Liu Xiaoming: Tibet is a better place than it used to be

I am away on a short vacation in China. I spent several days in Shanxi province in central China, a province best known for coal production. However, one should not visit Shanxi without going to Mount Wutai, and my trip was no exception. Mount Wutai is one of the four Buddhist holy mountains in China; for 2,000 years it has been prominent in the history and culture of Buddhism in China. In Mount Wutai, I saw both temples and lamaseries. Han Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism have grown side by side here for centuries. It is a superb example of religious diversity and tolerance.

Many foreigners find it difficult to understand why Mount Wutai has become a holy site of Tibetan Buddhism given its distance from Tibet. In fact, the influence of Tibetan Buddhism in China has gone far beyond Tibet. Large numbers of followers are ethnic Han and people of other ethnic groups. The Yonghe Palace in Beijing, better known to foreigners as Lama Temple, is a site of Tibetan Buddhism and one of the most popular religious sites in Beijing. During the Spring Festival and other traditional Chinese festivals, throngs of pilgrims of different ethnic groups will gather there to pray for blessings. They start queuing to get in even before the dawn breaks.

Traditional culture of Tibet, including Tibetan Buddhism, has become an integral part of the Chinese culture. It is widely appreciated and adored by people across China. A lot of young Chinese people wear traditional Tibetan ornaments in the hope to avoid bad luck. Tibetan restaurants are common in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and many other cities around China. Tibetan singers have starred in Chinese musicals. Their performance, with a strong Tibetan flavour, has made them immensely popular throughout China. On top of these, Tibet is one of the top tourist destinations in China. Specialities of Tibet such as medicine, incense and thangka paintings are fast-selling goods traded all over China.

Yet some Westerners’ knowledge about Tibet stops at either the fictional place of Shangri-La in the novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton, or stories about “a place invaded by Han Chinese” and “a culture on the brink of extinction”. The truth is Tibet was never a Shangri-La, because of the serfdom that was even more cruel than the medieval age in Europe. Today, Tibet has made historic progress in economic and social development. Tibetan culture is well preserved.

Before 1959, more than 95 per cent of Tibetan population could not read. Education was a privilege exclusive to monks and the ruling elite. Culture was a luxury only a select few could afford. The primary need of the vast number of serfs was to survive.

Today, Tibetan people are masters of the Tibet Autonomous Region. They no longer have to worry about livelihood. They all have equal access to education of Tibetan language and culture. Much effort is going into further developing Tibetan culture and art. For instance, the Epic of King Gesar is a heroic cycle dating from the 12th century and passed down verbally. In recent years it has been recorded in writing so that it will last forever.

Tibetan culture is not closed. It needs exchanges with the outside world. Certain material conditions are required for such exchanges. Improved transport links is one of them. More than five decades ago, Tibet had neither highway nor railway. Today a highway network centring on Lhasa has been put in place. Its reach is in excess of 20,000 kilometres. The Qinghai-Tibet railway climbs over the Kunlun Mountain towering at 4,600 metres. It has one of the most stunning views of any railway in the world. Nearly 50 million people have travelled to and from Tibet this way. There are also air links between Tibet, and more than 10 Chinese and foreign cities. Last year alone, Tibet received around 8.7 million tourists from home and abroad. At the same time, more and more Tibetan artists travel widely across China and around the world spreading Tibetan culture.

History shows that interactions among different ethnic groups and regions contribute to cultural exchanges and progress. Han Buddhism is an import. Yet it has a huge influence on the Chinese culture. Tibetan Buddhism is also of foreign origin. It is Buddhism adapted to take in some elements of the native Bon religion. Like all Buddhism it originated from India over 2,000 years ago. These are the proof that cultures advance through exchanges and mutual learning. Labelling cultural exchanges as “extinguishing Tibetan culture” is either a worrying misunderstanding or purposeful distortion of facts. In this connection, the Dalai Lama’s proposal to drive all other ethnic groups out of Tibet is as ridiculous as allowing only Scottish people to live in Scotland while rejecting all others from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Today’s Tibet is a fascinating place to visit, yet no longer distant. Tibetan culture is as special as ever, yet no longer mysterious. Maybe I should return to Tibet on my vacation next year.

