Book Review of House of the Turqoise Roof by Dorje Yudon Yuthok
The autobiography of Dorje Yudon Yuthok takes place from her birth in 1912 through the mid 1980s. While in Tibet, the author spent most of her time living in Lhasa and a brief time in Treshong, as well as some time in Kham when her husband was appointed governor. After fleeing Tibet in 1959, the majority of the narrative takes place in India and the United States. The narrative focuses chiefly on the author’s life as a Tibetan aristocrat the major events in her life, chiefly her childhood, marriage, and exile. The main purpose of the work is to preserve the aspects and memories of Tibetan Buddhism, history, life and culture that the author’s believes are valuable so that future generations may remember and appreciate the beauty and struggle of their people.
The autobiography of Dorje Yudon Yuthok (born in 1912 and still alive when it was published in 1990) offers a great deal of insight into the lives and customs of the Tibetan nobility both before and after the Chinese invasion and subsequent creation of the exile Tibetan government in Dharamsala. She explains how, “up to the year 1957 (her) family activities and experiences more or less had followed the customs and traditions of the Tibetan nobility” (261). The name ‘Yuthok’ means turquoise roof, which suggests the title of the book and the author’s wealth (turquoise was considered a valuable commodity). The book’s translator, Michael Harlin, also explains that even after the Tibetan government’s relocation and Yuthok’s exile to the United States she still continued to be a well-respected and deeply devout member of the Tibetan elite (301). Her family has strong ties with other Tibetan noble families and important Tibetan governmental institutions including that of the Dalai Lama himself. Being a deeply devout Buddhist and loyal Tibetan aristocrat, Yuthok shares several valuable experiences that exemplify the lives and activities of Tibetan nobles.
This work serves the dual purpose of describing life as a Tibetan noble in the first half of the 20th century while simultaneously preserving the lives, culture, and struggle of the Tibetan people. Yuthok describes every aspect of her life including her birth, marriage, and religious practices. Her work is particularly important because she is able to shed some light on what life was like as a Tibetan woman, a subject on which there is little information. She also expresses that one of the main goals of her autobiography is to preserve “life as it was in Tibet, in what now seems a bygone era” (17). As such, it is important to differentiate what, in this preservation, is memory versus idealization. Given the author’s claim of emblematizing Tibetan culture, it is necessary to keep in mind what the author knows compared to what she leaves out, and to keep in mind facts as opposed to the truth as the author sees it. While the structure of the book has certain discrepancies, historical fallacies, and a slight political bias (like most autobiographies), it offers a wealth of information in terms of understanding and appreciating Tibetan life and culture.
Life as a Tibetan Noble Woman
Through depicting her life, Yuthok provides an example of what life was like as a Central Tibetan noblewoman. Yuthok was born into a noble family in Lhasa. The majority of her life in Tibet takes place in Lhasa, thus her dealings and experiences reflect those of the people and government in Lhasa. She discusses her own personal experiences and responsibilities and also paints a general picture of the lives of the Tibetan elite.
Yuthok’s personal experiences are both informative and interesting. She was born into the Surkhang family, a powerful and influential family in Lhasa. Tibetan noble families depend on bloodlines for continuation and, if no heir is produced, they adopt one from another noble family. Yuthok herself became head of the Treshong estate by such means until she fell in love with and later, in 1933, married a member of the Yuthok family, another ancient and influential family whose main estate is close to the Potala Palace. Throughout these various experiences and life changes, Yuthok explains what her daily activities were, what duties and responsibilities she had, and discusses whether or not she was comfortable and/or happy. Leaving Tibet in 1959 was a tumultuous event and Yuthok describes her successive dealings in India, her travels in Europe, and her life in the United States. She distinctly remembers how the hustle and bustle and massive skyscrapers of New York City left her speechless; she was unsure if she would ever be able to adjust to life in such a different place (287). The detail and emotion with which she describes her many experiences are both touching and revealing, definitely not something one typically could find in a history book.
Yuthok also illustrates what daily life was like for the Tibetan elite; for example, she describes the basic structure of the Tibetan societal hierarchy and the various titles of power and prestige in the Tibetan government (29-35). Education is a key facet of the Tibetan nobility’s upbringing, and Yuthok recounts everything from daily classroom routines to playing a game with her classmates that is similar to hide and seek (50). The most important holiday in Tibetan culture is Losar, or the welcoming of the New Year, and Yuthok describes every detail of the decorations and festivities (61-72). She even dedicates an entire chapter to the specific jewelry and clothing of Tibetan noblewomen (185-200).
As a Tibetan woman, Yuthok illuminates the everyday lifestyles of Tibetan noblewomen in general. Marriage was a profound moment in her life and her descriptions of the pomp and traditions of multiple wedding ceremonies (hers and her friends/family) are invaluable. It is evident from her memoir that a double standard existed as both her father and her husband cheated on their wives and requested divorces However, when Yuthok herself found a lover, her husband was quite jealous. Also, even after divorcing her husband, she still had to execute several wifely duties for her ex-husband’s sake; it was difficult for her to adjust to life after marriage (233). Furthermore, childrearing was an extremely important part of Yuthok’s life. Considering that ten percent of women died during childbirth during this time period, Yuthok was quite apprehensive (171). Family structure was clearly quite important in Tibetan life, as some of the most important people in Yuthok’s life are her mother (while in Tibet) and her daughter (while in the United State). Yuthok judged every place she lived in in accordance with its proximity to her family and based every life experience on its relevance to either her religion or her family. Her life history thoroughly demonstrates the significance and depth of Tibetan familial relations as well as the complexity and multitude of Tibetan traditions.
