Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-la from the Himalayas to Hollywoodby Orville Schell
The Dalai Lama meets The Player-from the Himalayas to Hollywood, a fantastic journey into the West's longstanding dream of Tibet.
What has made remote, mountainous Tibet and its only real celebrity, the Dalai Lama, so abidingly fascinating to the West? From Marco Polo's vision of Tibet as a land of enchanters to James Hilton's dream of Shangri-la in Lost Horizon,
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
The Dalai Lama meets The Player-from the Himalayas to Hollywood, a fantastic journey into the West's longstanding dream of Tibet.
What has made remote, mountainous Tibet and its only real celebrity, the Dalai Lama, so abidingly fascinating to the West? From Marco Polo's vision of Tibet as a land of enchanters to James Hilton's dream of Shangri-la in Lost Horizon, why have Westerners projected their yearnings onto that inaccessible place as onto no other corner on earth? In Virtual Tibet, Orville Schell, one of the preeminent experts on modern China and Tibet, undertakes a strange and wondrous odyssey into our Tibetan fantasies. He recounts the spellbinding tale of the Western adventurers, explorers, and spiritualists who for centuries were bent on reaching forbidden Tibet and the holy city of Lhasa. At the same time, Schell leads us on a riveting present-day journey from Hollywood dharma study groups and Beastie Boy "Free Tibet" concerts to a re-creation of Lhasa in the high Argentine Andes, which was the extravagant set of Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. As the past and the present, ancient customs and the superstar culture collide, Schell sheds light on the danger of blurring virtual and real worlds.
A fabulous spectacle, peopled by celebrity Buddhists and Tibetan bonzes, Yak wranglers and high-powered publicists, Steven Seagal and the Dalai Lama, Virtual Tibet is an elegantly written work of extraordinary charm, power, and insight.
The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
Tibet as Place and Myth
One may debate, of course, whether any place on our increasingly small planet remains untouched by the homogenizing effects of jet travel and the global marketplace. What is not in question, however, is the yearning of disenchanted Westerners to believe in such places. Indeed, to acknowledge that such lands may no longer exist has seemed too bleak a thought for most of us in modern life to bear.
When in 1869 the British colonial government in India posted Elizabeth Sarah Mazuchelli's husband to Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills, she immediately fell in love with the area's "fierce majesty and barren grandeur." What appealed to her about those "perpetually snow-clad" and remote mountains was the thought that "no solemn garden parties or funereal dinners, no weary conventionalities of society, follow us here." Similarly, Leslie Weir, the first Englishwoman to reach Lhasa, told the Royal Asiatic and Royal Central Asian societies in 1931, "We cannot realize how much we have sacrificed during these late years of scientific advance and of accelerated speed ... [while] the Tibetans have retained poise, dignity, and spiritual repose," all things, she insisted, that modern Westerners had "lost in [their] hectic striving."
Few places on the globe have been afforded better geographical conditions for remaining isolated than Tibet, protected as it is from Central Asia by the Kunlun Mountains and the deserts of Qinghai and Xinjiang to the north, from China by the rugged foothills of the Tibetan Plateau,and from India by the Himalayas. Never mind that it was not the quaint pocket-sized kingdom tucked behind the mountains that many in the West came to believe it to be but instead a vast, arid, and sparsely populated land as large as Western Europe. What mattered was how people wanted to imagine it.
Fantasies of escape are naturally more powerful when rooted in real geography; the concreteness of an actual place helps us believe our romantic myths are something more than baseless, chimerical dreams. As the explorer Sven Hedin wrote in his book To the Forbidden Land: Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet, "Romantic pleasure must arise from what is firmly believed, at least for the nonce, to be an aspect of reality.... The antique and the exotic, war and warlike adventure, chivalrous love and duty, the supernatural in many shapes, which were once de rigueur as some of the ingredients of Romance, could only move on the strict assumption that they were real and even actualthat they had happened somewhere and to somebody, either in this world or in another."
More than any other land, Tibet has provided just such an enticing target for a corpus of romantic transferences and has continuously fired the imagination of Western escape artists. Its very namegenerally believed to have come from the combination of two Tibetan words, To, meaning "upper," and Po, the name that Tibetans themselves call their landhas long summoned forth images of a quintessentially exotic fairy-tale kingdom distinguished by spiritual attributes whose loss we lament in our own contemporary lives: "uncompromised faith, simplicity, isolation, calm, and spiritual mystery" is how Mazuchelli described them after visiting Pemionchi monastery while on a trek in 1869 to view Mount Everest. "Strange as were the surroundings of these pagans, and grim as were their symbols, how can I find language to express the majesty and grandeur of their worship, which impressed me more deeply than anything I have ever seen or heard?"
