Seul ki Park
A Review of We Tibetans
by Rinchen Lhamo


We Tibetans was written by a woman in the Kham region called "Rinchen Lhamo." It was published in 1926, with the historical introduction written by her husband, Louis King, a British man. The historical introduction provides an account Tibetan history from the mythical era until present. The rest of the book introduces various aspects of Tibetan society and culture. In the last five chapters, Rinchen Lhamo related five Tibetan folk stories.

The Book “We Tibetans” was written by Rinchen Lhamo (Mrs. Louis King), a woman from Kham region. It was published in English in 1926, with the interpretation of her own husband, Louis King, who is a British. Since neither of them were fluent in each other’s language, they had to communicate in Chinese, which is the language they both were quite fluent in. (vii) Through this process, it seems that they tried to balance their opinions and perspectives, but overall, the opinions and perspectives of the author herself were much stronger than her husband’s. The book consists of three big different parts: first, the historical introduction, which is written by author’s husband Louis King; Second, sixteen chapters of overall introduction to Tibetan society, culture, and religion, which were written by Rinchen Lhamo; Third, five chapters of Tibetan folk stories. Rinchen Lhamo and Louis King present strong pride toward Tibetan culture in the book. Also, they divide Tibetans from the other foreign countries; in the historical introduction, King even distinguishes Khampas from Central Tibetans as well. Afterward, when Lhamo elaborates on Tibetan cultures, she just compares and contrasts all Tibetans to Westerners; she stresses the predominance of Tibetan cultures, while comparing them with foreign, especially western cultures. Moreover, Lha-mo points out prejudices that westerners have toward Tibet, and tries hard to remove those prejudices.

The first part of the book presents the historical introduction to Tibet. King divides Tibetan history in four different parts: monarchy period (from the 5th century B.C.E. to the 10th century of A.D.E.), disunion period (from the 10th century of A.D.E. to the 13th century of A.D.E.), the second monarchy or the first line of Priest Rulers period (from the 13th century A.D.E. to the 17th century of A.D.E.), and the third monarchy or the second Priest Rulers period (from the 17th century A.D.E. to the present day). King elaborates on the history of Tibet by providing certain incidents that happened in Tibetan territory. However, he strictly divided the Kham area from the central Tibetan area. He used the term of “we, us, our” when he described “Kham” or “Eastern Tibet”, used the term of “Tibet, Tibetan” when he described “the central Tibet”, and used the term “you, they” when he described “foreign countries”, especially western countries.

Even though the historical introduction is written by King, he proudly presents history from Tibetan perspectives. Moreover, even though he tries to distinguish the Kham region from the central Tibet, when it comes to the great achievements of Dalai Lamas or the predominance of Tibetan culture, he does not pay attention to the difference. He particularly focuses on the 3rd and the 4th historical periods; he focuses on how the relationship between Tibet and Chinese empires has changed over time from the Yuan period to Qing period. King assumes that one of the most important reasons that the relationship between Tibet and Qing empire has been changed is that the quality of leadership; he assumes that since the 5th Dalai Lama was a great figure, Tibet could have equal status with Chinese empires, but his successors were not as good as him, so there was a lot of interference from China afterwards. (30) He also focuses on how Tibet lost its autonomy in 20th century and how it struggles to get it back. However, the arguments he makes do not provide full evidences to make it sounds plausible. He rather emphasizes the spiritual power Tibet has rather than looking into objective cause and effect of incidents. For example, on page 56, he tries to explain the reason for the deaths of the Emperor Guangxu and Queen Dowager as the result of sacrilege; since Qing imperial house made Dalai Lama to “kowtow” and “kneel”, “they died there and then at the Audience in result of this affront to Heaven.” (56) As such, King’s historical introduction has been written from a Tibetan perspective. Moreover, some of his arguments are not based on reasonable evidence, so that makes his work less rational and objective.

