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Broken Images
Cultural Questions Facing Tibetans Today [1]

Tuesday, Nov 30, 1993
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Some years ago I attended a conference on Tibet at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, where the eminent Norwegian Tibetologist Professor Per Kvaerne presented, through slides, examples of socialist realism in thangka painting as formulated and encouraged by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. The centrepiece of his collection was a representation of the Commander-in-chief of the Red Army, Marshal Zhu De, giving “teachings”, as it were, to Geda tulku, the left-leaning lama of Bheru Monastery — whom the Chinese claimed was murdered in 1949 by the English radio operator, Robert Ford.

Certain basic conventions of thangka painting had been observed in the execution of the painting, especially in the relative positions occupied by the figures — the guru and the disciple — and also in the heights of their respective seats. Besides Tibetan artistic conventions, strictures of a more ideological kind — first pronounced by Mao Zedong at Yanan in 1942 in his famous “Talk on Arts and Letters”, and later developed to their extreme during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — had also been observed in the spirit and execution of this painting.

The revelations in Professor Kvaerne’s presentation understandably raised some concern among participants at the conference on the debasement of thangka art, but such apprehensions were quickly swept aside by Dr. Graham Clarke of Oxford and Professor Melvyn Goldstein of Case Western University. They declared that this reflexive show of concern was merely another, and typical, instance of Westerners getting precious about ethnic culture. Furthermore, they declared that this unthinking reaction in wanting to see such traditions preserved sprang more from unfulfilled needs in the Westerner’s own emotional and psychological make-up, than from genuine concern. In their opinion, this attitude did not give due consideration to the role of natural evolution in traditional culture and art.

Dr. Clarke recounted his own unhappy experience in Nepal observing the rapid disappearance of Nepalese folk songs before the inroads of Bombay film music. As a cultured person he was, of course, saddened by the loss of Nepali folk songs, but consoled himself with the reflection that this was a universal phenomenon, and the price one paid for becoming a part of the modern world. Professor Goldstein too, contributed to this plea for pragmatism and acceptance of change. Commenting on a “thangka” where one of the subsidiary proletarian “deities” is depicted joyfully manoeuvring a motor-cycle with one hand and carrying a boom-box in the other, Goldstein cried out, “What’s wrong with motor-bikes?”

Now, much as I agree with our two academics about the need for natural development in the arts, they are, in this instance, being quite disingenuous. The advent of socialist realism in thangka painting is not a natural process; nor is it even an incidental and unplanned commercial contagion like the Hindi-movie song epidemic in Nepal. It is instead the deliberate and organised misuse and debasement of an art form by a centralised totalitarian power, not only for the eradication of a separate Tibetan cultural identity but also for the propagation of a crudely materialistic and violent ideology.

Cultural change in Tibet is far from “normal”, as academics like Goldstein and Clarke (who see nothing particularly wrong with Chinese rule in Tibet) like to represent it. They have also adopted the Chinese assumption that sinicization is tantamount to modernisation. It is this prejudice that is at the root of the problem, since Tibetans do not have a choice of sources for formulating their own cultural development as even people in a poor and remote country like Nepal do.

I have not recounted this anecdote merely to vent my spleen at left-leaning academics in Tibetan studies, but because two issues vital to the future of Tibetan culture are raised in it: one, the deliberate and well-planned programme of the Chinese to sinicize Tibetan language and culture; and two, the very static and backward-looking view of cultural preservation held by Tibetan leaders in exile. The latter has, it must be admitted, been much influenced, encouraged and supported in its blinkered conservatism by the emotional needs of many Westerners for an unchanging, mythic Tibet.

The conspicuous symbols of Chinese misrule in Tibet are the stark ruins of the thousands of monasteries, temples and historical buildings looming jaggedly in the desolate Tibetan landscape. But cultural genocide in Tibet has not been confined to the physical destruction of buildings and artefacts, the burning of books, nor to the imprisonment and killing of religious teachers and members of the intelligentsia. There is another and more indeterminate area where the Chinese occupation authorities have effectively lobotomized culture by excising it of any real tradition or genuine spontaneity, and transforming it into a cultural noodle-machine for cranking out endless political and racist propaganda.

In Tibetan language, literature, performing arts, sculpture and painting, the harm China has done, though less dramatically apparent than the ruins of Ganden Monastery, has had an equal, if not a more profoundly negative influence on the Tibetan collective psyche.