The Himalayas, which separate Tibet from the Indian subcontinent (and whose name is derived from the ancient Sanskrit words hima and alaya, meaning "abode of snow"), were created by a geological upthrust of rock as India, then a vast island, collided with the Eurasian landmass some forty-five million years ago. That tectonic collision of geological plates created a fifteen-hundred-mile-long range of mountains that rises from the tropical rainforests above Burma to form a great snowy arc running westward through Bhutan, Sikkim, Tibet, and Nepal to Pakistan and boasting the highest and youngest peaks in the world. Sven Hedin called the Himalayas "the most stupendous upheaval to be found on the face of our planet." The British explorer Edward Amundsen described them as "like a sea, the gigantic waves of which, driven by northern and southern winds, have changed to stone at the moment of their worst fury," and as Edwin Bernbaum writes of the Himalayas in his gorgeously photographed book, Sacred Mountains of the World, "The sight of their sublime peaks, soaring high and clean above the dusty, congested plains of India, has for centuries inspired visions of transcendent splendor and spiritual liberation."
In the late nineteenth century, when "wonders" had become by definition scientific, when the church had increasingly lost power, and when the divine rights of kings and royalty were fast falling to democracies and dictatorships, the idea that somewhere there existed a feudal theocracy ruled by a compassionate God-king and a colorful aristocracy that labored not for industrial production or colonial expansion but for the spiritual enlightenment of humanityand did so under golden monastery roofsproved irresistibly attractive to a disenchanted West.
It hardly needs to be said that Tibet's snow-capped mountains and alpine deserts do not, in fact, offer the easy gratification of our earthly needs promised, for instance, by our fantasies of tropical island paradises with their palm-fringed beaches and azure lagoons. Indeed, until recently, Tibet was entirely devoid of most amenities. Tibetans did not even adopt the wheelexcept for purposes of prayeruntil the second half of the twentieth century, when Chinese occupiers finally arrived. Most of Tibet is thousands of feet above sea level and possesses one of the more inhospitable climates on earth. It has an indigenous cuisine made up of things that most Westerners have found virtually inedible, and through most of this century was populated by a largely nomadic people who engaged in only the most rudimentary personal hygiene. What is more, Tibetans have shown themselves to be capable of considerable savagery against one another, not to mention outsiders. Yet this catalog of dubiously utopian attributes has seldom hindered rapturous Western dreams.
To this day, Tibet is still imagined as "the cure for an ever-ailing Western civilization, a tonic to restore its spirit," as Tibet scholar Donald Lopez writes in his recent book, Prisoners of Shangri-La. "To the growing number of Western adherents of Tibetan Buddhism `traditional Tibet' has come to mean something from which strength and identity are to be derived ... a land free from strife, ruled by a benevolent Dalai Lama, his people devoted to the dharma." Though many Europeans and Americans have been captivated by other forms of "Oriental" religion, Tibet's brand of Buddhismsteeped as it is in tales of magic and mystery, including accounts of unbelievable spiritual featscontinues to hold a special fascination.
Buddhism, which ultimately mixed with nativist shamanism in Tibet, was originally founded by Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Born in the middle of the sixth century B.C. into a wealthy family on the border between present-day Nepal and India, he set out to wander as an ascetic to acquaint himself with the suffering of ordinary people. The experience is said to have caused him to renounce his life of privilege in order to search instead for the true nature of reality and existence. Through his efforts he came to be known as the Shakyamuni, meaning "the hermit of the Shakya clan" in Sanskrit. His teachings, or the dharma, grew out of his realization while meditating under a bodhi tree that human existence is bounded by the "four noble truths," namely that life is filled with suffering, attachment and desire are the root of most suffering, liberation from desire and the self is possible, and such liberation, or enlightenment, can be attained by leading a compassionate life of virtue, meditation, and wisdom.
