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  • Lhasa: Streets with Memories
  • A. Tom Grunfeld (bio)
Robert Barnett. Lhasa: Streets with Memories. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. xli, 264 pp. Cloth $24.50, ISBN 0-231-13680-3.

For centuries Tibet, and particularly its heart, Lhasa, symbolized the epitome of the mystical and exotic for travelers the world over. Reaching it was difficult enough for Asians, next to impossible for Westerners. The more inaccessible it was, the more appealing it became, especially to Westerners then engaged in their imperial project of conquering and exploring every nook and cranny of the globe.

The fabled city they all yearned to lay their eyes on had been an urban center from at least the ninth century and a pilgrimage site of considerable importance from the early fifteenth. By the seventeenth century, during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama and with the building of the Dalai Lamas' winter palace, the Potala, it had become the major commercial, educational, religious, and political center of Tibetan life.

There have been no previous biographies of Lhasa,1 and this one is not a customary urban history by any measure. Robert Barnett is interested in something quite different-and unique. For one thing, "there never was a single Lhasa," he argues, "today, as always, there are many Lhasas" (p. 71). For another, his "inquiry is about the effort to know through memories the inner language of a foreign city . . . I am primarily interested in that kind of elusive and nonlinear history of associations that does not have a place in more conventional accounts" (pp. xiii-xiv).

"This book is an attempt to scrape a little of the topsoil off the affective history of a city," Barnett continues: "my interest is in the convergence of memories, some of which may be unrecorded, that form critical junctures in the historical understanding of a city by its residents and that contribute to the essential illegibility of a city to its foreign visitors" (p. xii).

Barnett, a lecturer of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, has visited Lhasa many times since his initial adventure there in 1987, when he stumbled into the first serious protests against Chinese rule since the abortive revolt of 1959 and the subsequent police repression becoming, along with the many tourists in Lhasa at the time, an accidental eyewitness to this important historical event. But he was more than an observer for he joined a small group of foreigners who decided to become engaged by coming to the aid of the protesters in various ways. That experience apparently changed his life, setting him onto a career as, to begin with, an activist in the Tibetan exile struggle, and, more recently, as an academic in the field of modern Tibetan studies.

In this extended essay (of which much has been published elsewhere) Barnett explores the history of the city and his personal experiences, juxtaposing an [End Page 349] analytical examination of its history, architecture, and multilayered meanings with his personal observations and experiences. At first this construct seemed to me clumsy; the differing texts at odds with each other. But, as it progressed the mix of the detached academic prose with the highly personal began to be more significative and it proved to be a powerful and moving device.

Barnett avoids polemics and is critical of everyone. He begins early on to dispel the often sited "unitary view" with a reasoned, even-handed refutation of the "depictions of Tibetans as a happy people and Lhasa as a peaceful city where people wore gaily colored clothes, where everyone was religious, and where the citizens were generous and kind" (p. 6).

In the historical segments, Barnett takes us from the beginnings of Lhasa in the seventh century through the historical development of Tibetan history: the arrival of Western travelers and missionaries (his attention is solely on Westerners in the pre-1951 era to the exclusion of the many Asians who experienced the charms of Lhasa) through the British invasion of Tibet at the dawn of the twentieth century to the incorporation of Tibet into the Chinese state in 1951.

He spends some time on the Younghusband Expedition, the Indo-British military invasion of Tibet in...


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