Huasha Zhang

Review of Rinchen Dakpa and B. A. Rooke: In Haste from Tibet

Rinchen Dakpa was born in 1947 in a headman’s family in Bhakar, a small village near Lhasa. He escaped from Tibet to India in 1959 with his uncle, who was an ex-abbot in the Potala and then governor of Kongpo. In his autobiography, which was published in 1971, he described his childhood in Central Tibet, his escape from Tibet to India, and the first year of his life after he arrived in India among other Tibetan refugees. From a special perspective of a boy, Dakpa described his carefree childhood in Tibet with a deep affection for Tibetan people and culture, and also provides the readers with a vivid picture of what his journey of escaping from Tibet to India was like, as well as he and his traveling companions’ state of mind in their haste from Tibet.

Book Review

Childhood in Tibet, 1947-1959
Dakpa spent the first 7 years of his life with his family in a village named Bhakar, in Drekung province, Central Tibet. Bhakar was a small village consisted of only four houses. Although Dakpa’s father was the headman and his family was the most wealthy one of the four, Dakpa’s father had to work in the field along with the servants, while his mother and aunt had to do all the household chores including cleaning, cooking, etc. by themselves. From Dakpa’s depiction, the readers could see that although Tibet had been occupied by the PRC since 1951, the Chinese government did not have any influences on the village Bhakar, which was only less than one day’s horse ride from Lhasa, throughout Dakpa’s entire childhood. From his earliest memory to his leaving for India, Dakpa’s family preserved a traditional self-sufficient life and believed in Tibetan Buddhism faithfully. Dakpa described explicitly how his wound and broken arm were treated in the traditional Tibetan method: oracles were invited, offerings were sent to the local monastery, and if these didn’t work, his parents would take him to the nunnery for blessed jasangs (blessed pills made by clean soil). From his description, one couldn’t see any hint of a fundamental social change, and Tibetan Buddhism still had a dominate role in the daily lives of Tibetans through the 1950s, when oracles, nunneries and monasteries took charge of the physical and mental health of the locals.

As Dakpa’s uncle was an abbot in the Potala Palace, Dakpa moved to Lhasa to live and study under his uncle’s guidance at the age of seven. Unlike in Bhakar, Dakpa encountered some Han Chinese in Lhasa, and the experiences were quiet pleasant; even the two PLA soldiers he met who were guarding a bridge when Dakpa was trying to escape from school were nice and harmless in Dakpa’s memory. Apart from that, Dakpa’s education was carried out in a traditional Tibetan way, and Dakpa’s uncle’s career as a monk and as a Tibetan government official wasn’t interfered with by the Chinese government.

Escape from Tibet to India, March to April, 1959
The rumor that the central government of the PRC was sending armies to abolish religion and change Tibetans’ livestyle forcefully began to spread two years after Dakpa’s arrival in the southern province of Kongpo with his uncle, who was appointed governor by the Tibetan government in 1957. After hearing the warning that the PLA army were coming to Kongpo, everyone who was living in Tsela Dzong (the official building of Kongpo) began their escape in the middle of the night led by Dakpa’s uncle. They first intended to go to Lhasa but changed their destination to India after learning Lhasa had already been occupied by the PLA. On their escape, their belongings were plundered by a group of Khampas who were believed to be fighters against the Han Chinese. They then were forced to abandon almost all their belongings, including horses, before climbing a steep mountain, and suffered a further loss of food and money after being deceived by Khalo Tibetans. Their escape was full of dangers and harshness, and their fears of being caught by the chasing Chinese never ceased all along their journey. However, neither they nor the other escaping Tibetans they met on the way had seen any Chinese army soldiers during their escape, except a Chinese plane when they were reaching the Indian border. This confirms Tashi Tsering’s description that when Tsering was asked by the Dalai Lama’s brother to collect evidence of Tibetan suffered at the hands of the Chinese, what most Tibetan refugees in camps talked about was the hardness of the escape journey, for most of them went into exile before even encountering the Chinese just like Dakpa and his uncle (
Melvyn C. Goldstein, Tashi Tsering, William Siebenschuh, The Struggle for Modern Tibet, 56). The readers could then imagine what the panic all over Tibet was like, as well as the policy of PRC on escaping Tibetans, and also make guesses about which part of Tibetan society tended to go into exile and which part was not or could not. Here is a question which neither Dakpa nor Tsering’s book answered: why the escape was in such a haste? Was it the result of a sudden and radical change of Chinese policy, or was it the result of a sudden aggravation of already existed oppression from PRC? Or was it like the PRC government’s statement that the panic was partly attributed to the spreading of rumors by ‘people with virulence intentions’?

In India
Compared with the escape, the life in India was much better, for they didn’t need to run for their lives anymore. They were provided with shelter, food, medical care, and the Indian government was really trying to help. However, the large population of refugees made it hard for every refugee to be well taken cared of, and the refugees weren’t in good condition to adjust themselves to the Indian climate after such a long journey. Dakpa observed several deaths everyday in his refugee camp before conditions could get better, but finally the refugees were gradually leaving the camp and resettled in better places to begin their new lives, and Dakpa's uncle arranged for him to go to study in Danmark, which is the end of the story.

Dakpa’s book is distinguished by its perspective of a child. The biggest difference between a child and an adult is that a child takes seriously things that seem to be trivial to adults, but a child often doesn’t even care about things considered very important by adults. Dakpa put great emphasize on how his illness was treated, what Tibetan school was like, how to make friends and play games with other children, and how he was overwhelmed by worries of his misplacing his uncle’s bowl when they were escaping from Tibet to India. Those peculiars which would hardly be included in any other autobiographies are described in a very detailed way by Dakpa, which offers the readers an overall understanding of Tibetan culture.

On the other hand, no matter how Dakpa wanted to write the autobiography from a 12 year-old boy’s perspective, he was a 24 year-old young man who had been living in a completely different environment for more than ten years. The way he looked back upon his childhood would be much different, and what he selected to write in his book was based on choice of a mature Tibetan in exile who has a clear standpoint.

Although trying hard to avoid any value judgment upon the PRC occupying Tibet in the main body of his book, Dankpa expressed his point of view as a 24 year-old Tibetan in exile by using strong words in the introduction, stating that the peace in Tibet in the period between 1951 and 1959 was merely a ‘pretence’ of the PRC government, and ‘our government’s struggles against their unreasonable edicts and demands were not in general known to (or noticed by) the Tibetan man in the street’ (Dakpa, 9). Even in the main body of the book, readers could also feel Dakpa’s mourning the destruction of his beloved country when he was describing his sweet childhood. The sudden change of narrative pace when he describes the dismaying and painful escape conveys the feeling of Tibetan being manipulated and fooled by the Chinese in the first years of the PRC occupation, and innocent people had to suffer from the pains of fleeing from their home country, separating from their families and losing their property as a result of unreasonable and ruthless Chinese policy, when they could have had tranquil and undisturbed lives if left alone.