Are Tibetans being ‘seduced’ by modernity?

Western activists are often disappointed to find that Tibetans aren’t keen on living lives of peaceful, contemplative poverty.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill is reporting from Tibet. Read his earlier reports below.

Why Tibet activists find Tibetan people so disappointing

Tibet University in Lhasa is the highest seat of learning in the world – literally if not academically. On a blazingly sunny day, some of the 8,000 students of this college in the mountains are relaxing on the lawns or swotting up for their summer finals in whatever quiet corner they can nab in libraries and corridors.

It’s an unassuming place; many of the students are the sons and daughters of herdsmen and farmers, taking their families’ first steps away from life on the land towards something more promising. Yet this is also the site of a revolutionary breakthrough in Tibetan communications. As a result of various students’ PhD theses and the work of professors of IT, Tibet University has digitised the Tibetan language, developing a way for people to use anglocentric QWERTY keyboards to write in Tibetan. It’s opened up a whole new world of computing and internet-use for the speakers of what some people naively celebrate as a wonderfully isolated language.

The process through which speakers of non-Romanic, Oriental languages use PCs is a fascinating one. Take Chinese. A Chinese keyboard would be mad: Chinese has over 30,000 characters, around 5,000 of which are used regularly in speech and writing. So instead, most Chinese people use QWERTY PCs fitted with ‘input method editor’ software, which allows them to use the A-Z keyboard to produce the thousands of characters of Chinese.


Tibet University: the world’s
highest seat of learning

To generate a Chinese character, they type out how it sounds according to the ‘Pinyin’ spelling method. Pinyin, which is learned by every Chinese schoolchild, means knowing basically what Roman alphabet letters are used to pronounce the sound of a Chinese character. So when Chinese computer-users type the Romanic pronunciations, the Chinese characters appear on screen. Tibetan is different to Chinese, of course, but Tibet University has created a similar method that allows Tibetan speakers to subvert QWERTY and make it produce their syllabic language rather than our Roman letters.

Renqingluobu (many Tibetans have only one name), one of the university’s IT men, leads me into one of the rooms where the breakthrough was made. It’s kept like a museum, with the PhD theses that contributed to the development of the software on display, and certificates from Microsoft and Linux, confirming that they accept and will distribute the Tibetan-language software, pinned to the wall. Renqingluobu makes clear that the dawn of Tibetan computing can be used both for the grand and the everyday – to put great pieces of Tibetan literature online but also to allow Tibetans ‘to email, to blog, to talk to other Tibetans across mountains or in other countries’. Tibet University’s next big project is to develop software for mobile phones that will allow Tibetan-speakers to send short text messages, too, in order that they can join the rest of civilisation in constantly bombarding each other with all manner of tittle-tattle.

There are those who will view this as inappropriate fiddling with Tibetan traditions. Indeed, the thing that Western sympathisers with Tibet are most concerned about these days is the modernisation of what they view as an ancient land. As Jamyang Norbu of the Tibetan Youth Congress has put it, some Tibetophiles patronisingly want to ‘cocoon [Tibet] against the realities of the outside world, especially politics, commerce and technology’ (1).

So Free Tibet UK is primarily concerned, not with the question of political freedom in Tibet, but with the alleged problem of ‘rapid modernisation’. It has launched campaigns against ‘large-scale infrastructure projects’ in Tibet, such as the Gormo-Lhasa railway connecting the Qinghai province of China to Tibet, on the basis that they ‘erase existing socio-cultural divisions between China [and Tibet]’ – that is, they infect pure Tibetan culture with outsider commercialisation (2). They’re desperate to preserve Tibet in a kind of cultural formaldehyde, to keep it as a permanent eco-garden for those in the West who are disillusioned with modernity and who would like somewhere green and unspoiled to visit every couple of years, believing, in the words of one Tibet-follower, that ‘Tibetan culture offers powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives to Western egotistical lifestyles’ (3).