After the simple historical introduction, there are sixteen chapters explaining Tibetan culture, life, people, ideology, and religion. Lha-mo, similar to King, does not provide objective evidence when she argues or introduces information. In most parts, the author emphasizes the predominance of Tibet, and there is hardly any self-criticism. She insists that in most aspects, Tibet has the same level, or even higher level of culture and spiritual works than western culture. However, she does not argue this position quite logically, so that in some parts, it sounds quite radical, and sometimes even preposterous. For example, in Chapter Six, when she compares Tibetan civilization and western civilization, she first insists that Tibetans are aloof from the interest of the materialism; since Tibetans are “unworldly people,” they “do not struggle for material things.” She also criticizes western people for being materialistic. (98) However, later on, she also argues that “our material culture is the equal of yours.” (99) Nevertheless, within the arguments, there is useful information regarding Tibetan society, culture, and religion, so that it helps readers to understand Tibet.

Lhamo has even more pride in Tibetan culture than King does. She has quite nationalistic perspective when describing Tibetan features. In most chapters, she insists that Tibetan culture is not inferior to western culture by comparing and contrasting Tibetan culture to the western one. Moreover, in some parts, she actually takes quite an aggressive attitude toward the possible readers-who are westerners. Especially when she talks about the prejudices that western people have toward Tibet, she takes a very aggressive tone. In Chapter Eight, when she talks about “Priesthood”, she mentions some lamas being criticized from the outsiders due to being depraved. However, she points out this is just one prejudice that foreigners have and attacks the readers saying, “it is untrue, and it is wicked to say such things. Are your priests depraved?” (115-116) However, Lhamo does not criticize or defend rationally. She does not base herself on objective statistics or evidences when she defends her culture from other people’s bias. Instead, she depends on her own knowledge, attained from her own experiences, to defend Tibet. For example, in Chapter Nine, she denies an idea that westerners have toward Tibetans; she points out that foreigners think polyandry is quite popular in Tibet, but argues that it is not true. (128) She denies the fact, but she does not give any proof or evidence except her own experience. She notes, “Polyandry is not a Tibetan form of marriage. I am a Tibetan, and I know of no case of it.” However, polyandry is a Tibetan tradition, which has been widely written about in various documents (Kim, 58). Sometimes, these defenses are developed into attack toward western culture. However, in her overall views, she takes less radical tones when she criticizes other cultures than when she eulogizes her own culture. This may due to the fact that it was her husband, a British man, who translated the work.

The book has some characteristics that are decided by the fact that the author is a woman. In the preface, the author emphasizes that even though she is a woman, it is possible to write a book. The one part that we can assume that she is interested in because of her gender is Chapter Nine, where she describes women’s role in Tibet. She insists that “with us neither the one sex nor the other is considered the inferior or the superior. Men and women treat each other as equal.” (125) However, she also mentions that there are strictly separated kinds of works for men and women. (126) Moreover, she explains that when Tibetan people reach Buddhahood, they have to be reincarnated as men (130), so it is not relevant to say that the status of the both genders is the same. Nevertheless, the fact that she paid attention to the status of women shows that she is interested in women’s role in Tibet. The other part that emphasizes the female gender is Chapter Ten, where she describes the way of educating children. Since women are charged with educating children in Tibet (126), she provides the full detail of the best way to educate children. Other than this, there is also the part where she describes Tibetan people’s clothes in Chapter Five, and she describes women’s clothes with much more detail than men’s. (89-91)

In the last five chapters, she provides Tibetan folk stories. They do not particularly provide any instructional messages, but they may help people to understand the traditional cultural stories of Tibet. Most of the stories focus on the importance of spiritual power.

In sum, the book does not provide a well-balanced historical view on Tibet. The historiography of Tibet is only provided in the beginning part of the book, the historical introduction. Most of other parts of the book consist of various categories of information on Tibetan society and culture. In overall, the book provides very valuable information of how a Tibetan woman thought the Tibetan way of life, how she reacted to the prejudices from the outside, and what she thought of western countries.

Source consulted:
Kim, Kyuhyun. “Culture of Tibet.” Seoul, 2004: 58.