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