“China’s Tibetan Theme Park”

A month or two ago I had a post about Tibetan writer Woeser visiting Chengde, a city in northern China where a large-scale model of the Potala is a huge tourist draw. Woeser slammed the entire thing, noting the inauthentic aspects of the presentation and the highly inaccurate history being related by Han tour guides. Richard Bernstein has an article up in the New York Review of Books about the same subject, and slams it as well. Describing a ‘historical’ performance shown to tourists, he says:

In one scene, accompanied by a revolving, luminous model of the solar system, Kangxi learns astronomy from the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci. In another scene, one of the show’s most lavishly produced, a huge procession of Tibetan lamas, marching to the music of rumbling bass horns and headed by the Dalai Lama, arrives to demonstrate their fealty to the Chinese emperor. Did these events actually take place?

The Matteo Ricci episode reflects the historical presence of the Jesuits at the court in Beijing at the time. But Western historians of the Qing and the Qing’s complicated relations with Tibet make no mention of such a visit by the Dalai Lama during Kangxi’s reign, although the 3rd Panchen Lama, the number two Tibetan spiritual leader and an ally of the Qing, did visit Chengde in 1779—shortly after the Little Potala was built—to help celebrate the 60th birthday of Qianlong. During that visit, Qianlong famously treated the visitor as an equal. The Panchen Lama did not, for example, perform the kowtow, which was required of other visitors from the “outer lands,” and he was recognized as a spiritual authority for China proper, the “inner lands,” as well Tibet. As the late historian of imperial China Frederick W. Mote concluded, “Tibet remained wholly independent of Qing China in all aspects of its domestic governing….Chinese control, something previously found not feasible, perhaps traditionally not held to be highly desirable, was in the end accomplished by modern military force”—led not by Kangxi or any other Manchu emperor but under Mao.

Both the [Tibetan-style temples in Chengde] were crowded with thousands and thousands of Chinese tourists, led by Chinese guides with loudspeakers, turning large bronze Tibetan prayer wheels, burning incense sticks sold to them by Chinese men and women wearing period costumes, and receiving instruction from Chinese temple staff in the proper prayer gestures to make before the Buddha images by Chinese functionaries. The tone is respectful, conveying the sense that the Tibetan culture, part of the great Chinese multi-ethnic family, is deeply respected in China and has always been deeply respected.

There is nothing heavy-handed in these messages—none of the ritual denunciations of the Dalai Lama as a “jackel” and a “splittist” that regularly appear in the Chinese press, no overt praise of China for having liberated Tibet from serfdom and slavery—and, of course, no mention of the bloody suppression of the 1959 rebellion in Tibet, one result of which was the flight of the present Dalai Lama to India. Yet the Chengde sights are a bit like exhibits in a Tibetan theme park devoid of actual Tibetans. In one room in the sprawling Puning Temple, several photographs of a handsome young man in safran robes were on display. This is Gyaltsen Norbu, now twenty-two years old, who was selected in 1995 by the Chinese Communist Party to be the authentic reincarnation of the Panchen lama, after the Chinese police took into “protective custody” the boy whose selection was approved by the Dalai Lama.

In the end, the underlying assumptions of the Chengde presentation are unmistakable: that Tibet has been governed by China since at least the time of the Kangxi emperor, that this had the ready consent of Tibet’s highest spiritual authorities at the time, and that the current Chinese government honors Tibet’s religious traditions—that reminder in the photographs of the “Chinese” Panchen Lama of the Communist Party’s intrusion into Tibet’s religious traditions notwithstanding.

The real story of Chinese-Tibetan relations would of course be vastly more interesting than Beijing’s version, but the narrative implied by the Kanxi Ceremony seems widely accepted by Chinese who in many other respects are skeptical of official Chinese history. In August in Beijing, I had a talk on this subject with a small group of journalists and academics of the sort who chafe under censorship restrictions and who are fully aware that on sensitive subjects the truth is what is dictated by the Communist Party. But they seem to feel that Chinese rule, especially in the past couple of decades, has greatly benefitted Tibetans, who show an annoying lack of appreciation.

When I brought up the case of the Panchen Lama to illustrate the harshness of Chinese control, the response generally was that, yes, that was a bit heavy-handed, but the government supervises the appointment of all senior religious figures in China, including, of course, Catholic bishops, and therefore the Panchen Lama incident was not discriminatory against Tibetans. As for the Dalai Lama, the general position during my conversation was that he is a socially retrograde figure who would restore the feudal system that Chinese rule has ended, such as requiring that 30 percent of all income go to the Buddhist establishment and that lamas have to provide permission for people to marry.

Such assumptions, which are contradicted by widely available facts, may seem all the more surprising since it is very easy to find a meeting of minds with Chinese journalists and academics on other subjects, including the notion that the ruling party has become a conspicuously corrupt oligarchy and is increasingly unpopular. But on Tibet, the version of truth that prevails is the version to be found in Chengde.

I’ve noticed the same thing in conversations with Chinese- even people who are at least vaguely aware of Tiananmen and the extent of censorship, for example, are still unlikely to realize that the history they’ve been taught about Tibet is completely inaccurate. The propaganda even primes them to ignore foreigners on that subject, because Xinhua claims that all problems in Tibet are caused by the Dalai Lama and by foreigners who have been ‘tricked’ by the ‘splittist’ Dalai Clique. The way this turns Han and Tibetan against each other is really poisonous, but that’s the only way Beijing can keep the majority on their side.

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Filed under history, propaganda, Tibet

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