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.

That said, however, in the middle part of the movie, when Annaud gets away from Harrer and into Tibet, he conveys the kind of bucolic warmth that Harrer evoked in his book. There are more authentic monks, chanting authentic prayers, here than any of us are likely to see outside a Tibetan monastery, and the boy who plays the young Dalai Lama captures, in his own way, something of that disarming man’s sweetness and radiance. Best of all, Seven Years in Tibet does not do Tibet the disservice of turning it into never-never land, and it actually introduces an ambitious Tibetan quisling who’s not in Harrer’s book. (In Gyatso’s autobiography, the darkest figures, not surprisingly, are the Tibetans who serve the Communist Party with the zeal of recent converts.) If the film seems a little like a fairy tale, what can one do with the story of an Olympic skier who ends up as tutor to a boy-king regarded as a god?

Martin Scorsese’s mesmerizing and remarkably serious Kundun makes no concessions to Hollywood conventions—it has neither professional actors nor a conventional screenplay, and it refuses to indulge an easy exoticism. It proceeds, really, more like a piece of music than a film, a meditative and incantatory piece of music, and its scenes from the life of the Dalai Lama build with such hypnotic restraint that the star of the film might be said to be its composer, Philip Glass. The story, again, is a true fairy tale—a boy born in a peasant’s cowshed ascends the Lion Throne and in his teens finds himself dealing with Mao Zedong—yet Scorsese takes pains not to rely on the instant appeal of Tibet or its leader. Not the least of his achievements, indeed, is to portray the young Dalai Lama of the 1930s and 1940s not as the smiling charmer we’ve come to know, but as a thoughtful, burdened boy seeking counsel as he wrestles with one political crisis after another.

It’s tempting to say that Annaud (who holds a degree in medieval studies from the Sorbonne) is an anthropologist of sorts, devoted to exploring distant cultures, while Scorsese, a former altar boy who once wanted to be a priest, is a kind of lay theologian obsessed by the issue of how to lead a principled life in a violent world (one of his early ideas was to make a film imagining Jesus on the Lower East Side). Over and over Scorsese’s films shuttle between the “church” and the “streets”—trying to see how the one can be kept alive in the other—and he has described even his underworld movies as “religious” in their treatment of the moral dilemmas of very human men. “You don’t make up for your sins in church—you do it in the streets,” says a character in his first major film, Mean Streets, and in The Last Temptation of Christ (filmed, like Kundun, in Morocco) he turns Jesus into a mystical, almost gnostic figure weighed down by the responsibilities of his spiritual mission and talking of inner transformation (in a Brooklyn accent) as he moves through a landscape of sorcerers and lunatics.

Yet, to a surprising and heroic degree, Kundun comes across as a deeply selfless film, an impersonal, movingly straight documentary that simply tells the story of the Dalai Lama’s first twenty-four years, beginning with his birth in 1935. Scorsese as a directorial presence all but disappears within a whirl of chants and images—denying himself the electric exchanges and ideas he favors elsewhere—and the effect is to make one feel as if one is seeing Tibet’s recent history through the Dalai Lama’s eyes. The screenwriter for Kundun, Melissa Mathison, went over every detail again and again with the Dalai Lama, and the action follows closely his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, with the result that the film, like its subject, succeeds in being pro-Tibetan without being anti-Chinese. When the movie’s Dalai Lama meets his first Chinese official, he is surprised to find him no monster, but “an ordinary human being, like myself.”

Because Scorsese tells his story through glancing images, as in a fast-moving dream, it may seem that he is courting surrealism, for example in the scene, at the end, in which the Dalai Lama, crossing the border into India, looks back at his bodyguards and sees only blood-stained horses; in fact the director is catching, with a startling compression, the inner workings of a consciousness. When I asked the Dalai Lama last year about the saddest moment in his life, he singled out that very instant, when he said goodbye to the guards who had followed him to the border, and realized they were returning to Tibet and their deaths.

