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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."


September 29, 2008

The following is the FOREWORD to the book, DEAD PEOPLE TALKING by
Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa. The book can be purchased on the publisher's

The tumult and transformations of the 20th century marked few places on
earth more thoroughly than they did Tibet. At the dawn of that century,
the 13th Dalai Lama led a religio-political government dominated by
nobles and incarnate monk officials. The declining Qing Dynasty of
emperors based in Beijing had only scant influence over events in
faraway Lhasa, and Tibetans saw the British Raj in India to the south as
representing its most nettlesome foreign policy issue. Meanwhile, on the
Tibetan plateau, a conservative monastic order and a population
consisting mainly of nomads and village-dwelling farmers strove to
maintain customary patterns of life that reached back centuries. As
decades passed, the Qing dynasty disappeared entirely, the British
became Tibet’s foremost ally, and communism came to Asia. By the middle
of the century, Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army had seized Tibet,
and within a decade the young 14th Dalai Lama had escaped into exile in
India. Soon more than 100,000 Tibetans found themselves in the difficult
situation of living as refugees in underdeveloped nations, most notably
India and Nepal. In more recent years, Tibetans from throughout the
Himalayan region have found new lives in Canada, Switzerland, the United
States and elsewhere.

This national narrative of a diaspora from the Land of Snows amounts to
a personal story for the noble family called Shakabpa. Respected for the
service rendered by its members to the Tibetan government over a period
of generations, at the turn of the century the Shakabpas worked mainly
as senior officials in the Treasury Department and in provincial
administrations. Its most well-known member, Wangchuk Deden Shakabpa,
was born in 1907. He was to follow in the footsteps of his father,
uncle, and other kinsmen in serving at the highest levels of the
government. In the 1930s, he was a member of the traditional committee
that sought the r eincarnation of the Dalai Lama. He subsequently held
the rank of Finance Minister (Tsepon), played a significant role in the
Tibetan National Assembly, and served the 14th Dalai Lama in a variety
of official capacities. Not only did he lead an international Tibetan
Trade Mission around the world in 1948 and 1949, but he was also
instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Dalai Lama’s
government-in-exile in India. He was either an eye-witness or an active
participant in many of the most consequential moments of Tibetan history
from the 1920s through the 1960s.

However, Tsepon Shakabpa’s most notable legacy is his landmark
historical writings. His interest in Tibetan history was ignited in the
1930s when his uncle, a senior minister in the 13th Dalai Lama’s
government, gave him a large cache of historical documents that had come
down th rough the family. In the 1950s, in the wake of the Chinese
Communist invasion of Tibet, even prior to the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile
in 1959, the latter asked Shakabpa to write the history of Tibet in
order to present his country’s case to the international community. He
published a narrative in English with Yale University Press in 1967
under the title, Tibet: A Political History. Even with the publication
of that volume, the Dalai Lama requested that Shakabpa redouble his
efforts and lay out for the world the full story of Tibet’s history.
Hence, he returned to his study and began to multiply his researches.
Ultimately, in 1976, he published the much-enlarged, two-volume Tibetan
language version of his history , a work I am presently translating and
annotating for publication. In many senses, Tsepon Shakabpa provided
both a public face for Tibet throughout the middle third of the 20th
century and an enduring voice for posterity. He died in 1989.

Since then, a new generation of the Shakabpa family has stepped into the
public light. The historian’s son, Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa, also known as
“T.N.”, was born in Tibet in 1943, was educated in India and the United
States, served the government-in-exile in India, and enjoyed a
successful career in banking. Serious medical difficulties in the 19 90s
left T.N. physically disabled, after which he retired to southern
California. At the same time, he has come to provide a new voice giving
expression to the human experience of the Tibetan people, whose arc
through the last century and more has been mirrored in the family
narrative. Thus, T.N.’s poetry speaks to many of the most deeply felt
dimensions of life that have characterized the paths of his fellow
Tibetans. He passionately evokes the challenges of exile: sorrow at the
loss of a birthplace, the painful struggle to find comfort in a new
land, and the bifurcated feeling of being caught between a homeland and
an adopted country. He calls forth the Tibetan quest for liberty and
freedom with images of a nun in a Chinese prison, arresting visions of
torture, and a protest against the recent construction of a railway line
from Bejing to Lhasa. Equally, he conveys Buddhist ideas such as his
embrace of the clarifying power of karma, the yearning for the “rhapsody
of li ght” that is nirvana, and the tension between anger at China and
the Buddhist value of compassion towards one’s enemy. And T.N. moves
beyond a specifically Buddhist or Tibetan sensibility to the
universality of the human condition when he speak of hope in the face of
old age and physical suffering. T.N. is able to turn his own struggle
with the limitations of his disability into a feeling all people can
recognize, the pangs that accompany the losses that mark all of our
lives. A tone of sadness hangs over the poems in this collection, but
there is also hope and a resolute determination to endure, to survive,
and to transcend. Just as Tsepön Shakabpa served as a voice for Tibet in
an earlier time, his son has found a way to capture many facets of the
experience of exile, both the loss of a homeland experienced by Tibetans
and the human experience of our exile from our own, more ideal past.

Derek F. Maher, Ph.D.
Religious Studies Program
East Carolina University, Greenville, NC
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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