Sunday, December 14, 2008

10 Facts About Tibet The Dalai Lama Doesn't Want You To Know

Peaceful, colourful, timeless, the preservers of timeless wisdom.

An apt description of this peculiar western phenomena of Tibetan adoration, comes from author Slavoj Zizek.

‘Colonialisation of the imaginary’.

Highly romanticised versions of traditional Tibetan life still hold sway in the minds of westerners, much of which being the products of Hollywood movies, books by the dozen, and the not inconsiderable ‘machinery’ of the Free Tibet movement & it’s legion of high-profile stars.

China on the other hand is reviled as the heartless invaders who systematically destroyed centuries of Tibetan culture.

The portrayal of pre and post invasion Tibet is starkly white then black.

It wasn’t always this way.

At one stage in the early 18th century the British reports of the day painted Tibet & China as both ‘oriental despotisms’ ruled by men who claim to be God. These Asian man-god rulers were similarly despised in Europe based on principals that were at odds with Christian sensibilities.

Emmanuael Kant described Tibet as ‘a dark cruel theocracy’ and Rousseau as ‘oppressive and bizarre’.

During World War Two the Chinese were allies, fighting for the freedom of Asia, five years later it was China rather than Japan that operated a totalitarian regime.

Another popular ideal that needs dispelling is the myth of isolation, that’s to say, Tibet was some-how sealed-off from the hurly-burly and troublesome world around it, it’s mountains acting as a natural barrier to outsiders.

In reality, there was a substantial Muslim population from Asia Minor, Armenians, Afghanis (then called Kashmir’s) and Russians as far afield as Siberia, all living and trading in Tibet.

Religious pilgrims regularly travelled there from Mongolia, Nepal, India, Japan and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon)

For over 300 years a strange assortment of Europeans made their way to Tibet, staring with the Portuguese in the 17th Century. French, Russians, English, German, Swedish all travelled the country either on formal state or church sponsored missions or independent adventurers.

It’s also worth placing some historic perspective on the Chinese/Tibetan relationship by making mention - strange as it may seem today - Tibet invaded & held large tracts of China at varying stages.

So what do we know about pre-annexation Tibet?

Much of this comes from the reports of the fore-mentioned European explorers and expeditions, which by the 19th century provided the first insights of what life was like for the peasants. Up to this point much of the focus had been on the religious aspects of life in Tibet, fractious pictorial depictions to titillate & create wonderment for insulated readers ‘back home’.

The list I’ve compiled entitled ‘10 Facts about Tibet The Dalai Lama Doesn’t Want You To Know’ largely uses transcripts taken between 1850 and 1950 (covering the period of rule of the 11th – 14th Dalai Lamas)

Even the creation of the Lamist system of government will destroy another sacred cow. The early Lamas, evidently held scant regard for the ethos of peaceful resistance, seizing power by force - namely assassinating the last Tibetan King.

As you work through them, keep in mind the Dalai Lamas were both the secular & ecclesiastical leaders of Tibet.

To use a modern analogy, ‘they were where the buck stopped’.

FACT ONE: Tibetans practiced a spiritual form of medicine. One of the more bizarre beliefs, were the mystical healing powers lamas possessed. Just being able to touch a holy person was enough to cure a raft of diseases. And for those unable to get close to a deity like the Dalai Lam, the god-man came to them, in the form of urine and excrement (the later was dried & made into a pill, for swallowing)Spittle from a lama was similarly treasured for its healing powers.

FACT TWO: Without basic sanitary conditions, hygiene, rubbish-collection, running water, modern medical care like hospitals & preventive medicines, pre-Chinese Tibet was beset with chronic health problems. Small pox was rife enough for the 13th Dalai Lama to suffer its rages. Cataracts, leprosy, tuberculosis were also prevalent. But, the most widespread affliction suffered by the general population was venereal disease.

FACT THREE: Infant mortality was around 1 in 2 (one set of figures put it as high as 3 in 4)The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (born 1935) tells of his mother giving birth to 14 children, 6 of which died as babies.

FACT FOUR: The old Tibetan word for woman is Kiemen (or kye-mi) The literal translation of this is ‘inferior birth’ of ‘lower birth’. Tibetan Buddhists believed only males could achieve ‘nirvana’. A Buddhist prayer commonly recited went along the lines “may I reject a feminine body and be reborn a male one”.

FACT FIVE: Prior to the Chinese invasion there were only two small schools operating in the whole of Tibet (using the term school in the modern secular interpretation of the word) These schools educated teenage boys starting at age 14. Eligibility was confined to nobility, families of high ranking monks and government officials.

FACT SIX: At any one time 15 to 20 per cent of the male population were monks. Rendering a large percentage of the work-force effectively ‘redundant’ was a large economic burden on an already fragile economy. Feeding and clothing this vast monastic empire fell to the serfs & peasants who were not only subservient & bound to the local monastery, the state, but also the aristocratic lord, whose lands it was, they were tenant-farming.

FACT SEVEN: Serfs, who made-up around 80% of the population (again figures vary) were ‘tied to their master’s’. Under the Tibetan feudal system, peasants were rendered virtually powerless. They couldn’t travel, marry, trade etc, without permission or consent of their masters. About 500 families controlled 80% of the countries wealth.

FACT EIGHT: With so few jails operating, a more summary form of justices was employed, which may have been a blessing considering the Government Jail operating in Lhasa was part cesspit, part prison, from which inmates were released from their squalor for just two days a year. At the disposal of the law administrators (read; rich lords, religious fraternities and government officials) were a whole range of crude medieval type torture devices: manacles, red hot irons, implements to gouge eyes out, hanging by thumbs, crippling, sewing the guilty party into a sack and throwing them into a river, spikes under finger-nails, forcing pepper into the eyes – were all a realities of the pre-invasion justice system for the ‘docile’ Buddhist peoples of Tibet.

FACT NINE: An indication of how backward & uneducated Tibetans were in 1950 – most people thought the world was flat.

FACT TEN: Travellers & adventurers to Lhasa (translated as ‘Place of the Gods) were not only overawed by the sight of the city and the magnificent Potala Palace, they were also overcome by its stench. In his time there, the current Dalai Lama made constant mention to his entourage about the ever-present smell & dirt caused by lack of proper sanitation, rubbish collection & absence of a sewage system. The National Geographic expedition of 1904 described the streets of Lhasa as ‘narrow and filthy’. A year earlier a Swedish explorers said of Lhasa “everything from top to toe is filthy”. Popular British Journalist, Edmond Candler, renowned for his literary depictions of his travels in the region, gave his readers this mental image of Lhasa in 1905 “We found the city squalid and filthy beyond description, undrained and unpaved”. Indeed descriptions of Tibet as a whole also mirrored these views. German traveller Theodore Illion going as far as telling his readers “Tibet ranks amongst the most filthy countries in the world”. We see similar depictions of pre-1950 Tibet amongst virtually all the writers. “On the sides of the roads were heaps of rubbish”. “Revoltingly filthy”. “Dark and Ill-Smelling" etc etc.

Note: All this information was available to me courtesy of one afternoon at my local public library & access to a photocopy-machine. In short, I didn't have to look far. Given all the glossy 'warm fuzzy' stuff which is written about Tibet, one thinks more journalists should perhaps avail themselves of the details of pre-invasion Tibet, sitting on their dusty library shelves. Now you have a better insight in to the 'real Tibet' - don't you agree?


Tommy said...

I was involved in the Free Tibet movement for a short while about ten years ago. I remember Robert Thurman, Uma Thurman's dad, saying at a rally that the Tibetan monasteries were "enlightenment factories." What a load of crap.

For me, the saddest moment was the last rally I attended, which was across the street from some hotel in Manhattan where Chinese government official Zhu Rongji was speaking. Near us were a handful of pro-China demonstrators (who were nearly all non-Asian, oddly enought), and a bunch of the Tibetans started taunting and yelling at them. Finally, the pro-China demonstrators left, and one of the Tibetans, a short stocky man, started jumping up and down shouting "We won! We won!"

I was like "You won what?"

I agree that Tibet should not be whitewashed, but at the same time, it doesn't seem fair that they should be forced to live under China's rule. But I am a realist and know that there is no way China can ever be induced to leave Tibet. The Tibetans are China's equivalent to the Native Americans of the American West. They are history's losers, and nothing can change that.

Canterbury Atheists said...

Gidday there Tommy,

I’m not for one moment attempting to defend the Chinese invasion, which should be rebuked by all governments & international pressure bought to bear to ensure Tibet gets its statehood back – but this will not be in our lifetime. Invasions and counter-invasions are a part of Tibets long and colourful history. After-all the lamists only came to power by spilling blood.

What I’m attempting to do here is redress a serious imbalance of ‘warm & fuzzy’ propaganda that masquerades as fact, and paints Tibet under the lama’s as some sort of utopia at the top of the world. It wasn’t.

Nor do I believe the traditional brand of Tibet government offered by the Dalai Lama to be palatable to westerners, were they to be aware of what the real state the country was in the last time they were in power.

Thanks for your comments, I’ve been surprised how many positive remarks I’ve solicited given the sensitive and passionate nature this subject attracts.



