In This Review

When the Iron Bird Flies: China’s Secret War in Tibet
When the Iron Bird Flies: China’s Secret War in Tibet
By Jianglin Li
Stanford University Press, 2022, 576 pp

Starting in the mid-1950s, the newly established Chinese communist government sent work teams to the Tibetan Plateau to attack religious and tribal leaders, redistribute land and livestock, and force farmers and herders into cooperatives. The teams faced resistance from farmers, herders, traders, and monks, who took up homemade muskets, rifles, knives, and spears to defend their traditional ways of life. The People’s Liberation Army responded by sending troops from seven of its 12 battle-hardened regional commands. The details of the ensuing war, which lasted from 1956 to 1962, have long been a closely held secret. Li draws on interviews with exiled Tibetans and on classified Chinese-language sources to describe battle after battle and the enormous destruction and loss of civilian life that the PLA caused. The “iron bird” of the title refers to bombers used to kill groups of herdspeople fleeing with their sheep and yaks and to obliterate monasteries where civilians ran for protection. The story is all the more heartbreaking for the clinical tone of Li’s reporting.