According to the Shakyamuni Buddha, or "enlightened one"whose recitations were transcribed by one of his disciples, Ananda, in sutras, literally meaning "threads" or "strings"the way to enlightenment requires adherence to a "noble eightfold path" that commits followers to strive to maintain right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In the Buddhist view, life's endless sufferings can be escaped only by accepting the impermanence and illusionary nature of reality. As the Buddha says in the Prajna Paramita, a group of his most famous sutras, "Regard this fleeting world like this: like stars fading and vanishing at dawn, like bubbles on a fast moving stream, like morning dewdrops evaporating on blades of grass, like a candle flickering in a strong wind, echoes, mirages, phantoms, hallucinations, and like a dream."
Buddhism does not promise salvation by a supernatural God residing in some cosmic heaven. Instead, it promises release from samsara, the painful cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, to nirvana, a state of everlasting enlightenment and liberation. This freeing of one's essential consciousness from endless reincarnations caused by karma, the residue of one's earthly actions, can be attained only by showing compassion in one's corporeal life toward all sentient beings. In the words of the Buddha, "Do not do anything harmful; do only what is good; purify and train your own mind."
Within a century and a half of his death, Buddhism had divided into two main schools: Hinayana (the so-called lesser vehicle, still practiced in parts of South and Southeast Asia today, also known as Theravada Buddhism) emphasized the salvation of the individual, while Mahayana (the greater vehicle, variants of which are practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, Japan, and certain parts of Southeast Asia) emphasized the need to strive for the collective salvation of all human beings. Neither tradition believed in a supernatural God the creator. In this sense, Buddhism was as much a set of ethical teachings, a philosophy of life that could lead to a form of earthly enlightenment, as the theology of a transcendental faith.
It was Mahayana Buddhism that was first transmitted to Tibet sometime around the seventh century A.D. There, over the next few centuries, it slowly fused with Bon, an indigenous animistic faith centered on a priesthood whose role was to ensure the happiness of the deceased in the afterlife by propitiating myriad spirits, deities, demons, and demigods whom Tibetans imagined to inhabit every part of the natural landscape. The clerics of this new fusion became known in Tibetan as lamas, the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit guru, a word meaning "heavy" or "weighty," suggesting that a guru is weighty with good spiritual qualities. L. Austine Waddell somewhat disparagingly writes in his path-breaking 1895 book on Tibetan Buddhism, "Lamaism [as it was then known] is only thinly and imperfectly varnished over with Buddhist symbolism, beneath which a sinister growth of poly-demonist superstition darkly appeals."
If Buddhism changed Bon in Tibet, Bon also changed Buddhism. Into the Buddhist pantheon were incorporated Bon's spirits as new protective demonsthe ghoulish, macabre figures that one still encounters in Tibetan art. Also incorporated into its practice were aspects of its elaborate rituals, sacrifices, exorcisms, and prognostications by oracles and wizards allegedly able to communicate with the deceased. Indeed, even today in India, where he lives in exile, the Dalai Lama regularly consults the Nechung oracle, who has long been considered his personal protector and who offers him advice on grave matters while in a trancelike state of possession and speaking in tongues.
In A.D. 779, the Buddhist master Padmasambhava, or guru Rinpoche, journeyed from India to Tibet to help found the first Buddhist monastery, Samye, just south of Lhasa. By the thirteenth century, Buddhism had spawned a complex series of monastic orders whose rival monasteries mirrored the land's fragmented political structure. The distinctive brand of Buddhist teaching that we know today as Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana (the diamond vehicle), had been codified and accepted as Tibet's prevailing faith. Vajrayana Buddhism added to the by then standard Buddhist spiritual practices of meditation and chanting an assortment of other techniques, including yoga, tantric sexual rituals, visualizations, and repetitive prayers to the Buddha himself that are carried out through recitation and the use of prayer wheels and prayer flags.
One of the most important features of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism is the notion of the bodhisattva, or "enlightened being," who out of universal compassion for the suffering of others seeks Buddhahood in order to better help save those still trapped in the inescapable cycles of samsara, the conditionality of a worldly existence. Tibetan Buddhism's most fundamental precept is that motivation determines actions and that if one wishes to act compassionately and gain enlightenment, one must vigilantly strive to cultivate a high state of consciousness about what one does and how it may affect others. Why? Because upon death, what the Dalai Lama has described as the "imprint" of a former being's consciousness, or karma, will remain as a residue that is "reincarnated" in a new animal, human, or divine form.
