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“Tibet’s Image in the Modern West”

From Berkshire’s Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, published by Scribners. (c) Berkshire Publishing 2002. All Rights Reserved.

“Tibet’s Image in the Modern West”

Tibet occupies a unique place in the Western imagination. Since Marco Polo (1254<N>1324) and other thirteenth-century Western travelers provided the first European accounts of Tibetan exotic practices such as necromancy (sorcery), the West has imagined Tibet as a mythical place of magic and mystery, a peaceful land preserving esoteric spiritual wisdom. It is commonly described by such colorful allusions as the “roof of the world,” the “forbidden land,” the “land of the lamas,” or Shangri-La, as if the country were otherworldly, beyond ordinary description.

The reality behind the image of mythical Tibet remains partly obscured today, because of a combination of historical circumstances and human and commercial needs. But many Tibetans consider the mythical image of their country to be detrimental to their prospects of political self-determination.

Origins of the Tibetan Image

During the nineteenth century, the British empire in India spread northward to the borders of Tibet, but the Tibetan government, fearing a threat to the Buddhist religious system, refused to allow Europeans to enter. Tibet refused even to enter into diplomatic correspondence with the British, who resorted to the use of spies to obtain information about their northern neighbor.

Tibet’s policy of isolation from European influences was assisted by its forbidding mountainous geography. Ironically this remoteness only succeeded in making the country more attractive to Westerners, many of whom made clandestine journeys into “forbidden” Tibet. The nineteenth-century Western romantic landscape aesthetic furthered the perception of Tibet as a pristine and beautiful land. Travelers such the botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1785<N>1865) promoted this image to the reading public in his 1855 Himalayan Journals, with their descriptions of the “deep dark blue of the heavens . . . the perfect and dazzling whiteness of the earthly scene.” While the more prosaic observations of British intelligence agents were restricted to official circulation, these images flourished alongside more exotic depictions of customs such as the use of skulls for drinking cups.

Because the public knew so little about Tibet, it became the repository for numerous fantasies. One image was promoted by the esoteric writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831<N>1891), the founder of the Theosophical movement, which was concerned with occult practices and spiritism. Blavatsky claimed that the Mahatmas (Sanskrit “great souls”), a race of spiritual masters dwelling in Tibet, were the source of psychic revelations that led to the development of Theosophy.

The Western discovery of Tibet’s unique form of Buddhism, a blend of Indian Mahayana and Tantric beliefs with indigenous Tibetan elements, did little to dispel Blavatsky’s fantasies. Tibetan religious systems were then poorly understood, and Western observers tended to focus on the colorful and esoteric aspects of Tibetan religion. Tibetan Buddhism was even termed Lamaism (which is not a Tibetan noun), a title ideologically framed to represent a faith that had degenerated from what Western scholarship classified as pure, original Buddhism and that was infused with demonic elements.

Contemporary Western perceptions of Tibet were affected by political factors, particularly at the beginning of the twentieth century, when fears of Russian influence in Lhasa led to the invasion of Tibet by British Indian forces. The imperial media at that time sought to portray the Tibetan system as a form of Oriental despotism, with the Tibetan people oppressed by a parasitic and corrupt clergy. These images coalesced with those promoted by Christian missionaries, who were forbidden to enter Tibet and who naturally produced negative images of Tibetan religion.

After the British forces reached Lhasa in 1904, the mystical heart of Tibet in the Western imagination was relocated to more remote places, eventually to hidden valleys (a concept known to the Tibetans themselves). The image of a timeless and tranquil hidden valley in the Himalayas was featured in James Hilton’s best-selling 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Its depictions of a Himalayan paradise known as Shangri-La were imagined as Tibet, firmly fixing the otherworldly image in the Western mind.

The writings of the French traveler Alexandra David-Neel (1868<N>1969) and the translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in the 1920s were other significant elements in the construction of a mythical Tibet. This trend culminated in the works of Lobsang Rampa, which first appeared in the 1950s. Rampa’s tales of his fantastic life in Tibet remain best-sellers, even though Rampa was soon revealed to be an Englishman, Cyril Hoskings (1910<N>1981), who had never been to Tibet!

Commercial and Political Factors

Commercial factors have also encouraged the production of colorful images of Tibet, with publishers responding to the continuing demand for accounts of the esoteric aspects of Tibetan culture. That demand seems to spring from a human need for fantasies of place and from the sense that this imagined Tibet might possess the cure for the perceived ills of Western society.

There are also political aspects to the selection and continuing vitality of Tibet as the repository of fantasies. One scholar has noted that Tibet was fascinating because it was unknown; after Europeans had colonized a faraway land, it always became uninteresting.

But during the first half of the twentieth century, there was also a political purpose behind these images. After the Tibetans had expelled the last Chinese officials in 1912, British India became Tibet’s main patron. In contrast to the images they had promoted earlier when Tibet was deemed hostile, the British now sought to promote the idea of a strong, unified Tibetan state with a distinct identity separate from that of China. Tibet’s popular image helped to promote its separate and unique status and to strengthen the country, and while the British now provided more realistic information on Tibet to the informed public, they made no attempt to counter the politically valuable mythical image.

The Consequences of the Image

There are many “Tibets” in the Western imagination today, the reality blending with the layers of romantic images. New images have emerged in recent years, with constructions of an environmentally conscious, feminist, nonviolent Tibet becoming increasingly widespread. These images are promoted by both the Tibetan refugee community and their Westerner supporters.

Today Tibet enjoys widespread recognition largely as a result of its many colorful associations, with much of its culture now within the realm of popular Western culture. But while the mythical image of Tibet helps the country retain the moral high ground in its struggle with China, the stereotypes not only deny the historical realities of Tibet, they deny Tibetan agency and obscure the very real Tibetan struggle for political self-determination.

Alex McKay

Further Reading
Bishop, Peter. (1989) The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing, and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape. London: Athlone Press.
Dodin, T., and H. Rather, eds. (2001) Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Hilton, James. (1933) Lost Horizon. London: Macmillan.
Korom, Frank J., ed. (1997) Constructing Tibetan Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Quebec, Canada: World Heritage Press.
Lopez, Donald, S. (1998) Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McKay, Alex. (1997) Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre, 1904<N>1947. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press.
Shakya, Tsering. (1992) “Of Real and Imaginary Tibet.” Tibetan Review 27, 1: 13<N>16.

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