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Tibet Fights to Retain Own Culture

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2004/12/12; December 12, 2004.]

The lifestyle of the majority Hans seems to be replacing tradition

By HOWARD W. FRENCH
New York Times
Dec. 11, 2004

LHASA, TIBET - They string brilliantly colored flags from the mountaintops in this land of impossibly crisp blue skies.

Here and there, one finds mounds of smooth, flat rocks, lovingly piled, each inscribed with its own Buddhist scriptural narrative. They plant water wheels in fast-moving streams, not to harness energy but to turn wooden cylinders laden with scripture.

Old women sit on doorsteps in the fading evening light kneading and turning their prayer beads. Visitors to Tibet, this remote, landlocked nation within another country, China, cannot help being struck by the fact that Tibet, which long since gave up its dreams of independence, is fighting to retain its soul.

After driving for a week, covering nearly 1,000 miles across the region, the largest expanse of high-altitude territory in the world, it became clear that new influences are being felt in this ancient land.

Some are on display at the cream- and toffee-colored Potala Palace, the exquisite traditional seat of Tibetan government, which sits high atop the hill that dominates this city.

Three days a week, native Tibetans arrive by the thousands, just as they always have, dressed in crimson robes or, more often, well-worn rags, leaning on walking sticks or clutching babies. Many of them have journeyed a week or more to make the pilgrimage, wearing looks of beatitude upon arrival at the palace.

But these days the palace is choked with Chinese tourists from the east, armed with noisy cell phones and flashing cameras.

In the shops that line the broad boulevard - Sichuan restaurants, clothing and mountaineering stores, massage parlors and even boutiques of Tibetan souvenirs - the faces one sees behind the counters are overwhelmingly those of Han migrants from the country's east.

They are the vanguard of an invasion of commercialism that has raised a pressing question: Can an ancient and distinctive culture steeped in religion maintain its lifestyle and identity in the face of an onslaught of Chinese bearing what Tibetans regard as godless materialism and chauvinism backed by the power of the state?

On one side are China's majority Han, who number more than a billion; on the other is Tibet's native population of about 2.5 million. China is not only racing to catch up to the West in economic growth and development. Much more quietly, but with determination, it is pushing to dominate vast spaces on its frontier that have eluded its control for millenniums, much as the United States once settled its great West or Australia tamed its Outback.

Everywhere one turns in Tibet, it seems, roads are being built to integrate it with China.

The Chinese government is well practiced in the phrases of fraternal harmony and cooperation. In Bayi, a county seat of 26,000 nestled amid 15,000-foot peaks near the Indian border in eastern Tibet, meanwhile, the two most conspicuous buildings are the gleaming, Chinese-built Guangdong and Fujian exhibition centers.

In the center of town, new apartment towers are rising, too, a duplicate in miniature of the urban development under way almost everywhere in eastern China.

With the province's formal economy and administration firmly in the hands of the Han, however, one imagines with difficulty ethnic Tibetans becoming the main occupants of the new apartments.

For visitors and settlers from the east, maintaining the pretense that ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese constitute one nation requires too much effort to sustain.

When a foreigner showed interest in a Tibetan prayer wheel at a souvenir shop on one of Bayi's main streets, the Han shopkeeper began spinning it the wrong way, counterclockwise.

Told of his error, he snorted: "That's a Tibetan thing. I'm from Gansu, China."

For now, off the beaten path, signs of Han cultural dominance still fade quickly. The riot of Chinese characters omnipresent on billboards and signs throughout China, for example, gives way to Tibet's Sanskrit-derived script.

In one tiny village, Xiuba, a cluster of 15 Tibetan farming families atop a bluff overlooking a new highway, not a soul could comfortably hold an extended conversation in Chinese. The village is home to five towering stone pillars, religious monuments said to be more than 1,000 years old.


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