FROM the earliest dawn of accredited history the mountains and deserts of inmost Asia have sent out forces, moral, intellectual and physical, that have overrun large tracts of the earth's surface. The hardy nomad, finding his scanty pasture insufficient for his growing herds, must needs sally forth to subdue the soft-living peasants outside, and to possess their land. But the times of nomadic conquest are long past. It is some six hundred years since the Mongols created the largest empire that history can record. Today the movement is in general reversed. It is the nations outside, overpeopled or ambitious, and strengthened with the weapons of modern science, who press in upon the nomads still living their old-world existence. Yet these large, hidden areas continue to make themselves felt in the movement of world forces.

To realize the present relation of Tibet to the Powers that encircle her one must understand something of her geography and of the course of events that has shaped her destiny. The million square miles over which she is spread constitute the highest territory on the face of the earth. Inhabited plains and valleys succeed one another ten thousand to fifteen thousand feet above the level of the sea. Here dwell the peasants and the herdsmen, while the latter also range still higher up the mountain sides. A hard country, breeding a hardy people, who in consequence went out and overran the territories of their neighbors in China, Turkestan and India.

In the seventh century of the Christian era Buddhism commenced effectively to penetrate the country. After a temporary setback in the tenth century, it had by the end of the eleventh established a firm hold, and this has grown stronger and stronger with the passing centuries. This Buddhism came from Nepal, Kashmir and India, and in a lesser degree from China. Hinduism having by then recovered its ascendency in India, the Tibetan importation was encrusted with Hinduism and Hindu Animism, and further mingled with the Animism of Tibet itself. Thus it was, and remains, considerably removed from the religion of the Founder himself. But it would be a mistake to imagine -- as many western writers have done -- that it is sheer demonolatry with a thin Buddhist veneer. For we have here a real form of Buddhism, suited to the needs of the people and grafted very firmly on their hearts and lives.

One has only to hear or read the old pre-Buddhist songs and other records, tales of war and pitiless savagery, and then to read the records of the last five hundred years, or better still to dwell in modern Tibet, in order to realize the magic change which Buddhism has wrought on the Tibetan mind. Buddhism forbids fighting and the taking of life. Once it had adopted Buddhism, the Tibetan nation, formerly aggressive, always raiding and often conquering their neighbors, in fact one of the strongest military Powers of Asia, fought no more to subdue foreign territory. The soldiers melted away and priests, housed in enormous monasteries, took their place. The Tibetans scarcely defended their own country. It was a great change of heart. Has Christianity done as much to instill the love of peace among the nations of Europe?

As the martial zeal of the Tibetans declined they were subjected to invasions by Mongols and Chinese. The former gradually ceased their incursions after the third Dalai Lama converted the leading Mongol chiefs to the Tibetan faith during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Later raids were planned merely to help one part of Tibet against another: a family affair, for Tibetans and Mongols are closely akin.

The occasional entry of Chinese troops into Tibet did not destroy Tibetan independence, for they were as a rule unopposed by many of the loosely-knit tribes composing the country. Such Chinese garrisons as were from time to time established from 1720 onwards at Lhasa and elsewhere were unable to hold down this large and mountainous country, and indeed made no serious attempt to do so. The Chinese overlordship, commencing early in the eighteenth century and ending in 1912, was often little more than nominal. The Chinese endeavor to control the foreign policy of Tibet sprang mainly from two reasons. Firstly, the Chinese desired the country as a barrier on the west. Secondly -- from 1642, when the supreme authority of the Dalai Lama was established -- they sought his spiritual backing to restrain the turbulent Mongols from invading their northern provinces.[i]

Modern Tibet is a theocracy. Monasteries and nunneries, large and small, are scattered throughout the land, some of them owning huge landed estates where they mete out monastic justice to both monk and layman. On the very hub of the wheel are the great institutions -- some have called them universities -- Se-ra, Dre-pung, and Gan-den, known in Tibet as "The Three Seats." Those who are destined to occupy the highest posts in the Church come here for study, thus continually spreading the paramount influence of Lhasa. And above them all the Dalai Lama holds his sway, both spiritual and secular.