According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, when the reincarnation of a particularly enlightened being occurs in human form, that person is known as a tulku, which literally means "emanation body." (Tulkus are often referred to in English as "living Buddhas," a literal translation of the Chinese characters huofo but a somewhat misleading expression of this uniquely Tibetan institution.) The most eminent Tibetan tulku is the Dalai Lama. Traditionally, the Dalai Lama has been viewed as both the spiritual and the temporal leader of all Tibetans. The traditional belief that he is also the reincarnation of the mythic bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan), the transcendent Buddha of compassion, did not become part of the institution's mystique until around 1650, when the fifth Dalai Lama, still known as the Great Fifth to Tibetans, sought to add a measure of religious depth to his official persona. At the same time, the Great Fifth also declared that his old master at Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse was the reincarnation of Amitabha, the Buddha of light, reputed to be the father of Avalokiteshvara, thus creating the institution of the Panchen Lama, whose name derives from his Tibetan appellation, Panchen Rinpoche, "The Great Gem of Learning."
Another distinctive characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism is the monastic life it spawned. Each monastery was traditionally organized around one or more tulkus, just as the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse was organized around the Panchen Lama. But monasteries were more than just ascetic religious retreats for the land's hierarchical priesthood. Since Tibet had virtually no cities, monasteries also became the focal point of social life for the land's largely nomadic populace. Monasteries were where Tibetans were educated, where commerce was conducted, and where society interacted during religious festivals. (There was also a parallel structure: large estates farmed by feudal serfs whose lands were held by members of the aristocratic class, who helped run the temporal side of Tibetan governance.) By the time of the Chinese Communist occupation of Tibet in 1950, there were said to be over twenty-five hundred monasteries spread throughout Tibetan ethnic areas, almost all of which would be destroyed or severely damaged in the decades of Maoist political upheaval that followed.
While the Himalayas served as a natural barrier against intruders from the south, the approaches to Tibet from the east and north were less formidable. In truth, however, it was Tibetans who first broke out of their natural geographical isolation, not outsiders who broke in. By the end of the seventh century A.D., King Songtsen Gampo had begun to unify Tibet's disparate clans and created the semblance of a capital in Lhasa, which controlled a powerful Tibetan empire in Central Asia in which an increasingly sophisticated culture arose. Its influence came to extend from Nepal in the south and Kashgar in the west to Khotan in the north and the Chinese border regions to the east. In fact, in A.D. 763, Tibetans attacked and pillaged the Tang dynasty capital of Chang'an (today's Xian), then perhaps the most cosmopolitan and cultured city in the world. While Tibet's current relationship to China is one of subordination, during imperial times there were long periods when the connection was far more ambiguous.
In the ninth century, however, the power of the Tibetan empire waned and it was not until the rise of the Mongols four centuries later that Tibet once again broke out of its isolation, this time by allying itself with the Great Khan. While Tibet submitted to Mongol temporal power, Mongol leaders gave Tibetan Buddhism a central place in their religious life; the result was a curious synergy between the two Central Asian peoples that came to be known as the yon-chö, or "patron-priest" relationship. The Mongols (yon, or "patrons") "protected" the Tibetans (chö, or "priests"), including the Dalai Lama, who in turn provided spiritual guidance to Mongolia. In fact, the name Dalai Lama (dalai means "ocean" in Mongolian) was conferred in 1578 by Altan Khan, a Mongolian prince, on Sonam Gyatso, the third Dalai Lama, because gyatso means "ocean" in Tibetan.
When Kublai Khan conquered China and set up the Mongol Yuan dynasty in Beijing in 1279, Tibet became a peripheral part of this new empire, wedded to China, in a manner of speaking, by a "barbarian" matchmaker. Under the Ming dynasty (1368-1642), Tibet's relations with China continued, although in a considerably diminished manner. While Chinese emperors conferred honorific titles on certain Tibetan notables, they exerted none of the political authority that the Mongols had enjoyed. In 1662, however, when another "barbarian" tribe, the Manchus, overthrew the Ming to set up the Qing dynasty, they began to jockey for power over Tibet. A complicated series of shifting alliances between the Tibetans, the Mongols, and the Manchus finally brought Qing troops, allied with the seventh Dalai Lama, to Lhasa itself in 1720; and in 1721, in a decree issued in the name of the Qing court, Tibet was declared a vassal state. To consolidate their protectorate, the Manchus henceforth posted a military garrison and a handful of imperial representatives, or ambans, in Lhasa.
Until the twentieth century, the West was little more than a footnote in Tibetan history. An irony of Tibet's current relations with the West is that for two centuries its celebrated resistance to Western intrusion, its very "forbiddenness," was as much imposed by a wary and conservative Tibetan clergy as by suspicious Chinese ambans who did not want to see that land become a back door into China for European imperialists.
