The pure land of Tibet and the lothesome Han Chinese

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:05 am

Washington Monthly has an article up on Chinese tourism in Tibet. It is by Pearl Sydenstricker, who is a western (I assume) reporter who does not want to use their real name “in order to protect sources in China and Tibet.” That strikes me as a good idea, since the Chinese government tends not to like criticism.1 While I agree with a lot of what the article is saying, I found most of it deeply annoying. The general thrust of the article is that Chinese tourism is destroying Tibetan culture “Rather than threatening Tibetan monks with army troops, the government is smothering them with throngs of pushy tourists.” Han Chinese tourists have overrun Tibet, taking pictures inside temples, gawking at sacred rituals, and making a mockery of a culture. One could, of course, replace the words Han and Tibet here with American or German or Japanese and …well, anywhere really. I bet this is an old story with some interesting modern and Tibet-specific twists, but you won’t find that here.

Yes, Chinese tourists are flocking to Tibet, just like they are flocking to Shaoshan and Pyongyang and Paris. Yes, China is an imperial power in Tibet, and the Beijing government treats Tibetans even worse than it treats Han. Yes, lots of Han have deeply condescending attitudes towards the minority nationalities. On the other hand, the whole point of sending someone who knows Chinese (but apparently not Tibetan) to write an article is to get beyond lazy stereotypes.

The article opens with Chinese tourists witnessing a sky burial. How vile.2 It appears, however, that at least one monastery was o.k. with that. Was it just the money? Were they thinking that this would help win converts? There are lots of motives for letting people look at your culture beyond fear of getting shot, but the Tibetans are just as much cardboard cutouts here as the Han. While I doubt that Tibetans are raking in as much of the tourist cash as they would like they are getting some, and a lot of them want it, and the effect would really be no different if the tourist money came from culturally understanding American and Danish tourists rather than those loud Han with their IPhones. Cultural contact is a complex issue, and spitting on the Han does not really advance our understanding much. One of her informants is a Han Chinese.

a twenty-six-year-old Han Chinese backpacker from the coastal provincial capital city of Jinan, who goes by the English name of Sarah. I said that Lhasa feels uptight. “Oh—you mean the military and police?” She laughed and then told me, as if explaining a very simple idea to a child, “We feel very relaxed here. It’s a very safe city. If we feel cheated by a vendor, we can call a hotline and they tend to be on our side.” Sarah wore a pink scarf with Tibetan designs; prayer beards encircled both of her wrists. “I’m a Buddhist,” she said proudly. “It’s in the heart.”

She explained the military presence: “Have you heard of Tibetan independence? People wanted to split the country and oppose the unification of the motherland. We really didn’t like that.” During her weeklong trip to Tibet, Sarah stayed in a Han-run hostel and ate Chinese food for all but two of her meals.

Sarah seems a little less self-aware than might be nice. So does Pearl. I have never actually had a ditzy Chinese female (they have to be female for examples like this) explain how she loved Tibetan Buddhism while having no understanding of her own status as part of an empire. I have seen lots of Americans like that though. The title of the piece is the Disneyficaiton of Tibet. If Americans can’t see themselves in the word “Disneyficaiton” they really need …something. My point is not that the article would be saved with a little “other people do it too” but that the whole frame is built around Tibetans as people who exist only for the better sort of Americans to lament their passing at the hands of the evil Han or (in Mexico) busloads of Americans who work at Wal-Mart.

The Han Chinese may leave melon seeds everywhere, but when they say the Tibetans are poor because they are lazy they are least do them the courtesy of thinking some Tibetans might like cars and money and modern medicine. Very few Chinese are likely to see Third World poverty as colourful the way so many Americans do. At least none of the Chinese analogize Tibetans directly to yaks like Pearl does. Is the Tibetan case different from the other cases of traditional cultures disappearing around the world, as capitalism changes everything and the young people leave for the big city? I would also like Pearl to give us a bit of Chinese context. Is the tourist-industrial complex growing quicker in Tibet than elsewhere in China? There is a massive growth in tourism all over China, and many of the same issues about access, preservation and tacky tourists present themselves there. I don’t doubt that police and paramilitary types are everywhere in Lhasa. Are they more common and more annoying then they are everywhere else in China? I would guess so, but no way to tell from this. Maybe someone should send a reporter to find out. For now all readers of Washington Monthly will get on this topic is some Han-bashing.

