Jennifer Yu
April 30, 2007

A Review of The Struggle for Education in Modern Tibet


Tashi Tsering, a person of humble peasant origins, made remarkable advancements in his personal education. He studied abroad in India and the United States, before returning to Tibet in the hopes of improving the standard of living for his fellow countrymen. Tashi made substantial contributions in the field of education by constructing numerous primary schools for children in rural Tibet. This paper reviews the experiences detailed in Tashi’s autobiography, which spans the period from 1929-2002. Throughout the book, Tashi discusses the motivations behind his school project, making sure to acknowledge many of the donors for their involvement. By looking closely at the contents of Tashi’s autobiography, this essay aims to uncover his reasons for writing the book.

This book details the immense value Tashi Tsering placed on education, and his continuous pursuit for knowledge throughout his life. His memoir is a story about his desire to help the people of Tibet, and the process in which this dream became a reality through the construction of primary schools for children in rural Tibet. The length of the narrative spans the period between 1929, the year he was born, to 2002, a year before this book was published. As a native of Guchok, a mountain village about 100 miles away from Lhasa, Tashi had the opportunity to experience life in Tibet both before and after Chinese occupation. Having worked for the Dalai Lama and studied in India and the United States, Tashi is a unique product of both the old and new societies. The suffering he endured during the Cultural Revolution, as well as the difficulties he encountered in trying to establish these schools, highlight his discontent with the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese Communist Government.

However, Tashi makes clear his disinterest in critiquing the Communist Party, emphasizing instead the need for modernization in Tibet, and the significant role that education plays in this process. He provides personal examples to further his claims and is quite liberal when considering the traditional environment in which he grew up. Indeed, the book itself is as much an educational source as it is an autobiography and is interspersed with italicized passages which provide the historical context of the topics discussed. It reads very much like an informational brochure and may in fact be part of Tashi’s efforts to raise awareness of Tibet’s need for educational reforms.

The narrative begins with Tashi’s reflections of his accomplishments in the field of education, and discusses his incentives for bringing education to children in rural Tibet. He informs readers of the thirst he had for knowledge since he was a child and the difficulties he faced in trying to pursue higher education. As an individual from the peasant class, Tashi was by no means guaranteed an education; rather, his fervent desire to learn was perhaps unusual, especially when considering the fact that most of his peers were likely engaged in learning various farming techniques. When he was 10 years of age, Tashi gladly received an offer to become a member of the Dalai Lama’s dance troupe, the Gadrugba, in the hopes that this would provide him access to educational opportunities unavailable in his small village. Upon completion of his service as a dancer, he was later assigned a job in the Treasury Office in the Potala Palace (1).

When considering the time period in question, as well as the pervasive nature of traditions in Tibetan culture, the only people granted access to education were likely the children of aristocratic families. Though understated, one can only imagine the challenges which Tashi came across in the course of his educational pursuits. With that in mind, the opportunities he had to study abroad at St. Joseph’s School in Darjeeling in 1957, as well as at Williams College and the University of Washington, Seattle during the 1960s, are particularly noteworthy (3). These experiences greatly impacted Tashi, for they enabled him not only to leave his homeland and explore other countries, but the courses he took also exposed him to new ideas, facilitating his conceptualization of a modernized Tibet. It was these very ideas which motivated him to return to Tibet in hopes of improving the standard of living for his fellow countrymen.

Tashi touches on the hardships his family endured during the Cultural Revolution, and expresses his dismay at the lack of modernization in his native village of Guchok long after the end of the Cultural Revolution. In his comparisons of present-day Guchok to the one he knew as a child, the village that lives on in his memories is a picturesque haven of self-subsistence, whereas the present reality depicts a rural Tibetan village that is lagging increasingly behind in modernity. Tashi states, “The village that I had been remembering was just that: a memory” (20). While Tashi had been certain of his ardent wish to help the Tibetan people in some way and had even forfeited the completion of his education in the United States to sooner realize his goal, he had been unsure just how to approach this ambition. He makes it clear that it was in fact during this particular visit back to Guchok that sparked his desire to build schools for young children.

The ensuing chapters detail the tedious processes involved in securing funds, as well as the daunting task of seeking the Chinese government’s approval for the project. As an educated individual fluent in English, Chinese, and Tibetan, Tashi was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution on the pretext of being an American spy. Given his political background, his proposal was initially regarded with suspicion. However, his persistence in the matter eventually convinced officials to permit his request for the construction project, and his ingenious idea of using the revenue from a carpet business to fund the project enabled him to build a great number of schools (40).
It is worth noting the overwhelming sense of optimism which pervades the narrative, for Tashi portrays situations both good and bad in a positive light, and as lessons learned. Throughout the book, he acknowledges contacts he had established over the years by name and notes the contributions they made to his school project. This is a clever way of thanking the donors and ensures them he has not forgotten their generosity. Moreover, Tashi continuously restates his motives for building the schools and stresses the significance of education as a door-opener for other opportunities in the future. The italicized passages throughout the text provide the historical context of issues discussed, ensuring that the crux of his message is not overlooked by readers who might be unfamiliar with Tibetan history. By educating readers about the need for schools in rural Tibet, Tashi’s approach is an innovative one which attracts more participants towards his cause. Parts of the narrative also include detailed dates and anticipated costs of the construction process, resulting in a book which reads very much like a project planner.

In addition, Tashi does not hesitate to share his fears about the success of the school project or his qualms with Tibetan traditions in general. His style of writing gives the narrative a more personal feel, allowing the book to serve as a portal into the depths of his innermost thoughts. His discussions about household disputes and other mundane topics also help bridge the cultural gap between himself and readers, thereby making his situation seem more authentic and relatable. In light of Tashi’s hopes for a modernized Tibet, the examples of his relatives’ desire for him to secure a more favorable job assignment for his grandson, as well as the difficulty he experienced in his search for a successor, suggest that Tibet has not yet reached his standards of modernity. Despite Tashi’s initial hopes for Sonam, a bright Tibetan woman, to take over his school project, the persistence of traditional values held by her family, as well as the difficulties imposed by the Chinese government, ultimately prevented Sonam from accepting his offer (79).

Furthermore, in a conversation with William R. Siebenschuh, the co-author of this book, Tashi mentions, “They [the Chinese] are watching me again” (100). Tashi’s firm resolve through the course of these incidents portrays him as an individual heavily influenced by Western thought, but more importantly, as a person intent on sharing the story of his schools and school project with the rest of the world (101). Though clearly acting upon what he believed to be the best interests of the Tibetan people, his views are perhaps too liberal for individuals in the present generations to accept, and more time is needed before his vision of a modernized Tibet may become a reality. Nevertheless, his passion for the project is obvious and easily detectable through the memoir. In many ways, the text is not unlike a brochure, complete with color photos of the children and the schools, and interspersed with phrases such as, “Children are the hope of the future—for any culture and at any time,” and “Their energy, optimism, enthusiasm, and confidence were infectious and full of promise” (52). With this in mind, the autobiography may perhaps be regarded as both a biography of the author’s life, as well as a marketing strategy intended to persuade more people—i.e. readers—to contribute to the project.

Book reviewed:
Tashi Tsering and William R. Siebenschuh. The Struggle for Education in Modern Tibet: The Three Thousand Children of Tashi Tsering. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.