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China’s Ruckus on the Visit of the Dalai Lama and the Identity of Tawang and Tibet


Chinese electronic and print media first feverously questioned the just concluded Tawang visit of the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso to Tawang Galden Namgey Lhatse monastery (Celestial Paradise in a Clear Night){i}. The Chinese Foreign Ministry subsequently joined and added sharpness to the tirade.

Assiduously planted stories in the Chinese media accused the Dalai Lama to have rather connived with India and taken to ‘traitorous road’. It quoted statements and sought to suggest that he was but comfortable as an Indian citizen. One of such stories called him ‘ignorant of history of Tibet’.{ii} In this and several other stories, there is a common refrain to link identity of Tawang with Tibet, and for a variety of tenuous reasons, in particular, some sort of interactions and say of one of the two foreign rulers of China, the Qing dynasty, linking the identity of the two with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There is then manipulations with the connotations, Tibetan Buddhism as being some thing different and apart from the tenets, propounded by Buddha and practiced around the world with difference in certain rituals from each other, calling the Tawang area as part of South Tibet and the like included. An array of rhetoric, some of which age old while others seemingly first time, did not touch ground realities beyond using coercion as a tool of diplomatic maneuvers.

China launches quite often futile campaign wherever the Dalai Lama intends visit and meet people. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) condemned a planned visit to Taiwan in Aug 2009. The Chinese media and government apparatus stopped short of attacking the President Ma Ying-Jeou, who has been squarely instrumental in improving the cross straits relations. The Dalai Lama was to lead a prayer service for the eternal peace of 483 victims to Typhoon Morakot.{iii} In its obsession, the PRC called it a “plot to sabotage the hard earned good situation in cross-Straits relations”.{iv} There are innumerable instances. This is again not some thing peculiar about the Dalai Lama. China constantly opposed foreign visit of Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bien and others with sole exception of Ma Ying-Jeou in May 2009.{v} It made out issue of Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine visit of Japanese Prime Minister.{vi}

For various reasons, countries choose to bargain, make promises or use threats, to extract concessions. It has been seen that the countries employ distraught communication as an instrument to add to their bargain space. The Chinese tirade is thus not innocuous. In open society, there is often role of pressure groups, in the society and its segments as much as much as the state and its organs. Similarities and differences as expressed in terms of historical memories, political preferences, economic priorities, strategic vulnerability, perceived absolute and relative gains and studied fear of losses at the end of the day delimit the horizon of wrangles. In the case of China, the state and its organs hold the key until the invisible forces of globalization come to the tune.

Had it been China of the yesteryears, in particular those of Mao epoch, it should have surprised none. It has been taking place now when the Chinese leadership swears every now and then to be a ‘responsible power’, striving for a harmonious world.{vii} In the bargain, a refrain of the kind on the part of Chinese media mongers and government apparatus stood prospect of setting a nation of 1.3 billion people on retrograde course and could deny positive gains of liberalism, neoliberalism and globalism around.

The paper is aimed at setting straight the identity of Tawang and Tibet in comprehensive socio-cultural perspective, independent of political factor. In its perspective, it would look into the core of the sound and fury aroused by the China’s media and government apparatus. By implication, the paper would dwell on maintainability of the Chinese ‘Para-diplomatic’ measures of the kind in a civilized world. Schematically, the study focuses on: the Identity of Tawang; the Identity of Tibet; and, the Sky of Chinese Coercive Postures. The assumptions include: The bond of Buddhist shrine in Tawang with Tibet transcends political confine of suzerainty and/ or sovereignty; the spiritual space just as ideological space, communism for that matter included, transcends political space as much as geographic space; and, the sacred Buddhist shrine in Tawang in Northeast India as elsewhere, the PRC included, hold on and draw sustenance from Buddhist thoughts and practices as it stemmed in India and as such, India can not be treated as a client state for the expansion of Buddhist institutions and its following.

