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.

Ed Douglas wrote: “Lost Horizons” “exotic setting is the hidden world of Shangri-La where moral and spiritual perfection endure: for some in the West it’s an idea that almost defines the Himalaya. Hilton’s hero Conway and three companions are kidnapped on board an aircraft, which crash-lands near the remote monastery of Shangri-La whose mysterious head lama is in reality a Christian missionary priest who arrived in the early eighteenth century and has achieved immense longevity. The setting, a lost world of moral purity, is largely emblematic. Hilton’s novel has little to do with the reality of Tibet and more to do with its celebrity as somewhere unexplored. None of the central characters are Tibetans: they are almost exclusively cast as servants and characterized as noble savages. Almost nothing of Tibetan culture emerges from its pages. In the monastery’s library, Conway finds some of the books [Source: Ed Douglas, Daily Beast, April 24, 2021, Excerpted from “Himalaya: A Human History by Ed Douglas. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020]

Shangri-La Myth

Mt. Everest Westerners are fascinated with Tibet and Tibetan culture even though in many ways they are the antithesis of the West and Western culture. The Shangri-La myth of Tibet as a kind of spiritual paradise — created by Westerners — is far removed from the reality of Tibet as an extremely harsh land. Chinese scholar Orville Schell wrote that Tibet is "a figurative place of spiritual enlightenment in the Western imagination — where people don’t make Buicks, they make good karma." He said the Shangri-La myth ignores "the Tibet of filth, ferocity, arcane religious practices, grinding poverty, barren wastes, inhospitable weather, serfdom, disease and theocratic absolutism."

Among those taken in by the Shangri-La myth was Adolph Hitler who speculated that the Aryans may have originated from Tibet. A variety of cults and New Age sects, who have incorporated Tibetan Buddhist beliefs into their own doctrines.

Han Chinese have also caught up in the Sjhangri-La myth. “Mystifying China's Southwest Ethnic Borderlands” by Yuqing Yang, Yanshuo Zhang wrote, “addresses the myths of Shangri-La and the Buddhist pure land of Shambhala as they are imagined in literary works” both in China and abroad. Yang looks at the globalized dimensions of the myths of Shangri-La and “how Western utopian imaginings of Tibet are intertwined with a domestic search for China’s own indigenous utopia in the creation of Tibetan literary identities. Salient in this enterprise are the mystifying representations of Tibet’s Buddhist traditions and landscapes that make their way into literary works such as Tibetan author Tashi Dawa’s novella “Tibet, a Soul Knotted on a Leather Thong” and Han writer He Ma’s serial fiction, The Tibetan Code. Yang critiques how some of the literary representations of Tibet and Tibetan regions lack substantial engagement with historical and cultural realities. By conjuring up religiously mythological images of a spiritualized land, writers perpetuate “metaphorical and symbolic concepts” of Shangri-la and Shambhala “based on [their] imaginative potential” [Source: Book: “Mystifying China’s Southwest Ethnic Borderlands: Harmonious Heterotopia by Yuqing Yang (Lexington 2018); Reviewed by Yanshuo Zhang, MCLC Resource Center Publication, January, 2019]

Romanticized View of Tibetan Buddhist History in the West

Dinah Gardner wrote in the South China Morning Post, The Western obsession with Tibet has long been the subject of academic study, and there are plenty of scholarly books on the subject - Prisoners of Shangri-La (1998) by Donald Lopez; Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies (1996), a collection of essays; and Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La From the Himalayas to Hollywood (2000) by Orville Schell, to name a few. In contrast, Han Chinese fascination with Tibet has been little studied. [Source:Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

"Romanticised views of Tibet among Westerners are scarcely mitigated by any knowledge of the nature of Tibetan society prior to the mid-20th century," says Barry Sautman, associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "Few educated Han people lack such knowledge, and thus their romanticisation is somewhat tempered by it."Seven Years in Tibet” — the 1997 Hollywood film, starring Brad Pitt, which paints the Tibet of the late 40s as a paradise of peace-loving Buddhists about to be crushed by the cruel Chinese Communists — sparked a huge outpouring of sympathy for Tibet's status and a fascination among young middle-class liberals in the West. "We in the West tend to project all our fantasies about mystical spiritualism onto Tibetan Buddhism," Erik Curren, author of “Buddha's Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today” , told the Los Angeles Times. "It's really like a civil war. There's lots of acrimony."

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: In the West “the Dalai Lama, enjoys a popular image as an irreproachable man of peace. But this overlooks the fact that the Dalai Lama began adult life as a theocrat leading a government with an army; only later did he transform himself into a Gandhi-influenced proponent of nonviolence who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. That transformation makes strategic sense, perhaps, for Tibetans in their struggle against an overwhelmingly powerful Chinese state, but it is a recent development for most of Tibet’s history, Buddhism has served the state. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, July 13, 2019]

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.

Douglas wrote: “Hilton drew on in his research in the British Library, including Andrade’s account of Tsaparang and the kingdom of Guge. The sacred mountain Hilton locates near Shangri-La bears close comparison to Kailas. The mystical order who inhabit the monastery echo Theosophist Tibetan fantasies. The book is not about Tibet at all; its themes are moral exhaustion after one world war and anxiety about the next, and a critique of consumerism. Yet the notion of a secret valley of spiritual refreshment and healing resonates in Tibetan culture, which prizes the esoteric, represented in the idea of beyul, sacred valleys whose secret locations are concealed in texts waiting to be read by spiritual masters. There’s a need for Eden, or Shambhala, in all of us.

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.

Shangri-La, the Place

Shangri-La (Zhongdian, 200 kilometers north of Lijiang) is a Tibetan village that once had a frontier atmosphere but recently has been developed for tourism. Located in a broad plain surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it was given permission by Beijing to be renamed Xianggelila (“Shangri-La” in Chinese) because, according to the Chinese government, it best fit the Lost Horizon description of “verdant valley crowned by a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery and encompassed by snow-capped mountains." Some thing Mount Jambeyang — an impressive peak in the area — was the inspiration for Mount Karakal.

Located at the junction of Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan,, Xamgyi'nyilha County is an ethnic Tibetan township and county set high in Yunnan's northwestern mountains and is part of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. According to Associated Press: “The county was once called Gyaitang Zong, but changed its name in 2001 to Shangri-La, hoping to draw tourists by the reference to the mythical Himalayan land described in James Hilton's 1933 novel. The county has since benefited from tourism revenue. Hundreds of other Chinese cities have also rebuilt their old streets to attract visitors.”

At the same time Zhongdian was given the Shangri-La name a greater Shangri-La area was created that embraces 50 counties in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. There are plans to spend US$10 billion developing roads, building hotels and modernizing airports. A central part of the plan is to build a 1000-mile-long modern highway between Kunming and Zhongdian.

Hollywood, Fashion and Tibetan Activism

On visits to the United States, the Dalai Lama is often escorted by Richard Gere. Both Gere and Harrison Ford have spoken before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee pleading for more support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause. Harrison Ford’s screenwriter wife, Melissa Mathison, Alec Baldwin, Carmen Electra, Barbara Streisand, Todd Oldham, Oliver Stone, Sharon Stone, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Steven Seagal, and Goldie Hawn are among the Hollywood stars that have voiced their support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause.

On the Dalai Lama’s relationship with Hollywood, Sinolgist Orville Schell told Newsweek, "Since he doesn't have embassies, and he has no political power, he has to seek other kinds. Hollywood is a kind of country of its own, and he's established a kind of embassy there."

In 1992, Dalai Lama served as guest editor for Vogue. The supermoderl and entrepreneur Elle MacPherson decided to drop her planned lawsuit against the model Heidi Klum for stealing her nickname “The body” after talking to the Dalai Lama.

