Lhasa, Tibet, China ལྷ་ས།
It took two days to get from Xi’an to Lhasa (with a one-night stop in Xining, Qinghai) by train. China’s rail network is one of the largest in the world, and its 10-year-old extension to Lhasa (Chinese: Lasa 拉薩) is an incredible feat of engineering, climbing the Tibetan Plateau from an elevation of 2300m in Xining, past 4000m somewhere along the line, and about 3500m in Lhasa — so quickly that every single person on the train not already acclimatised to high altitudes suffers from altitude sickness. And that train is full, full, full: vacationers trying to beat the summer heat elsewhere within China, student backpackers, Tibetans returning home or just visiting…
Aside from being breathless and suffering from a mild headache, arriving in Lhasa looks like arriving pretty much anywhere else in China. Hop on a public bus, pass through large shopping areas and glitzy screens, and–
Oh wait. Are we in China? Of course we’re in China. Flags flags flags flags flags. Hmm. I don’t recall ever seeing this many Chinese flags in any city before.
This is not my first time in the Tibetan world: I went to Ladakh in the far north of India five years ago. The largest city, Leh, was a quiet, sedate, and humble area dominated by Tibetans and Tibetan culture, with a visible proportion of Indians from further south. Lhasa… is a booming, busy, and very modern city with roughly equal portions of Han and Tibetan people. Signs are all in Chinese, with Tibetan (usually in a smaller font) written up top or on the side.
Tibet’s identity is always a fraught topic. But make no mistake, it’s been Chinese-controlled since 1959, that everyone can agree on. It’s been Chinese-influenced since the Tang dynasty, when Songtsän Gampo married the Han Princess Wencheng. And it was definitely “Chinese”-controlled in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), when the Mongols took over China and expanded the empire, conquering a surrendering Tibet in the process and giving them a high degree of autonomy. Then…after that, it’s a little murky. The Qing dynasty took over in 1720, that’s for sure.
So here’s the fork in the road.
Modern China claims moral authority to rule over Tibet. In the Tibet Museum, they *really* lay it on thick with their narrative, emphasising a “nephew-uncle” relationship that Tibet had with the “motherland” since the Song dynasty (after Tang, before Jin and Yuan). Princess Wencheng is a pivotal figure who brought Han culture into the Tibetan fold. They proceed to show plenty of evidence of Tibet’s relationship with China continuing into the Ming dynasty (after Yuan), where the Tibetan ruling class readily accepted titles bestowed by China. The Qing dynasty (final one, after Ming) saw the Manchus who were in power intervene militarily in Tibet, installing their own power structure, while attaching various parts of Tibet into the neighbouring provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan. After the fall of the dynasties and the establishment of the Republic of China (which still exists to this day only in Taiwan), something something blank blank “nothing changed”, and when the People’s Republic of China (what we now know as China) took over, they saw a situation of serfs serving terrible lamas and elites, and a cruel punishment system of eye-gouging and bodily mutilation, and decided to use that as reason to intervene in 1950, toppling the existing Tibetan government and bringing socialism to the masses, improving conditions for everyone. The 14th (and current) Dalai Lama had cooperated with China beginning in 1951, approving of Chinese control over Tibet and accepting a high-ranking post in the communist party, but then turned into a separatist who deserted his post and left Tibet behind during the 1959 independence-minded uprising that China accuses him of orchestrating.
The Tibetan government-in-exile claims that China no longer controlled Tibet in the Ming dynasty, although the governments appeared friendly to each other. And while initially controlled by the Qing, first belligerently and then willingly to repel the invading Nepalese, the Qing lost influence completely by the end. (As for Princess Wencheng back in the Tang dynasty, she is heavily revered for bringing Buddhism to Tibet, but not for the whole Han culture thing.) During the era of the Republic of China, Tibet was under no outside control at all and claimed independence (which was only recognised by Mongolia). And as for those serfs and mutilations, well, Tibet had poor people and their government was working to change that, as well as improve their human rights situation — things they claim they would have done and was in the process of being done even if China hadn’t overthrown them. And that document approving of Chinese control? That was signed under duress when China invaded Tibet in 1950 and Tibet sent negotiators to Beijing who were threatened with more military incursions if they didn’t sign. In the midst of an anti-China uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama took refuge in India when he sensed that he was going to be kidnapped, and he stays there to this day with the government-in-exile, having his changed his support for independence to one for “greater autonomy” within China.
So take your pick. Whatever it is, whether you think China is justified in controlling Tibet or not, it does. They claim that history and moral authority is on their side. That’s not going to change, and so an independent Tibet’s not happening anytime soon. (Besides, China’s never gonna give up 25% of its land willingly.)
But is Tibet treated as an “unalienable part of China” like China claims to be? China has put immense investment into Tibet — the railway and the excellent roads, both in extremely difficult terrain; hospitals, schools, airports, factories, tourism, transport, technology… There are obvious benefits. I mean, I can’t imagine Tibetan-populated Ladakh having pilgrims carrying prayer wheels in one hand and shiny new iPhones in the other, while taking a frequent and largely-efficient public bus service around town, shopping in fancy outdoor clothing stores while in traditional Tibetan dress, and eating in snazzy restaurants featuring cuisines from all over China and the world. And even through this globalisation (or even just Sinicisation), China has respected the language too — while Tibetan is indeed written smaller than Chinese on signs, it’s everywhere, and the education system is trilingual in Tibetan, Chinese, and English.
China’s put its handprints all over Tibet, like they have in every other region of China. The dissent in Tibet seems particularly baffling to Chinese citizens, as is why they seem to be more dissatisfied and demanding than any other minority in China. (Tibetans are considered one of China’s minority groups, under the Chinese name Zang 藏. The province of Tibet is called Xizang 西藏, or “western Zang” in Chinese, and Bod བོད་ in Tibetan.) But it’s more complicated than that, of course: while under Chinese control since the Yuan dynasty, Tibet has largely been given autonomy to run its own affairs, with occasional interventions from the Chinese government. In the present day, the province of Tibet is one of China’s several autonomous provinces, but is it being given enough autonomy?
Where is Tibet’s own voice in all of this?
Past streets of Lhasa’s primarily Han-operated businesses lies the Barkhor, the old Tibetan quarter which still heavily retains its character. At the center of the Barkhor is the massive Jokhang Temple, the holiest and most sacred in Tibet, and surrounding it are hordes of pilgrims all walking in a clockwise direction. (A trail around the outside of a holy Tibetan site in which people circumambulate is called a kora.) It’s a fascinating place to be and hard not to get swept up in the fervour: while there are plenty of tourists snapping away, it’s dominated by Tibetans. Elderly men and women shuffle around, mumbling prayers while turning their own prayer wheels clockwise in one hand and counting through their prayer bead necklaces in the other hand, never stopping. Other dedicated worshippers, both young and old, painstakingly prostrate themselves facing the temple, get up, take one step, and prostrate themselves again, repeating the process over and over and over again. You can see the dirt mark on their foreheads where it touches the ground. It already takes about fifteen minutes to walk around the temple at a regular pace; I can’t imagine how long it takes for them. Lineups form in front of shrines, walls of prayer wheels are turned. And in front of the Jokhang Temple entrance itself, young and old bring their mats, prostrating themselves unceasingly. Hundreds of yak butter candles are lit inside and outside the temple. This is a place people travel hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres for.