Within his own domain -- embracing perhaps three-quarters of the area inhabited by Tibetans, and numbering three million people -- the Dalai Lama is the most autocratic ruler in the world today. For he is more than pope; he is god and king in one, being an incarnation of Chen-re-zi, Lord of Mercy, the patron deity of Tibet. He not only governs his subjects in this life, but can influence their rebirth in the next. Or, as his people say, he is "The Ruler in this life, the Uplifter in the hereafter." On such a base real autocracy can stand. He has his own government, priestly and secular, and his own trusted officials, not necessarily the highest in rank. Young personal favorites sometimes play important parts in this hidden drama. And below these stands the mass of the people, independent and inclined to go their own way, for they are nomads and mountain-born, but withal most deeply attached to the Head of the Faith, since they are among the most religious people in the world. They stand even more firmly for "the holy religion" than for their territorial independence.

There is no wish among Tibetans to "develop the country," as the smooth western saying runs. They feel that the foreigner will exploit its resources for his personal profit, preaching the mutual advantage of trade, but achieving too often the sad result of throwing the whole country out of gear -- body, mind and soul. Tibet, indeed, does intend to develop, but quietly and from within, along her own lines. She wishes to live her own life. Why welcome foreign shocks, when you have sufficient earthquakes of your own?

As a consequence of the troubles of the last thirty years Tibet has at last raised a small regular army of her own. Its training and equipment may not be of the highest, but it is workmanlike and composed of men who besides being brave can live and fight on a scanty commissariat. It knows the hills and ravines of its own country. When the Chinese troops attacked Tibet in 1917, they were defeated, surrounded, and captured. The campaign continued, and Chinese garrisons were driven from their posts. In all the fighting the Tibetans were victorious. In fact, Tibet could now keep out a fair-sized Chinese army and China would find it difficult to maintain a large army in the Tibetan wilds, unless she should win over the tribesmen of eastern Tibet. She might hope to do that by superior administration, liberal treatment or bribery, and intensive propaganda. The maintenance of Tibet's little army is a difficult matter, for public revenues are very small. Land revenue, the sheet anchor of finance in several oriental countries, is insignificant, since almost all the land has been alienated to the monasteries and the nobility. A people intensely conservative resents new taxation, which is, moreover, hard to collect from so scanty a population so widely dispersed.

The huge religious institutions of celibate monks and nuns have reduced the population, and the prevalence of venereal disease has worked to the same end. During the last hundred years at least the Tibetans have steadily dwindled in number, while the populations of the surrounding nations have greatly increased. Of necessity, then, Tibet must take stock of those nations that may affect her for good or ill, and must choose one Power on whom she can rely in the last resort.

Toward Japan the Tibetans feel great admiration. They are accustomed to praise her victories in war and peace. They look on her as friendly, and in case of necessity she doubtless could send arms and military instructors to them through Mongolia. But she is very far away -- too far, they fear, to be of the most effective assistance.

As Mongolia is akin to Tibet in race and is of the same religion, the two lands have much in common. They are separated only by a narrow strip of the Chinese province of Kansu. Young Mongolian monks study in the Lhasan monasteries; elderly Mongolian priests take a prominent part in the learned disquisitions of the Holy City. The income that pious Mongols bring in offerings to the Grand Lamas of Lhasa and Ta-shi Lhün-po is not to be despised. And the trade between the two countries is considerable. Mongolia is Tibet's natural ally; but she, too, is far away, and in modern times she has been too weak to aid Tibet against powerful foes.

With Nepal, Tibet's southern neighbor, feelings are mutually hostile. The area of this Himalayan state is comparatively small, but its close-packed peasant population, brave, warlike, and obedient to their Hindu kings, is quite as large as that of Tibet. As the result of a past invasion the citizens of Nepal gained the valuable privilege of extraterritoriality and free trade when on Tibetan soil, a privilege that is not accorded to Tibetans in Nepal. This is an abiding source of sore feelings in Tibet, which fresh occurrences constantly inflame -- the more so because in the same treaty by which Nepal gained the advantages in question she undertook to give assistance to Tibet against foreign attacks, an obligation which, Tibetans aver, Nepal has consistently ignored. The latter, on her side, maintains that the Tibetan Government violates the extraterritorial clause by claiming Nepalese subjects as her own. Should hostilities result they would almost certainly bring larger issues into play.

