Book Review: "Tibetan Nation," by Warren W. Smith

in #reviewlast month (edited)


"Marx and Lenin had realized that nationalism is inevitably aroused by foreign imperialism; however, because Marxists define themselves as anti-imperialists, they have not applied this lesson to nations under their own domination. Instead, Marxists have attempted to disguise their imperialist domination of other nations by claiming to have "liberated" those nations from their ostensibly "feudal" and exploitative social and political systems, a type of justification typical of imperialism... is my contention and experience that, if one is willing to read vast quantities of it, Chinese propaganda on Tibet reveals much of what it intends to obscure."

-from the author's Preface, pages xii & xiii

From the moment I read those words in the preface of this intimidatingly large volume (it weighs in at 694 pages not counting notes, preface or appendices), I knew (largely by virtue of having made the same assertions on multiple occasions) that I was reading the work of a man who had studied China intensively. As it turned out, I was almost right. It would have been more precise to say I was reading the work of a man who had studied relations between the nations of China and Tibet intensively. And if Thomas Laird's Stories of Tibet made Tibet's history accessible to the layman, Warren Smith's Tibetan Nation presents the same topic for the serious historian.

No "Light Reading" Here

If the book's sheer size was not intimidating enough, the opening sentence of the acknowledgements page is as follows: "The immediate origins of this book lie in a Ph. D. dissertation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy completed in 1995." This is the last warning that the reader gets: the book is intensely researched, meticulously cited, deeply scholarly, and not for the everyday reader. And I must give the author credit for a valiant effort to maintain a scholarly level of emotional separation from his subject matter (no easy feat when researching anything as nauseatingly riddled with layer upon layer of barely utterable injustices as the self-anointed "Central Nation's" historic treatment of their neighbors). Considering that so many of the sources he had to sift through were Chinese propaganda, he maintained his objectivity longer than I would have been able to.
For example, in a chapter describing the early proto-Chinese states' unabashedly jingo-solipsistic policies toward neighboring nations, he encounters (rather early on I might add) proof of the arrogant underpinnings of Han culture that so often set my teeth on edge, yet manages to remain calm while describing his findings.

"As agricultural society began to acquire a distinct cultural identity and to assume more definite political organization, it began to conceive of itself as distinct from pre-agricultural society. According to one estimate, the Chinese began to think of themselves as "Chinese" (Hua) from about the mid-second millennium [B.C.]... Those excluded, predominantly by cultural criteria, were regarded as 'barbarians.'"
-P. 20

Though, by page 434, the author seems to have given up trying to maintain this academic detachment and has thrown his hands skyward in disgust. That is the point where he is no longer trying to hide the revulsion toward China's frontier policies that he has accrued over the course of his research. It is at this point where a venomous sarcasm drips from virtually every word he writes, and who can blame him?

"Minorities' opposition to Chinese colonization was refuted with similar arguments: the minorities could not possibly develop or achieve socialism without the fraternal assistance of the Han [ethnic population]. They were not, however, to confuse this "natural fusion" with assimilationism.
-p. 434 (emphasis mine)

I would surmise this sarcastic tone the author adopts at this point stems from the fact that nearly every page has at least two direct quotes from Chinese propaganda sources, and they are not single sentences that he could be accused of "taking out of context" by the Chinese apologists who come slithering out of the woodwork whenever a "lowly laowai" dares criticize the "Celestial Empire." These are entire portions of speeches and Chinese government proclamations. The author is diligent in proving "this is not some 'false allegation' by 'hostile Western anti-China forces' or whatever bogeyman China wants to invent this week. No, the Chinese actually said this."


You know, kind of like a frontline blogger in the information war against Chinese lies, who writes a dozen or so book reviews of Chinese propaganda books. wink
Anyway, moving on.

It Starts At the Beginning

"Archaeological evidence indicates that peoples of the "Mongoloid" phenotype occupied all of North China, Mongolia and Manchuria during the Paleolithic."
-P. 1

When I say this book examines the earliest origins of Tibetan culture, I mean it. The book begins from the earliest spear-wielding hunter-gatherers who had not yet even established themselves as the Earth's dominant species yet and traces Tibet's cultural development from there to modern times. He traces it in a largely unbroken line, and it is worth noting that this line does not pass through China, and in fact the author cites evidence of Tibet's earliest culture more than 4 millennia before civilization of any type developed in China. Furthermore, he cites both linguistic and archaeological evidence that the Tibetans are of Indo-European descent.

"An ancient and fundamental language boundary between China and Inner Asia is apparent, indicating the existence of a foreign ethnic group on the northern border of China. Archaeological research in the Tarim Basin in the twentieth century revealed that the Indo-European Tocharian language was spoken there at least from the early centuries A.D... These people of the Tarim, who referred to themselves as Tukhara, were in Chinese sources known as the Yueh-Chih."
-P. 3

The author then goes on to cite other research (I reiterate, EVERYTHING in this book is meticulously cited) showing that the Tukhara were the ancestors of the ones whom the Chinese called "Qiang," who were the ancestors of the Tibetans (p. 3 & 4).

