WOESER AND MODERN TIBETAN LITERATURE

WOESER

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Woeser is the world’s best known contemporary Tibetan writer. A resident of Beijing who goes by only one name, she is known best for poetry, very little of which has been translated into English. Of late she has focused here writing on the Tibetan riots in March 2008 at the risk of being arrested. Much of he work is released on her blog, which has been hacked a number of times. She has been placed under house arrest and told by policemen that watch her to stop writing about Tibet.

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “A graceful, soft-spoken woman whose disquieting tales are often punctuated by nervous laughter, Woeser has become an accidental hero to a generation of disenfranchised young Tibetans. Like many of her peers, she was schooled in Mandarin, part of a policy of assimilation that left her unable to write Tibetan, and she grew up embracing the official version of history---that the Communist Party brought freedom and prosperity to a backward land.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]

Woeser has posted volumes of poetry and essays online, many of them openly critical of the Chinese government's regional policies. Woeser told the New York Times that "She dreamed that she was back in Tibet and that an army truck was passing before her, its cargo enveloped in green canvas. One side of the truck was uncovered, however, and inside she could see a heap of black-and-blue bodies, Tibetans old and young, who had been battered into submission. Desperate to record the sight, she reached for her camera but it was gone.” “The dream ends with me chasing the truck, wailing and yelling.” Woeser said.

Woeser: Blog woeser.middle-way.net

Woeser’s Life

Woeser grew up in Tibet and went to school in Tibetan towns in southwestern Sichuan province, but now lives under close surveillance in Beijing with her Chinese husband Wang Lixiong, a scholar of ethnic issues in China. Woeser moved to Beijing in the mid 2000s.

Woeser enjoyed a relatively privileged life . She was born in Lhasa in 1967 to members of the Communist Party: a Han father and Tibetan mother. Her father was a deputy commander of a local unit of the People’s Liberation Army. When she was four her family moved to a Tibetan area of Sichuan. She was educated in Chinese and never learned to read or write her native tongue. She returned to Lhasa after getting a university degree in Chinese literature. She told the Washington Post, “My way of thinking was not based on reality. All I wanted to do was write poems.”

“Woeser recalled her father as a devoted Communist who would publicly denounce religion by day and seek refuge in Buddhist texts at night. After he died in 1991, she found a dog-eared biography of the Dalai Lama hidden on his bookshelf. “He was like many Tibetans who work for the government,” she said. “They are divided inside. We call them people with two heads.,”

Back in Lhasa she developed on strong interest in Tibetan culture and Buddhism, neither of which had captivated her before. “When she was 24, during a visit to Lhasa, an auntdragged her to the Jokhang Monastery, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest sites, and she found herself overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of the faithful. I was crying so loudly a monk told my aunt, “Look at that pathetic Chinese girl, she can’t control herself.”“It was that moment I realized I had come home,” she said.

After reading a biography of the Dali Lama and watching Chinese authorities disrupt the selection of the Panchen Lama she became interested in politics. In 1999, she published her first book of poetry, which delved into her Tibetan identity and explored sensitive subjects through metaphors. A second book, of prose essays, was more direct and caused her to lose her job at a state-supported literary journal and forfeit her pension. After that she moved to Beijing and married the Chinese dissident writer Wang Lixiong. Today her works is published in Taiwan and Hong Kong but not the mainland.

Woeser’s Works

“In 2003, a publisher in Guangzhou put out her first book, Notes on Tibet , a collection of prose and short stories that quickly sold out. It was just before the second print run that the authorities took notice. They promptly banned the book, saying it contained serious political mistakes. Authorities demanded a confession of her errors. She refused, andfound herself unemployed.”[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]

With no means of support, she moved to Beijing. After gushing to friends about one of China’s best-known writers, Wang Lixiong, an introduction was made. They married a year later.