Pearl is fighting the good fight here, but this article is really not very helpful.  I would be interested in knowing what she thinks of the reaction to the article. As you might expect, the comments are less then edifying.

This is so sickening – Chinese people are a disgrace. It is the lowest of all “civilizations” on earth.

Does Pearl agree with this? I would guess not, but when you write stuff that fits in with crude anti-Chinese stereotypes you will find yourself with a lot of unpleasant bedfellows.


  1. Although my guess would be that Pearl’s access to China is more threatened by this piece than any Chinese or Tibetan acquaintances. []
  2. The tourists, not the custom. The custom is traditional. []


Teachers as sages. Also, Tibet

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:55 pm

Here is something wonderful from Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West1 If you have not read it, it is a very good book on what ‘Tibet’ has meant to the West, written by a leading Tibet scholar. One set of books that he deals with are the works of T. Lobsang Rampa. Rampa was a Tibetan Lama whose 1956 autobiography The Third Eye was an important part of the popularization of ideas about Tibet. Lopez points out that many professional Tibetologists first became fascinated with Tibet after reading this book. Later editions contain prefaces denying rumours that Rampa was actually a Devonshire man named Cyril Henry Hoskin who had never been to Tibet. These rumours do not seem to have hurt sales of his books to Westerners seeking Tibetan wisdom, however. Lopez, who apparently has a sense of humour as well as being a great scholar, assigned The Third Eye to his students at the University of Michigan.

.. having them read it without telling them anything of its history. (The edition currently available in the United States for some reason omits the “Statement by the Author.”) The students were unanimous in their praise of the book, and despite six prior weeks of lectures and readings on Tibetan history and religion (including classics such as R. A. Stein’s Tibetan Civilization), they found it entirely credible and compelling, judging it more realistic than anything they had previously read about Tibet, appreciating the detail about “what Tibet was really like,” giving them “a true understanding about Tibet and Buddhism.” Many of the things they had read about Tibet seemed strange until then; these things seemed more reasonable when placed within the context of a lama’s life. It is not that the things Rampa described were not strange; it was that they were so strange that they could not possibly have been concocted. When I told them about the book’s author, they were shocked, but immediately wanted to separate fact from fiction. How much of the book was true?
With the author unmasked they awoke from their mystified state, and with eyes opened turned away from Rampa and toward me for authority. Each of their questions began, “Did Tibetans really … ?” “Did Tibetans really perform amputations without anaesthesia, with the patients using breath control and hypnotism instead?” “Did monks really eat communally and in silence while the Scriptures were read aloud?” “If a monk violated the eightfold path, was he punished by having to lie motionless face down across the door of the temple for a full day, without food or drink?” “Are the priests in Tibet vegetarian?” “Did priests really only ride white horses?” “Were horses really only ridden every other day?” “Did acolytes really wear white robes?” “Did cats really guard the temple jewels?” 23 “At the New Year’s festival, did monks really dress as giant buddhas and walk through the streets on stilts?” “Were there really  man-bearing kites in Tibet?” And of course, “Did they really perform the operation of the third eye?”
The answer to each of these questions was no. But by what authority did I confidently make such a pronouncement? I had not lived in old Tibet and so could not contradict Rampa’s claims with my own eyewitness testimony. It was, rather, that I had never seen any mention of such things in any of the books that I had read about Tibet-in English, French, or Tibetan. From reading other books, I had learned the standards of scholarly evidence, the need for corroboration by citing sources in footnotes.24 And because I had read a sufficient number of such books, I was awarded a doctorate some years ago, and with the proper documents in my possession to prove my identity had been given the power to consecrate and condemn the products of others, and the power to initiate others into this knowledge. This power, the power to speak both with authority and as an authority, that is, the power to bestow value, had been passed on to me by my teachers, who had in turn received it from their teachers. It was this power that was embodied in my “no.” But this power had come at a price. For by accepting this power I had had to forever disavow any interest in the possible commercial profits that might derive from my work. It was necessary that I renounce any self-interest in the economic value of my work, exchanging such capital for something higher and more noble because it was severed from crass material interests. This was symbolic capital, which would in its own way provide for my financial security by insuring that I would never have to offer my services to a publisher as a ghostwriter in order to support my wife and my cat, as Cyril Hoskin had done. The work of scholarship, like the work of art, retains its aura only when it is not reproduced too widely. Were it to sell a million copies, its aura of authority would fade.


