Lhasa’s Departed Past

The Grand Mosque in Lhasa. Photo by the author.

By David G. Atwill

At dusk one evening in June 2012, I found myself staring up at the imposing main gate of Lhasa’s Grand Mosque. I had waited four years to procure the proper travel permit necessary for me to visit Lhasa and witness firsthand the people, places, and spaces I’d previously only been able to read about in my research on Tibetan Muslims (in Tibetan known as Khache). However, I was not the typical tourist and I had not requested the typical itinerary. My local Tibetan guide—a requirement for foreign visitors—was less than impressed. Rolling his eyes and not bothering to conceal his disdain, he asked, “Why are you even interested in Tibetan Muslims?”

He went on to explain that in Tibet there were only Chinese Muslims, never Tibetan Muslims. I knew from my research that Lhasa in fact had been home to a Muslim community for over three hundred years and had multiple mosques, and that the Tibetan Muslims had influenced Tibetan literature, culture, and politics in myriad ways. Part of the confusion, and bias, stemmed from the fact that large numbers of Chinese Muslim Hui (like the large number of Han) had emigrated to Lhasa over the last several decades. So even though more than 1,000 Tibetan Muslims lived in Lhasa at the time of my visit, they were dwarfed by the 5,000 Chinese Muslim Hui permanent residents (and twice that number of temporary migrant Hui who travelled to Lhasa largely as merchants during the summer months). For my guide, the far more visible presence of this Hui Muslim population, deeply associated with in-migrating Chinese, led him to deny that a thriving Tibetan Muslim community even existed.

Eventually, though, he acquiesced and agreed to accompany me to the city’s many mosques. On my last day we traveled to Lhasa’s oldest mosque on the outskirts of the city. There we encountered the mother of the mosque’s imam, an eighty-two year-old Tibetan Muslim who spoke an elegant and pure Lhasa-accented Tibetan. She conversed with me and my guide for the better part of an hour, regaling us with tales of pre-Communist Lhasa and the role of the Tibetan Muslims in the city’s history, sharing a part of Lhasa’s past my guide had never heard before. As we walked back to his van, my guide turned to me, and asked, taking a distinctly friendlier tone, “Tell me again how you possibly came to study the Tibetan Muslims?”

Like my guide in Lhasa, many people I spoke with while writing a book on Tibetan Muslims expressed skepticism over the very notion that members of this group should be considered Tibetan. Given that most Tibetans are Buddhist, axiomatically many assume that to be Muslim precluded one from being Tibetan. Nor is such a view a recent phenomenon. For centuries, Chinese, South Asian, and Western travelers to Tibet have treated the Khache as a sort of perpetual nonnative, even as Tibetan accounts embraced their presence.

Most estimates indicate that pre-1959 more than ten percent of Lhasa’s roughly 30,000 lay inhabitants were Muslim. Nor was the presence of Muslims in Lhasa unique. Small Tibetan Muslim communities existed in every major city in central Tibet and across the eastern Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo. Among the most literate and multilingual segment of Tibet’s lay population, the Khache are often praised for their linguistic abilities, particularly their mastery of the elaborate Lhasa dialect.

Not abandoned or erased, the Khache have always remained in plain sight, yet never quite in focus. They have been screened off within the official chronicling of the past since they do not fit comfortably in the historical narrative of Tibet. It is in this awkward space—never entirely ignored but never fully integrated—that the Khache have persisted in the historical narrative for over three centuries.

On many levels, my research on Tibetan Muslims straddled uncomfortably the outer edges of both South Asian and Chinese studies. I repeatedly found that the linguistic, theoretical, and political frames of previous scholarship seemed positioned in just such a way so that scholars of China rarely included South Asian perspectives, and South Asian scholarship seldom accounted for the Chinese presence. As a consequence, few accounts of the Tibetan Muslims accurately captured the inter-Asian realities of Tibet’s past.

Such blinkered histories created unexpected blind spots in the post-partition India and post-liberation China’s interactions with each other. In the wake of the 1959 March Uprising—an event that had led the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans to flee to India—China and India both claimed the Tibetan Muslims as their citizens. The New York Times ran an article chronicling their plight with a headline stating simply: “India’s Traders Held by Chinese.” As the article noted, however, the “Indian traders” had resided in Tibet for generations and by their own admission had “never carried [Indian] travel documents and identification certificates,” yet now “wanted to register themselves as Indian nationals.” And just as the Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing claimed Tibet has always been part of China, they also asserted anyone who had resided there should equally be considered Chinese citizens.

Events regarding the treatment of Overseas Chinese in Indonesia awkwardly intersected with Beijing’s stance towards the Tibetan Muslims in Tibet. Having signed a Sino-Indonesian Dual Nationality Treaty at the end of the Bandung Conference in 1955, both Indonesia and China had wrestled with the delicate implications of allowing the approximately 1.1 million Chinese living in Indonesia, some for centuries, to be allowed the option of citizenship in either their resident country or their ancestral homeland. With anti-Chinese (and anti-Communist) sentiment running high in Indonesia, China began simultaneously to press Indonesia to ratify the agreement while sending a flotilla of ships to bring back those Overseas Chinese who wished to return to China.

Not until India pointed out that they were only requesting the Tibetan Muslims be treated in the same manner in which the People’s Republic of China treated persons of Chinese origin resident outside China did the PRC leaders relent. With international law on the side of India, China altered its position and agreed to allow the Tibetan Muslims the option of selecting their own nationality. In late 1960, about half of central Tibet’s Tibetan Muslim population crossed over into India. There they arrived not as refugees, like their Tibetan Buddhist neighbors had done months earlier, but were welcomed instead as Indian citizens. The Tibetan Muslims who remained behind did so for a variety of reasons. Some simply believed that they would fare better under Chinese than Indian rule. Other Khache were deemed by the Chinese government to be of Chinese, not Indian, ancestry and denied the requisite exit visa. In all, more than 1,500 Khache remained behind in Lhasa and are still present today.

In this light, the question of the Khaches’ national identity highlights the manner in which Himalayan Asia remains imbedded in wider inter-Asian religious, commercial, and ethnic geographies. The Khaches’ predicament underscores how the categories of ancestry and citizenship can only be mapped onto the national identities of post-war Asia in often awkward and uncomfortable ways. Yet, it is through the experiences of communities like the Tibetan Muslims that, much as my guide did in Lhasa, we can see with new eyes the significance of Asia’s inter-Asian past.  

David G. Atwill is Associate Professor of History at Penn State University, where he teaches a broad range of courses on China, Tibet, and world history. He is the author of Islamic Shangri-La: Inter-Asian Relations and Lhasa’s Muslim Communities, 1600 to 1960 (University of California Press, 2018) and is currently working on a biography of Lin Zexu entitled Lin Zexu: Imperial China in a Globalizing World (under contract with Oxford University Press).