“One of her most startling recent projects is Forbidden Memory , a book of photographs taken by her father during the Cultural Revolution. Published in Taiwan, the book provides a disturbing glimpse of the tumultuous decade that destroyed thousands of temples and laid waste to countless lives. There are pictures of trampled relics, jubilant crowds bearing oversized Mao portraits and a female living Buddha, head bowed in humiliation, as she is hectored in the streets. “My father loved photography and no one dared stop him because he was in uniform,” she said.”

An excerpt from Secrets of Tibet of the few poems by Woeser translated to English goes:


Once in a while. The masked demon reveals its true face,
frightening even to the ancient deities
Yet, the challenges have emboldened the ordinary birth;
who turn prayers to the deep nights into cries under the sun,
who concert whines behind the high walls into songs spread wide.
They are arrested! Punishments increased! Life sentences!
Executions postponed! Shot dead!
I usually keep quiet because I barely know anything.
Having been born and raised under the bugle of the PLA,
I am a suitable inheritor of Communism,
Egg under the red flag, suddenly cracked and broken,
Nearing middle age, belated anger is about to blurt from my throat
I cannot stop my tears for the suffering Tibetans younger than me
.

In addition to her books, Woeser is a prolific blogger. Interestingly, she writes in Chinese, the language she grew up with in school. This makes Woeser's voice for the rights of Tibetans unique, says Elliot Sperling of Indiana University's Tibetan Studies Program. "But Woeser really represents this within the People's Republic of China," he said. "In other words, she represents somebody who's very much engaged in the modern world."

Woeser continues to publish books outside of China, and to blog. She has more than 47,000 followers on Twitter. On whether she is getting through to people in China, Woeser told PRI, "I have been writing about Tibet issues for so many years, I think there is some effect. You just have to keep repeating the truth and eventually, people will start to listen. Besides, what else is there to do?"

Woeser wrote in the epilogue of her book, Voices of Tibet: "As a writer, I have found my conviction to write coming into focus gradually: To write is to experience; to write is to pray; to write is to bear witness. Experience, prayer and bearing witness all intertwine. And to bear witness is to give voice."

Woeser’s Activism

Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: “In a country where advocacy for Tibetan rights is often met with heavy reprisals, Woeser stands out because of her willingness to publicly criticize the Chinese government's repressive policies in her Himalayan homeland. She started blogging in 2005 about problems rarely discussed in Tibet: environmental damage, prostitution, a new railroad that critics said was flooding the region with Chinese migrants. [Source: Gillian Wong, AP, March 8, 2013 +/]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “In recent years Woeser has become less tolerant of Chinese rule and more vocally opposed to the Han migrants and tourists who she claims have diluted Tibetan culture and damaged a fragile ecosystem. Such outspokenness has only heightened the interest of the authorities, who blocked her first three blogs. (The fourth, she said, was destroyed by hackers.)” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]

“Woeser’s blog, Invisible Tibet, has become one of the few reliable news outlets on what is happening in Tibet. Most of the news that appears on her blog arrives through e-mail messages or via Skype, the Internet calling service, although they are not without risk. She said 13 of her friends are still in detention, some facing charges that they illegally disseminated details of arrests and protests to the outside world. Every day I cry because I don’t know what’s going to happen to them, she said, glancing out the 20th-floor window of her apartment, with its expansive view of a hazy Beijing sunset.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]

Recently, Woeser has been active in documenting a wave of self-immolations in Tibet. She told Associated Press she started to track the self-immolations, posting photos and information of each one, on her blog so that she had clear sense of the scale of the protests. "When there were only a dozen of cases, many were omitted or forgotten. Self-immolating is such a tragic act and there is a reason if a group of people make that sort of decision. They should not be forgotten," she said. In late 2013, Woeser published a book that profiles Tibetans who have set themselves on fire. "I am a Tibetan and I wanted to explain why Tibetans continue to self-immolate as a political protest," she said. "They are suffering a lot and the world has kept silent."

