Tseyang Sadutshang’s My Youth in Tibet is both an autobiography of the author and a biography of her uncle, Reting Rinpoche. The author’s story, as told to Yangdol Tsatultsang, was published in 2012 and presents these two different but interconnected narratives, making the work about both individuals if not placing greater emphasis on her uncle’s story. Part 1 establishes the author’s relationship with Reting Rinpoche and her credibility to tell his story in Part 2; her account seeks to humanize the powerful political figure in order to challenge the notoriety of his role in Tibet’s history. Spanning the first half of the 20th century, the narrative takes place in Reting and Lhasa (where she received a more formal education); it follows both her and Reting Rinpoche’s childhoods through her uncle’s regency and its aftermath to her family’s escape to India after the regent’s imprisonment and the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. The descriptions of both individuals adhere to similar outlines: childhood (social, spiritual development), relationships with powerful figures, occupation (marriage, regency), and the relationship between the author and Reting Rinpoche. Sadutshang had two motives: she wished to preserve the story of an ordinary Tibetan for the Tibetan people, but her narrative’s focus on Reting Rinpoche suggests her purpose derives from a desire to codify a sympathetic perspective of the regent’s life.
The splitting of Sadutshang’s narrative into two parts, one autobiographical and one biographical, divides her personal experiences from her argument in defense of her uncle; however, the two narratives are intertwined from the beginning: “I was born in Reting, in the Dakpo region of Tibet in the year of the Tiger, 1926. I spent my early childhood in Reting where I lived with my grandmother and my mother in Reting Rinpoche’s paternal home, for my father had passed away. My grandmother was Reting Rinpoche’s mother and my mother was his older sister” (vi). In her introduction, Sadutshang provides the reader with a general outline of her work. Part 1 “is devoted to my childhood in Reting and Lhasa” and her stated purpose is “to give everyone, especially young Tibetans, a glimpse into the life of an ordinary Tibetan girl, one not born into the privileges of nobility” (vii). Part 2’s focus on Reting Rinpoche “is to recount my own personal knowledge of him. Many people forget, in denigrating him, that in his childhood he displayed amazing signs of being someone very special and that later he was instrumental in bringing the present Dalai Lama to the throne” (vii). Her contributions to an appreciation of the various forces driving Tibetan history as a whole stems from her perspective as connected to religious authority and the development of her understanding of religion, social order, the role of women, and the transitions that accompany major shifts in the locus of political power centers.
Part 1 describes Sadutshang’s life, from her childhood to her family’s move to India. She begins with an account of a childhood spiritual experience in which she came in contact with a dakini; opening with a religious experience underscores her spiritual development and substantiates the importance of the role of Buddhism and religious authority in Tibetan culture. These connections make her narrative more accessible while solidifying her credibility. Many of the chapters in this section illustrate her personal interactions with Tibetan society: an account of her stay in a nomad camp details food, clothing, religious practice, and living conditions; memories of childhood friends and adventures in Reting sets a clear understanding of class hierarchy; prestige from familial association with Reting Rinpoche; movement between Reting and Lhasa (her relationships with girls of varying social status). She dedicates a chapter to her grandmother, the regent’s mother, and their close relationship (as well as description of her grandmother’s spiritual power). Sadutshang’s approach to marriage reflects her sympathetic attitude toward the established role of women; one chapter recalls a folk story that became a key childhood memory, that of “Pangtuk Lachai okok.” Sadutshang had two arranged marriages: her mother demanded the cession of the first to protect her daughter from a potentially detrimental future; the second was approved by her mother and Reting Rinpoche, believing the union would benefit Sadutshang. She internalizes this outcome through religious belief: “The merits I must have collected in my past lives brought about this fruition and since then, on the whole life has been good to me. Of course all of us Tibetans have faced tremendous mental and physical hardship after losing our country, but in comparison to most I think I have been very fortunate” (29).
Part 2 recounts the life of Sadutshang’s uncle, Reting Rinpoche. Having previously established her credibility as his biographer in Part 1, she uses her personal experiences as a lens through which to humanize the regent as a means to challenge the national memory of her uncle and certify what she believes to be a more accurate legacy. She begins with his childhood, recounting her grandmother’s belief in her son’s spiritual gifts and potentiality as an incarnation. Following the discovery of this spiritual power, Sadutshang describes the development of a close, trusting relationship between her uncle and the 13th Dalai Lama (also as a means of reinforcing the regent’s integrity). Following the death of the Dalai Lama, her uncle played a key role in the search for the 14th incarnation: “for this we Tibetans should be eternally grateful to Reting Rinpoche because he could not have given us a finer or greater leader than the present 14th Dalai Lama in this time of our great need” (43). Sadutshang attempts to humanize her uncle by portraying him as a familial rather than religious or political figure. She particularly wishes to convey her version of the conflict between Reting Rinpoche and Tatrak Rinpoche (reversing the narrative so Tatrak Rinpoche appears to rob Reting Rinpoche of his position): “After Reting Rinpoche left his regency and asked Tatrak Rinpoche to take over the responsibility, people connected to Reting Rinpoche suffered a lot and their fortunes changed, owing to the politiking of opposing factions” (47). The author includes stories to illustrate the regent’s sympathy for those negatively affected by contemporary forces (such as the nobility). Sadutshang closes her uncle’s biography by recounting his performance of a final spiritual act aiding her in conceiving a son before disputing the allegations made against her uncle following his downfall and reminding her reader all he did for Tibet: “People who do not know the inside story may be tempted to believe all sorts of allegations made against Reting Rinpoche” without consideration of his character.
Reting Rinpoche, as presented in this account, appears an entirely different individual from that described in other works, such as Goldstein’s. The reader should understand the inherent bias of Sadutshang’s narrative and compare this to those biases of historians writing about the period. Goldstein’s version of the regent’s story is exactly the type of histories she attempts to challenge and subvert with her personal experiences.