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Tibet Is No Shangri-La

February 16, 2010

And the Dalai Lama is not what you think.
BY CHRISTINA LARSON
The Foreign Policy
February 15, 2010

In the popular imagination, Tibet is a land of
snow-capped mountains and sweeping vistas,
fluttering prayer flags, crystal blue skies,
saffron-robed monks spinning prayer wheels, and,
perhaps most of all, timelessness. And likewise,
the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and
its chief emissary to the West, is a man of
abiding wisdom and compassion, an inspiration and
moral compass, a beacon of calm in a frenetic
modern world. Set aside the fraught politics of
this contested region. If one word sums up what
Tibet means to the West it is this: purity.

That sensibility was entrenched long before
Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Stephen
Seagal made Tibetan freedom a cause célèbre --
most famously in the 1933 British novel Lost
Horizon, a fictional account of excursions among
lamaseries in the Himalayas, where the
protagonist encounters a people who are forever
happy, mystically content, slow to age, and
isolated from most ills that trouble the human
race. Author James Hilton (whose other notable
work is Goodbye, Mr. Chips) depicts "Shangri-la,"
a monastery nestled in a misty mountain valley;
its name has since become synonymous with earthly paradise.

Tibet's enduring hold on Western minds --
together with the energetic, globe-trotting
advocacy of the Dalai Lama -- helps explain why
the concerns of the region's minority population
are so familiar to so many so far away. (By
comparison, it took violence in the streets of
Urumqi to awaken foreign readers to the agitation
of another of China's minority groups, the
Uighurs.) In the Washington, D.C., neighborhood
where I live, more than a few homes have
decorative Tibetan prayer flags strung
sentimentally across balconies and backyard
porches. Next week, U.S. President Barack Obama
is expected to meet with the Dalai Lama in the
Oval Office -- over the inevitable protests of Chinese authorities.

Besides being the spiritual leader of Tibet, the
Dalai Lama is also the author of dozens of
religious and self-help books, from The Art of
Happiness to The Universe in a Single Atom,
published in multiple languages; he drops in to
visit political leaders in European capitals and
entertainment moguls in Los Angeles. He has
received the Nobel Peace Prize and twice been
named to Time magazine's list of the "100 Most
Influential People." The first in his lineage to
ever travel to the West, the Dalai Lama has
managed to build an impressive multinational
media and public relations. (Such is his fame and
prestige that some recent awards to His Holiness
appear motivated largely to bring good publicity
to the donor; the town of Wroclaw, Poland,
offered the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship in
2008; Memphis, Tennessee, extended a similar offer last September.)

But how much do Westerners really know about the
Dalai Lama? His advocacy of an ethos of
compassion and environmental protection are
popular among his largely left-leaning Western
admirers, while his more socially conservative
views tend to be either unknown, or selectively
ignored. (Christopher Hitchens is one of the few
to have taken exception.) He is basically
anti-abortion (except in rare circumstances) and
ambivalent about homosexuality; his 1996 book,
Beyond Dogma, was strikingly explicit in its
sexual prohibitions: "A sexual act is deemed
proper when the couples use the organs intended
for sexual intercourse and nothing else." In
recent years, his remarks on the subject have
somewhat softened: he told an audience in San
Francisco that while Buddhist teachings
historically discourage gay relationships, such
prohibitions only apply to Buddhists. (He has
also written, rather confusingly, "Homosexuality,
whether it is between men or between women, is
not improper in itself. What is improper is the
use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact.")

As for Tibet itself, it's no Shangri-la.

That is to say, there was no real place named
Shangri-la until recently, when the city of
Zhongdian (Gyalthang in Tibetan) changed its name
to recall Hilton's paradise. In truth, the modern
city is not quite a dreamscape. Situated on an
alpine plateau, in a location resembling that of
Lost Horizon, the modern city of 130,000 is
divided into an "old" and "new" town. The new
town came first. It resembles many midsize
Chinese cities that have arisen in recent
decades, with hastily erected concrete apartment
blocks and glass storefronts. The old town,
however, was built entirely in the last decade
years; it has "quaint" cobbled streets and wooden
storefronts, and when I visited last fall, I
stayed in a rustic lodge, with a wood-burning
stove and a sloppy dog who slept on the steps.
All this is pleasant fabrication for tourists
like myself, catering to what we expect to find.

Shangri-la isn't even in Tibet proper; it's
situated in the far north of China's Yunnan
province. (The region where Tibetans live
actually spans parts of five Chinese provinces,
and is known as "greater Tibet .") Han Chinese
tourists from the country's wealthy eastern
cities, who now are becoming more curious about
Tibetan lands and culture, also come here to take
in the view. They roll in on large tour buses and
stay in luxury hotels in the new town, with
banquet halls and karaoke bars. Chinese tourists
generally spend little time in Shangri-la and
instead book guided day trips to take in the
dramatic scenery. Western tourists stay in
old-town lodges, and stock their backpacks and
suitcases with hand-sewn Tibetan coats, jade
jewelry, prayer wheels and other trinkets, and
profess more interest in the Tibetan people.

