Western Image of Tibet Contrived, Simplistic and Devoid of Nuance
By Jared Crum '11
One day last fall, an advertisement on the streets of Beijing stopped me in my tracks. The ad for China Mobile, the country’s largest cell phone carrier, pictured a Tibetan woman in traditional dress talking on her cell phone with snow-capped peaks and a Buddhist temple in the background. I stared at it, aching to return to that magical land. Then I snapped out of it.

The romanticizing of Tibet is pervasive, pernicious and its effects on Sino-U.S. relations were on display last week when President Obama met with the Dalai Lama. China traditionally howls whenever foreigners meet with the Dalai Lama, accusing them of interfering in Chinese affairs and abetting a separatist. The Obama-Lama get-together was especially low-key since Washington can ill afford to offend China, America’s creditor and potential partner in defusing a nuclear Iran and combating the climate crisis.

America has been on the receiving end of these Chinese fits repeatedly, since it has a long record of embracing the cause of Tibetan freedom, a cause little understood by its most ardent American champions. To understand why celebrities embrace the Dalai Lama like a hip bottled water, it’s necessary to grasp the history of Tibet’s image in the West.

In 1933, English author James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon” was published. The book was set in the utopian kingdom of Shangri-La, hidden high in the Himalayas, where the characters discover a paradise of longevity and peace. The name “Shangri-La” is now associated with such an Eden. The novel was so popular President Franklin Delano Roosevelt named his Maryland retreat Shangri-La. It’s now “Camp David,” but the image of Himalayan Tibet as an idyllic throwback stuck.

This image was the cultural inspiration for the China Mobile ad that mesmerized me. The world has come to picture Tibetans as uncorrupted, gentle people tending flocks in a mysterious, faraway land of snowy mountains and chanting Buddhist monks. Famous photos of Tibet testify to this, featuring rainbows, palaces and other mystical elements.

The romanticizing of Tibet and its people mask a surprising history. The Tibetans once had a large empire that conquered others, used royal marriage as diplomacy and mixed church and state. In fact, the ascendant Tibetan Buddhist sect the Dalai Lama leads, the Gelugpa, won power with backroom intrigue and political maneuvering centuries ago.

I stepped into the idealized Tibet when I traveled to China’s Yunnan province in September. I left Beijing for two weeks and traveled with my ethnic studies class, living and interacting with Tibetans. The borders of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) have been somewhat arbitrarily drawn by the caprices of history, and Tibetans live in neighboring provinces including Yunnan, where they have a large and influential presence (the TAR is off limits to foreigners). I was in what’s called “Greater Tibet.”

The reality I found did not match the myth. “If you walk down the streets of Lhasa and ask 10 people what they think about China,” my professor said, “you’ll get 10 different answers.” In the Tibetan village that hosted us, I was surprised to find photos of Chinese Communist leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong in a home’s Buddhist shrine. Our host mother explained the photos honored “China’s most influential leaders.” The posters featuring Chinese Communist leaders that I woke up to every morning may have been the work of the local Communist Party, but the shrine photos were not. These Tibetans chose to put them there and felt some level of pride in being part of China.

True to my professor’s prediction, other Tibetans took a more skeptical view. Our trip guide, Zhaxi (pronounced “Josh E.”), noted with resentment during China’s National Day celebration that he had been “working for China [his] whole life.” Tibetans see Chinese tourists as rude, condescending and dismissive. Zhaxi confirmed this as often too true.

Although Westerners see Tibetans as tyrannized and crushed by the Chinese fist, Tibetans themselves cannot agree on the merits and demerits of China’s presence there. Many are glad for and welcome the infrastructure benefits that have flowed from China’s attention. Roads, bridges, schools and hospitals have come to a land that didn’t know them before. In short, modernization arrived.

Modernization, however, has an ugly downside — cultural destruction. I was reminded that many of the statues and paintings I saw in temples were new. Their predecessors were ransacked and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Traditional Tibetan ways also face challenges from market liberalization. Tibetan culture struggles to adapt to a market economy, leaving many profitable businesses in the hands of Chinese and impeding economic empowerment.

In the end, ambivalence reigns in Tibet. Most people appreciate Beijing’s development efforts, including the newly completed world’s highest railway, linking Tibet with prosperous eastern China. Most Tibetans do not want independence — including Richard Gere’s buddy, the Dalai Lama. The situation is not simple, not a bumper sticker, and Tibet should not be romanticized as something it’s not.

My thoughts often return to a Tibetan village evening on my Yunnan trip. A television ad featuring wealthy people on a sailboat caught our host mother’s attention. What was she thinking? Was she puzzled? Amazed? Did she long to experience that glamorous life, if only briefly, leaving behind the cows, fields and yak butter tea of her village? I’m not sure, but maybe longing for “Shangri-La” is something we can all relate to.

Issue 16, Submitted 2010-02-24 02:36:34