Imperialism, colonialism, orientalism, racism: these are the sins of the West. The Rest are the sinned against.

Amazingly this narrow polarity retains a tenacious hold, both on popular imaginations, and in institutions. The United Nations, for example, long ago abandoned any process for promoting decolonisation and self-determination choice by the colonised, because Europe has decolonised, so no further decolonisation is required.

But if you ask people in somewhat remote places, all over the world, dominance of the small by the big is everywhere. Ask the Tibetans, for example, if their circumstances look, feel, walk and talk like colonisation. This is more than extraction of resources for the benefit of the coloniser, or the imposition of foreign military power. Any colonisation that endures over the decades, and sets itself to persist, also launches a civilising mission to uplift the natives from their wretched state, so they may become more like advanced folks, best exemplified by the colonisers themselves. China’s civilising mission intrudes into all aspects of Tibetan life.

What about orientalism? For Tibetans these days, exoticisation  is part of the package of how they are represented in the minds of their colonisers. Orientalism, as Edward Said’s critique showed, is a potent and often contradictory mix. There is fascination with the sensuous, exotic Other, combined with repulsion towards the unwashed primitivity of the Other.

Until recently, it hardly seemed possible that China, itself acutely aware of past humiliation by imperialists, could adopt an orientalist mindset towards Tibet. Overwhelmingly, the picture of Tibet was simply negative: the land is unnaturally and dangerously cold, the air dangerously thin, the people wild, unruly, ungrateful, smelly and backward. No one would go voluntarily to Tibet except to make a quick fortune and then return to one’s home province, having had a profitable sojourn, remitting money back home. The negativity only increased in the Olympic Year 2008 after Tibetans rained on China’s parade, rising up in a spasm of protest on the eve of China’s triumph. Official media endlessly replayed videos of Tibetan rioters, heavily emphasising that all Tibetans are looting, smashing, burning and killing everything Han Chinese. After that, few Tibetans dare visit Beijing, and those who do routinely find themselves turned away from hotel rooms the moment they produce their ID card that displays their official designation as Tibetan. If this is orientalism, it is a bleak version, poles apart from the Shangri-la romantic fantasies that persist in the West.

Yet today’s China abounds in contradictions, and eagerly embraces everything Western. This now includes every Shangri-la cliché you can think of. Movies, glossy travel mags, best seller books, tv docos all extol Tibet as China’s wondrous land of pristine nature and mysterious, mystical, magical people. A major rebranding is under way, and the new rich of urban China are responding, taking vacations in Tibet in such numbers that the iconic scenic sites are overwhelmed. As the Chinese domestic tourists pour through the holy city of Lhasa, and the Tibetan scenic spots, in tens of millions annually, they discover that, by consuming Tibet, they also discover their uniquely modern individual self-identity.

Mobility is inherent to modernity. The doctrine of modernity demands that, in the name of efficiency, people uproot themselves, becoming mobile factors of production. Individuals prove themselves modern by their willingness to leave ancestral land, migrate from country to city, and reinvent themselves as urban workers and citizens of the nation-state. Learning to be an urban consumer is part of this project –both individual and national- of becoming modern, of high human quality (suzhi), and an active participant in all that is defined as advanced.

Mobility, consumption and individuation come together to constitute contemporary Chinese tourism to Tibet. This is illustrated by a case study of the recent boom in Han Chinese domestic tourism to Lhasa.

In rich countries, tourism is taken for granted as a routine, indulgent, hedonic pursuit, with little social significance beyond the collective impacts on the economy and environment. But in today’s China, where mass tourism and even the concept of mandated leisure time are new, a more serious agenda exists, a discourse of the citizen’s responsibility to individuate, through consumption of the iconic scenic sites owned and scripted by the party-state.

In Lhasa 97 per cent of the 13 million tourists in 2013 are Chinese, coming from the affluent cities of China’s coast. Their numbers already make Tibet a more popular tourist destination than international arrivals in  India, Canada or Sweden, if China’s statistics are to be believed. If one adds the numbers currently touring key scenic spots of the Tibetan Plateau such as Jiuzhaigou (Dzitsa degu in Tibetan), Huanglong, Kailash (Gang Rinpoche in Tibetan), Labrang (Xiahe in Chinese) and  Kumbum (Ta’er in Chinese), the total number of nonTibetan tourists in Tibet is already close to 20 million a year, and overwhelmingly Han.