And Then, China

Just like every tragic story of exploitation, enslavement and genocide anywhere in Eastern Asia, China (or rather, the Han empire, since "China" as we know it did not exist until 1911) rears its repulsive head early on. The very second chapter is entitled "Chinese Frontier Policies." I already cited this chapter heavily in my article about the Confucius Institute, but it offers rather chilling (and again, carefully cited) examples of China and Proto-China's racist view of their neighbors as "similar to wandering beasts (p. 20 & 21)," their genocidal M.O. of driving out, slaughtering or enslaving every indigenous population they came into contact with (p. 31), and their undisguised attitude that they had a "Sacred" mission to assimilate all the non-Chinese world and bring under the scepter of "civilization (read 'China')," from as early as the Zhou dynasty and unchanging until the present day (p. 20 - 36)! So much for the CCP's claim that China has "no history of invasion, imperialism or genocide," hm? And the best part is that the sources he uses for this are largely Chinese, including the Han Dynasty Annals. So, let's dispense with the knee-jerk "that's just Western propaganda" rebuttal that the China apologists like to cling to, shall we?

More Than I Expected

I never anticipated, when I picked up a book on Tibetan history, to find a chapter devoted to Marxist theories. Yet, when it comes to explaining China's rationale for how their (ahem) "peaceful liberation of Tibet" was somehow not an invasion, or how the subsequent influx of Han settlers into Tibet was somehow not bare-faced colonialism, it was necessary to devote a chapter to getting inside the mind of a Marxist theologian. Hence, the chapter entitled "Chinese Nationality Policy and the Occupation of Tibet" is a useful section not only for those studying Tibet but for anyone in the world confronted by rising Marxism, such as the United States under Biden.
Of course, of greater importance is the author's assertion that despite new labels and new terminology, this approach did not differ a single iota in its methodology from Imperial China's long-standing Sinocentric belief that the nations surrounding China were primitive barbarians in need of China's "civilizing" influence.
And again, I cannot emphasize often enough that the author delivers this analysis of China's doublethink by using frequent direct quotes from their own propaganda sources.

So Who Should Read It?

That's a tricky question. Unless you are doing an in-depth study on Tibet (raises hand) I wouldn't recommend the entire book. Not only is it long, but it's heady. I went through three packs of pens and a pack of highlighters making notes in this, and I've covered the pages in almost as many notes as my copy of Governance of China. But to anyone who deals with China in any capacity (an expat who lives there, a government employee whose work includes China, or anyone who does business of any kind with Chinese partners or clients), the chapter "Chinese Frontier Policies" is a useful insight into the jingoistic ethnocentrism that underpins China's entire culture.
The chapter "Chinese Nationality Policy and the Occupation of Tibet" is useful in that same regard, though less so. That chapter though, is useful for anyone who must confront Marxist ideology on a daily basis. For one who wants to understand when (and why) China became so insistent on claiming Tibet was their "ancient and inalienable" territory when of course it was not, the chapter "The thirteenth Dalai Lama and the Quest for Independence" shines light on this, as well as how the British Empire naively handed China the diplomatic tools (and the United States sat quietly by and said nothing because we did not want to upset a World War ally) which they have used to perpetuate this false claim.
And of course, for anyone who wants to understand the plight of modern-day Tibetans, the second half of the book (from the chapter "The Chinese Invasion of Tibet" onward) is the most thoroughly well-researched insight I have ever seen into this subject.
In short, if someone claims to be a Tibetologist and they have not read this book, dismiss their credentials ab initio.



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"showing that the Tukhara were the ancestors of the ones whom the Chinese called "Qiang," who were the ancestors of the Tibetans"
Rather dubious, considering the genetic evidence. R1a & R1b are generally considered to be related to the Indo-European expansion. Both are extremely rare in greater Tibet, ranging from 0 to 8%. & these percentages are more probably related to the classical Uighurs which had some stronger Indo-European admixture. The Tibetan empire of old & the Uighur empire of the time had some conquests back & forth, & that could be the major source of Indo-European DNA in some Tibetan tribes.

I think, it's more likely that the Qiang may very well have been related to the Indo-Europeans (Beckwith makes some linguistic points to that regard), but were not actually the ancestors of Tibetans. Or the Indo-Europeans only formed a very small elite of the Qiang, after having conquered them & before they then expanded again. Either way, not many Indo-Europeans (or their DNA) made it to Tibet.

Haplogroup maps:

Also: Genetic structure of Tibetan populations in Gansu revealed by forensic STR loci

Archaeology is something I've read more than a few volumes about, and genetics is not. Ergo I'll have to read up on this before I can give an educated commentary on the implications of your links. Admittedly, the only logical migratory path of Indo-Europeans to Tibet would be by way of the Tarim Basin to the north. It is possible that at some point an Indo-European tribe from the north insinuated themselves as the ruling class on the Plateau and superimposed their language over the existing one, but I digress.
My point was not so much to emphasize the theory that they are of Indo-European descent but to say, as a side-note, that there is a marked distinction between Tibetan and Chinese cultural lineage, with very little evidence that the two share even a common ancestor. A great deal of the evidence presented by Smith comes from Christopher Beckwith's the Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, which I presume was the same source you were referring to.
As for Archaeological and Anthropological evidence that the Tibetans are the descendants (or rather, an offshoot) of the Qiang, Smith cites E.G. Pulleybank and Karl Jettmar.

I've only ever read one Beckwith book: 'Empires of the Silk Road'
So, could have been there or on Gene Expression ( The guy who writes it reads & quotes a lot.
Anyway, just a minor point..