Richard Gere and Tibetan Activism

The actor Richard Gere is one of the biggest supporters of the Tibetan cause and one of the outspoken critics of Chinese policy in Tibet. Before presenting an award at the Academy Awards in late 1990s, Gere said, "If you are listening, Deng Xiao Ping" and then launched into a long polemic about atrocities in Tibet. Gere was never invited back to Academy Awards after he made a long speech.

Gere once sponsored an "stateless dinner" for Tibet that coincided with the state dinner for Chinese president Jiang Zemin at the White House. In the film Red Corner he plays an American falsely accused of murder and repeatedly subjected to injustices at the hands f the Chinese judicial system. Gere's photographs of Tibetan monasteries have been shown at gallery exhibitions.

Gere often tells a story about a group of nuns who held up a placard saying "Free Tibet" at monastery. "They were immediately arrested with all the other women in their convent," he said. "They were taken a police station, and stripped naked and tortured and beaten, They were hung by ropes tied behind their backs; and several of them were shocked with electric cattle prods." Gere asked one nun, "How can you handle this?" He said she said, “It's so much bigger than me, so much bigger than these events.”"

Commented on his friendship with the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere said, "He's made me a better person in tangible ways. I get less angry."

Steven Seagal and Tibetan Activism

Steven Seagal, the action movie star of films like “Hard to Kill” and “Marked for Death”, was declared a reincarnation of an important 8th century lama — Chung-rag-Dorje, also known as Terton, or treasure seeker, who is credited with finding important Buddhist texts — by Dalai Lama's organization. He is therefore regarded as a "tukla," a sacred vessel of Tibetan Buddhism.

In February 1997, in a special ceremony at a Buddhist monastery in southern India, Seagal was officially declared Chung-rag-Dorje’s reincarnation. The whole affair began when Segal invited the respected lama Pemor Rimocer to give a lecture in the United States and the lama "immediately identified Seagal as something special."

Seagal said that he studied Buddhism and martial arts as a child and while he lived in Japan. In the United States, Seagal helps take care of the Panchen Lama’s daughter. Gere was apparently bothered that the naming of Seagal as a lama would tarnish the Dalai Lama's reputation.

Rock n' Roll and Tibetan Activism

Rock and hip hop performers Patti Smith, Bjork, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Michael Stripe of R.E.M. and Rage Against the Machine have appeared at fund raisers for Tibet. At press conferences for benefit concerts for Tibet journalists often direct their questions about Buddhism to the rock stars not the Tibetan monks who accompanied them.

According to the Washington Post: Chinese officials began taking a harder look at Western musicians after the singer Bjork shouted “Tibet! Tibet!” at a Shanghai venue in 2008. A year later, the band Oasis was banned, perhaps because lead guitarist Noel Gallagher performed at a Free Tibet concert in 1997. This prompted some Chinese observers, according to the Wall Street Journal, to begin calling the bans “getting Bjork’d. In the late 2010s artists as diverse as Bon Jovi and Selena Gomez canceled concerts in China, possibly under pressure for supporting the Dalai Lama — or, in the case of the band Maroon 5, attending his birthday party.

A Free-Tibet concert in June, 1998 in Washington D.C.”with the Beastie Boys, R.E.M., Beck, Herbie Hancock, Luscious Jackson, Myclef Jean, Live, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, U2, Alanis Morissette, Blur, the Food Fighters, Patti Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, and A Tribe Called Quest — drew 130,000 people. The Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng gave a speech and Tibetan monks chanted.

The Beastie Boys and other performers have also performed in Tokyo, Sydney, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Chicago and Taipei. A Free-Tibet concert in San Francisco — with Smashing Pumpkins, Yoko Ono, Beck, Pavement, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Bjork, Sonic Youth, and A Tribe Called Quest — drew 100,000 people and earned $3 million.