Another fundamental characteristic of Yuthok’s life (and of the lives of Tibetan’s in general) is piety. On every journey, Yuthok and her entourage stopped at every religious temple or monument to pray for “the betterment of all sentient beings” (93). Upon being forced to leave Tibet in 1959, Yuthok lamented losing not her wealth (such as her many estates across Central Tibet) but rather the countless religious relics she had to leave behind. Many historical works also tend to emphasize the importance of Tibetan Buddhism without actually defining or explaining it. Yuthok, on the other hand, relays countless details of life as a Tibetan Buddhist. She describes everything from the sacred Large Circle Pilgrimage to the details of being a nun (which she was for a short time). Her very happiness is directly tied to her religion. Historical texts do not have the capacity to explain just how and why religion is so vital to Tibetan culture. After reading Yuthok’s autobiography, one can begin to grasp this phenomenon.
By describing both her own personal experiences and the general way of life of the Tibetan nobility, Yuthok helps any reader to better grasp and comprehend Tibetan culture.
Despite is unquestionable cultural value, due to its personal structure, the lack of evidence, and a slight political bias, Yuthok’s autobiography is certainly not a work of solid historical veracity. While the author herself never claims that her work is of historical authority, it does offer a wealth of information that is very relevant to Tibetan history. Furthermore, she does claim to preserve Tibetan culture, and while she recounts her story with the utmost sincerity, her own memories are not without the bias and misrepresentations that are characteristic of autobiographies. As such, I would encourage historians to read it with discretion.
First of all, the autobiography is not structured in a definitive or chronological way. Rather, it is structured based on themes in the author’s life with a lose adherence to sequential time. She also seldom mentions dates, which makes keeping a frame of reference in regards to time difficult. Some chapters are specifically chronologically ordered while others are not. For example, the first chapter detailing the author’s birth, and some other chapters such as her marriage and the events that happened after her separation with her husband are written in chronological order. Other chapters, such as the ‘Jewels and Finery’, ‘Life in Lhasa’, and ‘My Heart is My Home’ seem to stretch over the duration of the author’s entire life. While anthropologically relevant, these chapters make historiography difficult. The author will often reference future events before they happen, implying that her remembrance of the past is strongly shaped by the events that follow them. It is also clear that the author has a deep emotional attachment to her homeland. While describing her life history, she often includes an apprehensive tone or sentence such as: “we never imagined the drastic changes that were so soon to follow one another” (184). In her nostalgia, the author very well could have idealized, and thus modified, the past. While it does not have a historical thesis, Yuthok’s work does have its own agenda of preserving the wonderful (and perhaps exaggerated) aspects of Tibet’s past and culture.
Furthermore, words of both the author and translator suggest a lack of evidence in several instances. The author’s generalizations sometimes stretched too far without sufficient evidence to support them. For instance, Yuthok also includes the Tibetan lower classes in celebrating elaborate Tibetan holidays and describing the happiness of Tibetan life. Since she describes her friends as being servants and other aristocrats, Yuthok never really explicitly states how she knows the attitudes and activities of the poorer classes on the Tibetan plateau.
Also, upon the death of her daughter in 1982, Yuthok burned a number of primary and secondary documents including the original Tibetan manuscript of her autobiography, and countless letters, grants, deeds, and honors from various Dalai Lamas and gurus to her family. The translator explains how “henceforth the translation of the book became more difficult” (304). The manuscript went through several revisions by countless people, both Tibetan and Western. As a result, it is practically impossible to know which parts of the autobiography are based on primary documents and the direct testimony of Mrs. Yuthok and which parts are educated guesses added in the eight years between the manuscript’s destruction and the autobiography’s publication.
Lastly, Yuthok’s rhetoric is politically biased against the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover of Tibet. While her attitude is certainly justifiable, it is difficult to determine what aspects of her depiction of the Tibetan revolt are personal prejudices. For example, she describes the revolt near the Norbulingka as “resistance fighters secretly supported by the government of His Holiness” (251). The Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya in his book The Dragon in the Land of Snows, on the other hand, explains that “there was no way that the Kashag or any Tibetan leader could influence the people” (193) surrounding the summer palace. While the author’s portrayal of the destruction and sadness that engulfed Lhasa is historically disturbing, her rhetoric discussing political nuances is not the most reliable.
As an autobiography, Yuthok’s work is historically questionable due to its shaky and emotional structure, lack of solid evidence, and politically biased rhetoric. Historical facts are muddled amidst distant memories and the emotional power of a tumultuous life.
Although it may have its evidentiary flaws, the autobiography of Dorje Yudon Yuthok stands as an amazing life history of a woman who witnessed and lived in a peaceful and turbulent time and place. It also provides a window into Tibetan culture, especially in terms of religion, the elite class, and the lives of women. Overall, Yuthok’s autobiography is a fascinating read that would greatly serve any soul with an attachment to Tibet or with an appreciation for vibrant and beautiful culture. It is an honor to read the legacy of Mrs. Dorje Yudon Yuthok.
Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snows. New York: Penguin Compass, 1999.
Yuthok, Dorje Yudon. House of the Turqoise Roof. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1990.