Review of Rinchen Dolma Taring’s Daughter of Tibet
The book, Daughter of Tibet, depicts the life history of the author, Rinchen Dolma Taring, spanning the period from the author’s birth in 1910 to the writing of this autobiography in 1969. The autobiography consists of two major parts—the author’s life in Tibet from her birth to 1959 and her life in exile in India during the next ten years. In addition to the personal experiences, the author introduces Tibetan festivals, customs and beliefs in great detail. Rinchen Dolma was born to one of the most powerful elite families that were closely involved in the government of Tibet in Lhasa, and therefore her narratives are largely related to the political history of the old Tibet. And the history is told from the angle of the author’s everyday life experiences and her own beliefs and judgments. Rinchen Dolma lived a privileged life before the Chinese arrived in Tibet to “liberate” the region in 1951. She left for India in 1959, following the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama to the country.
The narrative starts with the author’s family background. Her family was known as Tsarong and enjoyed very high positions both socially and politically. Her father Tsarong Shappe Wangchuk Gyelpo was a direct descendant of Yuthok Yonten Gonpo, who was the earliest and most famous Tibetan physician during the time of King Trisong Detsen, from A.D. 755-797. Her mother came from another important family called Yuthok, “being descended from the 10th Dalai Lama, Tsultrim Gyatso, whose family took its name from living near a bridge in Lhasa that has a roof of turquoise tiles” (p. 1). The Tsarong family lived for hundreds of years in Lhasa and each generation served the government of Tibet. As an aristocratic family which had political power, the family owned their own estates and servants and was highly respected in Lhasa.
The political factors that influenced Rinchen Dolma’s life were illustrated in the earlier phase of her life. The early 20th century was a critical time period in Tibetan history in terms of Sino-Tibet relations. In 1911, the Manchu power was overthrown and the 13th Dalai Lama (still in exile) seized the opportunity and ordered the Tibetans in 1912 to drive the Chinese out of Lhasa. While driving the Chinese out, internal conflicts also took place. The four current Shappes were arrested (three of them were appointed by the Chinese and only Tsarong was appointed by the Dalai Lama) and accused of being pro-Chinese. Tsarong was murdered and his son, Samdrup Tsering, was killed afterwards on his way to the office by some people from Kongpo (in southern Tibet). Rinchen Dolma learned years later that the Shappes who were degraded during her father’s time might have committed the murder of her father, and she believes that the same people who killed her father arranged the assassination of her brother in the fear of a future revenge. Rinchen Dolma was only two when her father and brother were killed. Several years later, when she was about ten, her mother died of a heart attack. The family was able to maintain their estates and social status primarily because the Dalai Lama believed that killing Tsarong was a mistake made by others.
Her birth to an aristocratic family granted her access to formal education through schooling in Lhasa during her early school years and the further education pursued in India later. There was no public state school during the author’s time in Lhasa. Two official schools, Tse School and Tsikhang, were available for monks and lay people to be trained to become officials. Children attended private schools (about fifty schools), run by religious men free of charge, and they brought gifts to the masters and their families. The schools were open to the rich and poor and to boys and girls. Richen Dolma attended one of the private schools and studied for five years in Lhasa. In 1920 Rinchen Dolma had an opportunity to meet Mr. David MacDonald, the British Trade Agent at Yatung and Gyantse, at Tsarong House. With MacDonald’s encouragement and help she started studying at an American Methodist boarding school in Darjeeling in 1922. She and Taring Jigme (her second husband) were the very first Tibetans who were sent abroad to study English. She spent three years in Darjeeling before returning to Tibet at the age of fifteen. Her education, language skills, and travel experiences to India made it possible for her to travel extensively and to accomplish different tasks later on in her life. She was exposed to different cultures, ideologies and political systems. Furthermore, Rinchen Dolma had opportunities to meet and talk with people such as the 13th and the 14th Dalai Lamas, the Regents of Tibet, Chairman Mao and the kings and queens of Sikkim and Bhutan and many other important religious and political figures.
Marriage seemed to play an important role in terms of maintaining or gaining an aristocratic social status in Tibet. Polyandry as a marriage form was practiced in Tibet during this time. When there was no married son in a family, a man could marry into the family and take the family name. Rinchen Dolma had two brothers. One of them was an incarnate Lama (at the time he was still a monk, but later became a lay man and married) and the other was a government official who had been assassinated. Since the Tsarong House was left without a married son, there was the possibility for someone to marry into the family and take the surname. Rikzin Choton, the widow of the assassinated son of Tsarong, was still living at Tsarong House after her husband’s death. Her brother Tsawa Tritrul, an incarnate Lama who was close to the Dalai Lama, suggested a marriage between her and Chensal Namgang, who was then one of the Dalai Lama’s favorites.
Chensal Namgang was born in a peasant family. He made great contribution to the Dalai Lama’s safety by stopping Chinese pursuers when he fled to India in 1910. The Dalai Lama considered him as his life-saver. With the Dalai Lama’s approval, Dasang Dadul (the new name given to Chensal Namgang by the Dalai Lama) and Rikzin Choton married and the bridegroom took the surname Tsarong. Through the marriage Dasang Dadul was ennobled, and he was known as Tsarong Dasang Dadul since. The addition of this man into the family maintained the sociopolitical position of Tsarong because of the important role he played in the government of Tibet. He was the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Chief Cabinet Minister of the government. Therefore, the Tsarong family continued to exercise enormous power. Since both Dasang Dadul and Rikzin Choton were not of the Tsarong family by blood, the family members (including the servants) requested that he marry one of the daughters of the Tsarong House. Responding to this request, he married one of Rinchen Dolma’s sisters, and later another sister who was widowed as well.