The Beastie Boys are leaders in the Free Tibet Movement. They founded the Milarepa Fund, which is devoted to the peaceful resolution of human rights problems in Tibet. Yauch became interested in the Tibetan cause and Buddhism while trekking in Nepal, when he met some Tibetans that escaped their homeland and were on their way to India. He became a Buddhist when he returned home to the United States and later married a Tibetan.

Han Chinese Who Love Tibet

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “For many, Tibet is China’s glamorous Wild West, a chic destination associated with spirituality and rugged individualism. “When I’m in Tibet,” a young Chinese rock musician told me recently, “I can be free.” That appeal has spurred interest in the religion, and a small but growing number of Han Chinese consider themselves followers of Tibetan Buddhism.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

“I know a number of Chinese adherents of Tibetan Buddhism, including two well-off friends in their late thirties, whom I’ll call Feng and Liu, Esnos wrote. “Feng has glasses and a medium build and works in private equity; Liu is an elegant stay-at home mom who speaks with a serious, philosophical bent. She told me that she found Buddhism at a moment of anxiety around her thirtieth birthday. “I was in bad shape,” she recalled with a chuckle. In college, Feng had gravitated toward psychology and religion, and later settled on Tibetan Buddhism, but with apprehension. “When I was learning from my Tibetan teachers, I used to ask them, “Are you Chinese or Tibetan? Are you going to use my money to buy weapons?---I could sense that some of these masters really hated Han Chinese.”

Over time, his nervousness subsided, and he became interested in the Dalai Lama. “He’s written about sixty books, and I’ve probably read thirty of them,” Feng told me. The Dalai Lama is one of the masters I admire the most.” We were at an outdoor café in Beijing, and another friend at the table, who happens to be a Party member, gave a theatrical gasp, and said, “He is brave for saying that.” Feng rolled his eyes and continued, “I think the Dalai Lama is not actually a Tibetan separatist. If he were, Tibet would have been out of control by now.” Even so, Feng urged me not to mistake his opinion for that of the majority. “I have a friend who is a lawyer at a private-equity firm, and he firmly believes that the Dalai Lama is a wolf in monk’s clothing.”

Han Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism

Many middle class Han Chinese have taken an interest in Tibetan Buddhism seemingly to fill a vacuum left by China’s increasingly materialist society, They are aided in their spiritual quest by lots of Internet sites and blogs. Many followers are women and many follow a particular lama.

Other rituals include releasing fish in holes bored in ice-covered lakes and walking clockwise around a bonfire, while chanting incantations against evil spirits ad throwing food and cigarettes into the fire.

Han Chinese practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism have traveled in mass to a frozen reservoir north of Beijing and released 53,000 fish in holes bored in the ice and participated in a rituals in which they walk clockwise around a bonfire, while chanting incantations against evil spirits and throwing food and cigarettes into the fire. When the rituals were first held there were maybe a dozen participants. Now they arrive by the busload. [Source: Mareen Fan, Washington Post, February 21, 2009]

For the most part the government doesn’t bother them because their numbers are still relatively low. Sometimes security forces trail lamas with large followings to see what they are up to.

Some Chinese Buddhist temples invite Tibetan monks in an effort to attract to more followers. A Tibetan monk who has been in trouble with authorities for traveling to India to study at a religious college run by the Dalai Lama said he counted many Han from Beijing and Shanghai in his classes, “They are looking for meaning in their lives and find that we as Tibetan Buddhists can give it to them.”

Some Han Chinese deeply revere the Dalai Lama. One man from Jiangsu Province who was visiting the Dalai Lama’s birthplace told Reuters, “He is the holiest of them all. My heart jumps a beat when I see his picture, he is the most important of all the living Buddhas.” A Han woman from Guangdong Province said, “They have more complex emotions than we do. I think we can learn from out Tibetan compatriots.”

