There is no doubting Lee
Feigon's mindset. He holds a chair in East Asian Studies and is Professor of
History at Colby College. No surprise then the academic zeal with which he
approaches the latest work to add to his erudite canon on Chinese history and
politics. But, strange then the unstructured and rambling discourse he then
chooses to follow, with it's over-eager use of references (for example, a
section describing religious sites is oddly punctuated by a meander into the
prevalence of undomesticated canines, and other animals, without even a
linking mention of, say, the infamous savage packs of dogs that patrol
Dreprung Monastery). Indeed, Feigon fails to deliver a well-formed argument.
His style in this book is uncharacteristically piecemeal, clawing together his
dissertation with confusing leaps between chronological elements. It is not
impossible that this was the symptom of attempting to target a more casual
reading audience, but actually producing something that does not adequately
communicate to any mass audience.
The lack of structured
argument within the book is unfortunate because, within the chaos, Feigon does
have a very important academic message to impart. His main tenet is that Tibet
should be considered a separate nation and that the inevitable comparisons
with China, even across a moral divide between evil China and innocent (almost
childlike) Tibet, do injustice to otherwise distinct nations. Notably, China
also suffers through this association. Yet, Feigon does not fully develop
these ideas, instead preferring to resort to the usual diatribe against
Sino-expansionism, towards which he provides dense chronological evidence of
Tibetan exploitation and Chinese atrocities. The overall effect is an
essentially level-headed analytical argument, but with a bubbling emotive
undercurrent yearning for emergence of an independent Tibetan state. I would
rather Feigon would have persevered with his academic separatist arguments
until their natural conclusion, even if necessarily hypothetical, and he could
have abandoned the political activism to NGOs and escapee monks and nuns.
Speaking of insurgency,
Feigon makes an interesting claim of CIA involvement in the Dalai Lama's 1959
escape, and further involvement in support of anticommunist guerrillas. If
true, then it seems all the more ironic, given the current developments in
relations between the USA, and other leading western powers, with China.
Another welcome snippet comes from the cameo mention of Lowell Thomas,
journalist adventurer and populariser of T.E. Lawrence.
The second half of the book
presents most of the anti-Chinese evidence. The opening half of the book
concentrates on history, extensively decorated with cultural reference, but
amazingly little explanation of religion beyond the historical context. So,
Feigon does go some way to revealing the country and culture behind the myth,
but in any case, isn't this an outdated premise for the book? Isn't it some
time since the West was mystified by Tibet? The modern trend seems to be more
one of seduction and vogue, maintaining the romantic notions of a "Land That
Time Forgot" that still persist. Simply put, punctuated outsider access to the
country and the accumulation of an exhaustive literature, in parallel with the
extensive eradication of Tibetan culture by Chinese occupation has corrupted
and impoverished most of the ancient secrets of Shangri-La. Apt when James
Hilton wrote on the subject, but Feigon's work is a contemporary view where he
assumes an antique and static Tibetan culture were it not for China's
liberation. This is by definition retrospective and sentimental for a Tibet
that ceased to exist decades ago.
"Demystifying Tibet" could be
used as a parsimonious introductory guide to Tibetan history and culture, but
it does not sufficiently develop any novel analysis. For this there are
superior alternatives from that burgeoning modern literature about Tibet: from
academia, there is the excellent and balanced "Tibet: The Road Ahead" by Dawa
Norbu (1999), from personal Tibetan accounts there is "Tibet: My Story, An
Autobiography" by Jetsun Pema (1997) and "Fire Under The Snow" by Palden
Gyatso (1998), and from personal non-Tibetan sources there is "Touching Tibet"
by Niema Ash (2003). But, perhaps the starting point for anyone wanting to
demystify Tibet should be Harrer's "Return To Tibet" (2000), probably the only
informed, first-hand comparison from before and after the Chinese Cultural
Book review by J.F.Derry
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Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows by Lee
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