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Found Horizon

I have sometimes wondered what it must be like to be, say, Mick Jagger, and pay a great deal of money for a trip to some outpost of native “authenticity,” remote from the vulgar noise of Western civilization—Borneo, say, or, indeed, Tibet—only to find his own voice blaring from a village jukebox. I suppose he might feel flattered, but perhaps—I don’t know—also a tiny bit ambivalent, perhaps even a touch disappointed, or even—and I know this is a long shot—guilty. Surely there must be Major Younghusbands among the movie stars and rock idols of the West. Richard Gere, say, or Sting? For their enterprise, as much as that of the Curzons of yesteryear, is touched with the same combination of commerce and claims to a universal civilization. And what better way to resolve any ambivalence about such claims than to make a commercial movie about a lost arcadia?

Hollywood’s imperialism is not real, of course, in the sense of territorial conquest. American pop culture only colonizes our imaginations. It is a virtual empire. And Schell traveled all the way to the Andes to see the soldiers and administrators of this great empire in the process of building a virtual Tibet, with a truncated Potala of chicken wire and plywood, and heaps of yak dung made of pottery, and monks recruited from the native Indian population, and Tibetan extras flown in from India and California, and Chinese soldiers played by Japanese Argentines. This movie set arcadia was built for Jean-Jacques Arnaud’s Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer who made it to Tibet in 1943.

The actual story of Harrer’s infatuation with Tibet, as Schell recounts, was more sinister than the moviemakers realized when they started their project. Not only was Harrer a successful mountain climber, decorated by Hitler for planting the swastika on top of the Eiger in 1938, but he was a keen member of the Nazi Party, who joined the SA in 1933, when it was illegal for Austrians to do so, and the SS in 1938. The Nazis, especially Heinrich Himmler, had their own Tibetan romance. Central Asia, and Tibet in particular, was believed to be the ancient homeland of the Aryans. To penetrate Tibet and its secrets was, to Himmler and his fellow enthusiasts of mystical racism, part of their effort to trace the bloodlines of the German Volk.

News of these facts came rather late in the planning of Arnaud’s movie. The idea of Brad Pitt as a Nazi mystic was of course impossible. Harrer’s shady past was made a part of his story of redemption: a flawed European, consumed by selfishness and ambition, would be saved by the innocence and ancient wisdom of Tibet—rather like what Younghusband thought he had been. When the real Harrer met the current Dalai Lama in Lhasa, the holy man was already a teenager. In the movie, His Holiness is more childlike, perhaps to emphasize the purity of his extraordinary wisdom. Even Harrer, who idealized Tibet in his book, did not pass over less innocent episodes during his stay, such as armed rebellions in the monasteries. The movie Tibet, however, really is like Richard Gere’s “last real ‘wisdom’ civilization,” which lasted until the Chinese arrived in 1950, with their own civilizing mission.

Grafted onto the Nazi myth, then, which is spun out of sight, is another, no less potent myth, that of a land of spiritual purity despoiled by evil foreign forces. This myth, too, fits in well with Hollywood’s old obsession with the corruption of innocence—the theme of so many movies about America, from the early westerns to Apocalypse Now.

In fact, when the Chinese Communists claimed Tibet as part of China—just as the Nationalists had done, and the Qing government before them—they were careful not to antagonize the Tibetans needlessly. They did not immediately set about insulting the clergy, as shown in the film. Instead they organized lavish banquets for the Lhasa aristocracy, many of whom believed that communism might be the best way to modernize their country, which had gotten stuck in a state of poverty and corruption—not least in the monastic orders.

Most of these early Tibetan Communists were later murdered in Maoist purges.1 But their intention to find some political solution for Tibet which would be neither theocratic nor entirely dependent on the Chinese was not ignoble. The movie, in which every Chinese is an evil monster, trampling on Tibetan Buddhist images or killing innocent monks, and every Tibetan who tries to negotiate with the Chinese a wicked traitor, suggests that it was. Just as Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi took Indian nationalist myths at face value, so Arnaud’s Seven Years in Tibet subscribes without a hint of skepticism to the nationalist myths of the Tibetan diaspora. That a half-century of Chinese communism has done a great deal of harm to Tibet is beyond doubt. But sentimental myths of childlike innocence despoiled by absolute evil will not help us see how some of that harm might be undone.


