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...

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About the Author

Nicholas Clifford, a professor emeritus of Middlebury College, has written about Shanghai history in the early twentieth century.