxi, where the infant Communist Party began its rise in the late 1920s, and Yan’an, Mao Zedong’s headquarters from 1937 to 1945.

Tibetans, of course, see a threat to their cultural identity. Others look also at the abysmal Chinese record on human rights (oddly enough, American protests on this issue no longer carry the moral weight they once did), or China’s policies in Darfur. Meanwhile the games are also shadowed by questions of their social and ecological costs, like air and water pollution. Even before the competitions begin in August, China is set for a long hot summer, as the torch travels its 137,000 kilometers (the longest trip in the flame’s rather brief history, which goes back only to its origin in the infamous Berlin Olympics of 1936).

Distressed as he is at the violence, the Dalai Lama has sedulously opposed any boycott of the games, and there is no doubt of his sincerity. Why indeed should he wish to upset them? They will subject China to a spotlight perhaps like none ever shone upon it. Nor will it dim when the games close, for in two years Expo 2010, the next World’s Fair, will open in Shanghai. Perhaps this is why last month Beijing signaled its willingness to meet the Dalai Lama’s representatives, even while continuing to vilify him.

“One World, One Dream” is Beijing’s slogan describing the Olympic spirit this year. And that spirit is, of course, alive and well today. Consider some other histories.

Back in 1948, when eighteen-year old Barbara Ann Scott returned to Ottawa with her gold medal in figure skating, the city gave her not only a victory parade but a canary-yellow Buick, which she gladly accepted. Until, that is, rumbles came from south of the border where Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic Committee (“Avery Umbrage,” the Canadians called him), warned that keeping the car would imperil her amateur status. A storm of protest, from the Yukon to Nova Scotia, persuaded him to back down. But-get this-Ms. Scott returned the automobile on her own, not wishing, she said, to jeopardize the honor of her country.

Forty-four years later, in 1992, when “amateur status” had become only a quaint historical conceit, the NBA’s Dream Team was sent to the Barcelona games. Of course it dominated them, though some observers queried the team’s refusal to live in the Olympic Village, choosing instead a five-star hotel in the city. As one of its members graciously explained to the press, the Olympic spirit meant “to go out and beat the other athletes in the world, not to go out and live with them.”

We-and the games’ commercial sponsors, whose global capitalism now fully embraces China-have come a long way. Meanwhile a panicked French mission kowtows to Beijing, presumably to protect Airbus and Carrefour. Tong yige shijie, tong yige mengxiang: “One World, One Dream.” Perhaps a much older Chinese saying is more apt: Tong chuang, yi meng-“same bed, different dreams.”

Published in the 2008-05-23 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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