The Life and Times of George Tsarong of Tibet, 1920-1970 Written by Paljor Tsarong (2022).
Paljor Tsarong’s book “The Life and Times of George Tsarong of Tibet, 1920-1970” is a very recent addition to the writings on the history of twentieth century Tibet. The author portrays to us a detailed biographical account of his father Dundul Namgyal Tsarong (wylie: bdud ‘dul rnam rgyal tsha rong, also known as George), who was the son of Dasang Damdul – the head of the Tsarong aristocratic family and the Commander-in-Chief of the Tibetan army. George Tsarong was born in 1920 and lived throughout the 20th century. This book recollected George’s birth and childhood in Lhasa, school years spent in India, his service to the Tibetan government throughout his life in Lhasa and in India, and his later encounters in the west until 1970. Through George Tsarong’s life story, we can have a brief historical overview of twentieth century Tibet, as well as this history as experienced and lived by George Tsarong.
Dundul Namgyal Tsarong was the son of Dasang Damdul Tsarong and his second wife Pema Dolkar Tsarong. His father was of peasant birth and was married into the Tsarong family to become the holder of the Tsarong estates after having served the 13th Dalai Lama. Dundul Namgyal, later known as George – an English name granted to him during his years studying at St. Joseph’s college in Darjeeling India, married Yangchen Dolkar from another aristocratic family called Ragashar and had five children, one of whom is the author of this book Paljor Tsarong. As George Tsarong was the first son of this elite family with gregarious diplomatic relations and had taken government official positions since the age of nine, he had witnessed Tibet’s early encounters with the west, urbanite lifestyle in Kalimpong and Calcutta, bureaucracy of the traditional Tibetan government system, Tibet’s precapitalist economy, as well as the arrival of People’s Liberation Army. Paljor Tsarong wrote with rich sentimental touches about his father’s fascination with modern mechanics, passion for novelties such as photography, dedication to his government roles despite reluctance to be overly politically radical, separation from his homeland and loved ones, and sincere hope for a better future for his family and nation. As George Tsarong lived through the tumultuous twentieth century of Tibet, we as readers see how his personal experiences had been heavily influenced by the ups and downs of the socio-political changes both within and outside of Tibet. As an official of aristocratic heritage and religious familial associations who was embedded with responsibilities of all kinds, George, as with many Tibetan young elites, did not get to expand his individual aspirations and had most of his life occupied with and dictated by his imposed arrangements and clerical duties for the traditional Tibetan government. From this one unique person who lived with persistence struggling through multiple political realities, the author shows us his father’s perspective of Tibet and the world and fills in with a meticulous brush the detailed information extracted from his in-depth research regarding the various historical incidents of twentieth century Tibet.
This book is mainly based on Paljor Tsarong’s personal communications with his father and family members, interviews conducted with related individuals and research conducted based on previously published (auto)biographies and surrounding modern Tibetan history. The author’s multiple narrations of his father’s accounts regarding various events are consistent and closely in line with biographies by other members of the Tsarong family about themselves and about Tsarong Dasang Damdul. When read these related works along with such works as George Tsarong’s and his wife Yangchen Dolkar’s biographies of their father (father-in-law) Tsarong Dasang Damdul (Tsarong, Dundul Namgyal, and Trinlay Chödron. In the Service of His Country: The Biography of Dasang Damdul Tsarong, Commander General of Tibet. Snow Lion Publications, 2000) and Yangchen Dolkar’s autobiography and George’s younger sister Namgyal Lhamo Taklha’s autobiography (Taklha, Namgyal Lhamo. Born in Lhasa. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2001), one can have a comprehensive picture of the vicissitudes of the Tsarong family as Tibet underwent drastic changes.