Woeser and Ai Wei Wei Collaborate on Book of Tibetan Self-Immolations

Woeser and dissident artist Ai Weiwei collaborated on a book about Tibetan self-immolations, The book, Immolations in Tibet: The Shame of the World, is written by Woeser with cover art by Ai. A French-language first edition was published in October 2013. "I think [the self-immolations] are an earth-shattering thing," Woeser told The Guardian. "Yet people are silent. Why are they silent? In China, one reason is that the government blocks information, they block the truth, so a lot of people don't know that this is happening. Yet in a lot of places – even in China – people know this is happening, but don't really care. In this book, I want to write about why people self-immolate – to help people understand, to break the silence." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, October 17, 2013]

Between February 2009 and October 2013, at least 122 Tibetans have set themselves on fire as a protest againt Beijing policies and most have died. "Self-immolation is the most hard-hitting thing that these isolated protesters can do while still respecting principles of non-violence," Woeser writes. In the book, Woeser describes Tibet as a "giant prison criss-crossed with armed soldiers and armoured vehicles". book.

The Guardian reported: “Woeser called the book short – about 20,000 words – and said she wrote it quickly, between April and June of this year. Ai's minimalist cover depicts the swirling outline of orange-and-yellow flames; its white background is subtly inlaid with each self-immolator's name, written in Tibetan.

Woeser said that she considers Ai a friend, and called his views on Tibetan issues, which she had seen on Twitter, "very pertinent, and very precise". She asked him to design the cover in late August. "He agreed immediately," she said. "He said of course, the meaning of these self-immolations, whether on a philosophical or a religious level, is beyond what us living people can ordinarily understand. But he said he'd be willing to try." Woeser said that while publishing the book may carry risks, she refuses to be cowed, drawing inspiration from the people she writes about. "Their courage gives me courage," she said.

Chinese Efforts to Silence Woeser

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Woeser’s visits to Tibet are even more tightly scrutinized. The police track her every move, interrogating any friend who dares to meet with her. Most of my friends no longer have the guts to see me, she said. In 2008, she and her husband were briefly placed under house arrest after they spoke to the foreign news media.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, April 25, 2009]

During a visit to Tibet in August 2008, public security officials searched her mother’s home in Lhasa, confiscating computers and subjecting Woeser to eight hours of questioning. When she returned home, her mother, fearful for her safety, begged her to pack her bags and go. That was one of the most heartbreaking moments, she said.”

“Despite her relatively high profile both inside and outside China, she is well aware that her liberty is fragile. Since 2004 she has been waiting for a passport, which would allow her to travel and speak abroad. “I feel so insecure inside,” she said. “I feel like I’m sitting on the edge of a cliff and I could fall down at any moment.”

Woeser Under House Arrest

After Tibet was racked by riots in 2008, Woeser was placed under house arrest with her husband Wang Xilong, also a prominent writer and activist. Authorities once again confined her to her home in 2012, to prevent her from receiving an award at the Dutch embassy. In 2013, the Chinese government placed her under house arrest at that time to prevent her from traveling to the United States to collect received from the State Department an International Women of Courage Award. T the award. Mr. Kerry praised her in a speech.

After Woeser was placed under house arrest in July 2014, Edward Wong of the New York Times wrote: “This latest house arrest began on the evening of July 8, a few days after Ms. Woeser received the embassy call, and just one hour after she and her husband Wang Lixiong had returned to their Beijing apartment from a trip to Inner Mongolia. Presumably security officers were aware of the embassy invitation. Young men sent by the police arrived at 7 p.m., one hour after the couple had returned. [Source: Edward Wong, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, July 15, 2014]

“The guards, who were dressed in plain clothes, sat in chairs by the elevators in the outside hallway. They stayed for two days, just as they had promised when they first arrived. Most of the guards were students from the People’s Public Security University, which provides training in security and law enforcement, Ms. Woeser wrote on her blog, “Invisible Tibet,” on the night the house arrest began. “Wang Lixiong asked the Public Security University students if they knew that what they were doing was illegal,” she wrote. “A student gave a very funny answer: ‘I have the right not to answer your question.’ It was as if he were being questioned at a trial.”