In the Tibetan monasteries and private houses, amid the images of Buddha, Boddhisattvas, divine monks, and monstrous tantric deities festooned with skulls and trampling on ghostly corpses, one will very often come across the bland, amiable, roly-poly features of one man. One might mistake him for the head of state, or even a friendly bank manager in a robe. In fact, he is neither. He is the tenth Panchen Lama, incarnation of the first Panchen Lama, who was the spiritual mentor of the Dalai Lama in the seventeenth century. The Panchen Lamas, unlike the Dalai Lamas, were never heads of the state, but they have been revered for four hundred years as spiritual leaders. This particular one, the tenth, died in 1989. His official successor, or last incarnation, is a young boy said to be living in Beijing. You see his picture too, though not as often as that of his predecessor. Because he was designated by the Chinese government, few Tibetans believe he is the real thing. The “real” incarnation of the Panchen Lama, endorsed by the Dalai Lama, is now a phantom figure. People believe in him, but don’t know where he is, or even whether he is still alive. The boy was “disappeared” by the Chinese authorities.

Isabel Hilton has tried, in her excellent book The Search for the Panchen Lama, to disentangle the extraordinary politics that went on behind the omens, divinations, designations, incarnations, monastic rituals, and Communist Party propaganda surrounding the two boy lamas. It is the story of a succession struggle, but also of a fundamental conflict between two systems, a medieval religious one and a more modern invention whose main patriarch is a German Jew who wrote his political bible in the reading room of the British Museum.

The ubiquitous image of the late Panchen Lama in Tibet plays a central part in this conflict. This plump, avuncular figure personifies the tragedies and contradictions of modern Tibet. But the problems began long before the Chinese Communists took over. One of the lasting conflicts in Tibet is the rivalry between Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama traditionally resides, and the region around Shigatse, with its beautiful, badly damaged (during the Cultural Revolution) Tashilhunpo monastery, seat of the Panchen Lama. This rivalry has been exploited at various times by the British, the Russians, and the Chinese.

Born in China, the tenth Panchen Lama arrived in Tibet in 1952 under the protection of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. He was only fourteen, and would have had little idea of Communist theory. His followers and mentors hardly knew more, but they were keen to restore the authority of Shigatse at the expense of Lhasa, an ambition the Chinese did everything to encourage. This is why the Panchen Lama began his clerical career as a pro-Chinese campaigner for socialist reform. And yet this same man, after an extensive tour of the Tibetan areas in 1960, came to realize how badly many Tibetans had suffered under Communist rule. People went hungry, religious life was being destroyed, monks were humiliated and tortured, and everywhere Tibetans were being abused by Chinese officials, whose contempt for Tibetan culture was matched only by their rank ignorance of it. In 1962, the Panchen Lama wrote one of the most courageous and devastating documents about Tibet after “liberation.” It comprised 70,000 Chinese characters and was entitled “A report on the sufferings of the masses of Tibet and other Tibetan regions and suggestions for future work to the Central Committee through the respected Premier Zhou [Enlai].”2

The language of this private document was politely Marxist and the tone respectful of the Great Leadership of Chairman Mao, but the criticisms were detailed and exact. The Panchen Lama wrote about famines caused by absurd policies, about the suppression of religion and Tibetan customs, about mass arrests and executions. He warned that

there has been an evident and severe reduction in the present-day Tibetan population. Needless to say, this was not only harmful to the flourishing of our Tibetan nationality, but it was also a great threat to the continued existence of the Tibetan nationality, which was sinking into a state close to death.

The Panchen Lama had hoped his criticisms might be regarded as constructive. Mao thought otherwise. And the Panchen Lama would pay for his impudence. For fifteen years, eleven of which he spent in sordid confinement, he was bullied, humiliated, paraded through the streets, tortured, spat upon, and put under pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama, which he refused to do, whereupon he was denounced himself as “the biggest reactionary serf owner” and the “biggest parasite and bloodsucker in Tibet.” Even his poor dogs at Tashilhunpo were branded as “counterrevolutionaries.” The clash between the cleric and the commissars was probably inevitable. You could not be a religious leader, upholding the ancient traditions of Tibetan monastic culture, as well as a loyal supporter of the Communist Party. The two roles were simply not compatible.

Nonetheless, the Panchen Lama was rehabilitated in 1988, one year before his untimely death. The reform-minded government hoped to appease the Tibetans by using him as a token of its apparent religious tolerance. His picture, unlike that of the Dalai Lama, could be openly displayed again. And because of his bravery and suffering on their behalf, Tibetans were pleased to display it. Having originated as a rival to the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama became a kind of substitute, a political stand-in.

Unfortunately, however, he is no longer alive. And this made the search for his successor such a pressing problem—a political problem, wrapped in religious ritual. Hilton tells the story with a mixture of vivid reportage and lucid historical explanation. Her sympathy for Tibet is clear, but there are no stars twinkling in her eyes. Some of her best descriptions are of interviews with Tibetans, where high politics lurch into high mysticism, leaving her engagingly baffled. This tends to happen even in talks with the Dalai Lama himself.

  1. 1

    For a detailed description of this, see Tsering Shakya’s superb book The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (Columbia University Press, 1999).

  2. 2

    Published as a book, A Poisoned Arrow, by the Tibet Information Network (London) in 1997.

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