Sunday, November 16, 2014

Who is Taming who?

My review of Taming Tibet, Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development appeared in The Statesman today 
It is a well-researched book
Who is Taming who?
Taming Tibet, Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development
Cornell University Press

Yeh’s book is a scholarly and refreshing addition to the study of the ‘Chinese gift of development’ to inhabitants of the Roof of the World... A review by Claude Arpi

IT is very fashionable to write about Tibet. You get a couple of interviews with the Dalai Lama; you pay one or two visits to Dharamsala, the ‘Little Lhasa’ in Himachal where the Tibetan leader lives in exile since 1960; you write a few chapters on human rights’ violations in ‘occupied’ Tibet, without forgetting the horrendous self-immolations and that is it. You have got the right cocktail to profitably sell your book and propagate the usual clichés about the Tibetan Diaspora and their cause.
The book under review is different, primarily because Yeh has been to Tibet; she lived with Tibetans and speaks perfect Tibetan as well as the ‘new’ language (Chinese). Further with her academic background, she has been able to understand and analyse the issues at stake.
Yeh starts with a beautiful description of the Tibetan ‘landscape’, a word which will come again and again in her narration: “Sunlight pierces through the thin air above the Tibetan plateau and reflects off the golden roof of the Jokhang Temple, the religious centre not just of Lhasa, but of all Tibet. Buddhist chronicles envision the Tibetan landscape as a gargantuan supine demoness, and Tibet’s conversion to Buddhism as her taming by a set of temples that bolt her to the earth across vast expanses of territory. At the centre is the Jokhang, the temple that pins down her heart. It is the destination of a lifetime for Tibetan pilgrims.”
For 13 centuries, the Central Cathedral in Lhasa has been the ‘heart’ of Tibet and despite the Communist takeover in 1950, scenes like in Jokhang can still be witnessed; it is what makes Tibet so different from any other nation living under a ‘foreign’ yoke.  The outside landscape has however greatly changed during the past 50 years or so. Yeh notes that the ones prostrating are only pilgrims and old local Tibetans, not students, Chinese Communist Party members or Tibetans employed by government; they would get into serious trouble with the party, if they dared to do so.
Let us not forget that Tibet is still under the Communist Party’s control. A few days ago,  The Tibet Daily reported that Chen Quanguo, Tibet’s Party Secretary, affirmed that China would not hesitate to stamp out any separatist inclinations: “As for cadres who harbor fantasies about the 14th Dalai [Lama] Group, follow the Dalai Group, participate in supporting separatist infiltration sabotage activities, they will be strictly and severely punished according to the law and party disciplinary measures.”
Secretary Chen’s position is not new, but one could have hoped for a softening of Beijing’s Tibet policy with the arrival of President Xi Jinping on the scene.
Yeh speaks of Princess Wencheng, the Chinese wife of Emperor Songtsen Gampo who is “constantly evoked to symbolise the close past and future intertwining of the Tibetan and Han peoples, the apotheosis of the unity of the nationalities, for which all citizens of the People’s Republic of China must strive.”
The situation has recently worsened. In July 2013, The People’s Daily announced a Wencheng Opera showing how the Chinese princess “overcame difficulties on her way to Tibet to promote socio-economic and cultural communication between Hans and Tibetans.”
Bhikruti, the Emperor’s Nepalese wife has been sent to the oubliettes of history; it would not be 'politically correct’ to tell mainland Han tourists that the wisdom (i.e. Buddhism) came from the Indian subcontinent.
It is said that more than $120 million had been invested in the project; the Opera is enacted by 600 actors on a 100 meter-long stage in front of a newly-built mini Potala Palace, a few kilometres away from the real one. The Tibetan blogger and dissident Tsering Woeser, who lives in Beijing, but frequently visits Tibet, explained: “In reality this is a project to rewrite history, to ‘wipe out’ the historical memory and culture of a people. This is a ‘win-win’ project that can both make money and be a tool for brainwashing people with propaganda.”
Yeh’s Taming Tibet, is the result of sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2000 and 2009. “Yeh traces how the transformation of the material landscape of Tibet between the 1950s and the first decade of the twenty-first century has often been enacted through the labor of Tibetans themselves”, says her publisher.
In her introduction the author mentions: “the violent protests in Lhasa in 2008 against Chinese rule were met by disbelief and anger on the part of Chinese citizens and state authorities, perplexed by Tibetans’ apparent ingratitude for the generous provision of development.”
For the Communist leadership, before 1950, the ‘old society’ in Tibet was ‘poor, backward, isolated, and stagnant feudal serf society’; then, the Communists came and Tibet was ‘liberated’.  Yeh argues: “With the incorporation of Tibet into the territorial boundaries of the PRC as a modern nation-state, the performance of gratitude became a demand on citizens rather than just a ritual between rulers.”
She points out that Beijing’s central argument is that “the (Chinese) State and Han migrants selflessly provide development to the supposedly backward Tibetans, raising the living standards of the Han’s ‘little brothers’.”
Some particularly fascinating chapters deal with “Cultivating Control: Nature, Gender, and Memories of Labor in State Incorporation”, of Tibetan landowners preferring to rent their land than cultivate themselves, often becoming prey to unscrupulous migrants who refuse to pay their due; captivating too is Yeh’s analysis of “Indolence and the Cultural Politics of Development”, which shows that Tibetans prefer ‘indolence’ and accept the present situation without protesting too much (except when violence erupts like in 2008).
Since Yeh wrote her book, the situation in Tibet has changed for the worse. In January 2010, Beijing decided on a large-scale promotion of tourism on the Roof of the World. The Communist propaganda today says: “Tibet with its mystery is the spiritual Garden of Eden; and is longed by travellers at home and abroad. Only by stepping on the snowy plateau, can one be baptised by its splendor, culture, folklore, life, snow-mountains, holy mountains, sacred lakes, residences with local characteristics and charming landscape.”
Tibet is fast becoming the largest entertainment park in the world; a thousand times larger than Disneyland. The leadership in Beijing has found a more sophisticated way to submerge the Tibetan population under waves of Han Chinese. Tibet has two unique assets: first, its physical reality. The beauty of the landscape, the imposing mountain ranges, the purity of the air and the rivers, the dry pure sky. The second advantage is the rich historical past of the Roof of the World, the mysterious Land of the Lamas. In Tibet, you can find everything, says the Chinese propaganda: the monasteries and nunneries, seat of a wisdom lost in the mainland; the folkloric yak or snow-lion dances, etc. Of course, the ‘locals’ are not always reliable and their knowledge of Mandarin is often not that good; it is not so important as the shows can go on without them.
When 13 millions of ‘tourists’ pour in a relatively small place like Lhasa, one has to be ready to ‘receive’ them and provide them ‘entertainment’. It is what the Party does. In the last three years, the Communist leadership has managed to completely change the ‘landscape’ of the Roof of the World. It is a real tragedy. Yeh’s book is a scholarly and refreshing addition to the study of the ‘Chinese gift of development’ to inhabitants of the Roof of the World.

The reviewer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of  Fate of Tibet

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