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Essay: Searching for Old Tibet



Jamyang Norbu
Shadow Tibet
April 22, 2009

About a year ago I was driving my two girls (Namkha and Namtso) to school, early one morning, when the languid voice of Salman Rushdie drifted over on National Public Radio. He was being interviewed about his novel, Shalimar the Clown, which is set in Kashmir. Rushdie's grandparents, on his mother's side, were born and raised in the valley and he and his siblings spent their summers there. Rushdie held forth on the beauty of the region and somewhere during the interview declared that James Hilton had actually based the idea of this earthly paradise, the Shangri-La of his novel, Lost Horizon, on the Kashmir valley. Of course Salman sahib was getting somewhat carried away here, for anyone who's read Lost Horizon it's fairly clear that Hilton had done nothing of the kind.

A few rungs lower on the literary ladder we have Tom Grunfeld, author of The Making of Modern Tibet, who also insists that Tibet was not Hilton's model for Shangri-La. In an old Tibetan Review article he maintained that when Hilton wrote Lost Horizon, he was not talking about Tibet at all, and that " apparently the model which Hilton used were the valleys in what is now northern Pakistan."[1]

The only problem with this sort of literary "relocationism" is that Hilton himself does not express any ambiguity, or provide for any alternative interpretation, for the setting of his novel. The book clearly states that the "lamasery" of Shangri-La was in Tibet, that the native people were Tibetans, spoke the Tibetan language, practiced Tibetan Buddhism and polyandry, wore sheepskin robes and yak leather boots and believed that they were "descended from monkeys".

Hilton also provides specific geographical references with which one can establish a fairly exact fix for the location of his lost world. At the beginning of the novel, when the European characters in the story are abducted on a plane from Baskul (Kabul?) to Peshawar, the hero, Conway tries to figure out where they are flying. When asked about it by a fellow passenger he replies, "It's not easy to judge but probably some part of Tibet." Later when the flight has crash-landed Conway makes a more definite assessment. "He guessed that the flight had progressed far beyond the Western range of the Himalayas, towards the less known heights of the Kuen Lun. In that event they would by now have reached the loftiest and least hospitable part of the earth's surface, the Tibetan plateau."

A couple more geographical references in the book settle the argument once and for all. Midway in the story the head lama of the Shangri-La "lamasery" tells Conway the story of a Capuchin monk who, traveling from Peking south-west by Lanchow and the Kokonor for some months, accidentally stumbles onto the valley of the Blue Moon where Shangri-La is located. Then towards the end of the story we learn that after his escape from Shangri-La, Conway somehow ends up at a hospital in Chung Kiang (Chunking?) in China, most probably getting there via Tatsien Fu, "a world's end market-town for the tea trade to Tibet." There can be no doubt that the author was in point of fact referring to Tachienliu, or Dhartsedo (which is the original Tibetan name), the major frontier town and trade mart on the Sino-Tibetan border.
v Now, if we take a mental drafting compass and inscribe three roughly equal-sized arcs: the first south from the Kuen Lun mountains, the second south-west from Kokonor and the third due west from Dhartsedo, (or just draw three circles from those points) they will intersect around the lower Changtang in the vicinity of the great Namtso Lake. As smack in the middle of Tibet as you could have placed it, even if you were not doing it on purpose.

For all those attempting to relocate Shangri-La to Kashmir, Pakistan or anywhere else, no advice would be more pertinent than Conway's plea to his friends to put aside arguments about where they were and acknowledge their actual situation: "Merely that we are in Tibet, which is obvious."

But obviousness does not seem to be a deterrent to Communist party cadres and modern businessmen in China. In the mid 1990s, Shangri-La fever gripped southwest China with the news that the Himalayan utopia had finally been found. A Naxi (jangba Tib.) musicologist, Xuan Ke, claimed that James Hilton had been inspired by articles written about upper Yunnan and Lijiang by American scholar Joseph Rock in the National Geographic Magazine. In 2002, by official decree from Beijing, three counties in upper Yunnan were officially renamed Shangri-La County and the largest town Zhongdian became Shangri-La town. The whole thing has now become big business with not only Shangri-La brand cigarettes, soaps, hotels, restaurants, discos, travel agencies, and what have you, but even an entire Shangri-La theme park.