Clothes store worker in a town
outside of Lhasa

Consequently, a great irony of contemporary Tibetophilia is that its adherents are often most disappointed with Tibetans themselves, whom they see as giving into modernity by wearing jeans, drinking beer and now – Buddha forbid – using the internet. This is what the Celebrity Lama Richard Gere means when he says that, as a result of Chinese intervention, the Tibetan people have ‘lost their focus’ (4). In Prisoners of Shangri-La, Donald S Lopez Jr describes how American undergrads who get involved in the Tibet issue are often motivated by a belief that ‘young Tibetans appear to be losing interest in their religion, seduced by materialism, nationalism, and rock music’ (5). Indeed, at a Tibetan opera at the Himalaya Hotel in Lhasa I meet two young Americans – teachers not undergraduates – who won’t go so far as to say they are disappointed with Tibetans, but they do sound a little disappointed with Lhasa. ‘It’s noisier than we thought it would be.’

And what is this ‘focus’, in Gere’s words, that Tibetans have apparently lost? In a debate in the UK House of Lords, the late Jean Cherry Drummond of Megginch, 16th Baroness Strange (you couldn’t make it up), once described what she saw as the pre-Chinese-invasion focus of Tibetan people’s lives: ‘[They] were a good and peaceful people, tending their gardens, growing vegetables and flowers, loving children and dogs.’ (6) Who needs the internet or text-messaging when you’ve got dogs and veg?

Beyond Lhasa

Leaving Lhasa for the city of LinZhi in south-east Tibet, I see some of the ‘real Tibetan culture’ that some would like to preserve. And there’s little admirable about it. In these small towns and villages, people are far poorer than they are in the capital. A majority of Tibetans still work in agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry or fishery. According to 2007 figures, out of the 1.6million Tibetans in employment, around 880,000 of them work on the land.

Black pigs and dishevelled dogs roam the streets. Children in cheap tracksuits dash towards anyone with a white face (ie, me) in the hope that you’ll give them a few Yuan for the privilege of taking their photograph. At a toilet stop two hours outside of Lhasa, there is a brother and sister – around four and six years old – sitting inside the toilet to collect a small fee from those who use the facilities. It’s easily the filthiest toilet I’ve ever been in.

China puts great emphasis on how much everyday life has improved in Tibet since it took over from the lamas in 1950/51. It’s true, of course, but it would have been impossible for life to get any worse. Things were brutish and desperate under Buddhist serfdom. As a grisly photograph in the Tibet Museum in Beijing reminds visitors, Tibetans were having their hands cut off for crimes such as stealing under the unholy alliance of British administration and lama-led feudalism. Back then, in 1951, life expectancy was 35.5 years. Today it is 67. A vast improvement, yes, but it’s still one of the lowest rates of life expectancy in China. In Beijing average life expectancy is 80.07.


Gamagongbu, the 10-year-old
grandson of a herdsman

We visit a herdsman and his family in a small town outside Lhasa. They are living in new government-funded accommodation. It’s a really nice house: roomy, well-decorated, with electricity, a TV, a fridge, a washing machine. The animals – some cows and pigs – now live in clearly separate quarters, away from the family home, which is the thing the herdsman is happiest about. Yet I am still a little shocked when they tell me he is 47 years old – he looks at least 60. And I need two translators to speak to him – a Tibetan-Chinese speaker and then a Chinese-English speaker – because he only speaks Tibetan, having grown up in a time when there was no serious education in Tibet. In short, he has followed that traditional Tibetan lifestyle so beloved of Western fans of old Tibet – ‘tending his garden, growing vegetables and flowers, loving children and dogs’ – and it looks to have been a bloody hard life.

His grandson, 10-year-old Gamagongbu, is a different story. Wearing a Puma cap, he speaks Tibetan, Chinese and a little English, all learned at a school that is a two-mile walk from his home. And he definitely doesn’t want to be a herdsman, he says. His family don’t want him to be one either. Instead he wants to work in Lhasa city. Clearly this Tibetan boy has ‘lost his focus’.

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

(1) ‘Behind the Lost Horizon: Demystifying Tibet’, in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

(2) See the Free Tibet website here

(3) Sacred Tibet, Philip Rawson, Thames & Hudson, 1991

(4) Richard Gere on Tibet, San Francisco Chronicle, 5 March 1998

(5) Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald S Lopez Jr, University of Chicago Press, 1998

(6) Quoted in in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

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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