The particular force of Kundun, then, lies in its willingness to present the emotional truth of Tibet’s predicament by giving the Tibetans a voice of their own. It has its own versions of Lhasa and the Potala Palace, as Seven Years in Tibet does, and it includes many of the same scenes: the famously prophetic last testament of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1933, predicting bloodshed and destruction; the boy ruler on his rooftop in the mid-1940s, watching the world through a telescope; the chilling line, “Religion is poison,” which Mao delivered to the Dalai Lama (and which Seven Years puts into the mouth of a Chinese soldier). Yet what makes it work is not only its willingness to let the Tibetans express their feelings directly, without a Western interpreter, but its readiness at once to create images and to abandon them (in keeping with the central, recurrent image of a sand mandala being swept away). Kundun has the confidence to show the 1947 civil war between rival groups of monks in Lhasa that Seven Years leaves out, and to rescue Tibet from fairy tale and tract.

Still, the fact remains that both films, for all their compassionate aims, are requiems, showing us a land that, by their own admission, no longer exists. As Scorsese himself said recently, referring to the full-scale revolts that took place in 1958 and 1959, “A movie should have been made while the goddamn fighting was going on.” That both films so faithfully recreate old Tibet on other continents testifies both to China’s power, in having kept them out of Asia, and the unavoidable truth that Tibetan culture, more and more, exists outside Tibet. Tibet, in fact, grows ever more ubiquitous around the globe even as Tibetans are now a minority in their own homeland.

Yet the Tibet Question, as Melvyn Goldstein calls it, has never been as simple as many of us would like to believe; it is one of those unresolved custody cases left us by history and compounded by all the shifting powers that, at one time or another, bid for a piece of a strategic region as large as Western Europe. In the early eighteenth century, for example, the leaders of the Mongol Lhabsang Khan effectively took control of Tibet, while paying tribute to the Emperor of China. As Mongol rulers and Chinese empires came and went, Tibet fell into a de facto limbo, which meant that when this century began it was formally subject to China, yet in practice largely independent.

The final flourish in this history of ambiguities came with the Simla Conference in India of 1914, at which the British (seeing Tibet as a useful adjunct to their possessions in India) declared Tibet to be a self-governing dominion under Chinese suzerainty, while China, which attended the conference, then refused to endorse the formula. Subsequently, after Roosevelt sent two OSS officers to the Dalai Lama in 1943, to see if Tibet could be used for building airfields and roads, the US claimed—unbeknownst to the Tibetans—that the eight-year-old leader was being approached in his capacity as the head of Tibetan Buddhism, and not as the head of an independent Tibet. Throughout its history there has been confusion between the “political” and the “ethnographic” Tibet. The former consists of the central section of the vast plateau and has until our own time been ruled by the Dalai Lama from Lhasa. The latter is made up of an unruly group of largely independent fiefdoms controlled by Tibetan potentates who are all loyal to the Dalai Lama but don’t necessarily recognize the sovereignty of Lhasa. The rights and wrongs of the political dispute with the Chinese, as the Tibetan Tsering Shakya writes in his fine introduction to Gyatso’s autobiography, are far from clear-cut, and in some senses Tibet can legitimately claim that it is independent, and China can also legitimately claim that it has rights over Tibet.

The Dalai Lama has always responded to these problems practically, and has been more realistic in doing so than many of his followers (as well as more open to change); in recent years he has asked only that Tibet’s status recur to what it was: not an independent state, but an autonomous entity within the People’s Republic of China. It’s worth noting that those who keep clamoring for a “free Tibet” (the title of another anticipated film, a “rockumentary” covering the Tibetan Freedom concert held in San Francisco in 1996) are ignoring the fact that the Dalai Lama himself has not sought a “free Tibet” since 1979. What reason do the Chinese have to give up ground voluntarily, he sensibly asks, especially when it is so important for them not to lose face?