Rinchen Dolma returned to Tibet from India after hearing the rumor about the new Tsarong being expelled from the commander-in-chief position. Tsarong indeed lost the government position and focused on trade afterwards. Rinchen Dolma became an important assistant to him because of her education and English language skill. Tsarong proposed to Rinchen Dolma and suggested that she should stay at Tsarong House and help him with the trade. The latter accepted the suggestion and bore a daughter with him. Later, when their daughter was still small, Tsarong arranged a new marriage for Rinchen Dolma. He thought that he was too old and that Rinchen Dolma should marry another man. He believed that Taring Jikme was a good choice. Taring was the prince of Sikkim who had lived in Tibet as a Tibetan for a long period of time. Moreover, Taring Jikme and Rinchen Dolma had similar educational experiences, and they both spoke English. Thus, the second marriage of Rinchen Dolma took place. With Taring she lived a happy life and they had two daughters together. Taring Jikme was an official of the government of Tibet as well. He was the major interpreter of the Dalai Lama during his escape to India in 1959. All the experiences and participants of Rinchen Dolma’s life made her autobiography inseparable from the politics of Tibet. This explains the strong political sense embedded in the autobiography.
Rinchen Dolma’s life became complicated when the Chinese came to Lhasa in 1951. An Army school was established in 1952 and Rinchen Dolma was assigned to teach Tibetan language to the Chinese. The author writes about the fear and reluctance of the Tibetans to have contact and work with the Chinese. Later, she and some other women, mostly the wives of noble men, were recruited to the organizations such as the Lhasa Patriotic Women’s Association (the P.W.A.) that the Chinese created. Tsering Dolma, the Dalai Lama’s sister was selected as the Chairman of the P.W.A. and Rinchen Dolma the Vice-Chairman and General Secretary. The Tibetan women who had roles in the organization had to attend and encourage other women to participate in the conferences that the Chinese organized. Rinchen Dolma writes about their struggles during this period of time. These women resented the Chinese and their anti-religion political propagandas. At the same time they feared the Chinese and did not dare to be against them. Also, these women had concerns that the government of Tibet and other Tibetans would take them as pro-Chinese and might cause unpleasant consequences (people would murder Tibetans who were thought to be pro-Chinese). Thus, whenever the Chinese asked the Tibetan women to do something, they requested approval from the government of Tibet. Because of Rinchen Dolma’s role in the P.W.A. she had opportunities to travel to China several times and to visit many places there. Her two younger daughters had an opportunity to study at the Peking National Minorities School as some other children of the Tibetan officials did.
Religion is another key element that stands out in Rinchen Dolma’s book. It clashed with the Chinese communists’ interests. Rinchen Dolma extensively describes Tibetan Buddhism and its role in Tibetan life. Her family upbringing and the social environment around her explain Rinchen Dolma’s deep belief in Buddhism. Her religious belief and understanding seem to become deeper when she experienced tremendous difficulties during the uprising against the Chinese in Lhasa in 1959 and her escape to India, following the 14th Dalai Lama’s flight. Rinchen Dolma, as one of more 80,000 Tibetans who escaped to India after the Dalai Lama’sdeparture, conquered enormous suffering, climbing the huge snowy mountains between Tibet and India. In addition, she had to leave all her family members, mother-in-law, two younger daughters, their children, and another four children by her first daughter, who was in India by then with her husband. Rinchen Dolma’s husband Taring Jikme was able to escape from the Dalai Lama’s office and the couple met in India. Until the book was written they had scarce information on what had happened to their family. They learned that Tsarong Dasang Dadul was imprisoned by the Chinese and passed away in prison. By the time the book was written, Rinchen Dolma was taking charge of the children’s home at Mussoorie, and her husband Taring Jikme was the director of a Tibetan High School and the Education Director of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
To sum up, the book provides the reader a clear picture of what Tibet was like during the time period from 1910 to 1959 with detailed, vivid personal accounts. It also reveals the life of an elite Tibetan family such as that of the Tsarong and explains what it meant to be a part of such aristocratic family. The book contains a lot of important historical accounts involving numerous political and religious leaders and movements of Tibet before 1959. Meanwhile, Rinchen Dolma’s narratives on her life in India after 1959 introduce the situation of the Tibetans in exile and the tremendous responsibilities that they had to shoulder. The narratives largely reflect on the life of the Tibetan elite society, and it did not talk much about the ordinary Tibetans. Besides, a lot of the information given about historical events such as the rise or fall of a Regent is merely based on the personal beliefs. If this book is taken as a source for the history of Tibet, it is important to examine the validity and reliability of the information by comparing it to other related sources. Furthermore, I got a strong sense that Rinchen Dolma wrote the book for outsiders rather than Tibetans, suggested by the fact that it was written in English. Besides, she spends a lot of time introducing Tibetan culture and explaining Tibetan festivals and customs in detail in the book. The particular audience that the book has targeted might have influenced what the author wrote and how it was written. Meanwhile, people who gave advice on her earlier drafts were all, except for her husband, westerners. Lastly, it should be mentioned that the book was written in 1969 and she wrote her life stories from her memory. When reading the book I sometimes had a feeling that many parts of the book are the interpretations of Rinchen Dolma of her past life rather than just recounting what happened in her life.