This is a nice bit of writing that says a lot about the nature of teacherly authority. Obviously, Lopez needs to follow this up with a blazing example of his expertise, and he does.

It is not that Rampa’s claims can be dismissed because they are too strange. Had his research extended to include Evans-Wentz’s Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, he would have learned about ‘pho ba, or “transference of consciousness,” one of the six teachings of the tenth-century Indian tantric master Naropa (Na ro chos drug), whereby one can transfer one’s own consciousness into that of another being  (preferably a well-preserved corpse). The most famous case of consciousness transference in Tibetan literature is found in the biography of Marpa (Mar pa, 1012-1096), the teacher of Tibet’s great yogin Milarepa. Marpa’s son, Darmadoday (Dar rna mdo sde), after fracturing his skull in an equestrian accident, transferred his consciousness into the body of a recently deceased pigeon, since no human corpse could be found on short notice. The bird was then given directions by Marpa for flying across the Himalayas to India, where it discovered the fresh corpse of a thirteen- year-old brahman boy; the bird transferred its consciousness into the boy and then expired. The boy rose from the funeral pyre prior to his immolation and grew up to become the great yogin Tipupa (Ti phu pa). 26 Compared to this a Tibetan taking over the body of an unemployed Englishman seems rather mundane.

  1. University of Chicago Press, 1999 []


Following Younghusband to Lhasa

Filed under: — Scott Relyea @ 5:50 pm

Just a quick post of a wonderful website I stumbled upon doing a bit of background research for a point I needed to make in the chapter I’m currently working on (yes, Googling a dissertation!)

Field Force to Lhasa 1903-04

These are the letters of Captain Cecil Mainprise, who ventured to Lhasa in 1903-4 as part of the Younghusband Expedition. In another example of ‘history-as-it-happens’ (similar sites have been highlighted in past Frog posts) a relative of the captain is posting the letters throughout this year, 105 years later, on the day that they were written.

Now that I’ve found him at the Phari Fort today, it’s a journey I plan to follow until they reach Lhasa in August, and beyond.



Heartland Mandala

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:01 pm

I was surprised to learn, about ten days ago, that PSU was going to be hosting a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala. This is a touring company, but somehow they ended up in Pittsburg, Kansas in the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s uprising. There was no political commentary around it, as near as I can tell. The school newspaper and city paper reported on it, but didn’t make a big deal about the anniversary. It wasn’t entirely apolitical: The Pittsburg Morning Sun did quote the monks on the subject of the Chinese takeover and subsequent Tibetan cultural endangerment. But the opening invocation, which I attended, included no mention of that; there was a prominent altar with a picture of the Dalai Lama, though.

Unfortunately, I fell ill a few hours after the opening ceremony on Monday1 so I only got pictures of the very first moments of creation — I love the traditional-style plumb-line — and of the nearly-completed mandala on Thursday. I haven’t seen these up close before, and if I’d been healthier I would have gotten more pictures, but I was struck by the texture of the mandala. I’m used to seeing these as two-dimensional images, but the sand is actually laid out in little piles and walls (see here for a detail shot), in a very intricate fashion.

It was, apparently, a variation on the Amitayus Mandala (see also), centered on Amitabha (aka Amida), and emphasizing healing and wisdom. Here are some of the better pictures I did manage under the fold:

  1. I hope my students don’t make the connection between the “driving out of evil forces” and my absence! []


Comparative religion

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:18 am

Teaching about religions is always tricky in part because I and most of my students are heavily influenced by the Christian (especially Protestant) idea that the essence of religion is what you believe. Of course there are things besides orthodoxy (common belief) that religions promote such as common practice or common ritual behavior. The standard way of teaching about religion is to talk a lot about belief, but as this 1870 piece from the Atlantic (via Andrew Sullivan) shows there are other ways to do it.

Those who strive to establish a monopoly of labor are accustomed to sneer at the Chinese as “Pagans.” They urge that citizenship ought not to be granted to them, because their religion is different from ours. Yet those who talk in this way make no objection to receiving Irish emigrants and intrusting them with the elective franchise. But is the Buddhist religion, which prevails in China, much more foreign to our customs and our modes of thinking and believing than the Roman Catholic religion is?

The essay is trying to show that the Chinese in America should not be discriminated against because their religion is not in fact barbaric and they are presumably capable of civilization. Well, at least as capable as the Irish. The author, Lydia Maria Child was not a sinologist and I suspect that much of what she wrote would not have been accepted by scholars even at the time. She comes up with a long list of similarities between Catholicism and Buddhism: pilgrimage, buying your way out of purgatory, cults of the saints, relics, monasticism, a pope/dali lama, art that is mostly “grotesque”, an educated class who scoff at the peasant form of the religion, etc. It is actually sort of tricky to figure out what she is doing here. Part of it may be that as a 19th century Protestant she really is blind to how universal a lot of this is and that what really needs to be explained is not that Catholics and Buddhists go on pilgrimages, but that Protestants do not, given that it is one of the most common forms of religious observance around the world. Child was a great campaigner for abolition and woman’s and Native American rights, so I suppose what she is doing here is trying to make the Chinese seem more like “us” and by focusing on practice rather than belief she actually does a pretty good job of it. I could imagine a number of classes where this would be a good thing to assign.


Learning about Tibet IV

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:10 am

Lots of stuff out there on Tibet. Maybe most interesting to me is the blog of 江达三, a 72 year old former PLA flyer who spent time in Tibet and is now blogging about the events there. China Digital Times translated one of his posts on the time in the 50’s when they rounded up a bunch for Tibetan troublemakers and demonstrated airpower to them by having planes fly over and blow up some drums of gasoline and drop a few bombs

This frightened “the spectators” like they’d never been frightened before, particularly the superstitious lammas and living Buddhas, who’d never seen planes before and, out of fear and respect, referred to the bombers as “spirit eagles” (神鹰; note: this is the Chinese phrase for condor, the birds involved in Tibetan sky burials). At that point they really believed the PLA was “Heaven’s Army” (天兵天将) A few people couldn’t take it and fainted, some pissed in their pants, and others shouted slogans at the top of their voice: “Long live the Communist Party! Long live Chairman Mao!” A truly strange and ugly scene.

That’s how to do shock and awe. One thing I found interesting is how he, like a lot of other Chinese commenters, links Old Tibet to feudalism. He compares it to Taiwan, of course, as another version of split-ism, and he hates the worthless Dali Lama and his clique 达赖集团又疯狂地唆使顽固不化藏独份子. Unlike Taiwan, however, Tibet is easier to link to Feudalism, and given the CIA connection in the 50’s, to Imperialism. It is easy to say that China wants to keep Tibet because of “Nationalism” but I think it helps a bit to think about what aspects of Chinese nationalism. If you learned in school the old May Fourth catechism that China was weakened in the 20th century by the evils of Warlordism, Feudalism, and Imperialism it is easier to see these things in Tibet. Before being “liberated” Tibet really was a theocracy, and the CIA really was involved there. If you want to fight the evil forces you found in your schoolbooks, Tibet is the place to see them. It’s a bit harder to call Taiwan feudal.

Some of the methods for fixing problems are old too. Jiang is big on the railway to Tibet as an important strategic link that will make it easier to control the place. (It’s railway imperialism!)


Learning about Tibet III

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:27 am

Zhang daren

Having learned any number of things about Tibet recently I thought I would learn some more, and thankfully the new Modern China (34.2) arrived with an interesting article by Daphon David Ho “The Men Who Would Not Be Amban and the One who Would: Four Frontline Officials and Qing Tibet Policy, 1905-1911” The article looks at the New Policies period attempts of the Qing court to establish control over Tibet, at the same time that the British were trying to do the same thing. In 1905 most Tibetans did not see themselves as citizens of a modern Chinese nation, or of a modern Tibetan nation, or as subjects of the British Empire and various people wanted to resolve this problem

Ho agrees with much of existing scholarship that one of the main events that split off Tibetan identity from Chinese identity was the brutality of the Chinese occupation of Lhasa in 1910, where Chinese behavior was, according to one Tibetan “worse than dogs and wild beasts.” Ho is mostly interested in showing how this mess was created by rivalries among Qing officials, but he also shows that there was at least the possibility that Tibet might have become China. The best hope for this came in the person of Zhang Yingtang, who served briefly as the Qing high commissioner for Tibet 1906-1907. Zhang promoted a peaceful version of Chinese-Tibetan reconciliation, and if you go to Lhasa today1 you will be shown Zhang Daren flowers, a symbol of the Tibetan people’s love for China.

As Ho points out, Zhang is a lot more interesting than modern Chinese propaganda makes him. He had been minister to the U.S., Mexico and Peru, and was very much a part of attempts to construct a new Chinese nation, and while in Tibet he tried to create a Tibet that was part of this new China.

In April 1907, [Zhang] published a treatise, “Improving Tibetan
Customs” (Banfa Zang su gailiang), in both Tibetan and Chinese. Zhang’s
plan can best be described as a peculiar blend of Confucian moral virtues,
modern hygiene, and military spirit. He began by admonishing Tibetans
about polyandry and sexual promiscuity, fretting about everything from
extramarital affairs to siblings, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, and even in-
laws sleeping in the same bed (QDZY: 1355-56). Zhang continued with a list
of recommendations that included bathing regularly, trimming down the
length of clothes (so as not to impede work), and studying Chinese, and a list
of injunctions that criticized Tibetan customs such as sky burial.

All of this is fairly typical Confucian nagging that could have just as well been directed at the Miao in 1740. Zhang goes on to urge a new level of militarism in Tibetan society.

1. When a boy turns eighteen, he should learn martial arts and the use of the
Mauser gun (Maose qiang) so that he can defend his hometown.

2. The Mauser is an essential piece of equipment for protecting yourselves
and your homes. Without it, you will surely be bullied. A Mauser costs
37 rupees, and 1,000 bullets costs 7 rupees. They are sold everywhere in
India and Sichuan. Everyone, man or woman, should spend 44 rupees to
buy a gun and bullets. When you are free, go hunting. Proceeds from the
sale of several white foxes, lynxes, or tigers will repay the cost of the gun
and bullets. After that, gains from hunting will be extra income. When
foreign enemies or robbers come, you can fight them with your guns, for
the sake of the Buddha.

later he said that

Today, the world is one of guns and cannons. There is no right
or wrong, only weak and strong. If we cannot achieve self-strengthening, we
will become prey. If people have the courage and uprightness to fight to the
death for the country, then foreign enemies will not dare to insult us. …
Military preparedness is something we cannot go a single day without deliberating.
Train troops every day; everyone discuss military affairs (riri lianbing, renrenjiangwu).
This is a vital eight-word formula.

This emphasis on arming the people would have seemed a bit radical in China proper, although the militarism itself was pretty standard New Policies stuff. Unfortunately for Zhang, if he had managed to militarize Tibetan society to the extent he wanted my guess is this would have led to more conflict with the Han rather than a single Han-Tibetan culture.

  1. I’ve never been []


Unity across the Taiwan strait

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:26 pm

Via China Digital Times a You Tube presentation for foreigners who know f****1 all about Chinese history explaining why Tibet was, is and always will be part of China. The only really interesting thing about it in a historical sense is that when they flash a series of maps to prove the “legitimancy” of China’s claims to Tibet they give the start and end dates for the Yuan and Qing dynasties2 For the Republic they only have a start date, not an end date, whereas most mainland stuff ends the Republic in 1949. Nice to see an attempt to reach out to the other side.

UPDATE More from Danwei

  1. a word that is used about 20 times in this bit of scholarship []
  2. They have a map showing that the Ming controlled Tibet too. Did you know that? Neither did I. Learn something everyday []


Self-introduction: Scott Relyea 李皓同

Filed under: — Scott Relyea @ 5:59 am

Hi everyone at 井底之蛙,

First of all, I’d like to thank Konrad for the invitation to join the Frog in a Well community. I’m happy to become part of what I think is quite an exciting web project and look forward to adding comments and posts to what’s already a collection of quite interesting and enlightening discussions.

So, the introduction, I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese History at Chicago and am currently based in Chengdu for most of this year conducting research on ‘Sichuan Khams’, the western part of Sichuan Province on the 青藏高原, made famous in song throughout the southwest. My route to history began at much lower altitude, with a degree in Journalism at Northwestern before moving on to a Master’s degree in International Affairs from GW, followed by another MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. While at GW my research in IR focused particularly on contemporary sovereignty issues and trans-boundary interactions among neighbouring sub-state political, economic, or social entities, an interest which remains at the near-periphery of my current dissertation project. In between the various degrees, I was a research assistant at the U.S. Institute for Peace in D.C. and did stints in web administration and design in various cities. (I guess that’s a bit of an academic meander!)


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