The problem with Xuan Ke's theory is that the only National Geographic article written by Rock prior to the publication of Lost Horizon (1933) was on two areas in Sichuan province (Muli and Yading). He never wrote an article on Zhongdian or Upper Yunnan, and only mentions those places in his book The Ancient Nakhi Kingdom of South West China published in 1947. Veteran Tibet guidebook author Michael Buckley recently came out with "Shangri-La: A Travel Guide to the Himalayan Dream," which deals with the whole Shangri-La phenomenon - players, places and controversies - in an entertaining and informative manner.

And anyway, Zhongdian (Gyalthang), Muli (Mili), Upper Yunnan and Western Sichuan are all Tibetan areas. Even Beijing's power to reorder the truth cannot really pull Hilton's dream valley too far away from its essential Tibetan orientation, without killing the utopian vision outright.

I know some Tibetan readers will be annoyed with me for wasting time and energy disputing Tibet's claim to Hilton's Shangri-La. "Let Kashmir, Pakistan or Beijing have it if they want," they will say "The whole thing's been more of a nuisance than it's worth." In a way I couldn't agree more. Whenever something positive or agreeable appears about old Tibet in print, film or discussion, it doesn't take long for leftist intellectuals or China apologists to cry out in protest against another Shangri-La delusion being foisted on a gullible Western public to cover up the truth about Tibet's horrible past.

In a conference in Beijing in 2001, Tom Grunfeld assured his hosts that this particularly reprehensible kind of deception was finally coming to an end in America. I reproduce a quotation from his statement, which was widely circulated in Xinhua, The People's Daily, Worker's World and other media organs of the far left. "The Dalai Lama's description of the Tibet under his serfdom rule as "Shangri-La" has led to an infatuation with Tibet, which is a fad that will soon fade and become inconsequential in American history."[2] The fact that the Dalai Lama has never once described Tibet as Shangri-La in any of his talks or writings, or for that matter has probably never read Hilton's book, in no way seems to deter Grunfeld or other of Tibet's critics (Michael Parenti, Barry Sautman et al.) from this line of attack.

Yet having one of the most archetypal of all utopias or lost worlds identified with your own country is undeniably "cool", as my daughter, Namkha, put it when I explained the whole thing to her. The appeal gains in allure with the knowledge that this archetype has been incorporated into the most successful novel in this genre, and is, reputedly, the book that began the paperback revolution. It is no wonder we have Salman Rushdie claiming it for his native Kashmir or Tom Grunfeld trying his best to wrest it away from Tibet and pass it on to Pakistan[3], America's staunch ally in the fight against global Islamo-fascism, or whatever it is being called right now. But the bottom line is that whether Tibetans or their detractors approve of this image or not, the fact remains that James Hilton clearly placed his Shangri-La in Tibet, and even if this appears to be only an inconsequential bit of business, it is not for us or for anyone else to change it one way or the other to suit emotional, ideological or commercial needs.

And come to think of it, this might be the correct guiding philosophy to adopt whenever having a discussion about old Tibet. Even if there is some trivial, insignificant or even embarrassing detail about old Tibet, it is important that we value it enough to be rigorously truthful about it. Whatever it may have been, it is, for better or for worse, a part of our own collective past. Whatever good there was in old Tibet (and there was much) are legacies we should cherish and pass on to our own children. And that for me includes stories and legends - even those written about us by other people. The shortcomings of our forbears must certainly be acknowledged, but not with shame or denial, but rather with understanding, a sense of humour and most importantly, an eye to reform.

Anyway, why should Tibetans be apologetic about their past or feel self-conscious when Shangri-La is mentioned? If English theatre-goers can enjoy an exciting play by Shakespeare about an absolute monster of a king, Richard the Third; and if Americans can mythologize a cold-blooded young killer, William Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid, (among a whole slew of other murderous frontier heroes) then why should Tibetans have to be conscience-stricken if the Shangri-La mystique provides a little extra mileage to the cause?