Such is the standing of Tibet towards Japan, Mongolia and Nepal. There are three other Powers to whom she must pay especial attention -- China, Great Britain and Soviet Russia.

China of course holds a very special position in Tibetan minds. The connection with her stretches back into distant ages. From her Tibet has derived most of her material civilization, and the most fertile districts of her realm lie along the border of western China, whose magistrates have governed them for the last two hundred years. To the great republic she is one of "The Five Colors," and, whether empire or republic, China shows her usual quiet tenacity in wishing to regain lost relations whenever the opportunity occurs.

Tibet is of real use to India as a buffer state, and it is in the interest of Britain, as the custodian of India's foreign policy, that Tibet should be strong, independent and free from outside interference, including interference from Britain herself. Tibet is not powerful enough to menace India, even if her peace-loving Buddhists should ever desire to do so. But her mountainous expanses, some sparsely populated, others entirely uninhabited, form an ideal barrier. Thus, since Tibet is very jealous of her independence, her national interest to this extent coincides with that of India and Britain.

Now Tibet desires that when she is pressed too hard she shall have some Power to whom she can turn. Is the Indo-British combination able and willing to supply her need?

In 1904 when the British expedition invaded Lhasa and opened the door to British influence in central Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia. Scarcely had he returned to his capital, five years later, when a Chinese invasion entered it. His Holiness then fled to India. The British observed neutrality, but accorded protection, hospitality, and personal kindness to the god-king and his ministers in their trouble. This action captured the affections of the Tibetan people, especially when it became clear that the British had no desire to annex Tibetan territory. Meanwhile the Chinese troops showed up badly in comparison with the disciplined soldiers of Britain and India; their diplomatic aims were distasteful; and their methods sadly lacked the skill shown by Colonel Younghusband (now Sir Francis Younghusband) in the earlier expedition. As the result the British came into favor in Tibet, so much so that when the World War broke out she offered troops to fight on the British side. Later, she permitted the Mount Everest expedition to enter and encamp on Tibetan soil, though her natural instinct is to dislike things of that sort. In fact, her friendliness showed itself in many ways. But during the last few years there has been a change. There is no doubt that China has steadily improved her position. Ten years ago, as stated above, the Chinese were in very bad odor throughout most of Tibet and especially among the members of the government. The acts of sacrilege committed by their invading troops, their ambitious designs for controlling the administration, the fear that their soldiery, known to be infected with Bolshevist doctrines, would carry the germs into Tibet, their military weakness as compared with Britain, Russia or Japan, their believed lack of religious instinct -- all these considerations combined to arraign her as an enemy.

But the passage of time, accompanied by new and disturbing events, dims the recollection of the old sacrilege, the fear of the old ambition. Patiently China bides her time, ready to take advantage of any mistake of her rivals, of any opportunity that comes her way. She is expert at propaganda, tirelessly repeated in the Sino-Tibetan newspaper and of so simple a type that it finds entry into every mind. A recent cartoon, for instance, shows a snake (Britain) coiled round a tree trunk (Tibet) with a Tibetan cowering underneath, while a strong man (China) is about to pierce the snake with a spear; an eastern Tibetan from the Chinese border stands by, ready to help him. As for their military position, the Chinese can point to the huge numbers of their soldiery, and can aver that it is not long since they "whipped the British out of Hankow." China's trade, too, especially in tea, of which most Tibetans drink over thirty cups a day, is of great value.

Some years ago, owing to disputes between Lhasa and Ta-shi Lhün-po, the Pan-chen[ii] Lama fled to China, where his presence is a valuable asset to the Chinese Government. Fissiparous tendencies are always at work in a nomadic and feudal country like Tibet; Ta-shi Lühn-po has long desired to be almost, if not entirely, independent of Lhasa, and many of its people look to Nanking to help in these designs. The Nepalese menace against Tibet is another factor which helps China, for in 1792 Chinese generals drove the Gurkha forces out of Tibet and dictated terms of peace within a few miles of the Gurkha capital. And Nepal is known to be the ally of Britain. The fear of Soviet Russia, a point with which I shall deal presently, also tends to turn Tibet again towards China. And "The Three Seats," which Peking was shrewd enough to subsidize, have a pro Chinese element, which hopes that Nanking will renew the grants.

