By Thierry Dodin
NYONS, France, 29 March 2020
Our dear friend Jamyang Choegyal Kashopa was taken from us in the night on Tuesday, becoming the second Tibetan elder to succumb to the Coronavirus (COVID-19).
Driven forward by history, Jamchoe Kapshopa’s exceptional destiny unfolded in three different worlds.
He was born in old Tibet from parents who instilled in him a deep sense of the beauty and depth of Tibetan culture. As an aristocrat, whose father had been the prime minister of Tibet, he saw the glitz of old Lhasa, but also the insularity and petty-mindedness that ultimately brought about its demise.
His mother gave him to understand that the heavy gold bars kept in their cellar might well vanish one day, whereas education once imparted to him would last forever. And so he found himself in the mid-1940s at a Jesuit school in Darjeeling, back then the gate to the wide world beyond the Himalaya, and where his eyes were opened to Western-shaped modernity. Little he knew that the world he left behind in Tibet would never be the same.
Meanwhile, the wheel of history moved on, and Tibet became easy prey to feed “New China’s” myth of stolen grandeur. Already by 1953, diplomacy, appeasement, and pressure commanded that Jamchoe be moved to Chinese schools, first in Lhasa, but soon to China. He remained there for a decade and a half, going through a third cultural socialisation and acquiring a best-level Chinese education.
The Tibet he returned to in 1968 was a field of devastation and stood at the eve of an even greater cataclysm: the Cultural Revolution. The decade that followed was Jamchoe la’s darkest. Though already a ‘reformed’ aristocrat, he went through all upheavals, re-education, and many episodes about which he only made dark allusions. Most people did not make it, but he survived.
Survival came at a price, though, and when Deng Xiaoping’s political Spring brought more humane times, he decided to live henceforth a life of discreet religious observance. Nevertheless, these were also his most successful years in society. After two and a half decades of cataclysm, Tibet, or rather the TAR, was a virtual disaster area waiting for relief. Jamchoe’s unique family and personal background (he knew many of China’s leaders personally, most of them long before they came into power; he was well-acquainted with the Tenth Panchen Lama, and even had occasionally met the likes of Mao and Zhou Enlai), as well as his high level of education and his personal energy and abilities were potentials the regime felt unwilling to leave idle. He was soon involved in diverse projects that ran very successfully, and he ended up being a central figure in tourism development, the only industry that appeared at the time likely to bring some quick wealth to the roof of the world.
Trusted by the regime, he enjoyed at the time a room for manoeuver that was probably unique for a Tibetan, and even started to participate in international activities. But deep inside he remained committed to the Dalai Lama and his fellow Tibetans, using the leeway he had surrounded himself with to help wherever he could. His position in tourism allowed him for instance to facilitate access to the border areas. He used that to help Tibetans escape to Nepal and India.
Such a double life, however, could not last forever. In 1991, while on a delegation trip in London, he received a tip-off from a Chinese friend that his secret activities had been uncovered. On the spur of the moment he escaped the attention of the delegation and escaped, leaving his family and all his belongings behind. He spent the rest of his life in England as a refugee.
In the UK, he became a collaborator to the Tibet Information Network and later TibetInfoNet. His in-depth understanding of the Chinese system and its functioning, his innate sense of political analysis, and his encyclopaedic insider knowledge about the leadership made him the key resource, which for more than two decades most of our output on these topics relied on and from which we derived a reputation. His contribution has been invaluable, but he would always insist that he was “just an ordinary man with strong limitations” who happened through unintended cicumstances to have gained “some insights” that he “could only offer here for your kind consideration.” He also always clarified that “all I am doing here is attempting to repay the debt I owe to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
Working with Jamchoe la was an experience in itself. Even the smallest question would take hours to elucidate, because there was no topic he would not be able to make extensive comments on, all of them fascinating of course. He was perfectly proficient in three languages and cultures: Tibetan, Chinese, and English. He had a terrific knowledge of Chinese classics (“You know Thierry la, I had to be better than the Chinese to be equal to them! Soooo, I spent a lot of time learning”). He also knew all about Marxist theory. He would explain anything in the smallest detail, just to be sure you didn’t miss the point. His brain was also a tremendous treasure house of quotes, phrases, and particularly proverbs, in all three languages of course, which he would recite without further comments when he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, express his thinking straightforwardly.
Stunning also was the honesty and analytical distance he was capable of. I remember him telling me about Mao not being “a good human being”, but, he would add, “one has to admit he was a great writer.” This is not to say that he was not capable of emotionality. Whenever he came to speak about his brother or his son, tears would run into his eyes and his voice would break. Both had committed suicide, the former during the Cultural Revolution so he would not be forced to abjure his religious convictions, the latter hanged himself more recently in London following years of mental illness.
Apart from these work sessions, he would not socialize much. He was a sort of urban hermit, content in his small council flat, spending most of his time in prayers. To relax he would go out to feed the pigeons (he was a compulsive pigeon feeder) or watch some telly (he could be a passionate TV-trash-watcher). He needed no luxury (though he was a notorious kitsch collector). He was a character in peace with himself.
Sickness had been a part of his life for the last two decades, but he had proven to be a survivor there as well.
First, liver cancer almost killed him. Due to his advanced age, it took a long time until a transplantation could be dared. The prognosis was less than optimistic. But he surmounted that with flying colours, to the great surprise of the hospital staff who admired his unexpected resilience and quickly fell under his charm to the point that he was made a trustee of the hospital’s board.
Soon cancer recurred though. This time it sat in the guts and there was again little hope. He would say: “You know what Thierry la? You should come to see me one more time this week, because I am not sure how many opportunities we’ll still have.” Against all odds, he overcame that as well, earning himself the moniker of “lucky Jamchoe”.
Still, many more conditions came with time, making it in the end an easy game for the virus we all are now busy containing.
What had at first announced itself as the common flu brought him back to the hospital where he was diagnosed about 10 days ago. I am told he dreamt recently that he was in the presence of the Dalai Lama and had declared it meant he would “either live for another year, or die well this year.” He seemed to find that “auspicious” either way. He still had time to bring carers and doctors at Kings Hospital under his spell, and they had printed a picture of the Dalai Lama for him to see during his onward journey.
A long, rich, and exceptional journey that began in worlds now lost, passed peaks of exaltations and valleys of pain, and crossed the hearts of those who, like us, were fortunate enough to know him, has come to an end.