A month earlier, at the time of the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military crackdown around Tiananmen Square, students from that university also showed up to place the couple under house arrest, Ms. Woeser said. The ones who camped out by her apartment last week appeared no different. “They were summer interns,” she wrote on Twitter. “They were learning how to deal in the future with the enemies of the party.” “I don’t know if they were kids from the country or from the cities,” she added. “Every time they opened their mouths, they said, ‘Our leaders sent us.’”

Woeser Blocked from Receiving Award

In late February 2012, Woeser said that police had placed her under house arrest in Beijing to prevent her from receiving a prize for culture from the Dutch Embassy. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, Woeser said “in the afternoon that there were police officers downstairs in her apartment building, where she lives on the 20th floor. She said she was unsure of the exact number, but had noticed at least two men in a car outside the main door and others waiting nearby. She said Beijing police officers came to her apartment and told her she would not be allowed to receive the award. “I told the embassy last night that I probably won’t be able to go this evening,” said Woeser. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 1, 2012]

The embassy is giving Woeser an award from the Prince Claus Fund. The fund’s Web site says the award is given out annually to individuals and organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean “for their outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development.” Woeser, who has written critically of the Chinese government’s policies in Tibet, said she had planned to go the Dutch ambassador’s residence on Thursday at 6 p.m. to have dinner and receive the award. The ceremony was originally to have been at the embassy but was recently moved to the residence.

Woeser said the police might stay at her apartment building for a couple weeks or even a month. “I just asked them how long they’ll be there, and they said they don’t know,” she said.

Woeser Given Award by U.S. Government

In 2103, Woeser was recognized by Secretary of State John Kerry at a ceremony for the recipients of the International Women of Courage awards. He praised her "for courageously striving to improve human rights conditions for China’s Tibetan citizens by illuminating their plight through her writings, and thus giving eloquent voice to those whose stories might otherwise never be heard." Woeser was one of 10 women named for the International Women's Day honor in Washington, in part for her efforts in documenting a wave of self-immolations in Tibet. But Woeser could not accept the award herself. She was under house arrest in Beijing and Chinese authorities have routinely denied her a passport because, she told Associated Press, she was told she was deemed a threat to state security, presumably because of her activism.

The U.S. State Department said Woeser's website, poetry and non-fiction "have given voice to millions of ethnic Tibetans who are prevented from expressing themselves to the outside world due to government efforts to curtail the flow of information." The award drew criticism from China's Foreign Ministry, which said Friday that Woeser "twists facts" about Tibet, attacks Beijing's ethnic policies and "sabotages China's national solidarity." "For America to award a prize to such a person is no different from publicly supporting her words intended to separate China," said spokeswoman Hua Chunying. She said Beijing has expressed its displeasure over the award to the United States and urged it to refrain from "interfering" in China's internal affairs. [Source: Gillian Wong, AP, March 8, 2013]

On being contacted by the U.S. embassy in Beijing a year later, Edward Wong of the New York Times wrote: Woeser “said she was surprised when she heard a United States Embassy official offering her a dinner invitation over her cellphone, since she knew her phone conversations were constantly being monitored by Chinese security officers. [Source: Edward Wong, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, July 15, 2014]

“When the embassy contacted me, it was via my mobile phone, which has always been tapped,” Ms. Woeser said in a telephone interview on Monday. “So I was a little surprised by the invitation when they called. I thought, hmm, a real invitation. The national security guys surely know. Such a public invitation, does that mean it was granted? The invitation was offered a few days before Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Beijing last week for a session of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The American official calling her did not mention who is at the dinner, Ms. Woeser said. But it was taking place on a night when Mr. Kerry was in town.

Alai and Hollow Mountain

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Alai, a Tibetan writer who gies by one name, is author of the six-volume Hollow Mountain , about a Tibetan village in the throes of a 50-year tumultuous transformation is a microcosm of rural China at large. Alai told the China Daily, “The protagonist of my novel is the village, not a person, and this village is broken and unstable, with an array of people on center stage at various times.” [Source: Raymond Zhou, China Daily, April 15, 2009]

Alai is from the Tibetan area of northwestern Sichuan. He won the title of “Outstanding Author of 2008," the year the last installment of his magnum opus was published. Alai emerged in 1998 with his debut novel Red Poppies , now available in English. Its original title in Chinese is The Dust Settles , and it is also set in Tibet. Alai’s writing career started in the 1980s, first with poetry and then with fiction. He is now president of the Sichuan Writers Association.