Tibetans, for their part, have discovered that
there is money to be made from the outside
world's interest in them. That is to say, they
are more worldly than we typically give them
credit for. In Shangrai-la, some of the most
enterprising and entrepreneurial Tibetans can be
found running tour shops that cater, alternately,
to both Western and Chinese expectations. When I
visited the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery just
outside of town, there was, improbably, a large
construction site in the center of the grounds,
with cranes erecting new facilities for the recent surge in tourism.

It is dangerous to generalize from chance
encounters, but the young Tibetans I met there
were less ethereal, and more down-to-earth, than
our mythology suggests. Near the central square
in "old" Shangri-la, a 21-year-old Tibetan named
Tashi was sitting on the steps outside a travel
agency, waving a cigarette. "It's bad for my
health, but it looks sexy," he said. Tashi was
wearing a black Adidas jacket, tight jeans, and
had short spiky gelled hair. He told me he
fancies himself a discerning connoisseur of
global sexiness from the many American movies
he's watched. He was also, he mentioned,
distraught about Michael Jackson's death, and,
cigarette in hand, showed off his version of the
moonwalk. At night, he and his friends hung out
playing chess and drinking coffee and beer at new bars downtown.

Judging by appearances, the new generation of
Tibetans seems, in a superficial sense, rather
un-Tibetan. But that, too, is an
oversimplification, as it became clear from
talking to Tashi that he certainly thinks
differently than Han Chinese his age. For one, he
expressed little interest in Deng Xiaoping's
famous invocation "to get rich is glorious,"
which is very nearly the closest thing there is
to a unifying Chinese dream. For another, he told
me that he and his family members continue to
consult their lama, the equivalent of a priest in
Tibetan Buddhism, about major life decisions.
Recently that meant seeking the lama's spiritual
appraisal of whether Tashi's sister should marry
a pair of brothers then wooing her (Tibetan
custom permits polygamy in certain circumstances involving siblings).

Many versions of Buddhism are practiced in China,
some with tacit consent of the authorities, but
Tibetan Buddhism has proved particularly
difficult to integrate because, as with the Islam
practiced by Uighurs, it invests authority in
local religious leaders who rival the authority
of local officials. On issues ranging from
property rights to marriage customs, sparks may fly.

Tashi invited me to a Tibetan wedding reception,
held in a modest banquet room in downtown
Shangri-la, the wooden tables cluttered with
bottles of hard liquor, 3-liter Coke bottles,
six-packs of "Dali" beer (Dali is another city in
northern Yunnan province), sunflower seeds, and
trays of dumplings. The guests, mostly in their
20s, sat in plastic chairs laughing and smoking.
The bride was wearing a traditional Tibetan
costume, with her face painted and hair plaited.
The others wore jeans, leather jackets, or hooded sweatshirts.

Everyone identified themselves as "Tibetan,"
although they hailed from different provinces in
greater Tibet. The groom was from Qinghai; the
bride was from Yunnan. They teased the handful of
guests from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet proper,
for being city slickers. The stereotype, among
Tibetans, is that Lhasans are more educated,
glamorous, and somewhat deceptive, while those
from Yunnan, whose families came there as
soldiers, are supposed to be straighter-shooters.
But these distinctions matter less than the fact
that they are all Tibetans. Part of what makes
Beijing worried is the surprisingly resilient
sense of shared identity among the 6 million
Tibetans. While younger Tibetans are hardly
relics from the past, they still felt a strong
sense of separateness from the Chinese mainstream.

What they resent, they told me, is three things:
when government actions benefit new Han settlers
more than locals; when government makes incorrect
assumptions about what Tibetans really want (for
instance, the railroad into Tibet and greater
development in general); and when government
restricts their culture and practice of religion.
(To learn about traditional Tibetan culture and
heritage, many families in China who can afford
to do so send their children to study in India,
where there is a large Tibetan exile community.
Some say it is near impossible to learn about
real Tibetan culture within China.) These young
Tibetans did, not, however, say their concerns
necessarily added up to wanting independence, but
they did think that something in the system would eventually have to give.

Such grievances came to a head in Lhasa in March
2008, when a peaceful demonstration by Tibetan
monks for the release of political prisoners met
a harsh police crackdown. Rioting ensued, with
violence and casualties on both sides. Most
observers believe long-standing grievances --
about income and educational inequality between
Tibetan and non-Tibetans, and about religious
restrictions -- lay behind the unrest. For its
part, Beijing alleges without evidence that it
was an uprising planned by what Communist Party
apparatchiks call "the Dalai clique."
Unfortunately, there's no open, continuing
dialogue to bring voices about the future of the
region together in the same conversation.

The political and territorial stakes are serious,
and not likely to be resolved anytime soon. But
there is also a gauziness with which the region
and the man who represents it to the West are
most often discussed. Even in the fast-paced and
cynical 21st century, talk of Tibet still elicits
a 19th century aura of romanticism and
melancholy. In general, sentiment veils critical
thinking. In the case of Tibet, our collective
nostalgia, inexplicably, for a place most of us
have never seen lends itself to a striking
absolutism with which we discuss the place, its
people, its present condition, its future
destiny. While most things in life are murky and
grey, the Tibet of our imagination is pristine,
and the lines between good and evil are as clear as a mountain stream.

The reality is somewhat hazier, on all accounts.
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