One of Beijing’s systematic machinations in this regard has been in the attempted sinicization of the Tibetan language. All radio broadcasters and TV announcers in Tibet have been trained to sound tonally Chinese; more precisely — to enunciate Tibetan tones in such a way that it resembles Chinese, thus violating the phonological rules of Tibetan. I am no expert on linguistics but someone who is, told me that from the linguistic point of view, what the Chinese are doing is absurd. Mandarin has no tone or vowel harmony — i.e. the previous (or following) vowel tone cannot affect adjacent vowel tones. This gives it a staccato sound peculiar to Chinese. Tibetan has both tone and vowel harmony. By altering the tone of Tibetan to make it sound like Mandarin, the Chinese are in effect making it incomprehensible.

The uniformity of this sinicized diction and accent of Tibetan TV and radio announcers belies any other explanation than systematic training. I have also been told by a Tibetan who worked at the Lhasa TV station that trainee announcers spend more than a year just listening and attempting to acquire the standard sinicized tone before being allowed to broadcast. The tone of this official Tibetan is now so Chinese that it is nearly incomprehensible to listeners like myself in exile, and it takes a great deal of getting used to, even for a fluent Tibetan speaker, to understand what is actually being said. My informant maintains that Lhasa radio broadcasts are often not understood in neighbouring districts of Phembo, Lhokha and Nyemo. The situation in Kham and Amdo is less extreme. Interestingly, it appears that among the general Tibetan populace, this sinicized way of speaking has not caught on and is only fashionable with those few who admire Chinese ways.

The Chinese, since their invasion of Tibet, have also worked on the creation of a new political and social vocabulary in Tibetan. There certainly was need for innovation in this area, but the new words created under the aegis of the Chinese occupation force were invariably ill-conceived and crude translations of Chinese terms, in turn derived to a large extent from Japanese and Russian translations of Western terms.

But more than just the issue of linguistic unwieldiness, the political consequences resulting from this radical overhauling of the Tibetan language appear to have had a negative effect on political thinking. Neither questions have so far been addressed by Tibetans in exile who, generally oblivious to the subtleties of totalitarian machinations, have blithely accepted a great deal the new language in the spirit of reform and progress. Professor Goldstein has enthusiastically embraced China’s restructuring of Tibetan language in his dictionaries and language study books, though an incisive and scientific study of this ideological linguistic manipulation is yet non-existent.

It requires no great linguistic or political insight to see that what the Chinese have done is introduce an Orwellian kind of “Newspeak”, where the Tibetan and Chinese equivalents of words like democracy, freedom, socialism, revolution and egalitarianism, have meanings very different, in some cases even opposite, to the accepted sense of the words. They have become, in both the Tibetan and Chinese context, fluid, mantraic terms whose uses are essentially ceremonial — props in the sustenance and legitimisation of the powers that be. This perversion of language for political advantage is, of course, not just a Chinese offense; many governments and politicians resort to it, though generally in a clumsy ad hoc manner.

The uniqueness of the Chinese approach is in the creation of a planned and much-tested system for its realisation, which has not only been thoroughly implemented throughout the length and breadth of China for well over three decades, but appears to still retain an inexorable hold on the minds of the people. A friend of mine who is a recent arrival from Amdo, showed me a sample issue of a new Tibetan magazine (which never got started) meant to educate people on democracy. The lead article was unabashed in declaring that Tibetans must create a “United Front” to bring about “Democratic Reforms”.

The effect of this linguistic cretinization is still visible in the absolute dearth of any great contemporary literature in China, more than twenty years after the Cultural Revolution. Even during the bleakest period of Stalin’s rule, Bulgakov was writing The Master and Margarita and Pasternak Doctor Zhivago.

The ineffectiveness of the Chinese Democracy Movement can probably be explained, to some extent, by the residual effects of this linguistic conditioning. What exactly does democracy mean to a leader of the Chinese Democracy Movement — even if he is at present living and studying in the United States? I have met a few such dissidents, and when we discussed the subject I did not get the feeling that we were talking about the same thing. The burden of linguistic perversion is a heavy one; pushing down, immobilising, distorting thoughts and concepts long after the heavy hand that imposed it may have been removed.

The apparent failure of the exile-Tibetan experiment with democracy, can be interpreted — I am generously overlooking many other causes here — as a failure of political language. Nothing really wrong is seen in setting up a democratic government for the apparent objective of making members of the Dalai Lama’s family into cabinet ministers or members of Parliament; or in having the constitution drafted by a committee chaired by a former minister who lacks even a primary school knowledge of democracy; someone who has been the main instigator of the previous government’s programme to censor all Tibetan publications, and control all artistic and intellectual life in Dharamshala.