Yet those around the Tibetan leader are neophytes in global Realpolitik, and, perhaps understandably, they are still squabbling over how much self-rule to demand (even the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, himself an incarnate lama and tireless fighter for Tibet, believes that the Dalai Lama’s position is too conciliatory). And those outside the Tibetan community are more likely to marvel over the beauties of Tibet’s vanishing culture than to do anything to save them. Western governments still excel at having it both ways, giving moral and whispered support to Tibet while taking pains not to antagonize China (or, in Washington’s case, funding the Tibetans when China seemed a serious enemy to US interests, and then dropping the Tibetans once it had achieved détente in Beijing). The long history of the “bad friend syndrome”—or, at least, the friend with two faces—had its latest chapter a few weeks ago when the State Department appointed a “special coordinator” to oversee US policy toward Tibet, not an actual ambassador, and yet not, we were assured, a cipher.

The Dalai Lama thus finds himself in the disheartening position of being fêted around the world even as he is thwarted in the one central mission of his life. Each year more Han Chinese move into Tibet, and each year the six million Tibetans still living at home become more cut off from their government-in-exile. In many respects, all China has to do is wait until the current Dalai Lama dies (his next incarnation—if there is one—will almost certainly be born outside Tibet, or else will be subject to Chinese control). The desperation of the situation comes across in Mary Craig’s opportunistically titled Kundun, a sympathetic but frank account not so much of the Dalai Lama as of his family. Already, she points out, young Tibetans are so removed from their heritage that the Dalai Lama’s younger sister, when she was urgently pressed to join his cabinet, needed help reading documents written in Tibetan. And while the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother counsels outright defiance of China, his second brother, fluent in Chinese and married to a Chinese woman, attacks those who would hope to help Tibet by boycotting Chinese goods.

The Chinese made their greatest tactical error of recent years when, prompted either by greed or by a complete misreading of the West, they opened Tibet up to tourism in the mid-Eighties, and so, willy-nilly, created a new generation of foreign supporters of Tibet. However much they gained in revenue, they surely lost much more in prestige, as virtually every foreign visitor to Tibet fell under the spell of its people, and came back with the stories and images that now provide the fuel for Kundun and dozens of recent books. It was foreigners who recorded, on film and video, the beating of monks in the Lhasa riots of ten years ago—riots that might even have been encouraged by the sense that they were the only way of communicating Tibet’s suffering to the outside world—and it is hard indeed to visit Lhasa without feeling that one is confronting a particularly affecting case of a conflict that matches power politics against simple human claims for freedom of culture and religion.

Tibet therefore may have the potential to become a small triumph for “citizen diplomacy” if only its supporters in the West can find a way to approach the prideful old men of Beijing without converting Tibet into either romantic myth or fashion accessory. The Dalai Lama, whose great gift is to combine realism with hopefulness, often concedes that the Tibetans are far less seasoned in their opposition tactics than, say, the Palestinians; and they face an occupying force more intractable, and less vulnerable to public opinion, than almost any other world power. Violence will achieve little, he always points out, especially when Tibetans are up against a nation two hundred times more populous, and, in any case, whatever gains violence might achieve would only be short-lived. Tibet will always be on China’s doorstep. Yet, taking heart from the unexpected changes he has witnessed in Eastern Europe and South Africa and pointing out that more and more Chinese are speaking up on behalf of Tibet, he recognizes that with the death of Deng Xiaoping and much of the world watching Hong Kong, there is now a small opportunity to see if a “one country, two systems” approach is feasible.

The Chinese, it’s safe to assume, have no real reason to leave Tibet, and to relinquish a region they traditionally call the “Western Treasure House.” At the same time, as the Dalai Lama recognizes, they have no particular reason to keep on maintaining a violent (and potentially costly) oppression, especially if their transgressions are hurting their interests on other fronts. Thus the Tibetans’ only real choice is to continue to appeal to movie stars, pop singers, journalists, and human rights supporters, not—as Goldstein suggests—to flatter their vanity, but to remind us that theirs is a country and not just a cause, and a country that is dying more from attrition than brute force. And the Western nations? Perhaps the best we can do is to try to make sure that Tibet does not have less to fear from its enemies than from its seeming friends.

This Issue

January 15, 1998