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  Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows by Lee Feigon

Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows by Lee Feigon

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 Revolution.

Book review by J.F.Derry

Get yours here: Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows by Lee Feigon

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