Originally a fictional locale, Shangri-La is now a Chinese township (newly renamed from Zhongdian) in Yunnan Province—although India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Tibet have also claimed to be the inspiration behind British writer James Hilton’s vision of Utopia. The surrounding area, now a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, has experienced both recognition for its beauty and controversy over development.

The word “Shangri-La” originated from the Tibetan language, meaning a “bright moon in one’s heart.” The Chinese have renamed a township (originally named Zhongdian) in Yunnan Province “Shangri-La,” based on experts’ identification of it as the place that inspired the British writer James Hilton’s portrayal of a fictional Shangri-La as an earthly paradise in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Based on the novel, the term Shangri-La has also come to represent, in general, the perfection sought by humans in the form of love, happiness, and other Utopian ideals. In the book, the secluded valley locale known as Shangri-La is gently governed from a monastery and is enclosed by mountains. India, Pakistan, and Tibet have also claimed sites as Hilton’s inspiration. In 1992, Nepal also began to use the name of Shangri-La to attract tens of thousands of foreign visitors.

In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the area surrounding the newly renamed Shangri-La as a World Natural Heritage Site—the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area—reportedly taking only twenty minutes to make the decision to include the area for protection. The area covers eight clusters of land adding up to about seventeen thousand square kilometers (approximately the size of Connecticut) and including the upper reaches of the Yangzi (Chang), Mekong, and Salween rivers, which run parallel to one another, north to south. They course through gorges that become at times three thousand meters deep and are surrounded by 6,000 meter peaks. The site, in a temperate region, is considered extraordinary in regard to its biodiversity.

Near the World Natural Heritage Site, controversy has brewed over the issue of building dams in the rivers to produce hydropower and to divert water to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. In 2004, after much public outcry, Premier Wen Jiabio halted a plan for such a dam and called for an environmental study. Many people then considered that the damming project was dead. However, in 2008 officials in Yunnan continued to support damming in order to bring economic development to the region.

Shangri-La: Where Fact and Fiction Meet

Visions of utopia exist everywhere, and sometimes influence the real world. One of these is Shangri-La, the fictional Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas that is now the name of a recently renamed township in Yunnan Province. The area surrounding the new “Shangri-La” has been recognized by UNESCO as the “Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area.” The following passage comes from British writer James Hilton’s 1933 novel, describing the main character’s first view of the Himalayas from the air.

Then he turned to the window and gazed out. The surrounding sky had cleared completely, and in the light of the afternoon there came to him a vision which, for the instant, snatched the remaining breath out of his lungs. Far away, at the very limit of distance, lay range upon range of snow-peaks, festooned with glaciers, and floating, in appearance, upon vast levels of cloud. They compassed the whole arc of the circle, merging towards the west in a horizon that was fierce, almost garish in coloring, like an impressionist back-drop done by some half-mad genius. And meanwhile, the plane, on that stupendous stage, was droning over an abyss in face of a sheer white wall that seemed part of the sky itself until the sun caught it. Then, like a dozen piled-up Jungfraus seen from Mürren, it flamed into superb and dazzling incandescence.

Source: Hilton, J.. (2004). Lost Horizon. New York: Harper Collins, 37–38. (Original work published in 1933 by William Morrow and Company)

Further Readings

Bezlova, A. (2008). China: Dam casts long shadow over idyllic valley. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from http://www.probeinternational.org/index.php?q=three-gorges-probe/news-and-opinion/china-dam-casts-long-shadow-over-idyllic-valley

Hilton, J. (1936). Lost Horizon. New York: William Morrow & Co.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2008). Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area. Retrieved December 16, 2008, from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1083

Xinhua Yunnan Channel. (2008). Shangri-La. Retrieved December 16, 2008, from http://www.yn.xinhuanet.com/nets/shangri-la/index.htm

Source: The Editors (2009). Shangri-La. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1953–1954. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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