A Chinese Vision of Tibet: Happy Lamas and Sacred Snows

Tibet photos
A view of Potala Palace at twilight, at the Asian Cultural Center’s exhibit. Courtesy of the Asian Cultural Center in Manhattan

On an evening in late July, on a 12th-floor gallery space at the Asian Cultural Center in Manhattan, a crowd gathered for the opening of an exhibition featuring 70 beautiful, large color photographs of Tibet. Organized by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of China’s State Council, as well as China’s Consulate General in New York, the exhibition was titled Tibet: Sacred Land of Snows. It was the rooftop of the world as seen through the eyes of Chinese photographers, all of whom were from mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and had participated in an event called “Capturing Tibet in 24 Hours.”

Many of the images expressed a sense of the region’s expansive, luminous beauty: one showed Everest’s peak catching the light of sunset, and another presented snow-covered yaks, the animals’ figures dark against a snowy landscape in Nagqu prefecture. There were scenes of Tibetans: one showed a family of five by the side of the road, their picture taken in the midst of a religious pilgrimage that involved walking and prostrating. Religious scenes were common in the images: there was a group shot of seven lamas posing in front of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, and another of two lamas in front of a glowing bank of oil lamps, the yellow light filling a darkened room, shadows caught in the folds of the lamas’ red robes. Another photograph depicted, in front of a background of snowy mountains and a blue sky, a locomotive on the Qinghai-Tibet railway. While the photos wouldn’t have been out of place in a travel brochure, many of them rose above standard tourism shots and were quite lovely—but, of course, had a propagandistic purpose as well.

One of the observers at the exhibit’s opening was Hongwen Zhu, a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry who grew up in Tianjin, China, but now works in New York City. “Tibet is a very nice place, it’s a very important part of China,” Zhu said. “I dreamed about that, but I’ve never been there before. So that’s why I came here to look at these pictures.” He added that he’d occasionally searched for images of Tibet through Google in the past.

In her opening remarks, the director of the Asian Cultural Center, Rachel Yang, pointed out that the images included “spiritually important Tibetan landmarks”—the Potala Palace—as well as “natural scenery such as the Namtso lake, which is the second-largest salt-water lake in China.” She continued, “There are also many photos about the present-day lives of ordinary Tibetan people, and some [that] capture the region’s modernization over the past half-century. Those pictures show both the old traditions and the new technology mingling in such a unique way.”

Why the exhibition on images of Tibet? Sun Guoxiang, China’s consul general in New York, explained that it’s about encouraging Americans to go to Tibet and also to better understand the place. “There are some incomplete messages about Tibet in the American public,” he told Newsweek through an interpreter. “What has been shown in these pictures, although they are a very small number, it does showcase a true, real, and dynamic Tibet. And I think it also answers some questions or concerns by the American public about whether the Tibetan culture has been destroyed, whether the Tibetans have lived a very bad life. So I think what we show in these pictures will promote the understanding of the American public about what lives the Tibetans have and what policies the central government has taken to protect the ethnic minority’s culture. And also through these photos, we hope to increase the awareness and interest in the American public about Tibet and encourage them to go to Tibet.”

“The central government is giving a very high degree of autonomy to Tibet,” Sun added, “and Tibet is enjoying preferential policies, preferential policies different from other provinces of China. And I think this kind of support and understanding and favorable policies really benefit the Tibetans, and the Tibetans really understand that.”

Over the past 15 to 20 years photographs from China representing Tibet in this way are not unexpected, said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. The way China depicts Tibet in exhibitions like this for audiences outside of China is similar to the way Tibet is represented inside China photographically, Barnett said. One aspect of photographs like this is “the theme of the beautiful landscape and the purity of nature and the exquisiteness of mountain vistas and so on,” he says. (Barnett hadn’t seen this exhibition but has seen exhibitions like it.) “So this is a theme we find inside China, among Chinese people; they’re very, very focused now on this theme, and it’s particularly associated with the building of the railway from western China from Qinghai to Lhasa that was completed in 2006 and is currently being extended even further into Tibet now.” The building of that railway, Barnett said, was “accompanied by a huge move to increase tourism within China and to get Chinese tourists to go to Tibet.”

China’s message on Tibet has evolved over the years, Barnett said. After the Chinese Army entered Tibet in 1950, “the message was that Tibet was being liberated from imperialists, which meant Westerners,” although, he noted, there were very few Westerners there at the time. But after 1959, the message changed to the idea that China “is liberating Tibetans from brutal feudalism and slavery,” and images of poverty in Tibet would make that point. The most recent Chinese messages on the subject of Tibet are the idea of “Tibet as a Shangri-La” but also as a “modern place which has been made a pleasant place to live in because of modernization,” Barnett said. Exhibitions like the one at the Asian Cultural Center drive home these points.

Tibet exhibit The photographs reflect China’s move to increase tourism to Tibet. Courtesy of the Asian Cultural Center in Manhattan

But Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, is concerned not only about Tibetan access being restricted for foreign tourists, the media, and human-rights observers, but also about the human-rights situation there. “The problem with Tibet,” he said, “what’s at stake with Tibet, is not the issue of misunderstanding what the reality is or a problem of perception in the American public, it’s a problem of massive human-rights violations.”

On a deeper level, China is “absolutely determined to get the world to agree and to state that Tibet is part of China,” Barnett said. “And secondly to get them to state that it’s been part of China for hundreds of years. That is really what is behind the photo exhibition and every other statement by China about Tibet. That’s the fundamental issue for them.”