From the British Blue Books of the period one may infer that one of the main reasons for the British advance to Lhasa in 1904 was the fear that Russia was concluding a treaty with Tibet by which she would be enabled to menace the northeastern frontier of India. The Tsar's government repudiated the idea, adding that they had no agents or missions in Tibet and no intention of sending any, whatever the British might do there. Their policy "would not aim at Tibet in any case," though they might be obliged to take measures elsewhere.

Accordingly, the Russians set about establishing themselves in Mongolia. Two hundred years ago Russia had annexed that portion of Mongolia inhabited by the Buriat tribe of Mongols and lying to the east of Lake Baikal. Learning from the Russians and marrying among them, this half million of people rose in the social and intellectual scale and responded by spreading Russian influence among their brothers in Mongolia. Even before the war Russian influence was predominant in that country. Now the Buriats have been formed into a Soviet Socialist Republic and continue to extend the influence of the Soviet Union, which, after a temporary setback, is now again predominant.

The Tsarist Government, as just noted, declared their complete abstention from interference in Tibet. But the old reservations have no meaning for the Soviet Government, working towards the goal of world revolution, and today Soviet Russia aims to push her ideas in Tibet as well as in Mongolia. During the last few years she has sent agents into Tibet and will no doubt continue to do so. Will she succeed in moulding Tibet to her purpose? That depends on many considerations.

Tibetans have always been impressed by Russia. Overawed by her huge territory in Asia and Europe, they regarded her, until the Great War, as the strongest Power in the world. Add to this the admixture of Tatar blood common to both, the great value of the Russian trade, and the fact that Russia has never fought with Tibet, and you have a basis for the admiration which Tibet came to have for her great neighbor. A further consideration is that the Dalai Lama receives an income from the funds that he placed in Mongolia during his exile there after the British expedition to Lhasa. This income and these funds are at the mercy of the Soviet Government, which can also interfere with the Mongol pilgrims and their offerings in Lhasa and Ta-shi Lhün-po.

Such are the main factors operating in favor of Soviet Russia in her dealings with Tibet. But much stands in opposition. A nation on a feudal basis and deeply religious has no common ground with one that is ruled by the dictatorship of the proletariat and carries on anti-religious campaigns. Thus admiration and friendship have recently tended to be more and more replaced by fear. Of course the Soviet authorities are not without ability in cloaking their designs when they deal with oriental nations. But Tibetans on their side are remarkably shrewd observers. They have seen through Russia's mask from the first, terming her methods tri-mé lu-mé, -- "without law and without custom" -- than which there can be no stronger condemnation among an orderly people devoted to their old ways. They know, too, that Russia is far away and hence would not really be a strong ally. The new railway between western Siberia and Russian Turkestan will not help her, because a thousand miles of desert and mountain ranges separate it from Tibet's northern frontier. And this frontier is itself separated from the inhabited areas of Tibet by the arctic wastes of the Chang Tang, several hundred miles across and sixteen thousand feet above sea level.

No doubt the Soviet power in Mongolia and the close intimacy existing between Mongolia and Tibet furnishes Soviet Russia with a means of penetrating the Dalai Lama's dominions. But, if this be a weapon, it is a two-edged one at best. The Mongols cannot do much in their own country with the Red Army at their gates; but it is unlikely that they are carrying to the distant Dalai Lama favorable accounts of those who wish to do away with god and king. Even among the Buriats themselves there appear to be many who would like to withdraw their country from the Soviet Union and rejoin the parent stock in Mongolia. Others, both Buriat and Mongol, look towards Japan, but find Japanese administrative methods too strict for the free life of a nomadic people.

