The road to enlightenment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am

When her best friend died from leukaemia last year, Ran Jing made a promise to herself; she would travel to Tibet as soon as she graduated from high school. Her classmate had been a Buddhist, and it had been her dream to see Lhasa.

A few months after her 18th birthday, Ran set off alone from her home in Henan province, taking buses and sharing cars, on a pilgrimage to the Tibetan capital in memory of her friend.

'I'm doing this for her,' she says, breaking her inbound trip in a youth hostel in Xinduqiao, a small town in Kandze (Ganzi in Chinese), an autonomous Tibetan prefecture in western Sichuan.

RAN WAS JUST ONE of tens of thousands of young Chinese tourists who visited Tibet this summer. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but the Tibet Tourism Bureau reports that 2.25 million tourists visited the Tibet Autonomous Region in the first half of the year, up almost 25 per cent year on year. The entire population of the region is just under three million. The bulk of these tourists were domestic; foreigners require a special permit to enter Tibet and were banned in March, June and July.

National Highway 318, which links Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, with Lhasa, saw flocks of Han Chinese pedalling their way to Tibet, sometimes their bicycles appearing to outnumber vehicles on the road. These spiralling tourist statistics are also reflected in the success of local hostels.

In 2006, Sichuan native Yang Xiaohui opened his first guesthouse - called Denba, after the adopted Tibetan name Yang now goes by - and aimed it at the Chinese backpacker and long-distance cyclist. In fewer than five years, his business has grown from that first hostel, in Dardo (Kangding) in Kandze, to 13 budget guesthouses: two in Tibet, one in Yunnan and 10 in Sichuan.

The most obvious draw for the increasing number of young Chinese visitors is, of course, the region's natural beauty. Alpine grasslands, fresh air, snow-capped mountains and spiritual mystique hold a special attraction for the new urban rich who have grown up in crowded, polluted cities.

'Lhasa is one of the top tourism destinations for Chinese travellers,' says Zhou Qinwen, 35, from Shanghai, who spent two months travelling around Tibet this summer. 'It has blue skies, white clouds, mysterious Tibetans and architecture.

'I was tempted to go after looking at other travellers' postings and photos on the internet. Those photos were beautiful. I was spellbound. When I got there, it was beyond my expectations.'

Others say they are intrigued by the spirituality, honesty and generosity of the people.

'My guests see Tibet as a sacred place,' says 34-year-old Denba. 'They admire the religion.'

Xiong (he requests that only his first name be used), from Wuhan, in Hubei province, is 22 years old. He cycled from Chengdu to Lhasa alone, inspired by a story a friend had told him.

'My friend was on a bus in Tibet when they stopped in a village,' he explains. 'A little girl came on board and gave the driver 1,000 yuan [HK$1,200], and asked him to pass it to her brother in the next village. That driver didn't know the girl or her brother, but he drove to the next village, found the right guy and gave him the money. That couldn't possibly happen in my city. I cherish this kind of trust.

'Tibetans have Buddha in their hearts, but we Han people don't have any religion, and this is frightening. I'm beginning to believe in Buddhism myself now.'

It's not just in tourist figures that a growing fascination for Tibet and its culture can be seen. He Ma's The Tibet Code, a series of thrillers, is a long-standing favourite read; Kora (Zhuan Shan), a Chinese film about a young man cycling to Lhasa in memory of his dead brother, opened in mainland cinemas on November 3; and a growing number of Han are converting to Tibetan Buddhism. Thousands of Han students study at the sprawling Buddhist Institute in Serthar (Seda), in the north of Kandze.

Indeed, the fascination with Tibet has led to the coining of a new term, zang piao ('Tibet drifter'), which describes someone who leaves urban life to temporarily hang out in Tibet in search of their own Shangri-la. Zang piao can be compared to those young Westerners who flock to India in search of spiritual meaning.

Han Chinese enchantment with Tibet is akin to a similar trend in the West, which began in the 1980s, but differs in a number of ways because of the politics of the region. Beijing insists Tibet is historically part of the nation but exiled Tibetans and many people in the West believe Tibet was invaded by China in 1950.

The Western obsession with Tibet has long been the subject of academic study, and there are plenty of scholarly books on the subject - Prisoners of Shangri-La (1998) by Donald Lopez; Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies (1996), a collection of essays; and Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La From the Himalayas to Hollywood (2000) by Orville Schell, to name a few. In contrast, Han Chinese fascination with Tibet has been little studied.

Dechen Pemba, a British-born Tibetan rights activist, is a Chinese studies graduate from London's School of Oriental and African Studies. She suggests that increasing affluence and urbanisation are part of the reason for Tibet's growing mystique among Han Chinese.

'Whilst it's difficult to generalise about an entire generation or section of society, I do agree that there is a certain type of Han Chinese person, usually of the post-Cultural Revolution generation, who tends to romanticise Tibet and Tibetan people,' she says. 'At the same time, because of economic growth, Han Chinese are equally searching for roots and tradition, perhaps even spirituality, and looking to other cultures for this.'

There are two other factors that colour Chinese perceptions of Tibet that are not prevalent in the West. First, from a young age, mainlanders are taught that in 1950, Tibet was liberated from a cruel, feudal society in which the vast majority of people were bonded to a life of serfdom under the tyrannical landowning classes: the aristocracy and monasteries. Thus, modernisation in Tibet can be attributed to the generosity of the Han Chinese. This leaves many Chinese with the impression that Tibetan society is backward, despite its spiritual allure.