In 1904, the worst fears of both came to pass when Colonel Francis Younghusband's expeditionary force set off from India for Lhasa. Worried that czarist Russia had designs on this remote region, the British viceroy in India dispatched Younghusband with just over a thousand British and Indian troops to force the Tibetans to renounce any intention of allying with Saint Petersburg. The expedition would ultimately march all the way to the "forbidden city" and leave a toll of several thousand dead and wounded Tibetans behind.
In the wake of this incursion, the ailing Qing dynasty sent an army of its own to Lhasa to reassert its administrative and military authority. But time had run out on China's last imperial dynasty. In 1911, the Qing was overthrown, its troops were expelled from Lhasa, and Tibet entered a period of almost forty years during which it exercised virtual independence over its affairs.
During these decades, Tibet achieved many of the hallmarks of self-rule: a functioning government, a tax system, its own currency, a postal system, and a small military. The Tibetans even negotiated certain agreements directly with the British as if they were a sovereign power. "Whatever political theorists might say," Hugh E. Richardson, former head of the British mission in Lhasa, would write in his 1962 book, Tibet and Its History, "the Tibetan government could and did follow a course of action completely independent of the government of China." Indeed, even the representative of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, Shen Tsung-lien, who arrived in Lhasa in 1946, acknowledged in his own book, Tibet and the Tibetans, that the country had enjoyed de facto independence since 1911.
Yet Tibet was not quite a nation in the European sense. Indeed, at no time did any Western power come out in favor of its independence or grant it diplomatic recognition, and in the minds of the Chinese Nationalists and Communists alike, Tibet, like Taiwan, continued to be viewed as a de jure and integral part of China.
After the Communist Party's victory over Chiang's Nationalists in 1949, Mao Zedong set about reunifying all the errant pieces of China's old multiethnic empire, traditionally viewed as including han (Central Chinese), man (Manchus), meng (Mongolians), hui (Moslems), and zang (Tibetans). Indeed, as it had been for the founders of so many previous Chinese dynasties, the task of reunification was viewed by Mao's revolutionary government as an almost sacred obligation. Since it was the official Party view that China had been "dismembered"literally fen'gua, or "cut up like a melon"by predatory imperialist powers, reunification was a tangible way for Mao to show the world that China had, in fact, finally "stood up" and would henceforth strive aggressively to restore and defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Officials in Lhasa responded with alarm to China's declarations that it wished to "liberate" Tibet from feudal bondage. They tried to beef up their backward military and break out of their self-imposed isolation. In October 1950, however, after negotiations failed, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) began a military occupation of Eastern Tibet, and soon thereafter the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa with his cabinet for the Indian border. In the spring of 1951, after the United Nations refused to consider Tibet's appeals for help, a Tibetan delegation finally went to Beijing and signed an accord, the Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, but without the Dalai Lama's approval. The agreement acknowledged Chinese sovereignty"The Tibetan people shall return to the big family of the motherland"in return for a promise of "national regional autonomy" that would allow Tibetans to maintain their traditional religious, political, and economic systems until "the people raise demands for reform." But it also granted China the right to set up a military headquarters in Lhasa.
After the Dalai Lama's return to Lhasa, for a while a fragile peace looked like it might hold. Indeed, it is often forgotten now that in the early 1950s the Dalai Lama himself was quite sympathetic to some of the liberationist sentiments then sweeping Mao's China. In a conversation several years ago, he told me that, threatening as he found the Chinese, the Communist Party's emphasis on serving the oppressed and championing the commonweal over the interests of private individuals appealed to him. In fact, in 1954 he traveled to Beijing to meet Mao and even dared hope that the Party might prove to be the savior of the poor and downtrodden in Tibet as well as in China. "I began to get very enthusiastic about the possibilities of association with the People's Republic of China," he later wrote. "The more I looked at Marxism, the more I liked it. Here was a system based on equality and justice for everyone."
Although he also received "a strong impression of rigidity" and of "paranoia" while in Beijing, he expressed a willingness to become a Party member and to try to "work out a synthesis of Buddhist and Marxist doctrines that really would prove an effective way of conducting politics." One day shortly before the Dalai Lama left for Lhasa, however, Mao reportedly turned to him and whispered, "Your attitude is good, you know." Then, in a way that chilled him, Mao added that "religion is poison" because "it neglects material progress."