Liu Xiaoming is Chinese ambassador to Britain

Chinese Translation:

最近,我正在中国国内述职和休假,抽空访问了位于中国中部的山西省,它以盛产煤而著称。到了山西就不能不去著名的五台山,它是中国四大佛教名山之一。我发现五台山很特别,它是青庙和黄庙共存一地,汉地佛教和藏传佛教香火俱旺,充分体现了宗教不同派支的和睦共处。

五台山远离西藏,却成为藏传佛教的圣地,这可能会让很多外国人感到惊讶。实际上,在中国,藏传佛教的影响远远超出西藏,在汉族和中国其他各民族中都拥有不少信众。北京的雍和宫就是藏传佛教寺庙,是北京香火最旺盛的寺庙之一。每逢春节等中国传统节日,来这上香祈福的各民族信众经常是天不亮就在门口排队。

今天,包括藏传佛教在内的藏族传统文化为中国各地民众了解和喜爱,已成为中华文化不可或缺的一部分。中国很多年轻人都喜爱戴藏族的传统饰物,希望借此避邪驱灾。在北京、上海、广州等许多城市,都不难找到正宗地道的藏餐馆。中国歌坛也不乏藏族的著名歌手,他们具有鲜明西藏特色的歌曲红遍中国。到西藏旅游是中国最热的旅游线路之一,藏药、藏香、唐卡等西藏特产则是畅销中国各地。

对于一些西方人来说,他们对西藏和西藏文化的印象要么是英国人詹姆士·希尔顿笔下的“香格里拉”,要么是某些人所说的所谓汉族“入侵西藏”和西藏文化“濒临灭绝”。事实上,过去西藏不是“香格里拉”,因为那里曾经存在比欧洲中世纪还黑暗的封建农奴制度;今天西藏经济社会取得了历史性的发展,西藏文化得到良好的保护和传承。

1959年以前,西藏的文盲率在95%以上,教育是僧侣和贵族阶层的特权,文化更是仅供贵族消费的奢侈品。那时,广大西藏农奴首先需要考虑的是如何生存下去。许多民间流传的藏族歌曲、诗歌等传统文化因为无法用文字记录而濒临失传。今天,西藏人民已经成为了自治区的主人,不用再为生计发愁,他们都有机会接受本民族语言和文化教育,许多人在继承和发展本民族文化艺术。比如,一直以民间说唱方式流传的藏族长篇史诗《格萨尔王传》近年被整理成文字,得以永久保存。

西藏文化不是封闭的,也需要在与外界的沟通交流中进一步发展进步。从物质层面上看,这种交流得益于交通状况的改善。50多年前,西藏与外界根本不通公路和铁路。今天,西藏已建成以拉萨为中心的公路交通网,通车里程达2.18万公里。青藏铁路翻越海拔4600多米的昆仑山,是世界上沿途风景最美的铁路之一,至今已有近5000万人乘坐青藏铁路列车进出西藏。西藏与10多个国内外城市通航。去年,西藏接待国内外旅游者近870万人次,越来越多的西藏艺术家走出西藏,把西藏文化传播到中国和世界各地。

从历史上看,不同民族、地域的交往促进文化的交流融合。汉地佛教是一种外来宗教,但它对中华文化的影响非常深远。藏传佛教本身也是一种外来宗教,它是佛教在吸收西藏本地原始宗教“苯教”基础上而形成。像所有佛教分支一样,藏传佛教也起源于二千多年前的印度。可见,文化总是在交流借鉴中发展。把西藏文化吸收其他民族文化精华称为 “西藏文化灭绝”,要么是对西藏文化保护和传承的错误理解,要么是一些人有意歪曲事实。至于像达赖鼓吹的那样把其他民族赶出西藏,这就像苏格兰只能容许苏格兰人在此生活,不允许英格兰人、威尔士和北爱尔兰人民生活一样荒唐。

今天,西藏依旧充满魅力,却不再遥远。西藏文化依然独特,却不再神秘。或许我明年休假时应该故地重游一下西藏。

中国驻英国大使刘晓明