Posted by: Mm | April 10, 2008

Shangri-la, the Orient as it once was

With all due condemnation of the unacceptable governmental policies in Tibet, once again it became clear that the narrative about Asian conflicts, however “real” and “contemporary” they may be, always remains in danger of falling into the trap of orientalist discourse. The headlines about the recent pro-Tibetan demonstrations in Tibet, other Chinese provinces and abroad often show serious symptoms of what might be called pragmatic orientalist mystification.

The situation and its causes are most often described in indisputable parameters: the Chinese occupation in early 50’s, 1959 uprising, the exile, the repression and finally, the aggressive demographic policies. All these issues should doubtlessly be addressed and the problems they caused are all too tragically real. The narrowness of the reports, however, can be seen in other aspects.

First, most reports fail to say anything specific about the Tibetan history before 1950, about the past of the Tibetan teocracy, its links with the political protectors, and finally about the involvement of European powers and their colonizing policies, including the delusional experiments conducted by the advocates of aryanism.Shangri-La as depicted on the first edition cover of Lost Horizon.

Secondly, they tend to resort to a stereotyped portrait of Tibet as a mystical homeland of spirituality, the Shangri-la of the European exoticist imagery. Shangri-la, a typical 1930’s fabrication by a British author James Hilton, represents an utopian society, undisturbed by the turmoils of the world and in its spiritual purity and serenity unspoiled by the allegedly materialistic “Western” values. Such a paradise needs to be inhabited by equally stereotyped people that live in an everlasting peace and harmony, a utopian image that in no reasonable framework can be ascribed to the dynamic past and present of Tibet and its people, or – for that matter – to any other “real” country on Earth.

Finally, what is most dangerous, this imagery serves as a cover for the lack of realistic analysis of what Tibet could become in the future. Instead of attempting to recreate the utopian version of pre-1950’s teocracy suited to the recreational aspirations of European and American spiritual tourists, the real issues of Tibetan future should be taken into account. What is the demographic, social and economic status of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet proper; what are the realistic options of its autonomy and its transformation into a modern society; who are the big players in the power struggle over Tibet today; and how can their interventions be prevented or at least balanced to the best possible outcome of the crisis. In solving questions like these, resorting to orientalist mystification can only do harm. After all, it’s Shangrilanians, not the Shangri-la that we should focus on.

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