This Week in China’s History: The Dalai Lama flees Lhasa

Society & Culture

With the Tibetan New Year just passed, the region begins another year with its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in exile. On this week in 1959, he left the capital, Lhasa, for the last time.

This Week in China’s History: March 18, 1959

Sitting on a hill at a sacred spot on the Tibetan plateau, the Potala Palace is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. It is the highest palace structure in the world — more than 12,000 feet above sea level — and has been an important site since at least the 7th century, though the current structure dates, mostly, from the 1600s, when it became the seat of the government of the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of Tibet.

Less recognizable, about a half-mile away, sits the Norbulingka Palace. Developed mainly in the 1700s, Norbulingka came to be known as the Summer Palace and flourished especially in the 20th century. Most of its existing buildings were erected then, including a zoo and a movie theater (installed under the direction of Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer who was the subject of the film Seven Years in Tibet, in the 1940s).

In 1959, though, Norbulingka was the last residence in the Tibetan capital of the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama. On the morning of March 18, amid an uprising, he dressed as an ordinary Tibetan, slung a rifle across his shoulder, and left.

The seeds of the uprising had been sown eight years earlier, in 1951, when the Dalai Lama signed an agreement recognizing Chinese rule over Tibet. (For most of the decades since the fall of the Qing, Tibet had been largely independent, though that status was contested not only by Chinese authorities, but also by the Russians and British engaging in their “Great Game” across Central Asia.) The Seventeen Point Agreement granted Tibet substantial autonomy but asserted its inclusion within the People’s Republic of China. Many Tibetans rejected the idea that they were part of China at all, and furthermore, “Tibet” — formally the “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” or TAR — represented only a portion of the ethnically Tibetan regions.

While Chinese rule, with its guarantee of autonomy, was tolerated — anxiously — in the TAR, other Tibetan regions (traditionally known as Kham and Amdo) were incorporated into Sichuan and Qinghai provinces and enjoyed no such autonomy. In the TAR, the pledge of autonomy included a “no reform” promise, meaning the landholdings of the monasteries could remain, and the practice of Buddhism could continue as before. This pledge was viewed skeptically by many, and the Seventeen Point Agreement remained a point of contention, but outside of the TAR, especially in Tibetan parts of Sichuan and Qinghai, Communist authorities implemented land reform and de-religionization, including the destruction of monasteries.

Tibetans in these regions looked to Lhasa and the young Dalai Lama — just 16 years old when he signed the agreement with China — for help. None, however, was forthcoming, as the leaders in Lhasa feared that the autonomy they had been promised in the TAR was at risk. Left unsupported, armed resistance emerged in Kham and Amdo.

That resistance intensified, supported by covert aid from the American CIA. And not only did the fighting challenge Chinese hegemony, it fostered a split among the Tibetan groups, as Kham fighters, especially, urged open rebellion against the PRC, while some in the TAR advocated a more moderate approach favoring autonomy, based on the Seventeen Point Agreement that supported the Dalai Lama. By early 1959, Tibetan forces led by Gompo Tashi were achieving notable and regular victories over Chinese armies, but the sheer numerical advantage of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army made traditional warfare unsustainable for the Tibetans. In February 1959, Tibetan resistance fighters began filtering into central Tibet — the TAR — and Lhasa.

In early March, Tibetans observed the festival of Monlam. In 1959, part of the celebration was the completion of the process affirming the 14th Dalai Lama’s status — four days of prayer and examination at Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s most sacred site. On March 5, with tensions rising, he left Jokhang Temple and made his way to the nearby Norbulingka Palace, in a “spectacular procession with hundreds of people lining the route along which the Dalai Lama was carried on a golden palanquin, led by Tibetan soldiers dressed in ancient costumes,” according to historian Tsering Shakya in his book The Dragon in the Land of Snows.

Nearly 100,000 Tibetans made their way to Lhasa — three times the city’s normal population — for the festival, and among them were Tibetan insurgents. Pressure was mounting in multiple directions. In the midst of this, Chinese General Tán Guànsān 谭冠三 sought a public display to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s completion of his degree, but more importantly demonstrate his support for Chinese rule and, Tan hoped, put a stop to the insurrection. The occasion would be a dance performance that would take place at the Chinese military camp on the outskirts of the capital.

Logistics for the visit struck Tibetan officials as peculiar. There would be no formal ceremony, and no Tibetan bodyguards; Chinese soldiers would arrive at the Norbulingka to escort the Dalai Lama to the camp, and the streets were to be cleared to accommodate the move. All security would be provided by the Chinese.

Rumors quickly spread that the goal was not a musical performance, but the abduction of Tibet’s leader. Reports of Chinese planes fueled and standing by at the airport supported the rumor, as did the Chinese desire to have the Dalai Lama attend the April National People’s Congress in Beijing. The rumors provoked thousands of people to gather at the Norbulingka on the morning of March 10 to protect the Dalai Lama. When Chinese officials arrived, the crowd blocked their way. Demanding to see the Dalai Lama, the crowd turned its rage on Tibetan officials who had worked with the Chinese, beating to death one of them, Khunchung Sunam Gyamtso. The Tibetan Uprising had begun.

Confusion and division defined the next week. The crowd showed no signs of dispersing. Oblivious to the scale of the unrest, the performance at the Chinese military camp went ahead as scheduled, and although the Dalai Lama did not attend, the rest of the Tibetan leadership did. In the big picture, the Chinese were divided from the Tibetans, and the different regions of Tibet were divided from one another (some observers believe that civil war among the three different Tibetan regions was imminent, with Kham and Amdo refusing to acquiesce to Chinese rule, as they perceived the Dalai Lama to have).

Within Lhasa, everyone waited for the second shoe to drop. The Dalai Lama’s inner circle was divided about the protests. Trying to win the Dalai Lama’s support, the Chinese troops did not clear the demonstrators from around his residence.

On March 12, as many as 15,000 women gathered at the foot of the Potala to protest the Chinese occupation, part of several days of demonstrations renouncing the Seventeen Point agreement.

Inside the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama found himself in a difficult position. The Chinese forces were restrained in part because they held out hope that the Dalai Lama would oppose the demonstrations, but to do so would put an end to Tibetan hopes for independence. If he came out in support of the demonstrators, he feared a bloodbath. But delay was only possible for so long.

On the morning of March 17, it appeared time had run out. Chinese artillery shells landed near the Norbulingka, and the Dalai Lama decided to flee the city. He was a vital propaganda piece for the Chinese, but puzzlingly no precaution to prevent his escape seemed to have been taken. That evening, dressed in civilian clothes along with members of his entourage, the Dalai Lama fled the palace and the capital. He has yet to return.

In the days that followed, the worst fears were realized. Chinese troops and artillery spread throughout the city and engaged with Tibetan protesters. Five days of intensive fighting ended when Chinese forces broke through lines defending the Jokhang Temple and captured the seat of resistance on March 23. Leaders of the protests were arrested, including Pamo Kusang, who organized and led the women’s protests on March 12.

The Dalai Lama slipped, undetected, out of Tibet at the end of March and established a government in exile in India. His government estimates that more than 80,000 Tibetans died in the uprising, though it is impossible to confirm those reports.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.