The Chinese Communists, of course, viewed old Tibet through their own ideological lenses as a decadent and oppressive society in which ordinary people had been exploited by serfdom, theocratic rule, and a land-tenure system stacked in favor of the aristocracy and the clergy. Indeed, there were many aspects of Tibet's feudal social and political system that were deeply unjust and autocratic. What held the fabric of Tibetan life together, however, was the common bond of Buddhism, which gave at least the illusion of a shared purpose and meaning to every level of society. But where this belief system might have seemed to a nomad or serf a sacred and unalterable fact of life, to Communists steeped in the notion of religion as the opium of the masses, it was anathema. They viewed Tibet's traditional society, where the vast majority of the population were illiterate and many were virtually "owned" by noble landholding families or monasteries, as feudal in the extreme. As Marshal Chen Yi described it on a visit to Lhasa, China's ultimate commitment was to "rid Tibet of its backward situation."
When China began dismantling monasteries, forcing the organization of agricultural cooperatives, and initiating "democratic reforms" in Kham, or Eastern Tibet, conflict quickly arose. By 1956, opposition had catalyzed into armed resistance. It was at this time that the American Central Intelligence Agency began aiding Tibetan guerrillas, even transporting several hundred of them to Camp Hale in Colorado for military training.
The fighting culminated in 1959 with an uprising in Lhasa against the Chinese occupation. In March of that year, the Dalai Lama fled once again, this time all the way to Dharamsala, India, where he set up a government in exile. He would sadly remember departing Lhasa "in a daze of sickness and weariness and unhappiness deeper than I can express."
When the Cultural Revolution swept through Tibet in the mid-1960s, Red Guards, not a few of whom were themselves young Tibetans, launched a form of class warfare, savagely attacking what the Party described as all "remnants of old customs, values, and beliefs." Before the political paroxysm was spent, almost all Tibet's monasteries were in ruins, thousands of monks had been imprisoned or murdered, almost every aristocrat had had his property expropriated, and ordinary people had had their religious lives radically circumscribed. Animosity between Tibetans and Han Chinese rose to dangerous levels.
After Mao's death in 1976, the relatively liberal Hu Yaobang became Party general secretary and Beijing's policy toward Tibet softened considerably. Returning from a 1980 trip to Tibet that evidently shocked him, Hu called on all Party cadres to implement new "flexible policies suited to conditions in Tibet," including more autonomy and support for indigenous Tibetan culture, albeit still "under the unified leadership of the party Central Committee." Negotiations with representatives of the Dalai Lama were then initiated and several fact-finding missions composed of supporters of the government in exile were allowed to visit Tibet.
What finally ended these few years of hopeful moderation when reconciliation might have been possible was a spate of anti-Chinese riots in support of Tibetan independence that broke out in Lhasa in September 1987. By the end of October, a number of Tibetan monks had been shot by the police and Lhasa was again seething with tension. When in March 1988 and again in 1989 anti-Chinese proindependence demonstrators once again took to the streets of the city, Beijing declared martial law. The crackdown represented a stark end to Beijing's willingness to resolve the Tibet question through compromise. These disturbances and Beijing's ongoing militant insistence that Tibet was a sovereign part of China set off a global debate over the rights of an ethnically distinct, linguistically different, culturally unique, geographically separate people who had attained a high level of de facto self-rule to gain self-determination from the sovereign claims of a multiethnic state like the People's Republic of China.
Needless to say, each side of this unequal standoff had an elaborate and carefully, if selectively, researched version of history that supported its own claims. That both versions have a certain polemical coherence and a certain quotient of truth only makes sorting out the intricacies of this fractious relationship all the more daunting.
During these years of upheaval, the Tibetan government in exile adopted an aggressive new strategy for gaining support for their cause: a global publicity campaign to portray Tibetans as the victims of Chinese oppression. Instead of simply seeking to win concessions through negotiations, they also began vigorously to court world opinion through organizations like the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., and through more frequent high-visibility trips abroad by the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, the effort succeeded in antagonizing China even as it ignited new support for a Tibet already on the figurative hard drives of many Westerners. And so, a whole new chapter in the history of the West's vicarious involvement with that land began. Western respect for and fascination with the Dalai Lama took a quantum leap in 1989 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But it was a grand humiliation for China to have its first Nobel Peace Prize winner be a minority dissident in exile, and Sino-Tibetan relations entered an even more intractable phase.