Identity of Tawang

In his outpour to the journalists, covering the inaugural of the museum on November 08, 2009, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso recalled his hapless escapade to India in March 1959. He described his moment of life while in Tawang then as being “reunion and safe”.{viii} He had trekked incognito for 17 days to cross Indian border at Khenzimane pass on March 31, 1959 to get to the promised destination, 50 kilometers deep inside the Indian border (Figure 1 Locational Identity).{ix}

Figure 1 Locational Identity

The outpour of the Dalai Lama has to be understood in its proper context beyond what Chinese media mongers tend to interpret. For an ordinary mortal, fleeing his/ her home and hearth to escape bid on life, living and liberty, it could mean and stand for a sigh of relief. It speaks volume in the case of the Dalai Lama and his yearning for the place. “Reunion” for a saint of his order is but communion with the ultimate metaphysical reality. It does simultaneously explain at length how the Tawang Galden Namgey Lhatse monastery came into existence at the specific location as such and why do the Dalai Lama and his Mahayana Buddhism hold so much yearning for the shrine.{x} It calls off China’s bluff on its claims of sovereignty over the land, too.

Located between latitudes 27:45:0 N and longitudes 91:15:0 E, Tawang is one of the 16 districts of Arunachal.{xi} It has been carved out of the West Kameng district. It is bounded by Tibet and Bhutan in Northeast and Southwest. As per 2001 Census, it has a population of 38,924 persons-21846 male and 17078 female.{xii} Monpa tribe dominates the demographic scene with its presence in 162 out of total of 181 villages, distributed and spread over to three subdivisions, three community development blocks and nine circles on 2172 km of territorial expanse of the district. Takpa tribe inhabit in small number in the West and North. Shyo village has 90 families of Tibetan origin.{xiii}

In socio-cultural perspectives, both in pre-historical and historical past, Tawang populaces hold clear identity of Bharat Varsha, that is, India in Jambu Dweep (the Island featuring abundance of Jambu fruit).{xiv} They are multilingual and multiethnic as rest of the country. In typical Indian evolutionary tradition, they carry one or the other faith at a point of time while accommodating the other one.

In the latest pre-historical epoch, under the rein of Kirata King Bhismaka, the one who, in oral tradition, is said to have belonged to Idu (Mishmi) tribe, the heroic Tawang soldier fought against Kouravas from the side of Pandavas in the Great Indian War, called Mahabharata.{xv} Notwithstanding, later, the Monpa Kingdom of Monyul, flourishing between 500 BC and 600 AD have had complete integration with then Indian national life system. There has been little change in the identity of the region and its people when Ahom and Assamese came to exercise some sort of political control. Nothing changed when Bhutan or for that matter even Tibet did as well exercised indirect and/ or direct control over the lives of the people in one way or the other at certain stretch of time.

As on day, in their daily life and living practices, the inhabitants of Tawang as elsewhere in Arunachal Pradesh carry tell tale evidence of unique “Puroik” culture of distant past.{xvi} Impacts of Brahmanical tradition, Shrimanta Sankaradeva’s Neo-Vaishnavite Movement, Theravada Buddhism, Bon cult and the like are as well discernible. Notwithstanding, the story of the incarnation of the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gytso at Urgelling Monastery, and the legend behind the construction of Tawang Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery deep inside India earlier in deference to the wishes of the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, speak of and conform to the accommodative cultural heritage of the populace at large.{xvii} Notwithstanding, the Bodic language such as Monpa and Memba that they speak besides English and Hindi have intimate linguistic connections with the people in the rest part of Arunachala Pradesh and adjoining Assam and other states.