However vulgar and corrupt present-day American politics may appear, democracy and freedom as once interpreted by a Jefferson or a Lincoln are words still vibrant with inspiration and hope. All we Tibetans have consulted so far for our political direction is this Chinese-created glossary, and the only definitions we can find in it for those noble words are euphemisms for sycophancy, cynicism, demagoguery, nepotism and intellectual laziness.

It is not only language that the Chinese have attempted to distort; sinicization has taken place in every sphere of Tibetan life and culture: as mentioned earlier in painting, and more so in the performing arts, which are regarded as invaluable propaganda weapons. But more on these later.

Ever since their departure from their homeland, the Tibetan government and community in exile have made a conscious effort to preserve their religion and culture, both of which are under real threat back home. In the preservation of religious literature and certain religious institutions, the success of this effort is clearly visible. In other aspects of Tibetan culture, the results have at best been mixed, if not unsatisfactory.

The disproportionate concentration of attention and resources on religion cannot be explained solely by the well known piety of the Tibetan people, but must be attributed partly to the attraction it holds for the West. The sixties and seventies were very lonely periods for the Tibetan cause, with leftist ideas and theories, especially Maoism, holding centre stage in Western intellectual and political attention, so that even the interest of a few hippies in Tibetan Buddhism was seen as a welcome development, and disproportionate energy and resources were poured into encouraging it.

Institutions such as the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamshala, primarily set up to research Tibetan history and culture became (much against the will of the Director and staff) something resembling a Dharma centre. Hundreds of Tibetan Buddhists texts were translated into Western languages, especially English, while nothing from the West, with the exception of the Bible, was translated into the Tibetan language.

One of the few non-religious institutions set up in Dharamshala for the preservation of culture was the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA). But even there the reasons had more to do with politics than culture. TIPA was initially conceived of as a vehicle for Tibetan propaganda, and for the entertainment of visiting foreign patrons. There was nothing sinister about this development. In Tibet, the modern concept of the performing arts, of the proscenium stage and “cultural shows”, had been introduced by the Communists, who viewed this art wholly as a propaganda tool. One of Red China’s warmest admirers, Edgar Snow, has explained why in Red Star Over China:

There was no more powerful weapon of propaganda in the Communist movement than the Red’s dramatic troupes, and none more subtly manipulated… When the Reds occupied new areas, it was the Red Theatre that calmed the fears of the people, gave them rudimentary ideas of the Red programme, and dispensed great quantities of revolutionary thoughts, to win the people’s confidence.

Many Tibetans, especially the young, were impressed by it — overwhelmed in some cases. A number of Tibetans were trained as performers and musicians in the various Minorities Institutes, as well as in conservatories in Beijing.

Unfortunately, when TIPA (or the Tibetan Dance and Drama Party, as it was first called) was set up in Dharamshala quite a few of its members were such Chinese trained artistes. TIPA’s early performances were therefore considerably influenced by Communist Chinese “aesthetics”. Ersatz folk dances were choreographed to a degree where, except for the costumes, they could well have been dances from Hangzhou or Xinjiang. Crude propaganda plays which derived their artistic inspiration from the early Red Army propa­ganda skits — the forerunners of Madame Mao’s revolutionary operas — served to inflame the nationalistic passions of the Dharamshala refugees.

New historical dance dramas were produced, which though based on pious versions of imperial Tibetan history, appeared, in execution, to derive their inspiration from Beijing opera.

Many of the new songs composed at that time were essentially Chinese tunes with obscure classical lyrics composed by Tibetan religious scholars. One of the directors of TIPA did try to counter this by removing some of the more obvious Chinese influences and reintroducing the traditional opera. But he had a difficult time of it, as by then not only had this Chinese influence permeated the minds of the performers but the taste of the general public as well; so much so that this glitzy sinicized pseudo-art form was regarded as genuine Tibetan culture.

In Tibet itself, the Chinese have, over the years, managed to make the Tibetans not only accept but even like and admire a hideous kind of singing, somewhere between the nasal falsetto of Beijing opera, and an exaggerated “European classical” style, introduced by the Russians to China.

Traditional scripts of Tibetan opera have been rewritten in order to conform not only with Communist ideology but also Chinese interpretations of Tibetan history. A good example of this can be seen in the changes made to the traditional Tibetan opera, The Chinese Princess and the Nepalese Princess (Gyasa Bhelsa), now called Princess Wen Cheng, after the excision from the story of the inconvenient Nepalese Princess.

