In the Shadow of a Land Undone
When a man dies in Tibet, his body – the purely physical manifestation of his being – is taken to the high ridges of a mountain and left for the carrion birds. The ground is, for the most part, too hard for a conventional burial, nor is such practice satisfactory for a religion that does not wish to imprison its dead within the earth but free them from their mortal bonds; where Christianity returns man to the dust, Buddhism releases him to the sky. As I stood, gazing upon the recently deceased body of my guide’s brother, I sensed a quiet mourning – a collective sorrow – that hung like these carrion birds over the Tibetan plains. Where once there had been a sense of eternal being, one now feels only the inevitable decline of one of the world’s most beautiful cultures.
It is strange being in a country so caught in the liminal stage between tradition and modernity. The temptation to over-romanticize a poverty stricken region, as a Western observer merely passing through, is great; but even without the rose-tinted spectacles, one gets the impression that the top-down imposition of change, at a pace unsuited to the social structures within the country, is causing more damage than good. We have a sincere, though often misguided, tendency in the West to view these dying civilizations with a nostalgic eye, as if by preserving the unique idiosyncrasies of some foreign culture, we too may rest easy in our own flattened out society; the Tibetan ridges serving to provide three-dimensional relief to our own ailing regional culture. This is a dangerous position. We cannot ignore the fact that poverty and illness are as much a feature of rural Tibetan life as broadband internet and other modern conveniences are a feature of ours. Even running water and electricity are denied to swathes of society, which begs the question: ‘What are the Chinese authorities even there for?’
Since the 1950s, there has been an ever-increasing Chinese presence in Tibet; its authoritarian position evident when one walks through the streets of Lhasa, where one cannot escape the watchful eyes of military officials. Had the destruction of over six thousand Buddhist temples come with the lifting of hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, I may be able to put down my nostalgic Western glasses, and agree that human life is more important than human culture. However, in visiting the rural villages and semi-nomadic peoples of Tibet, I feel that the Chinese presence in the region is less humanitarian and more political. Indeed, there is no evidence here of the huge economic investment I saw when walking the streets of Beijing.
Perhaps it is the panopticon of official control, or maybe the naturally good nature of the Tibetan people, but the simmering disquiet of the locals is, for the most part, absent from view. There is no doubt tension here: I was shocked to watch the arrest of an old man carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama and disturbed to witness a fight between a Tibetan Sherpa and a Chinese guide in which knives were drawn, though thankfully not used. However, what is more evident is the desire for people to continue as best they can with the lives that they have been given.
One of the most touching moments of my stay was when, having photographed some village children, they took delight in seeing their own faces reproduced upon the screen of my digital camera. One might easily condemn my own pleasure at this as Western condescension, as though the world I inhabit is somehow pejoratively antagonistic to any other I encounter, but this is simply not the case. The sound of children laughing is universal and touched me, especially when so far from my own home.
My distress in encountering this country is the realization that it can no longer locate itself, in any living sense. Indeed, Tibet embodies neither the traditions of its ancestry nor the modernity of social progression; it has become a museum piece, kept in a state of mortified poverty for the amusement of Chinese and Western tourists. Nowhere more exemplifies this state than the Potala Palace; once the great centre for religious and political activity in Tibet, it now lies dormant. Whilst we are no doubt fortunate to be able to wander through the halls of this most beautiful example of Tibetan architecture, it is filled now with the shadows of a bygone era. Whilst I am left wanting to believe that the Chinese government wishes to modernize Tibet for the better, I cannot help feeling that the destruction of local culture has been too great. The tragedy, if this word has not lost all meaning, is that Tibet has so little to show for its sacrifice.
W. J. Humphries