In fourteen chapters, the author recaptured half of his father’s life on a personal level and half a decade of Tibetan history on a national level. The first two chapters mainly unfold the history of the aristocratic origin of the Tsarong’s, its previous roots in Tibetan societies and his grandfather Dasang Damdul’s achievements and influence in the Tibetan government and through trade in India. Dasang Damdul was one of the closest friends and favorite officials of the 13th Dalai Lama and had accompanied the 13th Dalai Lama to exile trips through India, Mongolia and China. Having seen the developments put forward by other polities, Dasang Damdul was one of the foremost advocates for modernization and was a well-rounded trader with diplomatic talents. In Dasang Damdul’s early life, he maintained good relationships with and received assistance from foreign agents. He was also a man of access who was fond of modern novelties such as cameras, guns and cars. Early modernization projects had started off with the establishment of military and police forces and the implementation of hydroelectric plants. However, after a military-police conflict, such projects were put on pause and Dasang Damdul faced the pressure from anti-military and monastic conservatives in the government, subsequently leaving for India for a short period. Chapter three to five focus on George’s school years in Lhasa and India as his father greatly valued education. A second attempt of modern development was initiated under the Drabchi department which was in charge of electrical and technical matters. At St. Joseph’s, George for the first time was exposed to the western education system, as well as being introduced to western pastimes and habits such as cigarettes. It is also during this time while Dasang Damdul was in India that the 13th Dalai Lama passed away. This section also covers snippets of lives of important figures in Tibet such as Geshe Sherab Gyatso.
Chapter six starts with George’s registration in government service upon the state’s demand. As a young bureaucrat, George grew his interest in western mechanics such as radios and learned to operate this technology through his friendship with Reginald Fox who worked at the British Mission in Tibet. The Tsarong family also developed close relations with U.S. representatives who stayed briefly in their household. In Chapter eight and nine, the author writes about his father’s marriage and provides a very detailed description of various festivals and rituals, many of which his father was obligated to attend. Chapter nine covers the controversial period of the Reting-Taktra rivalry in regency and in Chapter ten, we see George’s deeper involvement as a fourth rank senior official at the Drabchi Lekhung in charge of minting, banking and mechanical matters. It is during this period of the 1940s that Tibetan currency was printed, exchanged and circulated in a system that is similar to today’s banks. Foreign agents such as Nedbailof from White Russia were allowed to assist with mechanical and electrical issues.
Chapter eleven and twelve discuss Tibet’s involvement with the Chinese after the inauguration of the People’s Republic of China and mark the Tsarong family’s series of trips between Tibet and India. While George’s brother was recognized and enthroned as a rinpoche of Drigung Kagyu tradition, George along with the rest of the Tsarong family was packing to leave for India as the Chinese arrived. The family returned to Lhasa after the Seventeen Point Agreement was negotiated and signed with reluctance. The responses to the communist Chinese were quite different as the arrival of communism caused “inter and intra-class conflicts” and splits among the general public and political elites (Paljor Tsarong, 232). Being western-minded and educated, George mainly avoided entanglement with the Chinese and only made aristocratic appearances when needed for diplomatic purposes including a tour in different parts of China. George was going back and forth between India and Tibet as the Tsarong house was used as an office for the preparation of plenary committee for the autonomous region of Tibet. The final two chapters open with George’s final decision to leave Tibet for India while his father and brother returned to Lhasa. George Tsarong’s father Dasang Damdul was then captured and died in prison in 1959. George continued bearing the responsibilities of dealing with the silver and gold from the Drabchi Lekhung and such responsibilities gradually grew such that he was in charge of all accounting-related matters by himself. After tirelessly attempting fundraising and investments via trips to Switzerland and America and having exhausted all his family’s savings in service of the Tibetan government without any salary, George Tsarong resigned at the age of fifty in 1970.
Paljor Tsarong did not cover his father’s life after resignation, as it had always been his father’s wish to be less involved in the heated political competitions. He frequently took a second thought regarding his father’s perspectives and was especially critical about Tibet’s “century-old” bureaucracy and “clergy fundamentalism” (Paljor Tsarong, 248). As the author said, “nevertheless, father’s life was not in his hands” (Paljor Tsarong, 275). The book also incorporated a great number of photographs from the George Tsarong Collection, both taken by and of George and his father.
Dbyangs-can-sgrol-dkar. Bod kyi dmag spyi che ba Tsha-rong Zla-bzang-dgra-ʼdul. First edition, Tsarong House, 2014.
Tsarong, Dundul Namgyal, and Trinlay Chödron. In the Service of His Country: The Biography of Dasang Damdul Tsarong, Commander General of Tibet. Snow Lion Publications, 2000.
Taklha, Namgyal Lhamo. Born in Lhasa. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2001.
Tsarong, Paljor. The Life and Times of George Tsarong of Tibet, 1920-1970: A Lord of the Traditional Tibetan State. Lexington Books, 2022.