Anonymous said...

I am curious Paul if you will be taking any of this to the media before the Dalai Lama visits New Zealand next year. I find it strange how modern media shapes the majority view with falsehoods given by a Political Leader, yet the truth is plain and clear for anyone who chooses to look. I have read many books on Tibet (eg Trespassers on the Rooftop of the World, etc) and have been horrified not just at what was actually going on in Tibet, but at the ignorance of the West. For this one fact alone, I give little weight to image portrayal by major media sources. Last night I saw Frost Nixon at the cinema and can only hope that a modern-day Frost can break the "cover-ups" of the Dalai Lama. Thanks for spreading the word! SNT

Canterbury Atheists said...

A protest against The Dalai Lama’s regime! Now that would be a world first. Count me in.

Tommy said...

Here in the USA, some Tibetan official, a monk I belive, from the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, was speaking to some students at a college somewhere here in the USA, and a Chinese student there actually threw a water bottle at the guy.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the Free Tibet movement after the Dalai Lama dies. I don't see what charismatic figure they have to take his place. The PRC will do just what they did with the Panchen Lama, they will "discover" the reincarnated Dalai Lama while the Tibetan exiles will have their Dalai Lama child.

It seems pretty obvious that the PRC is just trying to string things along until the Dalai Lama dies.

Anonymous said...

Good post.
Here two articles confirming your information.

Exa M said...

Your posts clearly show a lack of depth and understanding of what really Tibetan culture is about. Also, it is funny how people think that being colonized is a good thing, most of us who have been colonized had a rather good life, in spite of the "poverty" which in the eyes of white people is defined by material wealth or possessions, and in spite of us not believing in some "superior god" but in many different gods, we had a good life which is in no way defined by westerners' concept of "good life". You may defend China's colonization of Tibet but you are no one to say that Tibet was better pre-chinese occupation. China might of brought roads and pavement ways to Tibet, but they also brought torture, lack of freedom of speech, and in few words, segregation of a group of people who had a birth right to manage their own resources and their own land. I wonder where you got all this information from because your arguments don't show anything but a lack of knowledge, deep analysis and lack of understanding of a complex topic such as the sino-tibetan. Your arguments are poor and pretty colloquial. Next time you try to back up your ideas, please, please, do read and do inform yourself, read history, culture, religion, not only from Tibet but from other cultures that have also been colonized. You'll find that your arguments are not valid and show nothing but a person who is lazy to sit down with a book and read thoroughly, not only the Tibetan version but the chinese. And to all of you who support this rubbish I invite you to do the same. Read, and read and read people. A point of view is not completed until we have exhausted all versions of a story.

Canterbury Atheists said...

Exa M (who-ever the hell you are?)
I have posted three articles on your ‘living-God’ - clearly you have failed to read them with ill-founded comments like “ defending China's colonization” (colonisation is the correct spelling by the way) and relegating all the facts I produced to “arguments.”

Well I did “read and read” books from my library you ignorant prick – where the fuck did you think I got the info from? I even gave you the name of the library – but you were too busy pushing-your-barrow to take that in.

If you wish to test the veracity of any of the facts I’ve presented then you are free to, and I will be happy to adjust them should it be necessary – but don’t tell me I have an agenda. I was a member of a local Free Tibet Organisation at one point (again, something I mention) so if anything my pre-conceived notions on Tibet were influenced by the material coming from this source – the same ones you are using.

Please next time have the courtesy of at least posting under your name and if you are such an authority on Tibet as you portray –come-up with something of substance rather than this ‘attack the author’ diatribe.

Have a great day.


art said...

You are an arrogant cunt......what was the Christian English 13th century England like? A raging cesspool of filth disease death and ignorance......funny the dark ages began and ended in Great Britian....must be a symptom of ignorance of the publics perception right? You are unable to link the current Dalai Lama to scandal so you look to his forebears to provide one. Get with the times. I know this is an old post but you sheep still read it.

Canterbury Atheists said...

Hi there Art, It’s always great to get such concise opinion without being drawn into senseless abuse. If you wanted to see the The Dark Ages in in ‘real time’ you didn’t need to travel back six centuries buddy. Nepal in say 1935 would have done it.

kev pye said...

Hello CA,Ive chanced upon your article & found you like to give abuse out to people who dont agree with your views..Yes,this is your blog,but in the end.Do you want to discuss these things you blog about or do you just like the sound of your own printed calling ?
a ignorant prick! Someone who doesnt hold your view..
Anyhow..Enjoy Life,Be Good.
Kev Pye Warrington,Cheshire