In 2014, shortly before the state visit to the Netherlands by the Chinese president Xi Jinping and a subsequent visit by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, I published a preview in Dutch on my personal website. This is a slightly edited English version of that text.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will soon pay a state visit to the Netherlands. A month and a half later, the Dalai Lama follows suit. In the run-up to the Tibetan spiritual leader’s last visit, five years ago, a journalist tried to elicit some critical observations about the popular interest in Tibet from me. In 2009, when he approached me, self-immolations of men and women burning themselves to death had become a staple of the international news on Tibet.1
The reporter asked whether Westerners’ outrage over the plight of the Tibetan people is primarily motivated by the romantic image they project onto Tibet. He tried to make the case that to some, human rights violations seem worse when the victims are Tibetan. I had to contradict him: Westerners do project with total abandon, but that doesn’t make the Chinese oppression of Tibetans less cruel.
There’s no denying it: The West has been under the spell of Tibet for centuries. Studies such as Traumwelt Tibet, Prisoners of Shangri-la, and Virtual Tibet pay much attention to absurd expressions of ‘Tibetophilia.’ And, yes, romantic depictions do obscure our view of reality. After all, the paradisiacal Shangri-la was never real. The widespread mythologization also harms the Tibetan cause. Chinese rulers contrast the prevailing romantic image with images that are just as much a caricature, as if Tibet had been a hell on earth before the Chinese ‘liberation.’ Here we see history serving as propaganda.2
Also, the uncritical stance of Western well-wishers tends to keep the rest of the world from taking their justified outrage at the Chinese oppression of Tibet seriously. Government leaders who do not fall into such romantic projections—true for the leadership in many low-income countries—tend to conclude that this rich man’s fancy is not worth their nations’ political support against the superpower China. Such responses negate Tibetans’ agency altogether, so that they’re banned from reality for life. No wonder young Tibetans oppose being presented with caricature-like images.
Stereotyping Tibet does not merely pose a political risk: It foreshadows an impending cultural decline. In Dark Age Ahead (2004), American journalist and activist Jane Jacobs warns that the loss of indigenous cultures worldwide will prove irreversible once it is accompanied by massive amnesia. For the living recipients and carriers of a culture retain innumerable nuances that can only be experienced. Once a culture is no longer passed on from person to person in real time, it fades away fast—to the point of impenetrable obscurity. Recovery is no longer a live option; reconstruction is the best we can do.
When the Europeans conquered North America, Jacobs says, Native Americans first tried to adapt their culture to the changing circumstances. They soon became a minority on their native soil, however, only to be marginalized again and again—backed into reservations that left little room for further adjustment. Before long, Native Americans—in imitation of the occupier or for the sake of alcohol, weapons, and food—gave up ancient cultural practices voluntarily, while others were slowly but surely forgotten with disuse.
While the memories of the ancient culture faded, everything changed: Language, religion and rituals; the composition of households and communities; dietary habits; concepts such as ‘honour,’ ‘shame,’ ‘dignity,’ and so on. Once they realized how much was lost, Native Americans haphazardly looked for information in museums and private collections. One cannot put back the clock, however, and the ghosts from a distant past spoke in tongues that were no longer understood.
Tibetan culture is impermanent too, and subject to constant change. After more than sixty years, a return to old Tibet—the times before the Chinese occupation—is impossible. Even so, Western Tibetophiles continue to fashion a dreamworld out of fleeting impressions, superficial interactions, false memories, and the vestiges of a culture in decline. But their ‘Tibet’ is a land of oblivion—a place out of time—where they dwell alone, sunk in a self-absorbed reverie. No Tibetan lived there—or will ever live there.
The embarrassing truth is that for all our well-meaning support, most Westerners are completely in the dark about Tibet. Thankfully, we recognize state terror for what it is. But the real Tibet eludes us. Since we aren’t carriers of Tibetan culture ourselves, our perspective is biased. We articulate other people’s thoughts, experiences, and memories. We let our selective imagination run wild. But how could outsiders’ stereotypes ever capture the vitality of a wisdom culture that suffers from amnesia?
Ultimately, only Tibetans themselves can stem the flood of oblivion by preserving the living, evolving practices of their society and culture. After all, Tibetan Buddhist rituals, paintings, and texts do not speak for themselves. Their meaning does not exist outside of space and time. Their power of expression derives from the shades of meaning that the living pass on to each other. Wisdom and compassion are not cultural artefacts, but fleeting moments embodied in the hearts and minds of ordinary mortals.
Tibetans inside Tibet attempt to keep their spiritual lives intact under terrible conditions. Not out of a sense of cultural preservation, but out of self-preservation. Religious freedom—not a mere political dispute over their country’s borders with China—is at the heart of their struggle. Once their experience no longer informs the living practice of their descendants, the fate of the native Tibetan Buddhist culture is sealed forever. All that’ll be left for the stragglers in Tibet is to wander a reservation on the roof of the world.
- Carrico, Kevin. (2015). Tibetan Buddhist Self-Immolation. Retrieved October 8, 2020.
- Powers, John. (2004). History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles Versus the People’s Republic of China. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 122.