Often forgotten in this controversy was the fact that by 1994 China had invested over $4 billion in Tibet and had initiated over sixty major new infrastructure projects there. In 1996 alone, Beijing pumped another $600 million into this essentially nonproductive protectorate. The rights and wrongs of the situation aside, many were left wondering whether Tibet could realistically hope to make it alone, should independence ever be offered.
As of today, Beijing's position remains more rigid than ever, even as the posture of the Dalai Lama has become considerably more flexible, especially on the question of independence, In 1988, he suggested that Tibet be granted not outright independence but some kind of political autonomy "founded on a constitution of basic law" and a form of government that would give Tibet "the fight to decide on all affairs relating to Tibet and Tibetans," while leaving matters of defense and foreign affairs in the hands of Beijing.
China, however, has shown few signs of reappraising its hard-line approach. Indeed, even President Clinton's unusual exchange with President Jiang Zemin of China during a June 1998 summit in Beijing did little to thaw the situation. "I have spent time with the Dalai Lama," Clinton cheerfully quipped to Jiang. "I believe him to be an honest man, and I believe if he had a conversation with President Jiang, they would like each other very much." Two years later, China's posture toward Tibet was as uncompromising as ever. Raidi (some Tibetans use a single name), the chairman of the People's Congress of Tibet, and Legqog, the head of the Beijing-appointed Tibetan Autonomous Region government, were blaming the United States, Britain, and the Dharamsala government for its support of Tibetan separatists and vilifying the Dalai Lama as "the chief representative of the feudal serf system" that had reduced the Tibetan people to "animal status." Of course, Jiang, like other Chinese, tends not to romanticize Tibet as many Westerners do. Indeed, he expressed incredulity that those who live in countries where "education in science and technology has developed to a very high level" and where "people are now enjoying modern civilization" should still "have a belief in Lamaism."
Many observers believe that Beijing has simply decided to wait until the sixty-five-year-old (as of July 6, 2000) Dalai Lama passes from the scene and is counting on Tibet to become ever more Sinicized and so more amenable to Chinese rule. (The area currently included in the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region contains fewer than half the ethnic Tibetans in China. And due to the massive PLA presence and the recent wave of government-sanctioned immigration from the border regions of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces, the Tibetan Autonomous Region now has almost as many Han Chinese as Tibetans.)
Unexpectedly, though, the Beijing government has found itself confronting a new problem nearly as intractable as the Tibetan activists and independence seekers. To their dismay, Party leaders began to realize that China somehow had to find a way to rule over another Tibet, a symbolic one championed by a far more fantastic kingdom than any that had ever existed behind the Himalayasthe kingdom of Hollywood. Its coin of the realm was far more persuasive and influential than sutras, monks, and monasteries, and as the 1990s proceeded, the citizens of this kingdom threatened to take possession of this other Tibet as a form of intellectual propertyto internationalize it and challenge China's version of its "liberation" in ways that seemed beyond the ability of Party leaders to grasp, much less control.
Aided by Hollywood's global public relations machine, the West did, in fact, come to project a new set of assumptions, this time political, on its Shangri-La. The realities of the emotion-laden China-Tibet question were anything but simple, but to foreigners looking on from afar, the Chinese occupation and the destruction of Tibetan culture seemed similar to some brutal forms of nineteenth-century Western colonization, which were also based on no more than the flimsiest claims to sovereignty. For such Westerners, to whom the International Campaign for Tibet was now appealing from its Washington, D.C., office, the Chinese were crushing not only a traditional society but the dream of Shangri-La itself. For many Westerners who had allowed themselves to dream the dream of Tibet, Chinese rule represented a paradise lost.
The kingdom of Hollywood's fin de siècle seizure of Tibet as a subject for its films raised a curious new question: Who in this global era would be the final arbiter of which version of Tibet would triumphthe real Tibet, China's Tibet, or the "virtual Tibet" that was being elaborated anew in the West and in a host of new Hollywood films?
What People are Saying About This
(John F. Avedon, author of In Exile from the Land of Snows)
(Seth Saison, former Shanghai Bureau Chief, The New York Times)
(Peter Biskind author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls)
(David F. Breashears, author of High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places)
(Jonathan Spence, author of The Chan's Great Continent)
Meet the Author
Orville Schell, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Mandate of Heaven, Discos and Democracy, The China Reader, and twelve other books. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Newsweek, among others. He lives with his wife and children in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews