boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
H.D.S. Greenway

China's grip on Tibet

Except for the stunning Potala Palace (above), religious buildings, and devoted pilgrims, Lhasa is unexceptional now. Except for the stunning Potala Palace (above), religious buildings, and devoted pilgrims, Lhasa is unexceptional now. (Newscom-file)

LHASA, Tibet
THE CHINESE have never really understood why the West makes such a fuss about Tibet. China has crushed Tibet, and brought in settlers to swamp its culture. But by their lights they have brought modernity and a better life to a feudal society groaning under the rule of lamas.

They call the exiled Dalai Lama a "splittist," which sounds comic to Western ears, but carries all the deep Chinese fears that forces are conspiring to split up the ancient domain of China which, through the ages, has often disintegrated into warring factions, only to be reunited again when China was strong.

Tibet has for centuries been considered a satrapy of China, although it had virtual independence when China was weak. Tibet is not internationally recognized as an independent country. Not even the Dalai Lama himself insists on independence. Yet China trembles.

For although the Chinese physical grip on Tibet is unyielding, in the battle of imagination they haven't a chance. Westerners, for hundreds of years, have been intrigued by Tibet as the most remote place on earth, "the roof of the world," a hidden and holy land where an esoteric form of Buddhism was practiced, producing miracles such as flying monks and the ability to sit naked in the snow and raise your body temperature by powers of concentration.

"Through all ages Tibet has held a paramount position among those regions of the world which have been popularly invested with a veil of mystery because they are inaccessible and unknown," wrote Sir Thomas Holdrich in 1906.

But the Chinese don't get it. Jiang Zemin, when he was in command of China, complained that he could not understand why the West, where "education in science and technology has developed to a very high level . . . enjoying modern civilization," could have any truck with backward and superstitious Tibet.

In the old days adventurers would do anything to try to sneak into Tibet, primarily because it was forbidden. In 1904, the British forced an army through to Lhasa. Resistance was crushed "like a man fighting with a child," wrote a witness, Perceval Landon of the Times of London. Tibetan resistance never had a chance "under the appalling punishment of lead."

That imbalance of firepower was repeated in the 1950s when the Chinese came to stamp out whatever was left of Tibetan de facto independence and isolation. Except for the stunning Potala Palace, religious buildings, and devoted pilgrims, Lhasa is unexceptional now. Airplanes render it accessible. I have arrived on the new train - an engineering marvel to be sure - but nonetheless a train. If Tibet is to be remote you shouldn't be able to take the 5:15 to Lhasa.

Yet, the power of Tibet in the imagination lives on. As Orville Schell wrote, it was the dream of Shangri-La itself that was at stake: "For many Westerners who had allowed themselves to dream the dream of Tibet, Chinese rule represented a paradise lost." Schell's book, "Virtual Tibet," traces the power of the Tibetan myth, the books, the movies, the Hollywood stars that have taken up the Tibetan cause.

Since Shangri-La was invented by novelist James Hilton in "Lost Horizon" 70 years ago, the name has graced an American aircraft carrier, a hotel chain, Franklin Roosevelt's presidential retreat, but, above all, it is a generic term for a heaven on earth.

The Tibet mystique lies at the confluence of two powerful rivers of Western emotion - a search for spirituality that modern society seems unable to fulfill, and the human rights movement stimulated by Chinese brutality and cultural imperialism. A tributary is the assumed spirituality of mountains: Mount Olympus to the ancients, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills" for the biblically inclined. Tibet wouldn't have been Tibet had it existed in the lowlands.

Although things are better now, one senses here some of the same feeling of an occupied people that one feels on the West Bank.

The Dalai Lama, now in his 14th reincarnation, perpetuates the image of Tibet by a careful combination of essential sweetness, spirituality, and political acumen. He keeps the dream alive. And the more the Chinese denounce him, the more it chastises countries, such as Germany and America, for honoring him the more they empower him.

When he dies it is highly unlikely Beijing will allow monks to freely find a 15th incarnation in some humble household on the Tibetan plateau with a young boy who fits the mysteries. China will want to pick the next one.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES