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Tibet Disenchanted

On another night, at a similar nightclub in Lhasa, this one with a small dance floor lit by a revolving ball reflecting speckles of blue light on the dancers, I got involved in another discussion about the Tibetan “identity.” There were video screens showing the same stock images of Tibet as at the other club. A rather fey young man, dressed in the garb of a Tibetan herdsman, sang a folk song, prompting a female admirer to wrap a silk scarf around his neck in the traditional Tibetan manner of showing respect. After his act, he came up to me and told me in English that he was an art student. He sat down and I asked him what kind of art. Any kind, he said, oil painting, Western art, any kind. What about Tibetan art? He hesitated. Yes, he finally said, Tibetan art too. But he wanted to go to the United States, to work with computers. What about his art?I asked. He shrugged and said he couldn’t express himself in art. I asked him why not. He drew closer and whispered in my ear: “Politics.” He wanted to do Tibetan painting, but was not allowed to study religious art, and without that, Tibetan painting made no sense.

After the singer had gone back to the stage, where he started a comedy routine in Tibetan, which failed to provoke much laughter, I sat awhile nursing my glass of beer. Couples were dancing under the revolving ball, men with women, women with women, men with men, some of them going through well-practiced moves of Western ballroom dancing. I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Where you from?” asked a neatly dressed man of about thirty. He looked Han Chinese, which was indeed what he turned out to be. He had been living in Lhasa for three years and was almost due to go home. He wanted to know what I thought of the Tibetan situation. Not knowing who he was, I made a banal remark about every place having its problems. He nodded gravely. Then he asked what I thought of human rights in China. Again, I erred on the safe side. And what about democracy? Well, living in a democracy myself, I had to say I was rather in favor of it. He nodded, and said the one-party state was no good. There was too much corruption and abuse of power. China needed more political parties.

I was surprised to hear this, especially when he told me he was a Communist Party member and had been sent to Tibet by the government. But nothing had prepared me for the next question. Did I think Tibet was like Kosovo? I gulped, took a long sip of beer, recalled the nationalist fervor in China after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and asked him whether he meant China was like Serbia. He looked me in the eye, and nodded quickly. That is what he meant. Living in Lhasa had opened his eyes to many problems, he said, problems of nationality and human rights. “In the West,” he said, “people are allowed to chose their own governments. Here in Tibet, the government chooses its people.”

I noticed another man, on my other side, who was straining to hear what was being said, a thin man with a dark brown complexion. He was a Tibetan friend of the Chinese official. Now it was his turn to talk. He cupped his hands around my ear and said in perfect Chinese that he was working for a Tibetan company. What did I think of human rights in Tibet? Once more, I played it safe: human rights were important everywhere, in the rest of China, as much as in Tibet. “No, no,” he said, “we have a special problem in Tibet. We are losing our language, our religion is controlled, our culture is disappearing. You see, the forces of economic modernization are directly opposed to our own traditions.” Still trying to be as bland as I could, I mumbled something about national traditions having survived modernization in other countries. This made him agitated. Surely all foreigners understood, he said, that Tibet was special: “As long as we are part of China, we cannot survive, we are like a man who is thrown into a lake without being able to swim. We are drowning. You foreigners must help us.”

There was nothing much I could say. All three of us drank in silence. We all felt helpless in our different ways. The Chinese official had told me that others in the Party shared his views, but lacked the power to act on them, or even mention them in public. His friend just repeated that I should let the world know about Tibet. The world should come to the rescue. And I knew that the world would do no such thing.

The impression I got from these conversations in Lhasa was that the Tibetans who suffered most from Chinese cultural imperialism were precisely the most educated, the ones who benefited from economic modernization. The better you were able to function in Chinese, the more successful you were bound to be. Without Chinese, you were cut off from the urban economy. The man in the nightclub was right: Chinese-style modernization, with its eradication of the past, its official atheism, its consequent intolerance toward organized religion, and its emphasis, politically, philosophically, and economically, on materialism, is opposed to the Tibetan tradition. This does not mean that the Chinese-educated Tibetans all yearn for the revival of a Buddhist theocracy. Few, if any, want that. But to survive in the Chinese economy, Tibetans are forced to blot out their own cultural identity, and that leaves a sense of deep colonial humiliation.

