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Lost Horizons

Kundun

a film directed by Martin Scorsese

Seven Years in Tibet

a film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Tibet has always cast a dangerously strong spell upon visitors from abroad. When the first major European expedition marched on Lhasa in 1904, led by Colonel Younghusband at the behest of his old friend Lord Curzon, it ended up slaughtering in just four minutes, near the village of Guru, almost seven hundred bewildered Tibetans, who had been protected mostly by paper charms bearing the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s seal. A few days later, at Red I dol Gorge, the British killed nearly two hundred more, their own casualties amounting to just three wounded.

Yet when Younghusband arrived in Lhasa, he found a Tibetan regent in power who “more nearly approached Kipling’s lama in Kim than any other Tibetan I had met,” and, on his final night in the “Forbidden City,” having concluded a typically ambiguous Anglo-Tibetan agreement (unsigned by the Chinese), he rode off into the mountains to take one final look at the scene. Suddenly, the career officer reported, he felt an unusual exhilaration that “thrilled through me with overpowering intensity. Never again could I think evil, or ever be at enmity with any man. All nature and all humanity were bathed in a rosy glowing radiancy.” Returning to London as a popular hero (while the treaty was systematically watered down), he retired from the service that had brought him a knighthood, and founded a World Congress of Faiths, a rosy, glowing brotherhood aimed at uniting the major religions of the world.

Eighty years later, Paul Theroux, hardly a sentimental traveler, after four hundred pages of recording his difficulties and disappointments while traveling through mainland China, grows misty and almost worshipful as soon as he sets foot in Tibet. “The Tibetans are indestructible,” he writes in Riding the Iron Rooster with a hopefulness that seems not his own, and Lhasa is “a bright little war-torn town full of jolly monks and friendly pilgrims.” After noting that an early European explorer burst into tears at the sight of a nearby mountain, Theroux concludes, “The setting is more than touching—it is a bewitchment…. Who wouldn’t burst into tears?” His story and his book end with a prayer addressed to the mountains, in the hope that he may return.

The net result of decades of such accounts, however fitful—and largely because they are fitful—is that we have condemned Tibet, from afar, to the status of a Lost Horizon, a semi-fictive sanctuary from the world that we can visit in imagination or (as in Younghusband’s case) use for our own strategic interests. Tibet became the place where the visitor can transcend the pressures of Realpolitik, and not worry about worldly concerns (because, in the popular fairy tale, it is the place that has no concerns about the world). This lies at the heart, no doubt, of what Melvyn C. Goldstein, in his rigorously unsentimental account of Sino-Tibetan history,1 calls “the bad friend syndrome,” whereby, for centuries, outsiders have marveled at a region that seems out of this world and, while admiring its unworldliness, have done little, practically, to protect it. Shangri-La, we like to believe, has less need of us than we of it.2

The Tibetans themselves, in recent years, have been anxious not to participate in this illusion—the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that his country’s isolation was largely to blame for its recent tragic history. In 1950, when Tibet appealed to the United Nations for help as Chinese troops attacked its eastern frontiers, it received no response; indeed, the two countries that were supposed to be its patrons, Britain and India, were the first to suggest that the Tibetan case not be considered. Perhaps the saddest moment in all the sad pages of Palden Gyatso’s impressively calm Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk,3 a simple, unrancorous account of his thirty-three years in Chinese prisons (for the crime of being a monk), comes when word gets out that the Dalai Lama is setting up an office in America. “Now America, the most powerful nation in the world, is helping the Dalai Lama, it won’t be long before we are free!” another prisoner reports excitedly. That was in 1965; a few years later, the inmates learn that Kissinger is going to Beijing, and then Nixon.

And so we find ourselves in the current, unprecedented state of affairs in which a culture long famous for its remoteness from the world has been forced to try to sell that remoteness in a desperate attempt to save itself, and to market the unusual charisma of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in order to draw attention to a Chinese occupation that by 1969 had left not a single practicing monk in Tibet. Warning last year that his homeland will be extinct in ten or fifteen years unless something is done to rescue it, the Dalai Lama has found himself obliged to co-operate in the dissemination and possible distortion of Tibetan culture so as to ensure that there is still a Tibetan culture to distort. And, having gained almost nothing from his visits to the back rooms of the chancelleries of the West, he has come, in his pragmatic way, to the same conclusion that Gore Vidal suggested years ago: that these days, more and more, the real capital of world power is less Washington than Hollywood.

When I asked the Dalai Lama last year to identify the single hardest aspect of his complicated life, he instantly replied, “Meeting with politicians. Because the problem is so big that even if these leaders sincerely want to help, they cannot do anything.” And so the incongruous sight of a modest, philosophically rigorous monk who’s believed to be a god of compassion negotiating for fifty years with Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi has been compounded by the even stranger sight of that same monk taking his case to Larry King Live, posing for photographs with Steven Seagal, and lending his name to books about the Internet.

In an oddly contemporary mixing of media, the Tibetan leaders have found that the attention they cannot get through formal political channels they can effortlessly win in pop-concert halls, cineplexes, and the pages of glossy magazines. And the Dalai Lama has taken himself directly to the people of the world in a cause that is coming to seem as implicated with fashion as Nicaragua was ten years ago. At the very least, the Tibetan situation suggests a new kind of pop globalism in which the Walt Disney Company sends Henry Kissinger to advance its interests in Beijing, while members of musical groups called Public Enemy and Porno for Pyros agitate for a “free Tibet.”