Alai doesn’t like being called “Tibetan writer,” explaining that the label “puts me down,” and insists that what he wrote applies not only to the Tibetan area, but also to all of rural China: “Our urban development comes at the cost of the rural area. An increasing burden is imposed on the countryside, something it has to bear. Things have turned for the better in the past 30 years, but fundamentally farmers' living conditions are less than ideal and their fate is one of tragedy.”

“Alai says he is not a “brave man” and adds that he should not pretend to be one. “I take history and literature very seriously,” he reveals. “I write about the dark side not because I want to expose it, but because it is the truth. The value of charting the sad course of history is to make people think. If something like that happens again, people will be vigilant. If we all forget, in a generation or two nobody will know anything about it, and that'll be our tragedy, just like building on a fault-line even though you know it's there.”

“The Tibetan in 2008 he said exposed what he calls “the beautiful misunderstanding rampant among the rest of the world, including China”. This “beautiful” misunderstanding, he says, has sown the seeds of mistrust among people of different ethnicities. Alai says the outside world has a romantic version of Tibet that has little to do with its real history. They imagine Tibet to be “a cradle of myths”, which epitomizes the opposite of all undesirable things in a material world. They choose to be oblivious to the fact that most people in Tibet lived in ignorance and life did not improve for hundreds of years.”

“Alai takes upon himself the task of “demystifying” Tibet. “The Tibetan people are a member of the human population, and what they need is not how to be the servants of god, but to be human beings.” He also takes care not to see himself as a spokesman for all Tibetans. “Nobody -not a monk or any other person, or myself - has the right to take the place of all the people in this region. Only individuals who form this whole can present the whole picture of this race and this culture.”

Alai on Artistic Quality

Alai, one of China's few best-known Tibetan writers, is encouraging some of his peers to readjust their profit-oriented goals and concentrate instead on artistic quality. He made the remarks at the recently concluded sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). [Source: Liu Lu, China Daily, March 20, 2012]

The NPC deputy and chairman of the Sichuan Writers' Association says contemporary publishing circles suffer from an erroneous belief that sales are a barometer of a book's popularity. So to please the public, some writers seek popularity through creating vulgar works that "undermine the artistic nature of literature".

"The market-oriented approach does stimulate the creativity of Chinese writers, which has greatly contributed to today's literary boom," Alai says. "But there are serious problems behind this." The novelist says that while profitability is an indicator of success, a book's spiritual and artistic value is more important. "The development of the cultural industry cannot simply follow the development routes of other industries and be solely profit-oriented. In my opinion, a good literary work should not only be readable but also put an emphasis on artistic exploration and delve deeper into human nature and the diversity of culture."

Alai says the lack of spiritual qualities in works by Chinese writers means they are not as influential as they could be internationally. "Foreign publishing houses are looking for outstanding literary works from China that allow overseas readers to gain a better understanding of the country," he says. "They do not love just entertaining works."

More foreign works are imported than Chinese works exported, he adds. "If Chinese writers want to improve their international prestige, they must improve their literary quality," Alai says. He also urges the authorities to attach more importance to the export of Chinese literary works, because "they have a more lasting and far-reaching influence in regard to constructing China's soft power and offer a gateway for foreign readers to have a deeper understanding of the diversified aspects of China. When more true-to-life literature is created in China, Chinese literature will surely be more influential."