Analysis of Why Han Chinese Are Fascinated by Tibet

Dechen Pemba, a British-born Tibetan rights activist, is a Chinese studies graduate from London's School of Oriental and African Studies. She suggests that increasing affluence and urbanisation are part of the reason for Tibet's growing mystique among Han Chinese. "Whilst it's difficult to generalise about an entire generation or section of society, I do agree that there is a certain type of Han Chinese person, usually of the post-Cultural Revolution generation, who tends to romanticise Tibet and Tibetan people," she says. "At the same time, because of economic growth, Han Chinese are equally searching for roots and tradition, perhaps even spirituality, and looking to other cultures for this." [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

There are two other factors that colour Chinese perceptions of Tibet that are not prevalent in the West. First, from a young age, mainlanders are taught that in 1950, Tibet was liberated from a cruel, feudal society in which the vast majority of people were bonded to a life of serfdom under the tyrannical landowning classes: the aristocracy and monasteries. Thus, modernisation in Tibet can be attributed to the generosity of the Han Chinese. This leaves many Chinese with the impression that Tibetan society is backward, despite its spiritual allure.

"Han views of Tibet are not unlike white American views of Native Americans 50 years ago," says Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, in the United States. "Tibet is seen as a kind of Wild West, inhabited by a savage and colourful people, with exotic dress, primitive food and uncivilised ways. [Tibetans are often seen as oversexed as well.] Just as Native American religion became romanticised based on works by Black Elk, [Carlos] Castaneda, et al, so Tibetan Buddhism, seen often as a form of magic, is seen as some kind of alternative to modern life. White American children would often dress up to play 'cowboys and Indians' and go see the latest Western at the movies. But none of this led to the view that Native Americans somehow should be given their country back."

Views by Chinese Tibet Lovers Views on the Dalai Lama and Politics

What do young Han Chinese Tibetophiles think about the Dalai Lama? One young Han man said, "He is the Tibet people's spiritual leader, and so he should be here in Tibet helping the Tibetan people. It's possible he is doing some political business. It's possible he wants more power and more prestige, because now he is overseas in exile." [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

Denba sees the Dalai Lama as someone who is being manipulated."As long as we don't politicise the issue, the Dalai Lama is just a symbol ... but the nature of the symbol has changed," he says, in one of his new hostels, in Dardo. "The Dalai Lama is now in a difficult position. He cannot express his own views. He's not in control of his role. He's just a tool, and controlled by all these stakeholders - NGOs, foreign governments and now the Chinese government. It is a really complicated problem." Among those Han who romanticise Tibet, the demonisation of the Dalai Lama is scarcely relevant," says Sautman. "They regard it as a political stratagem that doesn't detract from the Dalai Lama's spiritual role.

The Dalai Lama has said that the Tibetan cause is gaining support from ordinary Chinese and Chinese intellectuals. He believes that channeling Chinese love of Tibet could eventually alter Chinese policy. “If thirty years from now Tibet is six million Tibetans and ten million Chinese Buddhists, then maybe something will be O.K.,” he told Pico Iyer. The Dalai Lama is devoting more energy to accommodating Chinese fans. He has answered questions on Twitter from Chinese users, telling them that he hopes to “build up a big family that enables Chinese and Tibetans to coexist in a friendly fashion.” He welcomes Chinese visitors to his compound in Dharmasala and sends them off with a few words in Mandarin

Others disagree. A Tibetan monk in Qinghai Province told The New Yorker estimated that eighty per cent of the visitors to his monastery are now Han Chinese, but he’s not convinced that this will alter Chinese policy. “It’s like pouring water over a stone. It looks it wet but nothing seeps in.”

Many feel Chinese citizens separate their political and religious affections towards Tibet. On this issue the Karmapa Lama told The New Yorker “They have soft feelings, but I don’t know if that means they support genuine autonomy...They are interested in the culture.” "So long as there is a separate Tibetan identity they feel fear,” he told The New Yorker of the Beijing leadership. “The Chinese government must learn the experience of India: South Indians, East Indians, West Indians, North Indians---different languages, different scripts. Each is proud yet remains within one republic. No danger of separation if you realize a common interest.”

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 September 2022

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