The place is also heavily policed. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, festering dissatisfaction over Chinese policy — the steady encroachment of Han and Hui people, the erosion of religious freedom and rumours of arrested monks, the steadily increasing cost of living — exploded into riots centered in this area, though eventually spread througout Tibet, Qinghai, and Tibetan parts of Sichuan. What began as protest quickly turned ugly, as monks and protestors alike began attacking police (Tibetan or Han) and any Han or Hui person in their way, while burning and looting businesses and nearly setting fire to the mosque in the Muslim quarter. 18 people died. The Tibetan government-in-exile was accused of organising the unrest, as usual — with how unorganised the unrest was, it’s highly unlikely, but their nonchalant response to the violence certainly did not help. Meanwhile, China reacted with a heavy hand, as usual, arresting and beating hundreds. And around 2012, the Barkour, primarily around the Jokhang Temple, was the site of two self-immolating monks. So as a result, the Jokhang Temple is surrounded by police checkpoints to get in, and police stands every hundred metres or so. But while the police presence is heavy, the atmosphere seems relaxed: the primarily Tibetan police officers nap at their stands or chat with locals; riot shields lay by the wayside; some police officers fool around; everyone else seems to ignore them. Nothing is happening but camera clicks and worshipping.
The Potala Palace has a similar police presence and relaxed vibe. It’s an absolutely incredible sight, sitting 13 stories high already on a hill and towering over everything else in the city — it’s visible from kilometres away, if your view isn’t immediately obstructed by a maze of buildings like in the Barkhor. And directly across the Potala Palace is a grand plaza with a fountain, a very communistic monument, a giant China flag, and a big poster of China’s last five leaders up to Mao Zedong.
The Seda Monastery, not far out of town, has no police presence at all, despite being the site of previous protest. The large compound has several temples, each with its own collection of hundreds of different gods and buddhas, heavily decorated with gold and jewels. Beautiful wall and ceiling paintings adorn the interior, along with hanging cloths; everything is in a typically-Tibetan white-gold-red-orange-green-blue motif with no gradients, a wash of rainbow colours. Quiet compounds of white-washed buildings where monks live are scattered among the area. The surrounding hills are covered in Tibetan script carvings and prayer flags.
Outside one of the main halls in the afternoon, monks debate Buddhist scripture in a… boisterous manner, let’s say. I’ll leave that to the video to describe.
Back on the streets of Lhasa, Tibetans congregate in teahouses, playing a mandala-like dice game (in as boisterous of a manner as the debating monks), sipping butter tea or sweet tea, munching down on momos (yak meat dumplings) and thukpa (noodle soup), usually with a poster of Mao Zedong or the Panchen Lama in the corner, perhaps with a Chinese Communist Party poster too for good measure, while Bollywood, Tibetan, or Chinese music or film plays in the background. Shops selling sho (Tibetan yogurt made from yak milk, seriously amazing) have turned themselves into pseudo-coffee shops with menus, decor, and music in line with the latest Chinese trends. In the mornings, shopkeepers both Han and Tibetan nonchalantly clean and re-hang their Chinese flags.
Are they obliged to do this? It certainly doesn’t look like it — not every shop or teahouse has a flag or a poster; in fact, most teahouses don’t have any posters at all. It does look like mainstream Tibetan culture can coexist with the Chinese state.
But then the cracks begin to show, and China’s overzealousness is only making it more obvious. There’s only so many flags you can see before your thinking goes from “hmm, they’re awfully patriotic” to “something’s not quite right here”. Or museum exhibits that feature the words “inalienable” and “cruel and backward serfdom” so many times that it begins to sound defensive.
The interior of the Potala Palace, reached after a very, very long stair climb, is home to the Red Palace (used for religious functions) and the White Palace (formerly used as the residence of the Dalai Lama). There are over 1000 rooms in the entire complex! The Red Palace is incredible in its lavishness, with stupas (housing the remains of past Dalai Lamas) made of hundreds of kilograms of gold, extremely ornate and detailed pieces meant to be carried out for special occasions, rooms with thousands of statues, and chapels everywhere with monks praying and setting incense despite the crowds of tourists. Wandering around is an overstimulation of sights, sounds, and smells — unfortunately, no pictures allowed.
The White Palace, much smaller, is far more intriguing. Each Dalai Lama has his own throne room — including the current one. The tradition of the Dalai Lama started while Tibet was either loosely or entirely not controlled by China during its Ming dynasty; a title given by the Mongols meaning “ocean of wisdom”. Initially meant to be the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the role evolved by the time of the 5th Dalai Lama to also become the political leader of Tibet as well.