Alai started his literary career in the 1980s as a poet. His first best-selling book, As the Dust Settles, won the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2000. He taps deeply into the interpretation of Tibetan history and culture. All his novels have been translated into several foreign languages and have been well received overseas.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa

“The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa” is a book by the Chinese writer Chan Koonchung on Tibet. He wrote on the PEN Atlas: “The main protagonist of my new novel, Champa, is a young, modern, Chinese-speaking Tibetan man. He grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Lhasa. The novel in this sense is about Tibetan and Han relationships, but it will defy easy stereotyping. It is one of the intentions of the novel to be as uncompromisingly realistic and anti-romantic as possible. [Source: Chan Koonchung, English Pen, June 26, 2014]

In 2012, “I started to work on a new story, Luo Ming or ‘Naked Life’, renamed for its English edition as The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver. The year 2012 was difficult for Tibetans in China, and I wanted a raw and pungent way to express my feelings, and the main protagonist needed to be a Tibetan. Champa, the main protagonist, has two very different but equally bumpy relationships with Han women. He was a tourist driver before he became the ‘kept man’ of an attractive, affluent middle-aged Han businesswoman in Lhasa. Life was good for Champa until he fell for an enigmatic young woman, an event which made him give up on his cushy Lhasa life and drive to Beijing, his dream city. Nothing in Beijing turned out as expected. I intended to capture at least a fraction of the complicated relationships between the Han Chinese and Tibetans and cut across five kinds of stereotypes when it comes to Tibet and Tibetans:

Chan Koonchung was born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong. He was a reporter at an English newspaper in Hong Kong before he founded the influential magazine ‘City’ in 1976, where he was the chief editor and then publisher for 23 years. He is also a screenwriter and film producer of both Chinese and English-language films. He is fluent in English, and now lives in Beijing. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver was published in the UK by Doubleday. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa is translated by Nicky Harman.

Shangri-La and Lost Horizon

The term "Shangri-la" was coined by English novelist James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon. It refers to a beautiful mystical place discovered by four Westerners who crash land in an airplane there. Lost Horizon was published the year that Hitler rose to power and topped the best seller list for two years. Frank Capra did a 1937 film version of the novel, which starred Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It won several Oscars but seems quite silly and dated when viewed today.

In Lost Horizon, Shangri-la is a Buddhist monastery in a Tibetan valley where people enjoy a happy trouble-free life and live to be more than 200 years old by doing yoga, breathing in the mountain air and eating tangatseberry (a native herb).

The monastery boasts central heating, European plumbing, an Oriental garden and a first-rate collection of Chinese art. It is run by a 163-year-old Catholic priest who keeps a file of the London Times and maintains a library. The residents spend their free time learning new languages, mastering Chopin piano pieces, contemplated eternal questions and bathing in green porcelain tubs.

See Places, China

Models for Shangri-la

The word Shangri-la is possibly inspired by Shambala, the Tibetan word for paradise based on Tibetan legends about beyuls, secluded sanctuaries located in beautiful valleys. Shambala is Tibetan Buddhism’s earthly paradise where there is no war and no suffering, where people live in peace and harmony through meditation and self-discipline. It is said to be beyond the Himalayas at the base a crystal mountains, where people have been untouched by the corrupting influences of the outside word.

In 1998, after five years of looking, explorer Ian Baker said he found a beyul in the Pemako area around the Tsangpo River in eastern Tibet. After following a route described in an 8th-century Tibetan text, he reached an extraordinarily beautiful valley through a portal in a cliff masked and penetrated by a waterfall. The Pemako region is located where Tibet, India, Bhutan and Burma all come together. Reached after weeks of jeep and foot travel, it is situated in an area of dense, wet forest with pit vipers and leeches and high mountains. The local people, the Lobas, are fierce animist warriors. They live in villages on high terraces above he Tsangpo River. They believe some valleys are occupied by yetis and others are home to poison cults (made up of woman who poison people to obtain good fortune).

James Hilton

James Hilton (1900-1954) was born in Leigh in Lancashire, England. He grew up in London and earned an honors degree at Christ College, Cambridge. He wrote for the Manchester Guardian as a teenager and had his fist novel published when he was in college. When he was 24, he wrote the bestseller Goodbye Mr. Chips. Lost Horizon was published a year later. Hilton wrote 22 books. Hilton lived in California from 1935 to his death in 1954.

Hilton reportedly got the idea for Lost Horizon while riding his bike and wrote the short novel in four days. The story was originally a Christmas feature in the magazine British Weekly. It was released as book in the United States but wasn’t as successful as Goodbye Mr. Chips.

Hilton never visited Tibet or China. He was reportedly inspired by articles written by the botanist Joseph Rock for National Geographic in the 1920s and 30s. The 6,500-meter-tall Mount Kagpo, also known as Meili Xueshan, described by Rock, is believed to be the model for Hilton’s mystical Mount Karakal.

Heinrich Harrer and Seven Years in Tibet

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Heinrich Harrer

Seven Years in Tibet, the film starring Brad Pitt, was based a 1953 autobiographical book by Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006) , a selfish, real-life Austrian mountain-climber who befriended the Dalai Lama and became his tutor. Harrer had been a Nazi and a S.S. officer before setting off for Asia on a climbing expedition, leaving his pregnant wife behind. The book Seven Years in Tibet has sold 4 million copies and been translated into 48 languages. [Source: Lewis Simmons, Smithsonian magazine, H.G. Bissinger, Vanity Fair, October 1997]

Harrer’s original destination was Pakistan, where several of the world’s highest mountains are located. On his way there he was captured by the British and sent to a prison camp in India. After three unsuccessful escape attempts, he and six other men disguised as British military officers and Indian laborers slipped out of the lightly guarded prison in April 1944. Two years later, after a 1,500-mile journey over 65 Himalayan mountain passes he arrived at the gates of Lhasa with his partner Peter Aufschnaiter, another Austrian mountain climber.

Harrer and Aufschnaiter's original plan was to make their way to freedom in Manchuria---then held by Japan, an ally of Germany and Austria in World War II---on the treacherous northern route through Tibet in the winter. On their journey they encountered valleys with leech-infested strawberries, endured attacks by bandits, suffered hunger-induced hallucinations, walked along cliff-side trails from which numerous animals had fallen. To gain entry into Tibet they convinced local officials that an entry permit they had for western China gave them permission to travel into the Tibetan interior.

After plunging his feat accidently through some ice into freezing water, Harrier wrote, "as soon as we pulled ourselves out our feet froze immediately. They turned brown and then black. We wrapped them in every piece of cloth we could find but the pain was excruciating. I still don't know why we didn't lose our feet."

Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama

In January 1946, Harrer and Aufschnaiter arrived in Lhasa "dead-tired and half-starved." The were accepted as guests by the Tibetan aristocracy. They taught the Tibetans how to play volleyball and hosted swimming parties.

Harrer befriended the Dalai Lama and became his tutor. Featured in the film Seven Years in Tibet, the friendship began when Harrer was 37 and the Dalai Lama was 14. Harrer taught the Dalai Lama English and geography, informed him about Western customs, and explained the best he could how planes flew, tanks worked and atom bombs were detonated. Harrer and the Dalai Lama shared the same birthday, July 6.

Describing the first time he saw the Dalai Lama in a procession, Harrer wrote: "And now approached the yellow, silk-lined palanquin of the Living Buddha, gleaming like gold in the sunlight. The bearers were six-and-thirty men in green silk coats, wearing red plate-shaped caps. A monk was holding a huge iridescent sunshade made of peacock's feathers over the palanquin. The whole scene was a feast for the eyes---a picture revived from a long-forgotten fairy tale of the Orient." Anything the Dalai Lama touched, Harrer said, was seized as an auspicious object.

Explaining how he met Harrer, the Dalai Lama said, "We had an old movie projector and a generator which always broke down. My aides were afraid I'd be electrocuted." Harrer was called in. "In those days, we considered all Westerners to be experts in mechanical things...During his stay in Tibet, everyone liked him." To amuse himself the Dalai Lama used to take projector completely apart and put it back together.

Image Sources: Purdue University, Cosmic Harmony, the film Kundun

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015


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