Ideological changes can also be observed in the play Nangsa, traditionally the story of a beautiful but pious maiden of Gyantse district forced to marry the son of a powerful lord. She is badly abused in her new home and dies, but because of her piety is sent back again to the world of the living by the Lord of Death, Yama. At the end of the story Nangsa attains enlightenment and, forgiving her husband and family, shows them the true path to the Dharma.

A Chinese dramatist, Hu Jin’an, changed the story to one of class conflict. Nangsa returns from the dead with a large sword and proceeds to murder her husband and in-laws. The acting and dancing style have been so speeded up and “modernised” that it seems to be a deliberate parody of Tibetan opera dancing. The title of the play has also been changed to Maiden Langsha, probably to make it sound more Chinese.

My efforts as Director of TIPA, from 1980 to 1985, to remove such Chinese influences, and to make the institution less a vehicle for propaganda than a genuine artistic and cultural centre, were more successful than those of previous directors, but they were not long lived. In fact, I was forced to leave TIPA for some of my productions, which were deemed ideologically incorrect. TIPA has now been put under the control of the Religious Department of the exile government.

Right now, the performing world in exile is in considerable disarray. Not only has the Communist Chinese influence managed to make some inroads, but because of China’s so-called liberalisation a new Hong Kong–Taiwan pop influence has not only taken over the development of modern music inside Tibet but has spilled over into the exile world. I know of a few Tibetan musicians and performers who are trying hard to fight this influence but the situation does at present seem rather discouraging.

Things appear to be comparatively better in the plastic arts, especially in painting. I do not want to deal at length with thangka painting. Suffice to say, that in spite of many problems, the art is managing to survive in exile. Thangka painters earn good commissions, and demand for their work is high enough that sufficient young Tibetans are being trained and will maintain the tradition for some years to come. There are, of course, major difficulties to be overcome, the primary one being that since many of these painters do commission work, generally of standard deities, aspects of the tradition that are not in general demand are being lost. Inside Tibet, things are very different and, as I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, thangka painting has suffered such indignities as being used a vehicle for Communist propaganda. But, on the other hand, a lively modern movement has appeared which seems to hold some promise for the future of Tibetan art.

Beginning with the painter Amdo Jampa, who painted the murals in the Kelsang Palace in the Norbulingka, a number of young Tibetans with artistic talents were trained in the fifties, sixties and seventies in art schools in Beijing and other parts of China. By and large, they appear to have been trained not only in Western art techniques but also in the traditional Chinese style with its delicate landscapes: winding mountain paths, and mist covered crags. On returning to Tibet, some of these painters found what they had studied to be inappropriate to a country that was anything but delicate or artificial. This year I met a young artist from Lhasa, Gongkar Gyatso, who talked to me at length on the development of contemporary art in Tibet. He said that, after taking one look at the oceanic expanse of the Changthang, the northern plains, and the frighteningly huge and unbelievably deep blue Tibetan sky, he tossed aside the art education he had received in Beijing and began to look in other directions for inspiration. He and others seem to have found it in the Western tradition. There is little time for me to discuss this phenomenon in detail but I will provide a couple of examples.

Ngawang Dakpa is a young Khampa painter presently living in Lhasa. In his works he has consciously attempted to depict the strength and, one could say, the love of freedom of the Khampa people. Most of his works seem to be influenced by the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.

Another painter of an earlier generation is Tsedor, trained in China in the early seventies. Most of his life was spent in producing works of socialist realism for the state. He now paints landscapes and portraits that are tortured and brooding, with the heavy lines and vivid colours of Van Gogh. In fact, a couple of his paintings, one of a distorted Tibetan monastery, and another similar study of the Jokhang at Lhasa, prompted in me the memory of Van Gogh’s View of the Cathedral at Arles which I had seen at the Jeu de Paume in Paris some twenty years ago.

Gongkar Gyatso considers himself essentially an abstract painter, but he is also the only Tibetan to have executed a mural (in the sino socialist-realist style) for the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. He was one of the founders of the Cha Ngarmo Remoe Tsokpa, the “Sweet Tea House” group of modern Tibetan painters that from 1985 held exhibitions of their works in a Lhasa tea house where Tibetan youths gathered to talk. Gyatso told me that aside from the fact that the tea house was a natural gathering place for the Lhasa youth, the artists could have been influenced in their choice by romantic notions of the cafe life of Parisian artists.

