Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre, 1904-1947, and: The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering, and: Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations (review)
- China Review International
- University of Hawai'i Press
- Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 1998
- pp. 30-35
- Additional Information
30 China Review International: Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1998 Alex McKay. Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre, 1904-1947. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon Press, 1997, xxvi, 293 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 0-7007-0627-5. Melvyn Goldstein, William Siebenschuh, and Tashi Tsering. The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography ofTashi Tsering. Armonk and London : M. E. Sharpe, 1997. xi, 207 pp. Hardcover $27.95, isbn 1-56324-950-2. Warren W. Smith, Jr. Tibetan Nation: A History ofTibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations. Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 1996. xxxi, 732 pp. Hardcover $79.95, isbn 0-8133-3155-2. Tibet is "hot"; from popular culture to the world of spirituality Tibetophilia is rampant. But, as Michael Aris laments in a Forward to Alex McKay's book, much of current work on Tibet is being "pursued at such a distance from the main object of study, namely Tibet, and . . . exudes such a self-indulgent tone and flavour that it can only cause annoyance and frustration to those who seek to understand Tibet. . . . Tibet disappears, as before, in a fog of ambition and fancy, in a hall of distorting mirrors" (pp. vii-viii). Perhaps the situation that Aris so fittingly deplores is changing, for at least two of the books under review manage to counter the polemics and fantasy that now routinely masquerade as the literature on Tibet . That, in and of itself, is notable. Much has been written on Tibetan history of the first half of the twentieth century, especially concerning the British role. To cite only the most obvious, we have Alastair Lamb and Parshotam Mehra's extensive writings on the diplomatic history ofAnglo-Tibetan relations, Melvyn Goldstein on the Tibetan perspective, and Sir Charles Bell's formidable scholarship and his personal experiences. So it was with considerable delight to discover that a new outlook could be so enlightening . Alex McKay examines the "more than 100 British officials who lived and worked in Tibet during the 1904-1947 period" (p xi). With particular attention being paid to about twenty of these individuals, McKay explores two issues: "The character of the cadre officers and how this affected their actions, and secondly, the image ofTibet which the cadre constructed" (p. 3). These are vital issues since it was during this period, and to no small measure due to these men, that the modern Western conceptions of Tibet—the very conceptions that have so much© 1998 by University to do with how we perceive and act on Tibet today—were shaped. ofHawai'iPress¡n a research tour de force, McKay has plowed through the extensive documents in the British and Indian archives and conducted interviews with family members and the sole surviving member of this exclusive group to unfold a fasci- Features 31 nating tale and skillfully chart the vicissitudes of British frontier policies, which were based on geopolitical realities but also, ifnot more often, on the personal views ofprominent British officials in London, New Delhi, and along the frontiers . McKay adroitly traces the backgrounds ofthese men, their educations, and even the books that influenced them and shaped their ideas. Despite differences at times, such as the differences in their concepts on how to treat the "natives," [Captain W. F.] O'Conner considered that respect for local traditions enhanced the dignity ofthe British by demonstrating their understanding ofwhat the local people considered "civilised" behavior. The opposing view was held by officers such as [John Claude] White, or later by [Lieutenant Colonel F. M.] Bailey. They believed that it was "inconsistent with the maintenance of dignity to pander too much to native views." (p. 26) [T]he cadres spoke with one voice and that unity was a part of its strength. They became the dominant voice from Tibet because they deliberately suppressed alternative perspectives, (p. 205) Collectively these men were sympathetic to Tibetan independence and the Tibetan elite, whom the British imperial officials, being extremely class-conscious, identified with. The implication in McKay's work, if I read it correctly, is that these British officials had much to do with developing the Tibetan elite's concepts of modern independent statehood as well as the patronage and encouragement of this elite. Indeed...