Identity of Tibet

Tibet of today under the Chinese rule, known as Tibet Autonomous Region (Xizang Zizhiqu), bears a truncated geo-political identity, where part of it has been incorporated with the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. It is now composed of U-Tsang and part of Kham region.{xviii} Amdo and part of Kham region have been ceded to those adjoining administrative areas of the PRC.{xix} Nevertheless, the socio-cultural identity of Tibet encompasses all over, and the politico-administrative boundary thus far created does not have much effects. Its distinctiveness stems from far beyond political machination of the kind. It is home of some of the World’s tallest mountains, and the sources of perennial river systems.{xx} It is a product of ‘plate tectonic forces’, and closing of Tethys Sea that earlier gave Indian nation the form and shape of an Island, mentioned in the foregoing part of the paper as ‘Jambu Dweep’. It conjoins eternal existential identity of Tibet as land mass with India. Amidst differing legends and scholarship, the Tibetans stand a distinct race.{xxi} They have absolutely little common with the Chinese.{xxii} Some Tibetans could resemble to Sinitic racial type, in particular with an epicanthal fold of fold of their eyes and roundness of their head. There are then others who resemble Indic type. There are still others who resemble Burmese, Dardic, Mongol or even Caucasian types. The racial distinctiveness thus constitute immovable core of Tibetan identity from the rest others including the Chinese as such. Socio-cultural identity of Tibet is woven largely around the native Bon and Indian Buddhist precepts, practices and traditions. Scholarship in the field attributes conceptualization and development of Bon religion to Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche, who was born in the vicinity of Mount Yung-drung Gu-tzeq, possibly Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva, in western Tibet. For the followers of Bon, called Bonpo, the Swastika is as auspicious as the Hindus. There are some who consider Bon as the shamanistic and animistic of the Himalayas prior to onset of Buddhism. Christopher Beckwith calls Bon as one of the two types of Tibetan Buddhism.{xxiii} The 14th Dalai Lama recognizes Bon tradition as the fifth principal spiritual school of Tibet, along with the Nyinqma, Sakya, Kaqyu amd Gelug schools of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet is again widely different from China, in particular it relates to the tradition of Tantra. Confucius and Daoism, which are native of China, did not find foothold in Tibet. The “priest-patron relationship that then existed between Sakyapa Lamas and the ruling Mongol Emperors in the 13th Century and Gelukpa Dalai Lamas and the Manchu Emperors in the 17th Century do as well go to establish Tibet’s identity independent of China but comprehensibly quite close to India. Tibetan language and its dialects remain vibrant people language even as the fears about its extinction continue in the face of several endogenous and exogenous factors.{xxiv} It is written in an alphabet and is polysyllabic, is inflected with case, declension and gender structures adapted from Sanskrit, and is not semantically tonal. Tibetan borrows some words from Chinese, but it also borrows Indian, Nepali and Mongolian words. Tibetan, at the end of the day, holds its identity, squarely independent of Chinese.{xxv} Tibetan epic, historical literature, folk lore and other forms of creative works of antiquity hold account of the life system, the ideals and the image of people around confined to Buddha Dharma. The bulk of translated works in Tibetan do as well relate to Buddhist spiritual texts and scholarly Indian literature in Sanskrit. The same holds good about the folk lore. They carry detailed and clear accounts of distinctiveness of Tibetan race and their socio-cultural system. Chinese classics and literary master pieces did not find place in their translated works. Spiritual relations with various kingdoms in India right since the Yarlung dynasty instead find both direct and indirect reflections. China figures only as ancestral enemy. Tibet in Chinese literary works finds reference just as barbarians. There is definite reference of Tibetan armed forces conquering Changan, the Chinese capital during Tang dynasty. In the same vein, the Tibetan creative works do contain details of China’s foreign rulers, in particular Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and Manchu emperors Kangxi and Qianlong courting Tibetan rulers with respect and keeping Tibetans in good humour. This sets straight the identity of Tibet independent of Chinese influence and socio-culturally close to India with spiritual bonds.{xxvi}

Sky of Chinese Coercive Postures

While in Tawang, the Dalai Lama hit out China for opposing his visit to Arunachal Pradesh and expressed surprise over the claim of the PRC over Tawang. It puts the facts straight conclusively as far as the position of the real master of Tibet and its people prior to Chinese adventure to occupy Tibet in different ways including the 17 point agreement is concerned.{xxvii}

The highest pitch of Chinese media rhetoric constituted the blame that the Dalai Lama decided to visit Tawang under the pressure of the Indian government and reminder of the 1962 Chinese invasion, which led 1460 Chinese and 3128 Indian soldiers lay their lives besides umpteen other adverse consequences in the region.{xxviii} Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang had first said: “We oppose the Dalai Lama’s visit……….and, are very unsatisfied”. This Chinese coercive posture ended up with much deserved quiet. The cost was a meeting at the highest level, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and the Indian Premier Dr Manmohan Singh in Hua Hin city in Thailand.{xxix} China’s coercive posture was decidedly meant to test water on India’s steadfastness.