The only Tibetan I spoke to who did not seem to care about the gradual replacement of the Tibetan language by Chinese, or the new dominance in urban areas of Chinese low life and pop culture, was the Muslim. He was able to speak like a true modernist. It was inevitable, he said, that traditions were hollowed out by modern life. It happened everywhere, in Europe and Japan as much as in Tibet. And if Chinese was more practical than Tibetan, why then people would speak Chinese, or English, or whatever. It was surely a waste of time to regret the past. After all, things were much better now; there were banks, and hospitals, and more schools. But it was easier for him to praise these developments than for his Buddhist friends, since the monasteries that used to perform some of these functions were not part of his spiritual tradition. The crude new cosmopolitanism of Lhasa was, on the contrary, part of his liberation.


To leave Lhasa, or one of the few other cities, such as Shigatse or Gyantse, is in a sense to leave China, not officially, of course, but culturally. Little or no Chinese is spoken in the villages, let alone among the nomads who roam the vast, empty highlands which to most Han Chinese are as strange and intimidating as the surface of the moon. Where the outside world does happen to touch the life of a Tibetan village, economic transactions of the crudest kind take place.

There is only one road from Lhasa to Gyantse, the town to which Major Francis Younghusband, the commander of a British expedition to Tibet, was heading when he mowed down some seven hundred unruly Tibetans with a Maxim gun in 1904. It is a rocky, unpaved road that winds along some terrifying mountain passes with straight drops down to a glorious, deep blue lake. Jeeps and mini-buses hired by tourists all stop at the same scenic spots, marked by Tibetan prayer flags fluttering from ceremonial piles of stones, or outside villages with whitewashed stone houses, inhabited by people in richly embroidered boots and coarse brown robes slung across their shoulders. The villagers are well aware of their photogenic appeal, and as soon as a tourist vehicle is sighted, women and children take up their positions together with a yak, whose long black hair contrasts prettily with red ribbons tied around its horns.

The tourists invariably stop, and are surrounded by children in states of remarkable squalor—long matted hair like old rope, green mucus clotted around the nose and mouth, various kinds of milky eye infections, and layers of hard, black grime on every inch of exposed skin. “Hello,” cry the children, while rubbing their thumbs along the palms of their hands, “how are you, money, money!” An old man in dark rags and with a black face sticks out his pink tongue in the old-fashioned Tibetan gesture of obeisance to social superiors. One child dressed in a fine silk jacket is placed on top of the yak, and his mother holds up five fingers: five Chinese yuan for a photograph. Acting out a debased variation of themselves is the only way the villagers know how to make money from the tourist economy.

Few villages are on the tourist beat, however. Most villagers don’t even have the occasion to beg. I visited a village several hours from Lhasa. It was actually less a village than a cluster of small, gray, stone huts in a beautiful green valley. The inhabitants herded yaks and sheep. The richest person had several hundred yaks, the poorest just a few. Only the village head, elected by the villagers, understood some Chinese. I was taken to the village by a man who was born there. He had not had any formal education; he called himself “a man without culture.” But he had managed to leave the village and make a life in Lhasa by serving for a few years in the People’s Liberation Army. It had not been a pleasant experience; the few Tibetan soldiers were harshly treated. But at least he had made some money and learned to speak Chinese. He was an intelligent, humorous person in his forties with the wrinkled, reddish-brown face of a much older man.

Most of the people in the village looked poorer than the ones I had encountered on the road to Gyantse. A few of the younger ones could read and write. There was a new school nearby. I was politely offered cup after cup of yak butter tea, which tastes a bit like very greasy soup, but keeps one’s lips from cracking in the bone-dry air. One of the herdsmen reached inside his filthy shirt, tore off a chunk of dried raw meat, and kindly handed it to me. The meat was a year old. His hands were encrusted with dirt. My friend explained that most people suffered from intestinal diseases. The hard, raw meat tasted sweet, a bit like horse meat.

The poorest house consisted of one dark room, home to a family of six, but the richest was more sturdily built, and had a gate decorated with yak horns and had whitewashed walls. The inside was pleasantly furnished with painted wooden chests and sofas covered in carpets. On the wall were four religious paintings. One of them looked old and was quite finely drawn. The wooden ceiling beams were painted bright blue, apple green, and pink. The one thing both the rich and the poor house had in common was the open display of pictures of the current Dalai Lama, something for which a person in Lhasa would certainly be arrested. I also noticed a photograph of the Karmapa, the young lama who had recently escaped from China to India, to the acute embarrassment of the government in Beijing.

