Tibet has always cast a dangerously strong spell upon visitors from abroad. When the first major European expedition marched on Lhasa in 1904, led by Colonel Younghusband at the behest of his old friend Lord Curzon, it ended up slaughtering in just four minutes, near the village of Guru, almost seven hundred bewildered Tibetans, who had been protected mostly by paper charms bearing the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s seal. A few days later, at Red I dol Gorge, the British killed nearly two hundred more, their own casualties amounting to just three wounded.
Yet when Younghusband arrived in Lhasa, he found a Tibetan regent in power who “more nearly approached Kipling’s lama in Kim than any other Tibetan I had met,” and, on his final night in the “Forbidden City,” having concluded a typically ambiguous Anglo-Tibetan agreement (unsigned by the Chinese), he rode off into the mountains to take one final look at the scene. Suddenly, the career officer reported, he felt an unusual exhilaration that “thrilled through me with overpowering intensity. Never again could I think evil, or ever be at enmity with any man. All nature and all humanity were bathed in a rosy glowing radiancy.” Returning to London as a popular hero (while the treaty was systematically watered down), he retired from the service that had brought him a knighthood, and founded a World Congress of Faiths, a rosy, glowing brotherhood aimed at uniting the major religions of the world.
Eighty years later, Paul Theroux, hardly a sentimental traveler, after four hundred pages of recording his difficulties and disappointments while traveling through mainland China, grows misty and almost worshipful as soon as he sets foot in Tibet. “The Tibetans are indestructible,” he writes in Riding the Iron Rooster with a hopefulness that seems not his own, and Lhasa is “a bright little war-torn town full of jolly monks and friendly pilgrims.” After noting that an early European explorer burst into tears at the sight of a nearby mountain, Theroux concludes, “The setting is more than touching—it is a bewitchment…. Who wouldn’t burst into tears?” His story and his book end with a prayer addressed to the mountains, in the hope that he may return.
The net result of decades of such accounts, however fitful—and largely because they are fitful—is that we have condemned Tibet, from afar, to the status of a Lost Horizon, a semi-fictive sanctuary from the world that we can visit in imagination or (as in Younghusband’s case) use for our own strategic interests. Tibet became the place where the visitor can transcend the pressures of Realpolitik, and not worry about worldly concerns (because, in the popular fairy tale, it is the place that has no concerns about the world). This lies at the heart, no doubt, of what Melvyn C. Goldstein, in his rigorously unsentimental account of Sino-Tibetan history,1 calls “the bad friend syndrome,” whereby, for centuries, outsiders have marveled at a region that seems out of this world and, while admiring its unworldliness, have done little, practically, to protect it. Shangri-La, we like to believe, has less need of us than we of it.
The Tibetans themselves, in recent years, have been anxious not to participate in this illusion—the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that his country’s isolation was largely to blame for its recent tragic history. In 1950, when Tibet appealed to the United Nations for help as Chinese troops attacked its eastern frontiers, it received no response; indeed, the two countries that were supposed to be its patrons, Britain and India, were the first to suggest that the Tibetan case not be considered. Perhaps the saddest moment in all the sad pages of Palden Gyatso’s impressively calm Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk,3 a simple, unrancorous account of his thirty-three years in Chinese prisons (for the crime of being a monk), comes when word gets out that the Dalai Lama is setting up an office in America. “Now America, the most powerful nation in the world, is helping the Dalai Lama, it won’t be long before we are free!” another prisoner reports excitedly. That was in 1965; a few years later, the inmates learn that Kissinger is going to Beijing, and then Nixon.
And so we find ourselves in the current, unprecedented state of affairs in which a culture long famous for its remoteness from the world has been forced to try to sell that remoteness in a desperate attempt to save itself, and to market the unusual charisma of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in order to draw attention to a Chinese occupation that by 1969 had left not a single practicing monk in Tibet. Warning last year that his homeland will be extinct in ten or fifteen years unless something is done to rescue it, the Dalai Lama has found himself obliged to co-operate in the dissemination and possible distortion of Tibetan culture so as to ensure that there is still a Tibetan culture to distort. And, having gained almost nothing from his visits to the back rooms of the chancelleries of the West, he has come, in his pragmatic way, to the same conclusion that Gore Vidal suggested years ago: that these days, more and more, the real capital of world power is less Washington than Hollywood.
When I asked the Dalai Lama last year to identify the single hardest aspect of his complicated life, he instantly replied, “Meeting with politicians. Because the problem is so big that even if these leaders sincerely want to help, they cannot do anything.” And so the incongruous sight of a modest, philosophically rigorous monk who’s believed to be a god of compassion negotiating for fifty years with Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi has been compounded by the even stranger sight of that same monk taking his case to Larry King Live, posing for photographs with Steven Seagal, and lending his name to books about the Internet.
In an oddly contemporary mixing of media, the Tibetan leaders have found that the attention they cannot get through formal political channels they can effortlessly win in pop-concert halls, cineplexes, and the pages of glossy magazines. And the Dalai Lama has taken himself directly to the people of the world in a cause that is coming to seem as implicated with fashion as Nicaragua was ten years ago. At the very least, the Tibetan situation suggests a new kind of pop globalism in which the Walt Disney Company sends Henry Kissinger to advance its interests in Beijing, while members of musical groups called Public Enemy and Porno for Pyros agitate for a “free Tibet.”