[The writer, Dr. Sheo Nandan Pandey, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi. He can be reached at]

Sources and References

{i} In modern democracy, the electronic and print media normally plays the role of social watchdog. Government policy, personal integrity of office bearers and the foreign policy stand scrutiny of common people through the media outfits. However, in China, the government exercises tight control over public opinion. Notwithstanding, there are many off-limits of public discussions. While Chinese journalists live peacefully on the surface, they stand to risk of their career and life once they come to exercise their social responsibilities and professional proprieties. According to New York based Committee to Protect Journalist’s Rights, China framed up 38 journalists in five years between 1998 and 2002. {ii} “Dalai Lama goes further down traitors road”, China Tibet Online, Oct 22, 2009. {iii} Democratic Progressive Party invited the Dalai Lama to lead a prayer service at the request of local populace. Ma Ying-Jeou approved the visit in his wisdom. In response to the decision, the PRC said it was “resolutely opposed to the visit”, adding that the Dalai Lama was “purely religious figure, but uses the banner of religion to engage in activities to split the country. {iv} {v} Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou wanted stop over in US en route to Central America. China is opposed even to transit visa getting granted to those whom China is opposed. In this case of Ma Ying-Jeou, China reacted coolly for the reasons not unthinkable. {vi} Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine houses tablets for 2.5 wars dead. The tradition of paying homage is central to Confucian cultural heritage. China observes Qingming just for this. China and South Korea normally oppose Yasukuni Shrine visit of Japanese leaders. They consider the shrine as symbol of Japan’s military adventure. Scholars attribute it to China’s complex, following Japan’s economic success while it held the status of father to Korea and Japan in Confucian order. {viii} China is literally on prowls to sell the concept. First, it was Chinese President Hu Jintao to talk of it at the UN summit in 2005. He was then speaking about Chinese foreign policy. Now it is PLA Navy and PLA AF which speaks of harmonious maritime and harmonious air space. It is in tune with how the Chinese state and party outfits arouse the polemics and try to sustain them. {viii} {ix} 40,000 strong PLA troops attacked 8500 Tibetan armed forces. They first entered Chamdo on Oct 7, 1950. As they outnumbered the Tibetan troops, they forced surrender just 12 days later on Oct 19, 1950. The PLA troops killed around 5000 Tibetan troops. The PLA occupation marched to the Central Tibet short of 200km east of Lhasa, at what China claimed de jure boundary of Tibet. It declared peaceful liberation of Tibet (heping jiefang Xizang). Fighting was stopped in a strategic move to avoid foreign intervention, in particular the American. {x} Mahayana sect of Buddhism has followers across Tibet, China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The main spiritual goal of Buddhism is “Nirvana” (liberation). Hinayana, the older version of Buddhism advocated monastic life of austerity, abandoning all worldly pleasures. The orthodoxy of Hinayana led to the emergence of Mahayana. It introduced the idea of deity both on a speculative level, which belongs more to philosophy, and in a popular way that was more like polytheism of the masses. {xi} Arunachala means the ‘land of dawn lit mountains’. {xii} Statistical Abstract of Arunachal Pradesh, 2006. {xiii} There are altogether 20 major tribes and a number of sub-tribes inhabiting in Arunachal Pradesh as a whole. Most of these communities are ethnically similar, holding common lineage. Geographical isolation has made them distinctive in language, dress and customs. {xiv} ‘Varsha’ stands for geographical units of Jambu Dweep (Island characterized to have Jambu bearing trees) and Bharat Varsha constituted one of the ninth parts of this Jambu Dweep (the Island of Jambu fruits). The time reference goes down to around 10 million years ago when continental collision went into the making of Himalayas over Tethys Ocean. Among Indian historical classics (puran), the Bhisma Parva of Mahabharta, the Markandeya Puran and Brahmand Puran