Monet, Courbet and other impressionists had gathered at cafes, and Gauguin even exhibited in one, during the Universal Exposition in Paris of 1888, when his pictures were excluded from the Official Art section.

What motivates these Tibetan painters seems to be a sense of their national identity. This feeling is probably heightened in the face of undisguised Chinese contempt for Tibetan culture and values. Many of these artists regularly take trips out to the Changthang and to other remote areas of Tibet not only to find subjects for their paintings, but to locate a source of identification with Tibet, through its mountains, lakes, rivers and sky. In a limited sense, the works of these artists could be described as “nationalistic”. Though no overt political message is present in their works, a distinct, even overpowering sense of Tibetanness, quite removed from anything Chinese, is immediately obvious in nearly every one of the paintings I have seen so far.

The Sweet Tea House group disbanded in 1987 when, after a very successful exhibition covered by Lhasa radio and television, and attended by TAR bigwigs, the artists were badgered by the authorities to accept official support, and also to allow party-approved Chinese painters into the group. Besides this, a number of Sweet Tea House artists did not like the idea of being tied down to a permanent organisation.

Even traditional thangka painters inside Tibet have been moved to explore and re-discover their roots; or so an article in China’s Tibet (Summer 1991) reports. Traditional thangka painters from Gyantse, spurred by the competition of new and modern artistic movements, have travelled all along the Yarlung Tsangpo river searching for the earliest signs of Tibetan art in such places as Yambulagang, Samye Monastery and the tombs of the ancient Tibetan emperors. These artists also made the long trip to the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuang to seek inspiration from the ancient murals painted by Tibetan artists in the eighth to the tenth century when Dunhuang was a Tibetan imperial possession.

Young writers and poets in Tibet, frustrated by the sterility of Communist Chinese literary culture, are also reaching into the distant historical past of their nation in search of fresh directions. A Tibetan writer of my acquaintance from Amdo, Pema Bhum, (Associate Professor of Tibetan literature at the Minorities Institute at Lanzhou) has visited every historical site in Central Tibet and the Caves of Dunhuang, not just once, but on a number of occasions, sometimes with his students.

One of the directions in Tibetan poetry and literature seems to be coming from the past, and a much older past than the 1300 years of Tibetan Buddhist history. The classical Tibeto-Indic literary form emerged from this later period, which not only produced the bulk of Tibetan Buddhist writings but other related literature as well.

Classical Tibetan is also the standard official literary form at present in exile, taught at schools and monasteries, and maintained by an unofficial academy, not only of doctors of divinity but officials and educated lay people as well. However profound or ancient, the drawbacks of such a literature are patently obvious in exile, where Tibetan schoolchildren read Enid Blyton, Biggles, and Nancy Drew, and avoid Tibetan literature because it bores them to tears. It is not difficult to see why. Tibeto-Indic literature has very little, especially in imagery and inspiration, that is Tibetan. One does not read of a hero possessing the strength of a wild yak but rather that of Nalagiri the elephant. How many Tibetan nomads have seen an elephant, much less one with a Sanskrit name? The list continues, with peacocks, lotuses and the utpal flower being used as metaphors rather than Tibetan plants, birds or animals. The Sanscritic literary conventions pervading official literature seem in this day and age extremely formal and contrived.

But Tibetans are traditionalists if anything, and young writers who are crying out for a vital living language are looking even further back into the past for their inspiration — before the advent of Buddhism and Buddhist literature. The ancient Tibetan texts discovered in the Dunhuang Caves and other places in Central Asia by Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot are the lodestones which are transforming Tibetan prosody and literature.

Of these many and varied documents the main inspirations are being derived from ancient song-verses of the glu, mgur and mchid forms, that were not only widespread in imperial times but vital for the maintenance of the royal chronicles, the history of the nation, maintaining imperial administrative records in song/verse, and also the sending of coded messages through verse riddles.

This more naturalistic and genuinely Tibetan literary form of ancient times, as represented by the glu, mgur and mchid has survived in various folk traditions all over Tibet, as in the songs of Milarepa, the Gesar epics, various wedding songs and certain declamatory traditions of the Tibetan people. So, in a sense, this movement towards a new poetic and literary form is a continuation, or maybe more appropriately, the reawakening of the ancient voice of the Tibet’s glorious imperial past.

One of the pioneers of the new Tibetan poetry was Dhondup Gyal of Amdo, who is said to have committed suicide in November 1985 at the age of thirty-five. It is also possible that he may have died accidentally like Emile Zola, suffocated by the fumes from a coal fire. Dhondup Gyal’s pioneering efforts have opened the doors to a new literary form, not only inside Tibet but in exile as well. All over Tibet literary/academic journals and reviews are being published. These publications are all official or semi-official, and at the last count there were over forty of them. In spite of Chinese censorship, many of them manage to often produce work of interest and value. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that no great modern literature has as yet emerged from Tibet.

The best known Tibetan author in China is Tashi Dawa, whose writings are trite, posturing and derivative. He appeals to Chinese readers, as he essentially confirms age-old Chinese racist notions of Tibetan savagery and superstition. Furthermore, he only writes in Chinese. Tsug-Yu by Langdun Paljor is probably the first novel in the Tibetan language but it is also unfortunately little more than an exercise in socialist realism. I am informed by experts in Tibetan literature that it is nonetheless a more convincing work than Bapa Jampel Gyatso’s Kelsang Metok, which was an earlier socialist realist novel, but originally written in Chinese.

In exile, projects to preserve traditional literature have met with far more success than attempts to bring out new or original works. Efforts have been made to start modern literary journals and movements but somehow these have never quite succeeded in getting off the ground. For such ventures a certain critical mass is probably required, not only of writers, but reviewers, editors, publishers, and of course, readers as well. Refugee society seems just too small to sustain such ventures.

But right now, the beginnings of a convergence of talents from inside and outside Tibet is taking place. And one of the positive results of this has been the establishment in mid-1992 of the Amnye Machen Institute. Named after the great mountain range in North-Eastern Tibet, this institute is an independent centre for research, publication and dissemination of information and knowledge on the literature, history, art, society and politics of the Tibetan people, with emphasis on the neglected, the contemporary and the lay aspects of these subjects. It is the first such institute set up in exile that is non-religious, liberal and humanist in direction but also aimed directly at informing the Tibetan people, primarily those inside Tibet, and raising their cultural and intellectual awareness.

Two months ago, the institute launched the only independent Tibetan language newspaper. Mang-tso (“Democracy”) has been a terrific success, every issue selling over five hundred copies in Dharamshala alone — which is a record of sorts. Jang-zhon (“Young Shoots”), a journal of new writing, is creating fresh awareness not only among writers in exile, but inside Tibet as well, from where we have received contributions. The Institute’s journal of Tibetan Women’s Studies, Yum-tso, (“Turquoise Lake”) is the only one of its kind both outside and inside Tibet, and will go a little way to redressing the existing lack of awareness of the contribution of Tibetan women to Tibetan spiritual, cultural and national life.

Besides newspaper and journals, the institute has published academic works and original writings of contemporary Tibetan writers. A volume of the selected works of Dhondup Gyal is now being published. The Institute has also undertaken the translation into Tibetan of important books from the West and East. Four books are ready to go to press, while ten other translations have been commissioned from various Tibetan translators. A number of lectures on art, literature, philosophy and politics have been organised in Dharamshala, for schools as well as the general public. The first exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art has also been organised by the Institute.

But in spite of the creation of such an institution, and the efforts of artists, writers and academics inside and outside Tibet, the survival of Tibetan culture in Tibet as a living and viable entity is far from being assured. In addition to the perennial problems of official proscription and perversion, Tibetan culture must further deal with additional complexities created by the tremendous social and economic changes in China. For instance the single-minded materialism dominating life in China now — plus a whacking thirty per cent inflation rate — has driven many artists and writers in Tibet to give up their professions. In exile, on the other hand, unexpected problems have been created by the otherwise not unwelcome attention from the West.

In quantum theory, according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the very act of observing a subatomic particle or quantum object changes the entire nature of that quantum world. The size, wealth and power of the West when compared with that of Tibetan exile society is in some ways the difference between a macro and a micro world; and Western interest in Tibetan culture does, even unintentionally, affect the direction and equilibrium of traditional Tibetan life. The effect of this can be discerned to a degree in what I think may be called the “New Aging” of Tibetan culture, where beliefs and mysteries that once gave beauty and power to ritual and art, are in real danger of becoming enfeebled and trivialised because of commercialisation, excessive exposure and the unrelenting demand of modern society for entertainment and novelty.

December 1993–January 1994
Tibetan Review

* * *

1. Based on a talk given at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 13 October 1992. The title “Broken Images” has been borrowed from Simon Leys’ collection of essays on Chinese culture and politics (1979).

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