The 14th Dalai Lama’s area seems small relative to his predecessors, consisting of a room with his throne facing an assortment of buddhas, a very cramped room full of even more gods and buddhas meant for receiving dignitaries, a colourful but simple bedroom, and a very small study where he spent most of his time, while he was living in the Potala Palace.
And this is where I couldn’t help noticing the reaction of the Tibetan visitors who happened to also be in the room, amongst the various Chinese tour groups with their guides and microphones. While the Tibetan visitors carried stacks of small change to deposit at every single statue and throne room, I noticed a glimmer of deep emotion, and the little extra time they spent while in the 14th Dalai Lama’s rooms.
With the void left behind by the Dalai Lama as he went off into exile, China filled the political role pretty easily, but found themselves needing to fill the religious role. The second-most powerful figure in Tibetan culture is the Panchen Lama. When the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989 and the selection of the 11th was underway over the course of the next five years, China and the exiled Dalai Lama attempted to mutually recognise a new Panchen Lama, assumed reincarnated by then as a five-year-old child. China attempted to change the selection process, and the Dalai Lama responded by unilaterally naming one. China, in return, named their own candidate, then kidnapped the five-year-old child the Dalai Lama selected. He remains missing to this day, while the 11th Panchen Lama that they named is considered the top spiritual leader in Tibet.
Virtually all Tibetan establishments outside of China hang a picture of the Dalai Lama somewhere. This isn’t allowed in China, for obvious reasons. But it’s quite interesting to see what has happened instead: there are very few establishments in Tibet, outside of government-monitored monasteries, that hang pictures of the 11th Panchen Lama — not to say there aren’t any places that do, but it’s surprisingly uncommon. Instead, where there’s a picture of the Panchen Lama in an establishment, it’s usually the 10th.
Outside of Lhasa, I had the opportunity to speak candidly with a Tibetan about the role of China in Tibet. Outside of the large cities of Lhasa and Shigatse, the Chinese flags aren’t so common, and he says people hang pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama in their homes. (I even saw this for myself.) Lhasa and Shigatse are the focus of tourism, and businesses are “encouraged” to hang the Chinese flag in time for the high tourist season. He says dissent against the government is high — though he didn’t explain to me how the 2008 riots devolved into anti-Han ethnic violence — with stories of monks and lamas being poisoned, arrested, or disappeared, and despite having nothing against Chinese people, they still aspire for independence.
While he certainly wouldn’t incite any dissent or unrest himself, nor would most Tibetan people who want to just live their lives, he tells me China assumes the worst of virtually any Tibetan — despite putting in a lot of money and time and effort, he’s never been able to get a passport. Both he and his very elderly mother have made the 15-day trek into Ladakh, India illegally, and onwards to Dharamsala where they were able to hear the Dalai Lama preach — and he showed me pictures on his phone, and told me plenty of other people do the same through the remote, porous border under the cover of night. One of his brothers has moved to America by gaining a passport through India: an expensive process, but one that results in him unable to ever visit home again due to being denied a Chinese visa. Another friend who has a brother in India isn’t able to call him with a Tibetan phone number — though a number from any other region of China can.
Perhaps the Tibetan people have been alienated too far while being made an inalienable part of China. Or have they?
The increase in material wealth. The obvious injection of funds into the economy. Many lifted out of poverty.
Those Chinese flags, could some of them be hung willingly? That Tibetan man I saw on the bus with a communist party lapel pin. The fact that there’s an ethnic Tibetan government supporting China. The posters. The communist slogan banners. The many Tibetans visiting the Tibet Museum, enraptured by the defensive exhibits. The historical narrative being taught in schools. Are people choosing China’s plan of national unity and to mold Tibet the way they always approach development, satisfied with the benefits? It seems certain that some do, but how many, and how far are they willing to go?
China’s waiting for the Dalai Lama to die so that they can select his next reincarnation, favourable to the central government. The Dalai Lama claims he just simply won’t reincarnate. Where will the Tibetan public stand?
I’m more confused than ever.