Tibet: still a ‘buffer state’ for posh Westerners?

Kicking off a week of reports from Tibet, spiked’s editor finds that Lhasa is nothing like the mystical kingdom of British imperial fantasies.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Tibet.

Two days before leaving London for Lhasa I went to a Tibetan-themed festival in a park in Lambeth and witnessed Tibet as it is seen through the eyes of the hippyish, New Age wing of Britain’s metropolitan middle classes. Tibetan children, decked out from head to foot in traditional tribal garb, danced for the nodding approval of women breastfeeding babies and long-haired, yet balding, men. Stalls sold stones (no ordinary stones – healing ones), scarves, CDs featuring the sacred chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks, bangles, and books with titles such as The Magic of Healing and Contact with the Gods from Space.

On one stall a young British man in a white coat (seriously – a white coat) was trying to convince an elderly gent, who could barely walk and who looked jaundiced to boot, that if he put his name on a mailing list he would ‘experience healing’ the next time the young man in the white coat climbed a mountain in Tibet and ‘projected positive energy’ to the world. You could write birthday messages for the Dalai Lama (who’s just turned 75) on pieces of colourful cloth, which were later hung on a washing line in a poundshop version of the tradition of Tibetan prayer sheets fluttering in the Himalayan wind. One said: ‘The world is a better place with you in it. Lots of luv.’ ‘What does Tibet mean to me?’ mused a young British woman selling tat. ‘It means calm, peace, healing, stillness.’

Wow. The reality could not be more different. Stillness? The first sounds that greet me as I arrive in Lhasa are the incandescent honking of horns as car-drivers and motorcyclists (some with three to a bike) negotiate the roads. My own Tibetan driver is wearing a Playboy jacket. Maybe he bought it in the Playboy shop that I later see in the centre of Lhasa. It’s near the Tibet Steak House (‘juicy meat for you!’) and the Lhasa casino, in which Tibetan men in leather jackets pile coins into slot machines. On the streets young men in Kappa and Nike sweatshirts (fakes, I’m guessing), with hair by Topman, flirt with casually dressed young women, one of whom is sporting hotpants that even Kylie would consider too risqué. How can they dress like this in the freezing kingdom of snow and Yetis, as made famous by Tintin in Tibet? Because that’s another myth of Tibet, at least in July, and at least here in Lhasa: I might be 3,650 metres above sea level, inside a mountain range and with the clouds so close by I almost feel I could touch them, but it’s so hot that I get sunburnt.


Tibetan wideboy in Kappa
sells beads to Western tourists

The first place I visit is the Tibet Green Barley Brewery, where Tibetans don’t make peace but beer – 470,000 cans a day. It’s the highest brewery in the world. Whatever harsh conditions mankind finds himself in, he’ll find a way to make beer. The bespectacled Tibetan showing me around this temple to booze rather than to Buddha tells me Tibetans love this brand of beer (after downing my complimentary cans I can see why) and they drink it everywhere – ‘in bars, in restaurants, at home. Not at temple though.’ A German engineer (Germans helped build the brewery) is sat at his desk, looking miserable, beneath a German flag on the wall. ‘We don’t mention the World Cup’, says my guide. Tibetans, like people across China, followed the World Cup religiously (no offence intended by my use of the word religiously).

Even when we encounter devout Buddhists, ‘calm’ and ‘stillness’ are the last words that come to mind. On the road to Lhasa we pass a group of men, women and children who have been journeying by foot from southern Tibet on their way to the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site. The journey has taken them two months, which isn’t surprising: they have wooden boards on their hands and with every fifth or sixth step they take they fully prostrate themselves on the ground, making a deathly clatter as their wood-covered hands and then their foreheads hit the earth. I’d like to see that young man in the white coat try this. Stillness, calm, projecting positive energy? This looks more like a backward, painful and very loud zapping of one’s own energy. Richard Gere Buddhism it ain’t. The men and women look filthy and exhausted. One thrusts her hand through our car window for money. She’s wearing a Kappa hat.