carry vivid descriptions. The Jain and Buddhist seminal works also carry description. As per Mahabharata, the kingdoms that then flourishing in Bharat Varsha included Kirata, the ruler of tribes with yellow genre such as Monpa, Takpa, Bhutia, Adi and the like living in Tawang and other districts of Arunachala Pradesh. There were then others who ruled the rest parts. {xv} Kirata, in Sanskrit, is a generic term for people who lived in mountains, and mentioned as “gold like” or “yellow” unlike Nishadas or Dasas, who were dark. They have inhabited in North East from time immemorial. They find reference in Yajurveda (Shukla XXX 16; Krishna III 4, 12, 1) and Atharvaveda (X4, 14). In Yoga Vasistha 1.15.5, Lord Ram speaks of a trap laid by Kirata (KirAteneva vAgurA). In Mahabharta, there is reference of Bhima meeting a Kirata to the east of Videha, where his son Ghatotkacha was born from Hidimbaa. There is again reference of Kirata King Suraghu being a friend of Persian King Parigha. {xvi} Puroik in Tawang, also known as Sulung, trace their origin as descendants of Khrongkhia, who, according to mythology, landed from heaven to an area called Polo Jaria, a plain area, now in Sarli Circle of Kurong Kurmey district of Arunachal Pradesh. From Polo Jaria, they migrated to other parts of the state, in particular northwest. Just like the north Indian social system, tracing lineage to Surya (Sun) and Chandra (Moon), the Puroik follow Hami (Sun) and Habo (Moon). It holds centre stage in determining the customs and tradition in marriage and other social practices. {xvii} The legend says that the site of the Tawang Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery was chosen by the horse of Marag Lama. As he was unable to decide the location, he prayed fro divine guidance. When he came out, he found his horse standing quietly on a hill top. The word “ta” means horse and “wang” chosen. {xviii} The modern standard Tibetan endonym for Tibet is Bod. It is transcribed as Bho or Pho. The modern standard Chinese exonym for Tibet is Tubo or Tufan. The Chinese now call it Xizang. This was coined during the reign of Jiaqing Emperor. Historical linguists hold that the name Tibet in English is a loan word from Arabic Tibat or Tobatt. There are others who suggest Turkic Tobbad. There are just few who agree with Chinese Tubo or Tufan. {xix} The size of Tibet proper covering Amdo, U-Tsang and Kham regions is 2.5 million Square Km or 965000 Square miles. Tibet Autonomous Region now while constitutes of nearly 1.2 million Square Km, the rest 1.3 million Square Km area has been ceded to adjoining Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. They cover: Six prefectures in Qinghai province (Haibei (Tsochang), Hainan (Tslho), Huangan (Malho), Guoluo (Golog), Yushu (Jyekundo) and Haixi (Tsonub) Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures); Two prefectures in Gansu province (Tainzu (Pari) and Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures); Three Prefectures in Sichuan province (Aba (Ngaba), Ganzi (Kardze) and Mili Tibetan Prefectures); and, One prefecture in Yunnan province (Diqing (Dechen) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture) {xx} The Himalayan mountain system consists of over 100 mountains exceeding 7200 meters. The enormity of it can be understood from the fact that Aconcagua, in Andes, at 6962 meters, is the highest peak outside the Himalayan mountain system outside Asia. Mount Everest (8848 meters) is the tallest. There is then Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. The Tibetan name Khang Rinpoche for the mountain stands to carry the same attribute. High altitude lakes and the source of dozen of perennial rivers, stemming out and flowing to India besides others do as well link up Tibet’s identity with India. {xxi} Ethnologists put Tibetans to two main racial types: (a) People, who are tall with long limbs and heads, often distinct aqualine features; and, (b) People, who are short with high cheekbones and round heads. The former constitute largely among the northern and eastern nomads of Kham and Amdo regions while the latter is found in the central and western Tibet. According to the legend, the ancestry of the Tibetan race belongs to the union of an intelligent monkey and a demonic ogress. Baring remote border areas where approximately 7 percent of the total population constitute of minority