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  • Islamic Shangri-La: Inter-Asian Relations and Lhasa's Muslim Communities, 1600 to 1960 by David G. Atwill
  • Morris Rossabi (bio)
David G. Atwill. Islamic Shangri-La: Inter-Asian Relations and Lhasa's Muslim Communities, 1600 to 1960. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018. xviii, 238 pp. Paperback $34.95, ISBN 978-0-520-29973-3.

Most students of South and East Asia have often conceived of Tibetans as Buddhists and as maintaining a relatively closed society. The conventional wisdom has been that "to be Tibetan is to be Buddhist" (p. 7). In this book, Professor David Atwill challenges this view by focusing on Tibetan Muslims. He points out that, as of 1950, these Muslims, often known as the Khache, constituted about ten percent of the population of Lhasa. Yet most specialists on China and Tibet know little about the Khache, and no book-length study on them has been published. Professor Atwill offers the first such volume.

The book is slim because the sources on the Khache are limited. Most of the early information about them derives from descriptions by foreign travelers. The volume consists of 155 pages, not including notes and bibliography, and some of it focuses on twentieth-century Tibetan history rather than exclusively on Tibetan Muslims. Nonetheless, Professor Atwill has mined the limited writings and has shed light on this community. He demonstrates that the community is diverse, with some of its members descended from sixteenth and seventeenth century Kashmiri merchants who had traded in Tibet and then intermarried with Tibetans, while others were Chinese Muslims (or Hui) who had arrived at a later period. Hui migrants increased with the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

One of Professor Atwill's main themes concerns the Khache's role in exposing Tibet to other lands. He challenges the conventional wisdom that Tibet was isolated for much of its history. Khache merchants traveled to [End Page 104] Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, Kashmir, and China and kept Tibet in touch with areas in South and East Asia. Khache and other Tibetans took part in the tea and horse trade with the Ming dynasty, which assured China of steeds for its cavalry. Mercantile relations, in turn, resulted in cultural diffusion, which led to the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in Qing China (1644–1911) and to the reinvigoration of Islam in Tibet. Some Muslims in the community knew Arabic or Chinese or Hindi or other languages, and their multilingualism fostered Tibet's relations with its neighbors.

Most Tibetan Muslims lived in Lhasa and Shigatse and were often quite independent. They had their own leaders and councils, whom the Tibetan authorities accepted as leaders of their communities. In effect, they had considerable self-rule. In Lhasa, they had their own cemeteries and at least four mosques. Professor Atwill notes that despite their cultural and religious differences, they were accepted as Tibetans. The various Dalai Lamas, on occasion, sought their advice because of their cosmopolitanism and their contacts with the outside world. Some of the more prosperous members of the community went on the Hajj to Mecca, especially in the twentieth century.

Professor Atwill devotes approximately half of the book to the PRC period and here some readers might consider his narrative as controversial. He starts by reporting that Mao and other PRC leaders at first adopted a moderate policy in Tibet and allowed the Dalai Lama and the local government considerable flexibility. The Khache profited from the relative stability and the stationing of Chinese troops because they could sell products to the Chinese forces. Professor Atwill then describes a dramatic change in late 1958 and early 1959, noting that Chinese officials and their army contributed to tensions in Lhasa and an initiation of hardline policies that resulted in the March 1959 Uprising against China. He adds that the Chinese abandoned "all pretense of policies of accommodation" (p. 95). He omits the fact that the Central Intelligence Agency was training and supplying Tibetan rebels in an effort to overthrow Chinese rule in Tibet. China's concerns are more understandable if this information is factored into the PRC's decision-making process. China's response to what it...