Western ideas of Tibetanness: baby seals and depositories

Seuraava kirjoitus on englanniksi, koska se on pätkä gradustani, ja olen liian laiska alkaakseni kääntää sitä suomeksi.

In this section I decided to include a discussion about the Western ideas of Tibet and Tibetanness as many Westerners have strong opinions of the subject and our conceptions are affecting the Tibetans themselves. In the Western imagination Tibet is seen as ‘Roof of the world’, ‘Land of the snows’, mystic Shangri-la, heaven on earth, which was a holy kingdom led by peace-loving lamas. It was a depository of ancient knowledge and unchanging tradition which is now under threat of being lost because of Chinese invasion and assimilation schemes. As Vincanne Adams writes (1996):

“Construction of Tibet as a place of spirituality, as exotic, as offering esoteric forms of Buddhism, as a location for dynastic intrigue, as a wild frontier of bare-chested, horseback-riding singing nomads and rugged yaks, and, of course, as a place for ultimate challenge for Western physical endurance have all been bound up, Bishop (1989) notes, both not only with realities that actually exist in Tibet and among Tibetans but also with Western geopolitical interests in the region (Adams 1996: 515).”

According to Adams (1996) there are two types of images of Tibet that dominate the Western popular imagination. First is the pre-Mao Tibet that was universally and uniformly religious. All of the Tibetans possessed esoteric spiritual awareness and religious knowledge. The second one is an image of Tibet as a place that has been destroyed by Chinese communism and where Tibetans, one and all, are engaged in acts of political resistance. So authentic Tibetanness can only be found in people who are religiously devout and resist the Chinese government. (Adams 1996: 515.)

Besides religion and resistance there are also other images of Tibetans, and according to these the Tibetans are innately nonviolent, environmentally friendly and equal. Common statements are: “Tibetans are an essentially peaceful and nonviolent people, who never developed an army of their own,” and “Environmentalism is an innate aspect of Tibetan culture,” and “Women in traditional Tibet enjoyed a higher degree of equality than in other Asian societies.” Toni Huber (2001) argues that these types of reflexive, politicized notions of Tibetan culture and identity are unprecedented and distinctly modern (Huber 2001: 357). According to him:

“Tibetan exiles have reinvented a kind of modern, liberal Shangri-la image of themselves, which has its precedents in two different sets of discourses, the first of which is the product of the tree powerful “-isms” of early modernity: colonialism, orientalism, and nationalism. The second set derives from liberal social and protest movements that originated mainly in the industrialized West, but which are now transnational in scope and appeal: environmentalism, pacifism, human rights and feminism.” (Huber 2001: 358.)

As these images are constructed they do not conform to the reality. Elliot Sperling (2001), just to give an example, has written about the aspects of violence in the Tibetan tradition. Helena Norberg-Hodge (2001) sees the Ladakh Tibetans as a model of ecological sustainability but I would argue that this environmentalism is just the result of local conditions (namely poverty). When people have the opportunity to consume they do so, and the results of this consumption can be seen in the environment. In Xidang, for example, the slopes of the mountains are littered with plastic and glass bottles. We also had a big disagreement in the family as I did not let them dump the bottles in to the river. Barnett (2001) argues that according to the ecological image of Tibetans they are seen as an endangered species or Tibet as a threatened habitat. As the American Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman described it, “the Tibetans are the baby seals of the human rights movement.” (DeVoss, 1997 [see Barnett 2001: 276-277]).  What comes to the relative equality of men and women I would say the Chinese are more equal than Tibetans. As women do most of the farm work they have some power in the family affairs but they are far from equal. An example of this is that women are considered impure and even their clothes can not be washed in the same water as men’s clothes. Women’s clothes below the waist can not be washed in the washing machine as they contaminate it and they have to be hung lower to dry than men’s clothes.

These images are basically constructions based primarily on Western psychological needs but they have been adopted and developed by the government-in-exile in India. Such identity construction also has roots in what Heinz Bechert (1984) calls “Buddhist Modernism,” some of whose salient features he describes as: the reinterpretation of Buddhism as an essentially rational religion; the idea that Buddhism is a natural vehicle for various kinds of social reform; and the close connection between Buddhism and emergent South Asian anti-colonialism and nationalism (Bechert 1984: 275-277). All of this belongs to the Orientalist discourse. As Huber (2001) points out one aspect of that discourse “is the way in which the Oriental Other has also been creative agent for essentialist constructions, and moreover an agent who reflects, refracts, and recycles Orientalist discourse back to what is held to be the dominant objectifying group (Huber 2001: 363).” So according to Romantic Orientalist reading Tibetan identity is seen as innately spiritual in opposition to the soulless materialism and moral bankruptcy of Communist China or the greed and spiritual impoverishment of the industrialized West. Huber also notes that many of these identity images first appeared in multiple English texts before they appeared in Tibetan versions. This gives clear picture of their targeted audience and purpose: they are aimed at the West as a weapon in a propaganda battle against the Chinese state. (Huber 2001: 364-367.) But often this presentation has depended on historical distortion and the editing out of negative evidence. As Heather Stoddard points out “[a] considerable number of new books written in Tibetan…have been censored or banned from publication [by the exile government] because they do not conform to the desired image of traditional Tibetan society. Any serious discussion of history and possible shortcomings in the society before 1959 is taboo (Stoddard 1994: 152).”

Still, this ‘Shangri-la syndrome’ continues and captivates the Western imagination. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (1998) has argued that the Western definitions of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have been so powerful that the Tibetans have been denied agency, so that, in effect, they have been colonized. In his response to Lopez’s book Tsering Shakya (2001) writes:

“There is certainly a process of mimicry, hybridization, and appropriation of western representations of Tibetanness or Buddhism among certain sections of the Tibetan diaspora. However, it is clear to me that the penetration of the western construct into the Tibetan community remains at best superficial, and the mimicry is not necessarily carried out by way of imbibing a set of values and definitions offered by the West. Unlike the case in many colonized territories, penetration by western constructs, whether cultural or political remains at the margins of Tibetan subjectivity (Shakya 2001: 185).”

But as Jamyang Norbu (2001) writes it is this dreamlike, Shangri-la quality that is focused on, so much so that other aspects of Tibetan life or culture are ignored no matter how important they may be to the Tibetans themselves. According to him this can also be seen in the desire to maintain the cultural purity of such societies by sheltering them from the realities of the outside world, especially politics, commerce, and technology. Development for such societies is seen appropriate only if it is nonmilitary, nonindustrial, and environmentally friendly. This kind of stand ignores the society’s own needs and the desires of its people, who may be seeking change. (Norbu 2001: 375.) In the conclusion of his article Donald S. Lopez (1994) contends that for Westerners to indulge in the Shangri-la fantasy of Tibet is “to deny Tibet its history, to exclude Tibet from real world of which it has always been a part, and to deny Tibetans their role as agents participating in the creation of a contested quotidian reality (Lopez 1994: 43).” Even, if we leave out the Western imaginations, these identities are creations of the exiles in contact with Western audiences. As Tsering Shakya (2008) says the Tibetan communities in Tibet have little interaction with the Tibetan community in India. According to him “the exiles in India sometimes see themselves as the ‘true’ representatives of Tibetanness, and the Tibetans inside as merely passive, oppressed victims – a patronizing attitude that does not go well in Tibet (Shakya 2008: 22).” These images are also catered to the West in hope of political support for the Tibetan cause. But according to Shakya “the joke in Tibet is that the Dalai Lama wants “one country, two systems”, but what people there want is “one country, one system” – they want the more liberal policies that prevail in China also to apply in Tibet (Shakya 2008: 26).”

What is in common with all these images of Tibet is that it is seen as a zone of specialness, uniqueness, distinctiveness, or excellence that has been threatened, violated, or abused. In some cases the violation is seen as a result of advancing modernity or commercialization in general. But usually this violation is identified with acts of violence, desecration, or intolerance that have been carried out by the Chinese authorities. (Barnett 2001: 273.) Like I wrote earlier Stevan Harrell (1995) argues that the Chinese state sees its minorities as women, as children, or as ancient and thus needing protection, education and modernization. But the metaphor of Tibetans as women is also used by the Westerners as Barnett (2001) points out citing U.S. congressman: “The rape of Tibet is going on (see Barnett 2001: 273).” The same way in Western imaginations the Tibetans are seen although not as children but as innocent and needing protection and preservation. And, of course, the Tibetans are seen as ancient and always deeply religious. But what if every Tibetan is not willing to be our baby seal or depository of archaic knowledge?

Brett Neilson (2000) has argued that the myth of Shangri-la and the search for it has actually nothing to do with real Tibet. The Shangri-La myth conjures up the imagining of a space outside of globalization. Although it is the stuff of fiction and fantasy, it does this in an immediately material way, since, in its present cultural political articulation, it is inseparable from the geopolitical conflict surrounding Tibet. He does not to claim that Tibet is Shangri-la or that Shangri-la is Tibet, since one of the key aspects of Shangri-la in the original story (James Hilton’s Lost Horizon [1933]) was that this mysterious land is knowable only to a dedicated few, who commit themselves to a life of peace, simplicity, and meditation. One consequence of this hypothesis is that Shangri-la can be detached from the physical territory of Tibet thus becoming a sign of longevity, joy, and other stereotypical qualities that are associated with spurious ideals of Asian authenticity and anti-modernity (even when these attributes are clearly lacking). (Neilson 2000: 98-99.) So, is it the space outside of modernity that all of us (The Chinese tourists as well as Westerners) are imagining and looking for?


Adams, Vincanne. 1996. “Karaoke as Modern Lhasa, Tibet: Western Encounters with Cultural Politics.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol.11, No. 4, (Nov., 1996), pp. 510-546.

Barnett, Robert. 2001. “’Violated Specialness’: Western Political Representations of Tibet.” In Imagining Tibet. Eds. Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, pp. 269-316. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Bechert, Heinz. 1984. “Buddhist Revival in East and West.” In The World of Buddhism. Eds. Heinz Bechert & Richard Gombrich, pp. 273-285. London: Thames and Hudson.

Bishop, Peter. 1989. The Myth of Shangri-la: Tibet, Travel writing, and the Western Creation of a Sacred Landscape. Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Harrell, Stevan. 1995. “Introduction: Civilizing Projects and the Reaction to Them.” In Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Ed. Stevan Harrell, pp. 3-36. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Huber, Toni. 2001. “Shangri-la in Exile: Representations of Tibetan Identity and Transnational Culture.” In Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies. Eds. Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, pp. 357-371. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. 1994. “New Age Orientalism: The Case of Tibet.” Tricycle, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 36-43.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. 1998. Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Neilson, Brett. 2000. “Inside Shangri la/Outside Globalization: Remapping Orientalist Visions of Tibet.” Communal/Plural, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 95-112.

Norberg-Hodge, Helena. 2001. “Tibetan Culture as a Model of Ecological Sustainability.” In Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies. Eds. Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, pp. 331-338. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Norbu, Jamyang. 2001. “Behind the Lost Horizon: Demystifying Tibet.” In Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies. Eds. Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, pp. 373-378. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Shakya, Tsering. 2001. “Who Are the Prisoners?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 69, No. 1 (March 2001), pp. 183-189.

Shakya, Tsering. 2008. “Interview: Tibetan Questions.” New Left Review, Vol. 51 (May, June 2008), pp. 5-26.

Sperling, Elliot. 2001. “’Orientalism’ and Aspects of Violence in the Tibetan Tradition.” In Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies. Eds. Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, pp. 317-329. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Stoddard, Heather. 1994. “Tibetan Publications and National Identity.” In Resistance and Reform in Tibet. Eds. Robbie Barnett & Shirin Akiner, pp. 121-156. London: Hurst and Co.



13 vastausta artikkeliin ”Western ideas of Tibetanness: baby seals and depositories

  1. Näkyy olevan ihmisillä kielitaito heikoissa kantimissa?! Siis muillakin kun meillä 46 vuotta sitten kielen opiskelunsa lopettaneilla. Ei mitään kommenttia tähän vahvaan tekstiin, ei ymmärtää!
    Varmaan ei kovin kannusta blogin kirjoittaminen moisen hiljaisuuden jälkeen. Miltä tuntuu nyt?

  2. No, eipä tätä blogia kamalasti enää kiinnosta kirjottaa. Ei kommentteja, ja jos tarjoat juttujasi lehdistölle, ne ehdottavat, että mitäpä jos kirjottasit ilmaisiksi meidän blogifoorumille. Idiootin hommaa. Kirjottakoon ne muut, minulle riitti!

  3. Harmi, kun ei ole sitä laskuria, niin näkis edes miten on kävijöitä sivulla!
    Sie kirjotat niin hyvin ja kuvat ovat upeita ja kiinnostavia. En varmaan ole yksin sitä mieltä.

  4. Pitäskö sitten miettiä että mitä muuta elämässään tekisi?
    Mikä on Sinun elämäntehtäväsi?

    Minusta nuo kokemukset kannattaisi laittaa kansien väliin tai jollain muulla tavoin hyödyntää. Huolimatta niistä lehdistöltä saamistasi kommenteista. Mielenkiintoista luettavaa ja avartavaa. Arvostan Sinua ja sitä, että olet jaksanut pitää blogia kaikista vaikeuksista huolimatta. Älä siis anna periksi!

    Heitä se ”ego” ja katkeruus huitsin nevadaan ja anna sydämesi laulaa täysillä!!! Sinulla on tunne, taito ja tieto!


    • Olenpa tuota miettinytkin ja hakenut muutamaan Euroopan yliopistoon rahoitettuihin tohtorin ohjelmiin. Eli siis kansiin menee, jos pääsen sisään ja saan tutkimukseni rahoitettua.

      Mutta jotenkin sitä pitäisi elää siihen asti, että pääsee johonkin sisään. Ja valitettavasti meillä ei talvella ole asiakkaita, enkä tällä hetkellä pääse edes Xidangiin takaisin kiinalaisen uuden vuoden viettoon kun vuorilla tulee lunta niin, etteivät bussit pääse läpi.

      Helpompaa olisi, jos olisi ranskalainen (matkustavat ryhmissä ja käyttävät oppaita), äidinkielenään englantia puhuva tai edes mies. Vaihtoehtoja löytyisi.

  5. Päivitysilmoitus: Are Tibetans burning themselves to evoke the further pity of their Western sympathisers? – Telegraph Blogs

  6. Lukekaapa toi artikkeli ja klikatkaa sitaattia ”baby seals of the human rights movement”. Se tulee tälle sivulle! Voi jeessus! Min tekstiä on siteerattu kansainvälisessä julkaisussa! Vaikkakin toi lause ei tietenkään ole omani, mut kuitenkin…!!!!!

  7. Your claim that Tibetan’s consider women ”impure and even their clothes can not be washed in the same water as men’s clothes. Women’s clothes below the waist can not be washed in the washing machine as they contaminate it and they have to be hung lower to dry than men’s clothes.” is another kind of fantasy. I have lived amongst Tibetans for forty two years and been married to a Tibetan woman for thirty years and never encountered such a thing. While I’m sure, if you try hard enough, you could find some instance of this – as I’m sure I could find the same attitude amongst followers of some western religious groups – this is certainly not the norm. You are frankly insulting Tibetan women by giving your readers the idea that they would meekly put up with such attitudes.

    If you talk to elderly Tibetans in their own language they are generally very frank about the shortcommings of their country before the Chinese takeover and occupation – though what followed was much worse. Most Tibetans also have a very healthy skepticism about their religious heirarchs and the former Tibetan nobility or ruling class too.

    Certainly Tibet was not the Shangrila of romantic western Orientalists – but it seems the Chinese are now determined to reduce Tibetan culture to the level of Disneyland . See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/9386422/China-to-build-3bn-theme-park-in-Tibet.html

    • This is just a small cut from my thesis about globalization in a Tibetan village in which I pretty much argue that you can’t make huge generalizations about Tibetans as they aren’t a homogenous group. And the Western idealized image of Tibettans is just redicilous. And that’s how it was in my village: womens clothes below the waist were polluting to mens clothes and could not be washed in the same washing mashine. I’m pretty sure of this as I hand washed my clothes for several years.

      The Chinese have a tendency of turning everything into theme parks. Have you been to Lijiang? Or the minority culture parks everywhere in China? But they are not that unique in the enterprice. Where are you from? I’m Finnish and in my opinnion the tourism in Finnish Lapland is pretty much a Sami culture theme park (or Santa Clause theme park which is better as he’s not real). What about American Indians? They are conveniently already confined into parks (reservations). Tthe Tibetans are not unique in that sense. Of course it doesn’t make it right but why do we think that the Tibetans are so special and in need of our protection?


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