It really doesn't matter if an Englishman created this myth for us. When Meji Japan drastically discarded much of its traditional way of life in an effort to create a modern state, Lafcadio Hearne, pretty much single-handedly foisted the romantic vision of feudal Japan, not only on a grateful Western reading public, but on Japanese posterity, which now gratefully remembers his contribution with a small museum at the seaside town of Matsue, and in school textbooks where his wonderful stories of "ghostly" Japan still live on.

It is especially important now for Tibetans to adopt a "no surrender no retreat" position on all such issues as Beijing has launched a full-scale assault on our history and national identity. It started earlier this year, with the declaration on March 28th of a new national holiday, "Serf Emancipation Day", which has received a higher-order of examination in the three preceding postings on my blog (www.jamyangnorbu.com) by Warren Smith, Tsering Shakya and Elliot Sperling, and also with China's official commemoration of the "50th Anniversary of Democratic Reform in Tibet". This was celebrated with "cultural" programs, functions, parades and speeches all over Tibet, and also a major exhibition in Beijing, where Chinese girls wearing blue silk chubas guided foreign and Chinese visitors through the exhibitions of the horrors of "feudal" Tibet.

So from now on if the question is ever posed to me (especially by fenqing types or inji "running-dogs") about whether Tibet was really Shangri-La under the rule of the Dalai Lama, I am going to reply, very truthfully, that old Tibet definitely had it shortcomings (and that I am probably the most outspoken native critic of Tibetan conservatism and leadership, past and present) but compared to Chinese occupied Tibet (over a million people dead, many thousands of temples and monuments destroyed, sacred art looted by the thousands of metric tonnes, judicial torture, secret police, laogai camps, informers, etc. etc. etc.) it certainly was Shangri-La, without the miraculous longevity bit, of course. And then I would back it all up with facts, figures and entertaining anecdotes.

For some time now I have been collecting information for a series of essays on various aspects of old Tibetan society and civilization that I feel requires rigorous evaluation and discussion without the usual academic consideration for Beijing's feelings. There is of course the topic of "feudalism" itself, and whether Tibet was in the strict sense of the term actually a feudal society, and other related topics such as "taxation and land ownership", "law and punishment" and so on. I would also like to do something on children's education (non-monastic) in old Tibet, women's place in society, "national" healthcare (or lack thereof), traditional environmental consciousness, and so on. A few years ago, I came out with a five-part essay on the modernization of traditional Tibetan society and language, which I am enlarging and eventually hope to bring out as a book.

The first one of these essays on old Tibet that I hope to have out in a couple of weeks is tentatively titled "The Evolution of Legal Punishment in Old Tibet". I think such a study would be timely as Beijing has now revived its old charges (that it conveniently dropped in the 80's and 90's in order to woo the Dalai Lama and exile Tibetans to accept Beijing's rule in Tibet) about slavery, cruel punishments, scorpion-filled dungeons and so on, and has put photographs and related objet trouve on display in the Tibet Exhibition in Beijing. I am aware that one bit of writing is not going to even dent the surface of China's propaganda machine (the party secretary in Lhasa called my writings "the wings of a fly beating against a rock) but just for myself, for my own personal satisfaction, I will have set the record straight on this, once and for all.

Notes:
[1]. A. Tom Grunfeld, "Tibetan History: A Somewhat Different Approach" Tibetan Review, June 1981.

[2]. Workers World, October 2, 2003 workers.org/ww/2003/edit1002.php

[3]. Actually the claim for northern Pakistan comes about because Hilton visited the Hunza area on a trip to India. But then he also visited a number of other places in the Himalayas at the time including the Darjeeling area, which he alludes to in his novel. It has been claimed that the isolated valley town of Weaverville, California, in far northern Trinity County, was an inspiration, but this is the result of a misinterpretation of a comment by Hilton in a 1941 interview, in which he said that Weaverville reminded him of Shangri-La.

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