Traditional Tibetan woman
selling untraditional t-shirts

Yet in central Lhasa, the only culture shock I experience is how similar Tibetans are to other Asians and to us Westerners, too. Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan historian who grew up in England, was once told by an academic colleague who saw him arrive at work by car: ‘I can never get used to the idea of a Tibetan driving a car.’ That academic should brace himself if he ever visits Lhasa: here they drive cars, drink beer, smoke, dance, wear leather, sit in parks, play cards, flirt, chat, talk rubbish, and do all the other things that the rest of us do. It is testament to the influence of the Western Tibetophilic lobby, all those actors, princes and middle-class healing nutjobs who have spread such a severely distorted image of Tibet as a land of childlike monks and nuns who smile softly all day long, that even I find myself surprised by the reality.

Of course Tibet has unique cultural traits. And yes, it is more religious than some other countries. As we get closer to Jokhang Temple we see old women in traditional clothing spinning prayer wheels and more and more of those saffron-clad monks and nuns (but even then, one of the monks is chatting to a young Tibetan who is a dead ringer for Morrissey circa 1984: hyperquiff and specs). Out of a population of 2.9million, 46,000 – or 1.5 per cent – are monks or nuns. That is quite high. But there are places around the world, from Scotland to Bhutan, Afghanistan to Alaska, where people have what look to the rest of us like strange eating, believing and living habits. So what is it about Tibet that has led to it being viewed, in the words of one Tibetologist, as a ‘country that is somehow outside the rest of the world’? (1) Where does that image, so wrong, come from?


Young Tibetan boy in training
to be a monk (with a stained
forehead from prostrating
himself on the ground)

Ironically, it originates in large part with British imperialism. British forces invaded Tibet in 1904 and administered it until 1947. Their aim was to create what they self-consciously called a ‘buffer state’ to protect their immense interests in India, then run by the British Raj, from potential advances by Russia and China. Tibet was turned into a guard dog for Britain’s vast Indian Empire. And the British discovered that the idea of Tibet as a mystical, paranormal land – that is, not a normal state and certainly not a part of those other normal states of China or Russia – was a very useful propaganda tool. As Alex McKay, author of Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre 1904 to 1947, points out: ‘The [British] found that the mystical image could serve British interests. The mystical image reinforced Tibet’s separate identity… furthering the interests of the British cadre.’ The British had a strict policy of only allowing in writers and explorers who were sympathetic to the mystical image of Tibet and who also would not criticise the severities of British rule or of Buddhist serfdom. And, says McKay, ‘in the absence of a viable alternative, the image of Tibet they constructed became the dominant historical image followed by Western academics’ (2).

Indeed, it is during that period of the self-serving Orientalism of British rule in Tibet that the popular modern image of Tibet as a mystical, cut-off entity takes shape – most notably in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933), which invented the idea of ‘Shangri La’. As McKay points out, the writings of the British imperialists, and of their sympathisers, are still regularly cited in the propaganda produced by the Dalai Lama’s people, which is designed to prove that Tibet is a unique and special place that only they can and should govern. Some of those old Orientalist writings were available at that hippy-fest in Lambeth, too – British imperial paternalism recycled as anthropological New Age ‘at-oneness’. What connects the old imperialists with the new Tibetophiles is their desire to have Tibet as a ‘buffer state’ – only where the imperialists wanted to use Tibet to protect their material interests against China and Russia, the new lot want to use it to protect their emotional interests, to preserve an idea of innocent, childlike humanity so far uncorrupted by modernity.

Both sides have indulged in borderline racist fantasies that are all about themselves rather than reality. Arriving in Lhasa I’m delighted to find that it is not mystical at all. Beautiful and buzzing? Yes. Paranormal and utterly unlike the rest of humanity? No. I’m in a real place populated by real people, with all the fun and flaws and tensions that involves, not an otherworldly kingdom or a posh person’s buffer state.

This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Tibet. Read all of Brendan’s reports here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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