The newly rich of China can and do travel the world, to the US, Europe and tropical islands. They also go to Tibet, in extraordinary numbers. Lhasa is due, in 2015, to get 15 million tourists a year, in a city that officially has a population under 300,000. That is 50 tourists for each resident. Lhasa is now fast becoming not only a mass destination for Chinese tourists, but also a luxury destination, with a much bigger footprint. Surveys show China’s new rich rank Lhasa high on their list of desirable destinations. According to a Hurun Rich List report on its face-to-face interviews with 150 Chinese millionaires in 2012: “Sanya (Hainan Island), Hong Kong and Yunnan are the top three destinations in China, while Tibet rose to 4th place from 6th place last year.” [1]

Tibet has been successfully popularised, in the minds of urban Han Chinese, as a desirable destination, populated by fiercely loyal mastiff dogs, mysterious but benevolent monks, powerful lamas, exotic medicines that prolong life and potency, plus fun and adventure for all the family. Tibet, once seen as so lacking in oxygen that each breath may be your last, now features in urban minds as an escape from polluted city air, according to the New York Times.[2] Tibet has been given a new backstory, to make it familiarly Chinese. The astounding success of the ten-volume book series “Tibet Code” by Sichuanese author He Ma revealed a market-driven appetite for action-packed adventure stories set in Tibet, with a Chinese Tibetan hero helping rescue Buddhist treasures from their Tibetan enemies.

When the Hollywood studio Dreamworks announced in 2013 it will make a Tibet Code movie, the studio was congratulated by Han Sanping, the chairman of China Film Group Corp., the powerful state distributor and an author of China’s dominant discourse, who ascribed a broader goal to Tibet Code. He hailed it as a vehicle to portray to the world “Chinese values” and “Chinese morality” as well as its history, culture and landscape.[3]

Tibetans see in such phrasing a deliberate attempt to erase the distinctive Tibetan culture. But to Han Sanping, that which is Tibetan is by definition Chinese, just as Tibetan medicine is by definition part of the grand story of Chinese medicine.

So a contemporary Chinese fiction of medieval Tibet, owing much to Harry Potter,  Indiana Jones and the da Vinci Code, is, in Han Sanping’s words: “a vehicle to portray ‘Chinese values’ to the world as well as its history, culture and landscape. This story is about various Chinese heroes’ exploration, expedition and seeking history’s roots. The characters represent traditional Chinese culture and Chinese morality.” This conflation and confusion of Chinese and Tibetan narratives fits well the official policy of downplaying ethnicity as a legal right inherent to a collective nationality, reducing it to the cultural choices of individuals. The official slogan is jiakuai jingji fazhan, danhua minzu wenti: speed up economic development, downplay the nationality question

When one visits Tibet in 2012, the tens of thousands of domestic tourists arriving daily by train, and more by air, make it seem inevitable that Tibet would become a major destination. Yet it is extremely recent. According to official statistics, the first year in which more than 100,000 Chinese tourists came to central Tibet was 1992, after Tibet Party Secretary Hu Jintao’s “strike hard” campaign against Tibetan expressions of discontent, and lengthy imposition of martial law. The first year in which one million came was 2004. The railway opened in mid-2006, and in that year 2.4 million domestic tourists came. In the first full year of rail arrivals, 2007, the number of domestic tourists leapt to 3.66 million, dipped in the following year of protests and crackdowns, then in 2009 grew again to 5.44 million and in 2010 to 6.62 million.[4] According to the World Bank, this makes Tibet a more popular destination for tourists than Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Brazil or India; but has not yet caught up with Japan, South Africa or Egypt.[5]

In 2007 tourism to Tibet was far smaller than domestic tourism to other exotic, ethnic destinations within China. According to the 2008 Ethnic Statistical Yearbook, the top ethnic minority destinations for domestic tourists in 2007 were Guangxi province, Yunnan, Inner Mongolia, Guizhou, Xinjiang and Sichuan.[6] Tibet and Qinghai were far down the list, together attracting only three percent of domestic tourists to minority nationality areas.

Yet by 2015 the official  target is 15 million domestic tourists arriving in central Tibet annually.[7] That is about the number of tourists visiting Canada or Greece.

Growth in tourist numbers on this scale is more than the natural workings of a market economy. This explosion in arrivals is an outcome of social engineering that required of central leaders a careful plan for not only the hard infrastructure of railways, museums, palaces and theme parks, but equal attention to the soft infrastructure of changing the image of Tibet in the minds China’s newly prosperous urban masses. Soft infrastructure also includes legislation to reschedule holidays, and the  mass campaign to persuade people to spend more on leisure and consumption generally.

The state is central to this spectacular growth in Tibet as a spectacle for mass consumption. Mobility is a central target of the Chinese state’s dominant discourse of modernization, as well as a key instrument in the reproduction of that discourse. Not only is mobility viewed as an aid to economic growth but it is also regarded as an important attribute of the kind of modern society that China aspires to become and, as such, is intimately linked to the goal of “civilizing” the nation. [8]

The price of a ticket all the way from Beijing to Lhasa –over 4000 kilometres- starts at RMB 289, rising to RMB 1262 for soft sleeper class. That’s a top price of $200, or 5 cents per kilometre of pressurised, heated, luxury. There are hundreds of millions of Chinese who can afford this, especially if the trip is designated as a “study tour” by one’s official work unit, which picks up the tab. In mid 2012 overall passenger traffic numbers since the rail track opened were announced. The line “has transported 52.76 million passengers since going into operation on July 1, 2006, said Bao Chuxiong, general manager of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company.”[9]