'Han views of Tibet are not unlike white American views of Native Americans 50 years ago,' says Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, in the United States. 'Tibet is seen as a kind of Wild West, inhabited by a savage and colourful people, with exotic dress, primitive food and uncivilised ways. [Tibetans are often seen as oversexed as well.] Just as Native American religion became romanticised based on works by Black Elk, [Carlos] Castaneda, et al, so Tibetan Buddhism, seen often as a form of magic, is seen as some kind of alternative to modern life. White American children would often dress up to play 'cowboys and Indians' and go see the latest Western at the movies. But none of this led to the view that Native Americans somehow should be given their country back.'

Because Westerners tend to see Tibet as a victim, they downplay aspects of its former feudal society in favour of glamorising the role of the Buddhist monks.

'Romanticised views of Tibet among Westerners are scarcely mitigated by any knowledge of the nature of Tibetan society prior to the mid-20th century,' says Barry Sautman, associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 'Few educated Han people lack such knowledge, and thus their romanticisation is somewhat tempered by it.'

This contrast is reflected to a certain degree in two films: Serf, a 1963 Chinese government film depicting the misery of feudalism, widely seen on the mainland; and 1997 Hollywood hit Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, which paints the Tibet of the late 40s as a paradise of peace-loving Buddhists about to be crushed by the cruel Chinese Communists.

Seven Years in Tibet sparked a huge outpouring of sympathy for Tibet's status and a fascination among young middle-class liberals in the West. But both films are, in essence, propagandistic, albeit with different motivations, and both are perceived as factual portrayals by many among their respective audiences.

'Tibet has always been part of China, at least since the Ming and Qing dynasties,' says Zhou. 'Before liberation, Tibetans were all serfs, and then the Communist Party liberated them so they could be their own masters. In the old days, they had horrific practices like skinning people alive.'

The Western image of Tibet as the victim of aggression is incomprehensible to most young Han.

'Part of the Western romanticisation of Tibet juxtaposes a spiritual and pure Tibet against the forces of power, materialism and oppression embodied by [Beijing] and the Chinese presence in Tibet,' says Elliot Sperling, an associate professor at Indiana University, in the US, whose research interests are Tibetan history and Sino-Tibetan relations. 'The lack of this part of the image of Tibet - a result of government strictures on what can be said about the Tibetan situation - is significant. It cuts the dissident, even counter-culturally subversive, part of Western interest in Tibet out of its Chinese manifestation.'

The other factor shaping Han perceptions of Tibet are the 2008 anti-government protests, which started in Lhasa in March that year and spread across the Tibetan region. They were portrayed by domestic media as violent riots - several Han Chinese in Lhasa were killed - instigated by separatist forces from abroad. As a result, many on the mainland perceive Tibetans as aggressive and anti-Han.

Says Sautman: 'Many younger Han people do romanticise Tibet, chiefly as a place of exceptional spirituality, in contrast to most of the rest of China. But this age cohort is, of course, huge, so there are still many younger Han who think of Tibet as still relatively backward and, after the racial killings in Lhasa in 2008, as harbouring some people very hostile to Han generally.'

'There is an estrangement between Tibetans and us Han Chinese, but I'm not afraid,' says Ran. 'There are lots of police around.'

Since the troubles of 2008, People's Liberation Army and People's Armed Police camps have been positioned next to or close to monasteries in many towns across Kandze (two among the recent spate of self-immolations took place in the county).

Over the summer, the sound of monks praying was frequently drowned out by the sharp bark of military orders and the crunch of soldiers marching.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who in 1959 escaped to India, where he's lived in exile ever since. According to the Western narrative, the Dalai Lama is a man of wisdom and peace. To Beijing, however, he is a 'wolf in sheep's clothing' and a dangerous separatist. He represents a threat to authority because he still commands a huge following among Tibetans in China.

What do young Han Chinese Tibetophiles think about the spiritual leader?

In the Xinduqiao hostel, Xiong cautiously explains his feelings as a picture of a man he says he doesn't recognise smiles down on him from a shelf. The picture is of the Dalai Lama.

'He is the Tibet people's spiritual leader, and so he should be here in Tibet helping the Tibetan people. It's possible he is doing some political business. It's possible he wants more power and more prestige, because now he is overseas in exile.'

Denba sees the Dalai Lama as someone who is being manipulated.

'As long as we don't politicise the issue, the Dalai Lama is just a symbol ... but the nature of the symbol has changed,' he says, in one of his new hostels, in Dardo. 'The Dalai Lama is now in a difficult position. He cannot express his own views. He's not in control of his role. He's just a tool, and controlled by all these stakeholders - NGOs, foreign governments and now the Chinese government. It is a really complicated problem.'

'Among those Han who romanticise Tibet, the demonisation of the Dalai Lama is scarcely relevant,' says Sautman. 'They regard it as a political stratagem that doesn't detract from the Dalai Lama's spiritual role.

'Even Han who romanticise Tibet deplore the murders of 2008, but are perhaps more understanding of the demonstrations that took place.'

Sperling suggests: 'Even though interest in Tibet within China is still a minority taste, it may well happen that an interest in a romanticised Tibet will lead a few who hold that interest to confront very real Tibetan discontents.'

However, for Beijing-based Tibetan writer-poet and activist Tsering Woeser, Han admirers of Tibet - particularly the zang piao - lack even a basic understanding of her culture.

In a piece she wrote this year for Radio Free Asia, translated by London-based Tibet blog High Peaks Pure Earth, she says: 'As for the currently quite popular 'Tibet drifters' and those middle-class inland people who call Tibet a 'spiritual home' ... those people are in fact quite unfamiliar with the suffering Tibetans endure; perhaps they are even totally oblivious to suffering.

'I have encountered those 'Tibet drifters' sitting at the main entrance of Jokhang Temple [Lhasa's main temple] laughing, giggling and snuggling up to each other. Cigarettes dangle from their lips; they drink beer and sunbathe while watching Tibetans prostrating ... they also go and prostrate a few times as if it was just some kind of game, just some type of popular amusement.'