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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

On the roof of the world

April 28, 2008

Sunday April 27, 2008
The Observer

[The furore over her TV series can't hide the fact that Sun Shuyun's A
Year in Tibet is a fascinating study of a little-known land, says
Rebecca Seal]

The television series that this book accompanies has caused a fair
amount of controversy in print and online. On a number of blogs,
pro-Tibetan independence campaigners and pro-Chinese writers have used
the five-part documentary as a starting point for arguments around the
big questions of Tibetan autonomy and Chinese oppression. Those on the
side of the Tibetans accuse the programme makers and the BBC of failing
to address the subjugation of Tibetans by China. There's a lot of anger
about the programme's treatment of the Panchen Lama, a high-level
Tibetan spiritual leader - second only to the Dalai Lama - who, many
Tibetans believe, is a Chinese proxy for the Dalai Lama's own choice, a
six-year-old child who disappeared with his family in 1995.

The Panchen Lama pays a visit to the Gyantse monastery in the series,
and some critics have suggested that by not adequately detailing how he
came to power, the BBC is complicit in Chinese corruption and tyranny.
Others say the BBC has created a piece of pro-Chinese propaganda and
that controls on media activity in Tibet are such that no documentary
openly made there (like this one) would ever be allowed to reflect real
life in Tibet accurately. Naturally the pro-Chinese bloggers disagree.
The recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme, Undercover in Tibet, included
secretly filmed interviews with people who claimed they'd been illegally
interned, tortured or forcibly sterilised, as well as disturbing footage
of the China's overwhelming military presence.

The intentions of A Year in Tibet are different. Sun Shuyun, the
location producer who made the programmes and lived in a Tibetan
community for a year to do so, and who then wrote this book, is clear
that her project is anthropological. Her agenda, for better or worse, is
not particularly political. It is almost certainly true that Shuyun's
filming would have been closely monitored. It is also true that she is
Chinese and was leading a mixed crew of Chinese and Tibetans. This
raises a set of questions about the extent to which programme makers and
organisations such as the BBC have a responsibility to tell the whole
story, rather than just the bits they choose or are easily able to.

If the recent riots in Tibet had not taken place, or the travelling
circus that is the progress of the Olympic torch hadn't drawn further
attention, it's unlikely that A Year in Tibet would be widely seen as
anything other than a charming look at ordinary Tibetan life, rather
than as an irresponsible sop to Chinese sensibilities.

Shuyun admits that her book allows her to be much more nuanced and
detailed than films can. Presumably she is freer to speak her mind in
print now that she is out of Tibet, so she does discuss the Panchen Lama
in greater detail than in the programme, as well as broader concerns
such as poverty and the appalling standard of healthcare available to
Tibetan communities; prohibitively expensive for the majority who are
subsistence farmers, wrenching a living from the high-altitude arable
land that makes up less than 1 per cent of Tibet's territory.

Precisely because of her anthropological bent, Shuyun only discusses
these things in as much as they are relevant to the families she spent
the year following: a shaman and his family, monks at Gyantse monastery,
a very poor rickshaw driver, a Communist party worker, a builder, a
doctor and a hotel manager. When the shaman is asked to assess a
couple's suitability for marriage, Shuyun learns that the bride will
only be told she is getting married on her wedding day and that she will
probably have to marry the groom's school-age younger brother because
traditionally most Tibetan brothers share their wives in a very literal
fashion. So it is only then that she writes about the paradoxical status
of women in Tibet, as both revered and as chattels.

Similarly, a death in one of the villages they film in prompts Shuyun to
address 'sky burials', a method of disposing of corpses that has left
Tibetans with a long-standing reputation for savagery. Bodies are
dismembered and ritually fed to vultures, which is seen as the only way
to ensure the soul is correctly released. This is also sensible in a
land where the earth is frozen solid half the time and precious diggable
land is used to grow food. Throughout A Year in Tibet, it is experiences
like these, at the micro level, that intrigue Shuyun. Yes, the book
could be more political, but it would be wrong to suggest that it should
be. Censored or not, it is still an enlightening look at one of the
least known peoples on the planet.
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