Oral-history projects in the Tibetan areas of China face the challenge of dealing with a highly contested history and a sensitive political context that raises numerous ethical questions. At the same time, this particular situation makes them compelling. This paper looks at some examples of local cadres, heads of monasteries and village elders who were a driving force in the reconstruction of the Tibetan social and cultural fabric in the 1980s and 1990s. These are people who had experienced Tibet before its radical reshaping through the Democratic Reforms of 1959, survived the Cultural Revolution and, after 1978, led their communities in their endeavours of reviving Tibetan traditions and promoting local welfare. This generation of political and religious leaders has now largely disappeared from the active scene. Their personal involvement, often above and beyond their official roles, has been crucial in the shaping of contemporary Tibet. However, Chinese official narratives and those of Tibetan exile – for opposite reasons – tend to neglect or misrepresent their contribution. This paper shows how the collecting of life histories and personal accounts makes it possible to reconstruct a 'history from below', otherwise consigned to oblivion. At the same time it provides some telling examples of how leaders negotiated the shifting boundary between the religious and the secular while trying to reconcile the moral authority of the past with a modernist vision of society. An engagement with oral history may thus provide some insights into the current tensions within the emerging Tibetan civil society that straddles a difficult pathway between the tenets of Chinese socialism and deeply engrained Buddhist morality.