nationalities of Monpa, Lhopa, Qiang, Jang, and others inhabit, the two major racial types as such within their groups are: the Topa, who are found in highland region; the Tsangpa in the Western Tibet; the Upa in the Central Tibet; the Horpa in the Northern Tibet; the Khampa in the Eastern Tibet; the Amdowa in the Northeastern Tibet; and the Gyarongwa in the Fareast Tibet. {xxii} There is inconclusive debate among the scholars about the racial entity of the Chinese race. While the school text books in China speak of Chinese race as descendants of Peking Man (Bejing Ren), who lived in Northern China some 0.4 million years ago, Prof Jin Li of Fudan University, who led a team of anthropologists trace the origin and growth of the Chinese race to early humans in East Africa. The Han Chinese who dominate the scene are but subset of the Chinese nationalities ( Zhonghua Minzhu). Most Chinese scholars call themselves as the “Descendants of the Dragon” (long de zhuan ren). They even refer themselves as “Descendants of Yan Emperor or Yellow Emperor. {xxiii} Christopher I Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, ArabS, and Chinese During the Early Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, new ed. 1993. {xxiv} Standard Tibetan is based on the speech of Lhasa. There are then Kham and Amdo dialects. Kham Tibetan dialect do as well have sub-divisions: Central Kham spoken in Derge and Chamdo areas; Southern Kham spoken in Dechen area; and Northeastern Kham spoken in Nagchen and Yushu areas. Amdo Tibetan dialect has as many as four sub-dialects: Hbrogpa, Rongba, Rongmahabrogpa and Rtahua. These two Kham and Amdo share the classical Tibetan orthography, and hence, not accorded the status of separate language. {xxv} Chinese does not have alphabets. It is pictographic and monosyllabic. It is non-inflected and tonal. {xxvi} Chinese warlords, in particular Mongol and Manchu troops did invade Tibet in the 13th and 18th century and make Tibet to yield to their invader power. There have been two sides exchange of diplomats. Quite a few merchants and monks did as well visit two sides. However, there has never been a China town and noticeable Chinese settlement at any point of time before the PRC occupied it with brute force. {xxvii} Chinese refer to 17 point agreement, reached with the emissary of the 14th Dalai Lama, Ngabo Ngwang Jigme on May 23, 1951, as the legal base for taking over the political and administrative control over Tibet. The Dalai Lama had publicly repudiated the Chinese contention in his press conference on June 20, 1959. He had said in no uncertain words: “The consent of the Tibetan government was secured under duress and at the point of bayonet. My representatives were compelled to sign the agreement under threat of further military operations against Tibet by the invading armies of China leading to utter ravage and ruin of the country”. The emissary, who visited China after 40000 PLA troops invaded Tibet, were not allowed to contact Kashag, the Cabinet and the Dalai Lama. The agreement does not bear the authentic seal of the Tibetan government under the Dalai Lama. Chinese General Zhang Jingwu, who met the Dalai Lama in Dromo gave false assurance that the Chinese government will look into the objection of the Dalai Lama and his Kashag and rectify at later date. Chinese announced so called “peaceful liberation of Tibet on April 27, 1951 in a radio broadcast of the Central Broadcasting Station, Beijing. {xxviii} The People’s Daily carried a story where it quoted Hu Shisheng, a researcher at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations and said:” The Dali Lama went to Southern Tibet t this critical moment probably because of pressure from India. By doing so he can please the country that has hosted for years”. The report published in the Global Times quoted Hu Shisheng say: “India may have forgotten the lesson of 1962, when its repeated provocations resulted in military clashes. India is on this wrong track again. ….When the conflict gets sharper and sharper, the Chinese government will have to face it and solve it in a way India has designed.” {xxix} In his meeting with the Chinese counterpart, the Indian Prime Minister said that the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama was honoured guest of India and was free to travel anywhere

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