Freedom in Exile, Reviewed by Arjun Choudry


In Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama dispels much of the negative propaganda disseminated against him in an attempt “to counter Chinese claims and misinformation spread about Tibet’s history, culture and religion.” His intentions appear noble. Freedom in Exile was originally released in 1990, when Communist governments throughout Eastern and Central Europe were collapsing. Subsequently, literary and historical critics celebrated the book as an ode to freedom at a transitional point in history when communism was being antagonized as the root of all modern oppression. As a 14-year-old teenager who was appointed the leader of China’s largest ethno-religious minority prior to the usurpation of Tibet by the Chinese Community Party (CCP) in 1949, the Dalai Lama has been trying to “tell the truth about Tibet’s history,” since the inception of his career.  Regardless of whether the Dalai Lama seeks to portray his personal and political struggles in the name of populism or sincerity, Freedom in Exile establishes him as a misunderstood hero who has wrongly been labeled China’s leading public enemy.

Historical narratives of the Sino-Tibetan conflict reflect the censored and coercive approach used by the Chinese Communist Party in their policies towards Tibetan independence. These methods contain elements of imperialist historical methodology and are used by a body of leadership in order to assert a supposed truth of how historical events have occurred. In the case of Tibet’s political status, this has established a conflicting narrative that has misconstrued and overlooked integral dimensions of historical occurrences.  In the course of explaining his life story, the Dalai Lama alludes to covert activities of the CIA in assisting Tibetans seeking liberty, the lack of appreciation for religion in the Western world, and the inability of Westerners to relate to Tibetans’ grievances due to their lack of resources. Yet, at its core Freedom in Exile is an attempt to popularize the Tibetan struggle in the face of a foreign oppressor.

As the Dalai Lama elaborates on the course of his life and describes his self-imposed exile to India it becomes readily apparent that his historical narrative bears a degree of self-pity whilst attempting to maintain humility. The first person narrative tone depicts the Dalai Lama’s experience alongside fellow Tibetans and personalizes his plight, thereby reinforcing the element of personal history within Freedom in Exile. His writing demonstrates a profound experience as the Dalai Lama describes the impact of his exile on the development of Tibetan nationalism in Dharamshala, India and relays the plight of Tibetans to a worldwide audience. The first-person literary style of the Dalai Lama’s personal historical experience allows the reader to consider whether specific events involving the CCP and the Dalai Lama were inevitably prone to conflict and, in turn, enhances the reader’s conception of the nature of events in history.

A discussion of historical inevitability becomes particularly pertinent when the Dalai Lama describes his first time traveling to the People’s Republic of China, where he went to meet Mao Zedong.  The Dalai Lama’s personal convictions permitted him to approach the Chinese government in a non-confrontational matter while trying to assert Tibet’s autonomy. He attended the first session of the National People’s Congress as a delegate in order to discuss China’s constitution. The Dalai Lama recounts his first private meeting with Mao Zedong, in which Mao proposed stronger Sino-Tibetan cooperation and the disbandment of the Seventeen Point agreement. Here the Dalai Lama explicitly states that, apart from the Chinese government’s methods of implementation, he views Marxism as a theory that is based on equality and justice, which is capable of ridding the world of its ills. On one occasion he suggests that he even sought to synthesize Buddhist and Marxist doctrines as part of his broader policies for Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s seemingly peaceful interactions make the reader reconsider the origins of the Sino-Tibetan conflict. Furthermore, it allows one to reevaluate the role of an event in the structure of a historical narrative. The Dalai Lama never indicates a point at which Sino-Tibetan relations soured but rather describes a long-term process of non-cooperation. What if the Dalai Lama had been more co-operative? Was a conflict over Tibetan independence inevitable or could the CCP have been legitimately open to a discussion of Tibetan sovereignty? The number of unanswered questions that emerge from the Dalai Lama’s narrative does not only cast doubt on his historical narrative but forces the reader to reflect the role of events in history.

As an autobiography that is reliant upon the Dalai Lama’s memory as a direct source, Freedom in Exile struggles to provide an accurate account of a historical event in a manner that is considered credible to historical research.  The Dalai Lama’s more positive recollection of events in relation to the CCP highlights the main drawback of an autobiography. As the Dalai Lama describes how he interacted with Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai initially, he maintains that his interactions were largely harmonious and encouraged criticisms and open-thought, a perspective that is also perhaps undervalued given the totalitarian nature of the CCP prior to the Hundred Flowers Campaign. With a personal account that is in direct conflict with other historiographical sources, there is reason to dispute the historical accuracy of this book. On the other hand, autobiographies and memoirs are inherently prone to inaccuracy due to their reliance upon memory. Thus, they are indicative of a central flaw of popular history: what is particularly appealing may not be accurate.

Finally, the limitations of Freedom in Exile must be understood to be part of the problem of translated historical literature. The Dalai Lama indicates at the outset of Freedom in Exile that his lack of fluency in English may lead to the misconstruction of the essence of certain historical sequences and reasoning. With the vantage point of historical hindsight, it would appear very naïve for the Dalai Lama to have ever expected for Tibet to regain the isolated autonomy it enjoyed between 1912 to 1950. However, as the Dalai Lama describes his interactions with Mao, especially when he described Mao as a “most impressive man” with extraordinary speaking capabilities and how he was appointed a Vice-President of the Steering Committee of the People’s Republic of China, it becomes obvious that language is only a partial shortcoming.

The Dalai Lama’s writing illustrates the origins of the tumultuous relationship between the Dalai Lama and the CCP. He suggests that the clash of ideologies between both parties wasn’t necessarily historically inevitable, though it is easy to be weary of his claim.  Thankfully, this not only allows one to think outside the confines of nationalist, Communist Chinese propaganda but also to contemplate the more imaginative “what-if” situation of history and consider how history is understood, composed, and articulated.  On the other hand, the central drawback of popular histories becomes increasingly obvious upon understanding the Dalai Lama’s lack of understanding of English linguistic nuances. Perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate history the Dalai Lama does not intend to place a degree of emphasis on any one reason for his conflict with China, and as a result does not play up the significance and insignificance of events, but rather explains a sequence of events with his personal anecdotes.  In any case, Freedom in Exile, though a good read, cannot honestly be expected to serve as a credible source for historical research.


Tenzin Gyatso, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama, New York: Harper Collins, 1990

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