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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Essay: Searching for Old Tibet

April 24, 2009

Jamyang Norbu
Shadow Tibet
April 22, 2009

About a year ago I was driving my two girls
(Namkha and Namtso) to school, early one morning,
when the languid voice of Salman Rushdie drifted
over on National Public Radio. He was being
interviewed about his novel, Shalimar the Clown,
which is set in Kashmir. Rushdie's grandparents,
on his mother's side, were born and raised in the
valley and he and his siblings spent their
summers there. Rushdie held forth on the beauty
of the region and somewhere during the interview
declared that James Hilton had actually based the
idea of this earthly paradise, the Shangri-La of
his novel, Lost Horizon, on the Kashmir valley.
Of course Salman sahib was getting somewhat
carried away here, for anyone who's read Lost
Horizon it's fairly clear that Hilton had done nothing of the kind.

A few rungs lower on the literary ladder we have
Tom Grunfeld, author of The Making of Modern
Tibet, who also insists that Tibet was not
Hilton's model for Shangri-La. In an old Tibetan
Review article he maintained that when Hilton
wrote Lost Horizon, he was not talking about
Tibet at all, and that "… apparently the model
which Hilton used were the valleys in what is now northern Pakistan."[1]

The only problem with this sort of literary
"relocationism" is that Hilton himself does not
express any ambiguity, or provide for any
alternative interpretation, for the setting of
his novel. The book clearly states that the
"lamasery" of Shangri-La was in Tibet, that the
native people were Tibetans, spoke the Tibetan
language, practiced Tibetan Buddhism and
polyandry, wore sheepskin robes and yak leather
boots and believed that they were "descended from monkeys".

Hilton also provides specific geographical
references with which one can establish a fairly
exact fix for the location of his lost world. At
the beginning of the novel, when the European
characters in the story are abducted on a plane
from Baskul (Kabul?) to Peshawar, the hero,
Conway tries to figure out where they are flying.
When asked about it by a fellow passenger he
replies, "It's not easy to judge but probably
some part of Tibet." Later when the flight has
crash-landed Conway makes a more definite
assessment. "He guessed that the flight had
progressed far beyond the Western range of the
Himalayas, towards the less known heights of the
Kuen Lun. In that event they would by now have
reached the loftiest and least hospitable part of
the earth's surface, the Tibetan plateau."

A couple more geographical references in the book
settle the argument once and for all. Midway in
the story the head lama of the Shangri-La
"lamasery" tells Conway the story of a Capuchin
monk who, traveling from Peking south-west by
Lanchow and the Kokonor for some months,
accidentally stumbles onto the valley of the Blue
Moon where Shangri-La is located. Then towards
the end of the story we learn that after his
escape from Shangri-La, Conway somehow ends up at
a hospital in Chung Kiang (Chunking?) in China,
most probably getting there via Tatsien Fu, "a
world's end market-town for the tea trade to
Tibet." There can be no doubt that the author was
in point of fact referring to Tachienliu, or
Dhartsedo (which is the original Tibetan name),
the major frontier town and trade mart on the Sino-Tibetan border.

Now, if we take a mental drafting compass and
inscribe three roughly equal-sized arcs: the
first south from the Kuen Lun mountains, the
second south-west from Kokonor and the third due
west from Dhartsedo, (or just draw three circles
from those points) they will intersect around the
lower Changtang in the vicinity of the great
Namtso Lake. As smack in the middle of Tibet as
you could have placed it, even if you were not doing it on purpose.

For all those attempting to relocate Shangri-La
to Kashmir, Pakistan or anywhere else, no advice
would be more pertinent than Conway's plea to his
friends to put aside arguments about where they
were and acknowledge their actual situation:
"Merely that we are in Tibet, which is obvious."

But obviousness does not seem to be a deterrent
to Communist party cadres and modern businessmen
in China. In the mid 1990s, Shangri-La fever
gripped southwest China with the news that the
Himalayan utopia had finally been found. A Naxi
(jangba Tib.) musicologist, Xuan Ke, claimed that
James Hilton had been inspired by articles
written about upper Yunnan and Lijiang by
American scholar Joseph Rock in the National
Geographic Magazine. In 2002, by official decree
from Beijing, three counties in upper Yunnan were
officially renamed Shangri-La County and the
largest town Zhongdian became Shangri-La town.
The whole thing has now become big business with
not only Shangri-La brand cigarettes, soaps,
hotels, restaurants, discos, travel agencies, and
what have you, but even an entire Shangri-La theme park.

The problem with Xuan Ke's theory is that the
only National Geographic article written by Rock
prior to the publication of Lost Horizon (1933)
was on two areas in Sichuan province (Muli and
Yading). He never wrote an article on Zhongdian
or Upper Yunnan, and only mentions those places
in his book The Ancient Nakhi Kingdom of South
West China published in 1947. Veteran Tibet
guidebook author Michael Buckley recently came
out with "Shangri-La: A Travel Guide to the
Himalayan Dream," which deals with the whole
Shangri-La phenomenon - players, places and
controversies - in an entertaining and informative manner.

And anyway, Zhongdian (Gyalthang), Muli (Mili),
Upper Yunnan and Western Sichuan are all Tibetan
areas. Even Beijing's power to reorder the truth
cannot really pull Hilton's dream valley too far
away from its essential Tibetan orientation,
without killing the utopian vision outright.

I know some Tibetan readers will be annoyed with
me for wasting time and energy disputing Tibet's
claim to Hilton's Shangri-La. "Let Kashmir,
Pakistan or Beijing have it if they want," they
will say "The whole thing's been more of a
nuisance than it's worth." In a way I couldn't
agree more. Whenever something positive or
agreeable appears about old Tibet in print, film
or discussion, it doesn't take long for leftist
intellectuals or China apologists to cry out in
protest against another Shangri-La delusion being
foisted on a gullible Western public to cover up
the truth about Tibet's horrible past.

In a conference in Beijing in 2001, Tom Grunfeld
assured his hosts that this particularly
reprehensible kind of deception was finally
coming to an end in America. I reproduce a
quotation from his statement, which was widely
circulated in Xinhua, The People's Daily,
Worker's World and other media organs of the far
left.  "The Dalai Lama's description of the Tibet
under his serfdom rule as "Shangri-La" has led to
an infatuation with Tibet, which is a fad that
will soon fade and become inconsequential in
American history."[2] The fact that the Dalai
Lama has never once described Tibet as Shangri-La
in any of his talks or writings, or for that
matter has probably never read Hilton's book, in
no way seems to deter Grunfeld or other of
Tibet's critics (Michael Parenti, Barry Sautman
et al.) from this line of attack.

Yet having one of the most archetypal of all
utopias or lost worlds identified with your own
country is undeniably "cool", as my daughter,
Namkha, put it when I explained the whole thing
to her. The appeal gains in allure with the
knowledge that this archetype has been
incorporated into the most successful novel in
this genre, and is, reputedly, the book that
began the paperback revolution. It is no wonder
we have Salman Rushdie claiming it for his native
Kashmir or Tom Grunfeld trying his best to wrest
it away from Tibet and pass it on to Pakistan[3],
America's staunch ally in the fight against
global Islamo-fascism, or whatever it is being
called right now. But the bottom line is that
whether Tibetans or their detractors approve of
this image or not, the fact remains that James
Hilton clearly placed his Shangri-La in Tibet,
and even if this appears to be only an
inconsequential bit of business, it is not for us
or for anyone else to change it one way or the
other to suit emotional, ideological or commercial needs.

And come to think of it, this might be the
correct guiding philosophy to adopt whenever
having a discussion about old Tibet. Even if
there is some trivial, insignificant or even
embarrassing detail about old Tibet, it is
important that we value it enough to be
rigorously truthful about it. Whatever it may
have been, it is, for better or for worse, a part
of our own collective past. Whatever good there
was in old Tibet (and there was much) are
legacies we should cherish and pass on to our own
children. And that for me includes stories and
legends - even those written about us by other
people. The shortcomings of our forbears must
certainly be acknowledged, but not with shame or
denial, but rather with understanding, a sense of
humour and most importantly, an eye to reform.

Anyway, why should Tibetans be apologetic about
their past or feel self-conscious when Shangri-La
is mentioned? If English theatre-goers can enjoy
an exciting play by Shakespeare about an absolute
monster of a king, Richard the Third; and if
Americans can mythologize a cold-blooded young
killer, William Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid,
(among a whole slew of other murderous frontier
heroes) then why should Tibetans have to be
conscience-stricken if the Shangri-La mystique
provides a little extra mileage to the cause?

It really doesn't matter if an Englishman created
this myth for us. When Meji Japan drastically
discarded much of its traditional way of life in
an effort to create a modern state, Lafcadio
Hearne, pretty much single-handedly foisted the
romantic vision of feudal Japan, not only on a
grateful Western reading public, but on Japanese
posterity, which now gratefully remembers his
contribution with a small museum at the seaside
town of Matsue, and in school textbooks where his
wonderful stories of "ghostly" Japan still live on.

It is especially important now for Tibetans to
adopt a "no surrender no retreat" position on all
such issues as Beijing has launched a full-scale
assault on our history and national identity. It
started earlier this year, with the declaration
on March 28th of a new national holiday, "Serf
Emancipation Day", which has received a
higher-order of examination in the three
preceding postings on my blog
( by Warren Smith, Tsering
Shakya and Elliot Sperling, and also with China's
official commemoration of the "50th Anniversary
of Democratic Reform in Tibet". This was
celebrated with "cultural" programs, functions,
parades and speeches all over Tibet, and also a
major exhibition in Beijing, where Chinese girls
wearing blue silk chubas guided foreign and
Chinese visitors through the exhibitions of the horrors of "feudal" Tibet.

So from now on if the question is ever posed to
me (especially by fenqing types or inji
"running-dogs") about whether Tibet was really
Shangri-La under the rule of the Dalai Lama, I am
going to reply, very truthfully, that old Tibet
definitely had it shortcomings (and that I am
probably the most outspoken native critic of
Tibetan conservatism and leadership, past and
present) but compared to Chinese occupied Tibet
(over a million people dead, many thousands of
temples and monuments destroyed, sacred art
looted by the thousands of metric tonnes,
judicial torture, secret police, laogai camps,
informers, etc. etc. etc.) it certainly
was  Shangri-La, without the miraculous longevity
bit, of course. And then I would back it all up
with facts, figures and entertaining anecdotes.

For some time now I have been collecting
information for a series of essays on various
aspects of old Tibetan society and civilization
that I feel requires rigorous evaluation and
discussion without the usual academic
consideration for Beijing's feelings. There is of
course the topic of "feudalism" itself, and
whether Tibet was in the strict sense of the term
actually a feudal society, and other related
topics such as "taxation and land ownership",
"law and punishment" and so on. I would also like
to do something on children's education
(non-monastic) in old Tibet, women's place in
society, "national" healthcare (or lack thereof),
traditional environmental consciousness, and so
on. A few years ago, I came out with a five-part
essay on the modernization of traditional Tibetan
society and language, which I am enlarging and
eventually hope to bring out as a book.

The first one of these essays on old Tibet that I
hope to have out in a couple of weeks is
tentatively titled "The Evolution of Legal
Punishment in Old Tibet". I think such a study
would be timely as Beijing has now revived its
old charges (that it conveniently dropped in the
80's and 90's in order to woo the Dalai Lama and
exile Tibetans to accept Beijing's rule in Tibet)
about slavery, cruel punishments, scorpion-filled
dungeons and so on, and has put photographs and
related objet trouve on display in the Tibet
Exhibition in Beijing. I am aware that one bit of
writing is not going to even dent the surface of
China's propaganda machine (the party secretary
in Lhasa called my writings "the wings of a fly
beating against a rock) but just for myself, for
my own personal satisfaction, I will have set the
record straight on this, once and for all.

[1]. A. Tom Grunfeld, "Tibetan History: A
Somewhat Different Approach" Tibetan Review, June 1981.

[2]. Workers World, October 2, 2003

[3]. Actually the claim for northern Pakistan
comes about because Hilton visited the Hunza area
on a trip to India. But then he also visited a
number of other places in the Himalayas at the
time including the Darjeeling area, which he
alludes to in his novel. It has been claimed that
the isolated valley town of Weaverville,
California, in far northern Trinity County, was
an inspiration, but this is the result of a
misinterpretation of a comment by Hilton in a
1941 interview, in which he said that Weaverville reminded him of Shangri-La.
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