The question arises whether Britain considers that the Peking Convention of 1906, made when Tibet was under Chinese suzerainty, still precludes her from helping Tibet, though the latter has been for nineteen years an independent nation. Or does she consider herself still bound by the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, even though Russia has meanwhile repudiated her obligations wholesale? Or is Britain tied by events in India and afraid to move? If she allows Nepal, her ally, to let loose her troops, then the friendship of Britain is but a thing of shreds and patches, which Tibet will cast away, replacing it by a more wholesome garment. Such may well be the considerations that pass through the minds of "The Inmost Protector"[iii] and his counsellors, and on which they ponder today.

As the result of these various causes China has recovered a great deal of the ground that she had lost in Tibet. For several years after the Chinese Revolution in 1911 the Tibetan Government permitted no Chinese, much less Chinese agents or missions, to enter the Dalai Lama's dominions. But during the last few years Chinese missions have been received with honor in the Tibetan capital, and in response to each one a party of Tibetan delegates has made the long journey from Lhasa to Nanking. The most picturesque and probably the most important of these Chinese agents was a lady, little more than a girl, born in Lhasa of a Chinese father and an eastern Tibetan mother. Educated in China, and married to a Tibetan in the employ of the Nanking Government, she was selected by the latter as an envoy well fitted to visit her Tibetan homeland and restore it to the Five Colors. Accompanied by a Tibetan monk-official, she made the arduous journey through China and Tibet and was accorded an honorable welcome by the government at Lhasa. She has now returned to Nanking, and has lately been followed by another party of monk-officials from Tibet.

The future is hidden from us. But by Tibetan priest and layman alike the fulfilment of prophecies is quietly awaited, for the divine inspiration of these is not doubted. One prophecy says that the British are the road-makers of Tibet. This has always been interpreted as meaning that they will make improvements in and for Tibet, but will soon go away. Another foreshadows fighting between "the Upper and Lower Horpas" -- often interpreted as Russians and Chinese respectively -- for the mastery in Tibet. I myself heard these two prophecies thirty years ago.

Britain may be expected to mediate informally between Tibet and Nepal in their disputes and restrain Nepal from hasty action. If Nepal should invade, the Tibetan Government would probably call in China; and Chinese power established in Lhasa might well curtail Nepalese privileges and in many other ways prove a tougher proposition than the Dalai Lama's government. Britain may also be expected to accord moral and diplomatic support to Tibet in the latter's struggle to maintain her independence, so long as an effective British army is maintained in India. Judging by the general trend of Indian politics, this may well be for a long time yet. But if the British troops are greatly reduced, Tibet will almost certainly revert to a closer relationship with China, since India alone is not strong enough to help her, even if she desired to do so.

Meanwhile China will doubtless try to give Tibet as convincing proof as possible that she will not intervene in the internal, and as little as possible in the external, affairs of Tibet. If she does this, and if she keeps her communists out of the country, she will come to hold a very strong position.

And "The Yellow and the Grey in the Land of Snow" -- as the Tibetans name their priests, their laity, and their country -- what will they do? If they can but keep up a small army with a slightly larger militia behind it, their mountains and ravines will do the rest. To finance even a small army is difficult for them, but, given the will, a way could be found. Then if Tibet still feels the need of outside help, and if membership in the League of Nations does not suit her on account of the restrictions and visits which it might impose, she will at any rate be able to exact good terms from the Power on whom her choice eventually falls.

[i] Mongolia obtained its Buddhism from Tibet alone; it is spiritually subordinate to the Dalai Lama. The head of its Church, the Grand Lama of Urga, was, at any rate in his later reincarnations, a Tibetan, the last having been born in the very shadow of the Dalai Lama's palace.

[ii] The title "Ta-shi Lama" is popular among Europeans. But Tibetans do not, I think, use it except as a title for the jovial priest who presides at weddings. It is therefore unsuitable for His Holiness of Ta-shi Lhün-po.

[iii] One of the titles by which the Dalai Lama is known in Tibet.

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  • SIR CHARLES BELL, for fourteen years diplomatic representative in Tibet of the Government of India; head of a diplomatic mission to Lhasa in 1930; author of several volumes on Tibet
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