An obsession with all things Tibetan - except the politics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 March, 2009, 12:00am

Just over a generation ago, the mainland public's understanding of Tibet was largely limited to official propaganda, epitomised by a song called On the Golden Mountain of Beijing.

The song, allegedly composed by Tibetans, expresses their 'happiness at being liberated from the bonds of serfdom' and their 'love for Beijing'.

For years, the song summarised most mainland people's perception of Tibet - a primitive and distant land emancipated by the Communist Party from its old, slave-like conditions.

Slowly and gradually, things have changed. In the 1980s, it started becoming fashionable for Han Chinese artists and writers to visit the mysterious plateau for inspiration. An interest in the region has spread to young urban Chinese in the past decade.

But, unlike Tibet's cultural popularity in the west, rooted in the support for Buddhism and sympathy for the Dalai Lama's cause, the leap in interest among young mainlanders has had little political effect. Tibet may be one of the country's growing sources of popular culture, but interest in the autonomous region is restricted to its exoticism and natural environment.

The best expression of the surge in interest is the extraordinary boom in tourism in Tibet, which is now the most popular tourist destinations for mainlanders. In 2007, more than 4 million tourists - most of them domestic - visited, up 60 per cent from 2006 and four times the total for 2003.

Guangzhou-based reporter Wang Jing has made the trip to Tibet three times in search of something different. 'For many young people like me in the cities, Tibet is a place where we should try to make at least one pilgrimage in our life,' Wang said.

'We go to Tibet to get away from our urban lives and to experiment with the Tibetan spirit of peace and purity. If you ask around on the mainland, I bet almost all young educated people would describe Tibet as a holy land in their heart.'

The inns of the capital Lhasa are full of young people like Wang, who travel to the region in search of a romantic ideal - a land of natural beauty, unspoiled by the materialism and competitiveness they see in cities.

'I would be very proud to tell friends that I was just back from Tibet,' college student He Yuqi said. 'It says that you are cool.'

But it is not just the place that is taking off. All things Tibetan, including the region's music, literature, jewellery and high-profile personalities, are hip in urban areas.

Books with Tibetan titles, such as the mainland best-seller The Tibetan Code, an adventure story about a Tibetan mastiff, are piled high on tables near bookstore entrances in major cities. And in 2000, Tibetan writer Alai won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, the mainland's biggest literary award, for his novel The Dust has Settled, or Red Poppies.

By far the biggest cultural export from the region has been Tibetan singer Han Hong, one of the mainland's hottest pop stars. She took Tibetan music to new heights, helping modernise and popularise Tibetan-style songs. Her hit Heaven's Road recounts her love for, and memories of, Tibet, and has become a karaoke standard.

Beyond the karaoke parlours, some of the busiest businesses in the bar districts of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen or Guangzhou are Tibet-themed bars decorated with Tibetan brass prayer wheels and prayer flags. Inside, patrons can try various products from the plateau, including Lhasa Beer, yak butter tea, barley wine and dried yak beef.

At city outdoor markets, Tibetan goods used to be confined to a few stalls, but sales have exploded. Young white-collar women and students love Tibetan-style bracelets, for example. 'They like anything from Tibet, silver earrings and bracelets, Buddha statues, rugs, Dzi beads and chests,' said Dhnath Drolma, a Tibetan jewellery store owner in Shenzhen.

'You just have to slap Tibetan script on a shirt and it sells. The customers cannot read Tibetan. They just want a souvenir. Actually, most of the Tibet-style jade and trinkets I sell come from Nepal, just like most crafts for sale in Lhasa nowadays. But people don't care about their origin. They see the little things as a kind of connection with free spirits and nature.'

Ally Feng, one of Dhnath Drolma's costumers, has decorated her office desk with various Tibetan-style textiles and trinkets. 'I really enjoy sitting near Tibetan things and taking a deep breath when I have trouble with work,' Ms Feng said. 'It makes me feel relaxed and different from my colleagues.'

Dhnath Drolma said her Tibetan roots ensured her popularity in the city. 'My friends are always proud of having friends who are Tibet natives,' she said. 'They like to invite us to their parties and introduce us to more people. They always say, 'Hey, this is my friend. She's from Tibet'.

'They think Tibetans are pure-hearted and guileless people. It becomes very easy to make friends here.'

She said many of her friends in Shenzhen wanted to believe in something, like Tibetan Buddhism. 'They feel unhappy even though they have a decent job and a big apartment,' she said. 'I think they are obsessed with Tibet because we [Tibetans] have a strong belief in religion and a natural life that they don't have.'