Review: Division of Heaven and Earth: On Tibet’s Peaceful Revolution (Speaking Tiger)

Author: Shokdung. Translated by Matthew Akester


Lhasa. A train chugs into the station decanting tourists who gasp in the thin mountain air. The train is one of the triumphs of Chinese engineering, the highest railway in the world, designed to make Tibet more accessible.  The heart of Lhasa however, the red Potala palace lies empty – its ruler the Dalai Lama is in India where he has been since 1959. Tibet’s second highest ranking monk, the Panchen Lama however, is in Chinese hands and is reportedly being groomed to succeed the Dalai Lama when the latter shuffles off his mortal coil. What this will do to the precarious balance of power in Tibet can only be conjectured.

This is where Shokdung’s book comes in with its vision of satyagraha amongst the snows — nonviolence thrown down as a gauntlet in the face of the red army and its invading masses.

Tibet was once a warlike power that made the medieval Chinese armies shiver. Its Bon saints reputedly herded tigers and guarded the roof of the world with the flames of faith. Today all that is reduced to the speed of a Sky Train and the throng of Chinese dialects that crowd the streets. Lhasa is losing its mystery and with it hope.

Shokdung’s theories of non-violent aggression forced the Chinese to ban The Division of Heaven and Earth after its publication in 2008. His was a lucid, penetrating voice, though Shokdung, or wake up call, was the name that the Tibetan author Tragya assumed to write his story of a hidden land that was suddenly over run by Mao Zedong’s forces in the 1950s and signed over by those who were supposed to guard Tibet’s spiritual ruler the Dalai Lama, then a 15 year old boy.  The Dalai Lama was forced to abandon the Potala Palace for India while Tibet was crushed by the iron fist of the Chinese, with monasteries set on fire and monks dismembered.

This was a low in the history of Tibet. Where Tibetan warriors had once made the Chinese shiver in medieval times, now it was the Chinese in control cutting off all hopes of escape or salvation.  Another low was hit in 2008, when Shokdung wrote his book.

2008 was a violent year — there were uprisings in Tibet and thousands marched demanding the return of the Dalai Lama. Shokdung watched the mayhem unfold from the state run publishing firm where he worked and decided that he could no longer side with his employers. Journalists were expelled, there was a media blackout and while the Chinese attempted to win Shokdung over, the writer came to certain conclusions about the situation unfolding in Tibet.

This vital work has recently been translated into English and the reasons for the ban are clear to the wider audience of historians and political students. Shokdung’s is an indictment of China’s Tibetan policy and a clarion call for change so that the division between heaven and earth can be settled, without more blood being shed.

His theory is that the Tibetans lack a strategic philosophy to combat the Chinese with. Turning to the various histories of conflict for a solution, after considering and discarding Western options, he reasons that Gandhian principles would be best suited  to the Tibetan condition. Staying true he implies to the Buddha’s teachings by blunting the path of violence with non-violence.

Shokdung writes as Buddhist commentators have always written, drawing on Tibetan tradition as he talks about the peaceful revolution which will enable the Tibetans to be self reliant and combat the Chinese without calling on external help. His style is clear and his method analytical — again in the style of the commentators whose example he follows.  Somehow fitting the mountains and the prayer flags.

The question is whether Gandhian tactics would work against the Chinese. There is no real answer to this — though George Orwell once famously commented that while the British Empire could be amenable to non violence, a communist state like the Soviets would never consider it. Orwell’s theory can possibly be applied to Maoist China. Shokdung wrote that the British rulers of India had some vestiges of conscience — George V invited the ‘naked fakir’ to tea. The Dalai Lama on the other hand was forced to flee in disguise while the Chinese were alarmed enough by The Division of Heaven and Earth to throw Shokdung into jail for six months in 2010  with no question of mild banter over pots of chai and sweet biscuits.

Currently the Tibetan cause seems to be under wraps. World opinion, barring entertaining the Dalai Lama has said little or nothing on the subject, despite some 140 self-immolations by monks. Perhaps there are greater causes to tackle, perhaps not. Tibet and its plight remain isolated from the rest of the world, to which it is linked by a Chinese railway that travels up to Lhasa for the benefit of tourists and with a second line from Chengdu being proposed.

All the reader has to set against this is Shokdung’s clear, analytical treatise.  Whether the Gandhian philosophy has any merit can only be decided by history. However his book controversial or otherwise, his book remains one of the most important to come out of Tibet in the past eight years.

When the sky train was complete, Tibet was in the news, though not for any great reason. The world’s highest railway had suddenly put it on the traveller’s map; many felt that taking the train up from Beijing would help them acclimatize to the rarefied atmosphere, though that is far from being the case. Tibet’s high altitudes do not suit everyone.


Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu is the author of 6 novels, including 3 for children Chinku and the Wolfboy (Roli Books) and In the Shadow of the Leaves and Leopard in the Laboratory brought out by TERI—the last two focus on animal conservation and the shadowy figure of Jim Corbett. She is a poet, reviewer and travel writer and has written scripts with the late Rituparno Ghosh.