The most conspicuous examples of this approach to politics are two current big Hollywood movies: the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s $70 million Seven Years in Tibet, based on Heinrich Harrer’s popular book of 1953, and Martin Scorsese’s $28 million Kundun, which is more or less an authorized biography of the Dalai Lama in his early years. (“Kundun,” which means “Presence,” is the word Tibetans use in addressing the Dalai Lama.) The Annaud movie makes no bones about presenting a version of Tibetan history and Buddhism for the masses; it embellishes Harrer’s adventure story (which it turns into a contemporary Hollywood therapy session) and takes liberties with history. In many of Annaud’s earlier films, such as The Bear and Quest for Fire, the natural scenery, the colors, the faces of the crowds have been more eloquent than any of the actors, and, in Seven Years, one recalls that its screenwriter’s most celebrated film was the therapy-affirming The Prince of Tides. Yet I’ve got to admit that this movie (filmed mostly in Argentina) conveys the jostling, grimy enchantment of Lhasa with extraordinary fidelity, looking, if not always feeling, uncannily like the willow-lined town I first visited in 1985, before the Chinese had razed nearly all the buildings of Old Lhasa. Annaud is well known for his careful research, and in this case the 17,000 photos he took around the Himalayas, and the 9000-square-foot recreation of the Potala Palace’s Hall of Good Deeds that he built in an abandoned garlic warehouse near the industrial town of Mendoza, convey, with a poignant exactitude, a Tibet that exists now only in memory.

Harrer’s book was a straightforward account of how a German mountain climber, interned in a British camp in India during World War II, escaped to find himself in the “most mysterious land on earth,” as one typical writer still calls it.4 The filmmakers have decided, however, to turn his story into a familiar, feel-good tale of an arrogant Western “selfish brat” healed by the selflessness of Tibetans. This means that they take an oddly hostile approach to Harrer (portraying him as a bungler who can’t even speak Tibetan, for example, when by his own account Harrer soon gained a working fluency), and willfully pushing into the story all the things he took care to leave out: his wife back home, the son from whom he was estranged, his use by the Nazis as a blond symbol of Aryan manhood. The result is that they make a psychological case history out of a story whose great charm lies in its freedom from psychology. The strength of Harrer’s book is that it evokes a pre-Freudian pastoral in which people aren’t particularly vexed about their inner lives; all the personal transformation in the book takes place between the lines, almost without its author’s knowledge. The bluff, skeptical mountain climber who describes public floggings, almost epidemic venereal disease, and monks running “a stern dictatorship” nonetheless falls under a sunlit spell of garden parties and kindly hosts and everyday life in an innocent world (“Tibet does not belong to the World Postal Union,” he writes, “and its postal arrangements are somewhat complicated”).

Harrer was entirely a man of his time, and the evident affection he develops for Tibetans—whom he sees as rough-and-ready outdoorsmen like himself—is made the more affecting precisely because he couldn’t help talking of “European superiority.” As monks and medicine men burned ceremonial dolls over the Dalai Lama’s dying father, he worries, “To my way of thinking, they would have done better to call in the English doctor.” The tale of the no-nonsense adventurer who somehow ends up writing “I often think I can still hear the wild cries of geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear cold moonlight” is more remarkable than the more conventional story of redemption recorded in the film.

Annaud also distorts Tibet’s history by shifting the twenty years of outright Chinese brutality (much of it occurring during the Cultural Revolution, and now repudiated, however expediently, by the Chinese) to coincide with Harrer’s stay in Lhasa, which ended in late 1950. The scenes of Chinese attacking peace-loving Tibetans through clouds of gunsmoke ignore a long history of negotiation. It’s worth recalling that in Harrer’s admittedly loose account, the Dalai Lama himself is described as being born in “China” (as the eastern province of Amdo could sometimes be regarded), and, in one of the very few references to the Chinese attacks in his book, Harrer declares that “it is fair to say that during the present war, the Chinese troops had shown themselves disciplined and tolerant, and Tibetans who had been captured and then released were saying how well they had been treated.” Again, in its eagerness to impart a lesson, the film takes some shortcuts.

  1. 1

    The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (University of California Press, 1997).

  2. 2

    This idea, that the popular romance of Tibet as the answer to all our needs—a pure, unworldly spiritual counter to the revved-up West—may be harming Tibet’s own cause in the real world, is the central argument of Donald S. Lopez, Jr.’s forthcoming Prisoners of Shangri-La (University of California Press, May 1998). Bringing his scholarship to bear on a few highly specific cases, Lopez takes after some of the Dalai Lama’s most prominent advocates in the West for propagating the notion of a Lost Horizon idyll of enlightenment and peace. There is much to be said for this, though the fact remains that the Tibetans are currently in so desperate a situation that they have no option but to try to attract attention any way they can.

  3. 3

    Grove, 1997.

  4. 4

    Mary Craig, in Kundun (HarperCollins, 1997), p. xix.

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