I asked my friend whether there was any risk in displaying these pictures. He made a dismissive gesture and said the officials hardly bothered to come to the villages. “They would not be welcome here,” he said. Naively I then asked whether the villagers knew about the Karmapa’s escape to India. “Of course,” he snorted, “they knew before the government in Lhasa did. Every night, before going to sleep, they listen to the Voice of America.”

It was clear from his account that the links between Tibet, even in the villages, and India had not been cut. People knew where the Dalai Lama was, and what he has been saying around the world. Young people still make their way to Dharamsala, despite border patrols and the risk of arrest. “They can’t control what is in our heads,” the driver said. It was not the first time I had heard that phrase in Tibet. He said: “They can make us say we love the Communist Party, but they can never make us hate the Dalai Lama.”

Later, while having a picnic at the side of the river, my friend showed a sign of despair. He had told me before that he had thought many times of going to India, but had never had the opportunity. “It’s all over for me now,” he said. I said nothing. Then: “But maybe not for my son.” He asked me where I was from. I said that I lived in England, in London. “Ah, yes,” he replied, “you English. You English came here with guns and killed many Tibetans. When was it again?” I said it was in 1904. He smiled, as though it were a fond memory, and said: “If only you English would come here again, with many guns. Then we Tibetans would dress up in our finest clothes, and give you a warm welcome.”

It was only a passing fancy, of course. He went on to talk of the hard times in the past, of the killings during the Cultural Revolution, and the destruction of temples and monasteries, often carried out by Tibetan Red Guards. They were the worst, he said. The Tibetan cadres were the most fanatical. “Long Live Chairman Mao,” I said facetiously. He looked at me, and casually tossed an empty beer can into the clear blue river: “Bullshit!” he said. “Long live us, the people!” We could both drink to that.


The Chinese are the last great power to try to run an empire, and they are finding it no easier than others did before them. They try to contain the discontents of the native elite by bringing them into the government (though never at the very top), and by pumping ever larger amounts of cash into the economy. Unlike many provinces of China, the Tibet Autonomous Region is almost entirely dependent on central government money, and has less autonomy as a result. Modernization will go on. There will be more schools, hospitals, post offices, banks, and better roads. These are the gifts of all successful empires. But as the influence of China slowly erodes what is left of Tibetan culture, first in the cities where most Han Chinese settle, then perhaps, far more slowly, in the rest of the country too, the discontent will fester. Colonial humiliation does not vanish with time. Even with the careful screening of reliable monks, the monasteries still erupt in protest on occasion. Horrifying stories emerge from the prisons where protesters are held, stories of torture, years in solitary confinement, and suicidal deaths of men and women who cannot take it anymore.

How, then, is the Tibetan problem to be solved? “Free Tibet!” cry the crowds at American rock concerts, organized in aid of good causes. Tibetan independence is what most Tibetans abroad want too. But what do they mean by “Tibet”? More than half the almost five million Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China are living outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. If an independent Tibet should contain all those who speak Tibetan, eat stamped barley, and follow the Dalai Lama, large chunks of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Qinghai provinces would have to be torn off the PRC. Beijing, understandably, would never stand for that. If, on the other hand, Free Tibet were to be confined to the Autonomous Region, most Tibetans would be left outside, and the Tibetan government in exile cannot allow that. And neither, for that matter, will Beijing. Too much Chinese nationalism has been invested in the ideal of One China, including Taiwan and Tibet, for any Chinese government to let it go.

The dissident Wei Jingsheng believes that democracy is the only solution. It would certainly help. Under a democratic Chinese government there would be more civil liberties and fewer political prisoners. But even a democratic government is likely to tap into the deep reservoir of Chinese nationalism. At best, some kind of federation might be set up, which at least would allow Tibetans to run their own affairs, while the central government took care of foreign policy and defense. The Dalai Lama advocates this solution, and it is difficult to see how he could hope for more. Even so there would be problems: What about the Han Chinese and the Muslims who live in Tibet already? What about the role of the Buddhist institutions? And what about the Tibetan government abroad?

A Tibetan historian in London told me Tibet would be like Northern Ireland, a continuous conflict between peoples with incompatible aims. It is not unlike Kosovo either, a pawn in a brutal nationalist propaganda campaign. But at least the Albanians have their own independent state outside Kosovo, however wretched. As long as independence remains an impossible goal, Tibetans all over the world can only pray for better days, worship the Dalai Lama, and think to themselves, more in hope than expectation: Next year in Lhasa.

—This is the second of two articles on Tibet.

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