Three million domestic Chinese tourists to Lhasa and central Tibet in 2007, 10 million in 2012, 15 million in 2015: these official figures may be rubbery. Cadres at lower levels know their prospects for promotion depend on reporting success in achieving target numbers for what has been mooted as a “pillar industry” of the economy of China’s Tibet™ for decades. The numbers may be inflated by including the substantial “floating population” of Han and Hui Muslim Chinese who come to Tibet to make money. Not only do they go back and forth on the railway on buying trips, they return to their own provinces in the months when few tourists come, and usually return home to stay, after a few sojourning years in Tibet accumulating wealth. Neither China’s census, every ten years, nor other official statistics enumerate this substantial population of sojourners, who may be hidden from view by using their numbers to swell the tourism statistics. But no one who has been in Lhasa has any doubt that Lhasa is engulfed in tourists, and the numbers continue to rise rapidly.

The most recent and most spectacular stagung of Tibetan history and culture, specificasly intended for tourist consumption, was announced in 2013. Three mass entertainment companies combined in 2013 to turn the best selling Chinese fantasy book series, “Tibet Code” into a movie and, they announced, a theme park.

The three companies involved are a Hollywood studio and two Chinese partners with global ambitions. The partnership was put together by Dream Works, a studio keen to earn more from the booming Chinese movie market.

This planned movie, theme park and branded merchandise has the lot: not only fiercely loyal Tibetan dogs, swords, spears, mystery, pacy action, but even Hitler and Stalin play roles in exhibiting the universal fascination with Tibet. Tibet Code is preoccupied with the external artefacts of Tibetan mysticism, as power objects to be sought and fought over, much as the mysteriously powerful ritual objects of the Catholic church feature in The da Vinci Code. These sacra are both wondrous and fearsome, long dead yet still alive, with a power to confer power or wreak harm, an ambivalence deeply felt in modern life. Tibet Code does not hesitate to throw in both Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, both supposedly despatching secret missions to capture that power for their evil ends, each preoccupied with Tibet as a mysterious source of power.

Lowland Chinese readers are invited to take all this as real, and conflate 9th with 21st century Tibet as a fixed identity. If this is now made into a movie and theme park, for the sake of Dream Works’ bottom line, all the high-tech computer-generated imagery deployed will heighten the viewer’s sense that this is real. Tibet will be the playground of China’s desires and fears, dungeons and dragons, wizards and spells, heroic mastiffs and evil kings, worlds of warcraft, games of thrones, rollicking adventure, romantic moments, speaking parts for Hitler and Stalin, and all of it real.

Even the most fantastical elements somehow seem possible, when given a Tibetan location. The thread holding the Tibet Code plot together is the quest for the “purple unicorn” breed of Tibetan mastiff, guardian of oracles and protector of the innermost secrets of Tibetan Buddhism across the generations.

Little wonder, then, that Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of Dream Works, sees in all this a profitable franchise. “When I read the books I thought ‘Wow! This is just a blockbuster story, ‘” he said after a news conference in Beijing to announce the co-production along with the Chinese partners.  “Tibet Code,” he said, “has all the makings of a world-class, quality, blockbuster franchise.”  Whether the movie and/or theme park come to fruition is uncertain. It may be that the theme park, the inevitable materialisation of a movie as a literal space where fans can participate experientially in the fantasy, is as yet no more than a thought-bubble of maestro Katzenberg. But it may, as announced, be built.

Tibet Code first appeared in 2008 as the craze for Tibetan mastiffs peaked. The dogs bred by Tibet’s pastoral nomads to guard tents while owners were away out on the pasture, became on obsession among China’s newly rich boss class. In a society based on guanxi, on networks of connections and exclusive loyalties, on factions of insiders clustered around powerful individuals, the mastiff embodied the ideal follower of the boss. The mastiff is fiercely loyal to its owner, and fiercely hostile to outsiders. Bosses paid outrageous amounts to buy mastiffs, in a bidding war to consume mastiffs and display wealth and power. The mastiff craze led to Tibet fever. The possibility that in a remote Tibetan area lives the ultimate mastiff, the purple unicorn, seems to the reader plausible.



[1] The Chinese Luxury Traveller, Hurun Report, 2012

[2] Edward Wong, In China, Breathing Becomes a Childhood Risk, NY Times, April 22 2013

[3] Zhang Rui, DreamWorks to make bestseller Tibet Code into film,, April 22, 2013

[4] Tibet Statistical Yearbook 2011, table 13-3

[6] Ethnic Statistical Yearbook 2008, Economy Division of State Ethnic Affairs Commission, ISBN 978-7-105-10437-6/D.1733, table 15-7. The last year this yearbook was published was 2008.

[7] MARK JOHANSON, China: Tibet Theme Park Will Promote Harmony, International Business Times, 9 July 2012

[8]  Tim Oakes, review of Mobility and Cultural Authority in Contemporary China, China Journal #66

[9] China to increase train services to Lhasa, Xinhua, July 01 2012

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.