‘Shangri-la complex’ a Himalayan hurdle in understanding Tibet

BEIJING: Almost 90 years after British novelist James Hilton introduced the fictional “Shangri-la” to the Western readership, the entrenched perceptual bias has been hampering and limiting the fair understanding of Tibet.
Some Western minds have often perceived the reclusive Himalayan region as a mystical but harmonious earthly paradise since ancient time. They believe that Tibet has always been a place of perpetual bliss where most of the inhabitants are meditating crimson robe-clad lamas, holding prayer beads and chanting scriptures all day long.
Such a mythology of “Shangri-la” and romanticization of Tibet, reinforced by skewed media depiction, have led to the obfuscation of some simple but inconvenient facts.
When journalists, film directors and politicians in Hilton’s time portrayed Tibet as a heavenly place, the region was under the feudal system — a form of society as cruel as, if not worse than, its European counterparts in the dark Middle Ages.
Far from being an enduringly happy land, Tibet used to be a backward region suffering under an inhuman system of serfdom. Serfs were treated as private property of their owners and women who had extramarital affairs would have their noses and ears cut off. In this land, until as late as the early 1950s, the average life expectancy remained less than 36 years.
The southwestern Chinese autonomous region aspires to development and civilization as much as any region in the world. A somewhat less romantic but more pragmatic approach should be taken to evaluate the development of Tibet.
When Tibet is celebrating sweeping changes and achievements, some people are criticizing the region’s development for bringing about so-called cultural destruction and human rights violations.
With the die-hard “Shangri-la complex,” some Western politicians and media believe that Tibet, as the “last pure land on the earth,” should be free from any development, be it infrastructure or tourism, which they fear may prompt the destruction of Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. For them, Tibet should always stay in the primitive age and Tibetans should keep riding yaks and living in tents, immune from modernization.
Some Western scholars have even argued that the history of Tibet after the peaceful liberation of the region in 1951 is not worth studying at all. Some Western media outlets have avoided the economic achievements and improvement in life Tibet has seen in recent decades, focusing only on religious issues.
These biased minds, instead of being interested in understanding the real Tibet, are fond of their own fantasies of the region. For them, Tibet has become a “spiritual supermarket” where they hope to find what has been lost in their own societies due to industrialization and modernization. The romanticization of Tibet has also become part of the separatist campaign where the secessionists take advantage of the “Shangri-la complex,” flaunting the stunning beauty and historical isolation of the old Tibet rather than underscoring its penury and backwardness. Over the past 70 years, however, Tibet has embarked on an irreversible path of development and civilization, which is in line with the general trend of social development. Tibet has eradicated extreme poverty with other parts of China for the first time in history.
The average life expectancy hit 71.1 in 2020. The Chinese government has introduced many favorable policies in the region, ranging from infrastructure and industrial development to education, environmental protection and cultural preservation. – Agencies