Join our Mailing List

"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."

China Seizes on a Dark Chapter for Tibet

August 11, 2010

GYANTSE JOURNAL
By EDWARD WONG
The New York Times
August 9, 2010

GYANTSE, Tibet -- The white fortress loomed above
the fields, a crumbling but still imposing
redoubt perched on a rock mound above a plane of
golden rapeseed shimmering in the morning light.

After the British left, China increased its control of Tibet.

A battle here in 1904 changed the course of
Tibetan history. A British expedition led by Sir
Francis E. Younghusband, the imperial adventurer,
seized the fort and marched to Lhasa, the
capital, becoming the first Western force to pry
open Tibet and wrest commercial concessions from its senior lamas.

The bloody invasion made the Manchu rulers of the
Qing court in Beijing realize that they had to
bring Tibet under their control rather than
continue to treat it as a vassal state.

So, in 1910, well after the British had departed,
2,000 Chinese soldiers occupied Lhasa. That ended
in 1913, after the disintegration of the Qing
dynasty, ushering in a period of de facto
independence that many Tibetans cite as the modern basis for a sovereign Tibet.

The Chinese Communists seized Tibet again in
1951, perhaps influenced by the Qing emperor’s
earlier decision to invade the mountain kingdom.

These days, Gyantse resembles other towns in
central Tibet. Its dusty roads are lined with
shops and restaurants run by ethnic Han migrants,
whom many Tibetans see as the most recent wave of invaders.

But Chinese officials prefer to direct the
world’s attention away from that and to the
brutal events at Gyantse in 1904, which
conveniently fit into their master narrative for Tibetan and Chinese history.

The Chinese government insists Tibet is an
"inalienable" part of China, and it has
appropriated the 1904 invasion as another chapter
in the long history of imperialist efforts to
dismantle China -- what the Communist education
system calls the "100 years of humiliation."

In that Communist narrative of Gyantse, the
Tibetans are a stand-in for the Chinese who were
victimized by foreign powers during the Qing dynasty.

"The local people resisted the British there,"
said Dechu, a Tibetan woman from the foreign
affairs office in Lhasa who accompanied foreign
journalists on a recent official tour of Tibet.
"They put up a great resistance, so it’s called the City of Heroes."

In the late 1990s, when Britain was handing Hong
Kong back to China, the Chinese government
started a propaganda campaign to highlight that theme.

A melodramatic movie about the 1904 British
invasion, "Red River Valley," was released in
1997. It was a hit, and Chinese still rave about
it. It was also required viewing for officials in
Tibet and for many schoolchildren.

"I’ve also seen a musical, two plays, another
feature film and a novella on the same topic, all
from that time," Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar
at Columbia University, said of the late 1990s.
He said that he had not seen any reference in
Tibetan literature to Gyantse as the City of Heroes before then.

In 2004, the centenary of the British invasion,
officials staged activities to commemorate it,
including a musical, "The Bloodbath in the Red River Valley."

Then there is the museum in the fort. A sign in
English once identified it as "the Memorial Hall
of Anti-British." In 1999, it displayed "shoddy
relief sculptures of battle scenes, with
unintelligible captions," according to Patrick
French, a historian who described his visit there in his book "Tibet, Tibet."

So what did happen in Gyantse in 1904?

The Younghusband expedition was sent by Lord
Curzon, the viceroy of India, to force the 13th
Dalai Lama to agree to commercial concessions.
Tibet had also begun to figure prominently in
what was known as the Great Game, where the
British and Russian empires vied for influence in Central Asia.

British officials had heard of a Russian presence
in the court of the Dalai Lama and wanted to
learn the truth. That meant getting officers to
Lhasa, which had never been done before.

Colonel Younghusband was teamed with Brig. Gen.
J. R. L. Macdonald to lead a force from Sikkim,
in British India, across the Jelap Pass into
Tibet. They crossed the border on Dec. 12, 1903,
with more than 1,000 soldiers, 2 Maxim guns and 4
artillery pieces, according to "Trespassers on
the Roof of the World," a history of Western
efforts to open Tibet, by Peter Hopkirk. Behind
them, in the snow, trailed 10,000 coolies, 7,000
mules, 4,000 yaks and 6 camels.

Outside the village of Guru, they encountered an
encampment of 1,500 Tibetan troops. Hostilities
broke out. The British troops, which included
Sikhs and Gurkhas, opened fire. In four minutes,
700 poorly armed Tibetans lay dead or dying.

Later, at Red Idol Gorge, a narrow defile just 20
miles from Gyantse, the British slaughtered another 200 Tibetans.

The Tibetans made their final stand at the fort
at Gyantse, called a dzong, or jong, in Tibetan.
After they missed a deadline to surrender on July
5, the British attacked from the southeast corner of the fort.

A thin line of officers and soldiers clambered up
the sheer rock face. "The steepness was so great
that a man who slipped almost necessarily carried
away the man below him also,” wrote Perceval Landon of The Times of London.

The Tibetans rained down ammunition and stones.
But one lieutenant and an Indian soldier made it
through the breach, followed by others. The
Tibetans fled, shimmying down two ropes.

"The surrender of the jong was to have a crushing
effect on Tibetan morale," Mr. Hopkirk wrote.
“There was an ancient superstition that if ever
the great fortress were to fall into the hands of
an invader, then further resistance would be pointless."

The British reached Lhasa soon afterward. Two
months later, the evening before leaving Lhasa
for good, Colonel Younghusband rode out to a
mountain and gazed down at the ancient city,
where he experienced a curious epiphany that
inspired him to end all acts of bloodshed and
found a religious movement, the World Congress of Faiths.

"This exhilaration of the moment grew and grew
till it thrilled through me with overpowering
intensity,” he wrote in a memoir, “India and
Tibet.” “Never again could I think evil, or ever
again be at enmity with any man. All nature and
all humanity were bathed in a rosy glowing
radiancy; and life for the future seemed naught but buoyancy and light.”

Helen Gao contributed research from Beijing.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank