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.”

Tibet Becomes Fashionable Among Chinese

Tibet is a popular tourist destination for Chinese. Chinese tourists dress up in Tibetan costumes and have their picture taken in front of Tibet’s most sacred sights. For some Chinese, Tibetan culture has become kind of hip. They read Tibetan Buddhist texts; make offerings at Tibetan temples in Lhasa; and seek blessings and the touch of the Dalai Lama. Some say this is so because the lives of Chinese are spiritually empty. Other say it is because it is fashionable in Hollywood. Yet others say it because Tibetan Buddhism is associated with Tantric sex.

Increasingly Tibet is attracting Chinese hippies and dropouts and Lhasa has sort of become China’s answer to Goa. Some Chinese have even adopted Tibetan names. One Chinese hippie told the Washington Post, “In Beijing, in Shanghai, it’s all about materialism...But here, its different. There’s a different culture and different values and I think we can learn from it.” One tourist slogan aimed at Chinese tourist reads: “Take a Trip to the Holy Land.”

Han Chinese that are interested in Tibetan Buddhism are also taking an interest in Tibet. One elderly Han Chinese woman told the Washington Post, “Tibet is the only pure land left in the world, and I worry about its culture. For example if we over-develop Qinghai Lake tourism, will garbage and plastic pollute the environment? Will plain people be seduced by money? If I didn’t study Tibetan Buddhism, I would know little about Tibet.”

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.”

Tourism in Tibet and Tibetan Areas in China

In 2004, 1.22 million tourists visited Lhasa, 92 percent of them were Chinese, many of whom came from big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. In 2002, 720,000 Chinese tourists visited Tibet, a 30 percent increase from 2001, and 140,00 foreign tourist visited, a 2.4 percent increase. Only 47,000 came in 1987.

In January 2011, the Beijing government said that it wants to double Chinese tourIsm to 15 million by 2015. During the same period Beijing also hopes to create 300,000 new tourism jobs and double the Income from tourism to around $2.5 million. Officials have promised to increase tourism fourfold between 2010 and 2020, to 20 million visitors a year. China began construction of its fifth airport in Tibet---in Tibet’s second largest city, Shigatse---in April 2009 in an effort to boost tourism there.

In Tibetan areas of Yunnan, rather than suppress Tibetan culture the Han Chinese try to exploit it to make money, calling the area Shangri-la and building hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants and luring tourists. On a proportional basis more jobs are taken by Tibetans here than in Lhasa and tensions between the Tibetans and Chinese seem mild.

In Yunnan Tibetans have a direct hand in the tourism industry, running trekking companies and restaurants. An NGO runs a programs for rural children teaching them English and basic skills so they can get jobs. Many of the Chinese are poets and hippy types who want to escape the rat race and lvie in a place fresh air and beautiful scenery and a more likley to be open to Tibetan culture.

Reporting from Jiaju, China Mitch Moxely wrote in the Asian Times,”In 2005, the National Geographic China magazine named this ethnic Tibetan village in western Sichuan province, sprawled over a valley amid snow-capped mountains, China's most beautiful. Depending on how you look at it, that distinction was either a blessing or a curse. During the national day holiday in October, middle-class Chinese tourists from Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, and beyond, literally crawl over this "Model Tibetan Village", as a regional brochure puts it. For an entrance fee of 30 yuan (US$4.48), tourists wander through locals' multi-storey stone homes and pose for pictures on rooftops decorated with drying corn. [Source: Mitch Moxley, Asia Times, October 29, 2010]

On almost every rooftop, alongside faded Tibetan prayer flags, flies the red and yellow flag of the People's Republic of China. "It's beautiful," a young woman from Chengdu, visiting with five friends, says of the village. "It's not that famous yet, like Shangri-la or Lijiang, but it's getting more popular." Shangri-la and Lijiang are among the most popular tourist destinations in China's southwest.

The village of Jiaju has no doubt benefited as a result of tourism - there are few signs of poverty and many villagers own new cars and sports utility vehicles. But tourism has also impacted the surrounding environment and changed the fabric of the village. Indeed, Jiaju embodies many of the issues China's minority regions face as the country's internal tourism industry grows.

In 2006, Sichuan native Yang Xiaohui opened his first guesthouse - called Denba, after the adopted Tibetan name Yang now goes by - and aimed it at the Chinese backpacker and long-distance cyclist. In fewer than five years, his business has grown from that first hostel, in Dardo (Kangding) in Kandze, to 13 budget guesthouses: two in Tibet, one in Yunnan and 10 in Sichuan. "My guests see Tibet as a sacred place," says 34-year-old Denba. "They admire the religion." [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

Chinese Travelers in Tibet

Mitch Moxely wrote in the Asian Times, “As Chinese grow wealthier and become better traveled, many are seeking more authentic experiences than tour groups can offer. These tourists, armed with Gore-Tex outerwear and telephoto camera lenses, are beginning to visit China's remote regions - many populated by minority groups - including Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet. Li Fei, a manager at state-controlled China Shan-Shui Travel Agency, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Land and Resources, says interest in trips to the Tibetan Autonomous Region had skyrocketed in recent years. He says the agency receives up to 70 and 80 applications to visit Tibet every day, and will accommodate about 2,000 tourists a year. "They love Tibet," Li says. "The feedback we get is very positive. They think the lakes and sky are really clean." [Source: Mitch Moxley, Asia Times, October 29, 2010]

Dinah Gardner wrote in the South China Morning Post, “When her best friend died from leukaemia last year, Ran Jing made a promise to herself; she would travel to Tibet as soon as she graduated from high school. Her classmate had been a Buddhist, and it had been her dream to see Lhasa. A few months after her 18th birthday, Ran set off alone from her home in Henan province, taking buses and sharing cars, on a pilgrimage to the Tibetan capital in memory of her friend. "I'm doing this for her," she says, breaking her inbound trip in a youth hostel in Xinduqiao, a small town in Kandze (Ganzi in Chinese), an autonomous Tibetan prefecture in western Sichuan. [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

Ran was just one of tens of thousands of young Chinese tourists who visited Tibet in the summer of 2011. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but the Tibet Tourism Bureau reports that 2.25 million tourists visited the Tibet Autonomous Region in the first half of the year, up almost 25 per cent year on year. The entire population of the region is just under three million. The bulk of these tourists were domestic; foreigners require a special permit to enter Tibet and were banned in March, June and July.

National Highway 318, which links Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, with Lhasa, saw flocks of Han Chinese pedalling their way to Tibet, sometimes their bicycles appearing to outnumber vehicles on the road. These spiralling tourist statistics are also reflected in the success of local hostels.

The most obvious draw for the increasing number of young Chinese visitors is, of course, the region's natural beauty. Alpine grasslands, fresh air, snow-capped mountains and spiritual mystique hold a special attraction for the new urban rich who have grown up in crowded, polluted cities.

"Lhasa is one of the top tourism destinations for Chinese travellers," says Zhou Qinwen, 35, from Shanghai, who spent two months travelling around Tibet this summer. "It has blue skies, white clouds, mysterious Tibetans and architecture."I was tempted to go after looking at other travellers' postings and photos on the internet. Those photos were beautiful. I was spellbound. When I got there, it was beyond my expectations." Others say they are intrigued by the spirituality, honesty and generosity of the people.

During the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010), Tibet generated an income of 22.6 billion yuan ($3.5 billion) by attracting 21 million visitors, growing 29.8 percent a year on average. In 2010, tourism revenue made up 14.1 percent of Tibet's GDP. [Source: Dachong and Peng Yining, China Daily, September 12, 2011]

Attraction of Tibet to Chinese Travelers

Xiong (he requests that only his first name be used), from Wuhan, in Hubei province, is 22 years old. He cycled from Chengdu to Lhasa alone, inspired by a story a friend had told him. "My friend was on a bus in Tibet when they stopped in a village," he explains. "A little girl came on board and gave the driver 1,000 yuan [HK$1,200], and asked him to pass it to her brother in the next village. That driver didn't know the girl or her brother, but he drove to the next village, found the right guy and gave him the money. That couldn't possibly happen in my city. I cherish this kind of trust.

"Tibetans have Buddha in their hearts, but we Han people don't have any religion, and this is frightening. I'm beginning to believe in Buddhism myself now."

It's not just in tourist figures that a growing fascination for Tibet and its culture can be seen. He Ma's The Tibet Code, a series of thrillers, is a long-standing favourite read; Kora (Zhuan Shan), a Chinese film about a young man cycling to Lhasa in memory of his dead brother, opened in mainland cinemas on November 3; and a growing number of Han are converting to Tibetan Buddhism. Thousands of Han students study at the sprawling Buddhist Institute in Serthar (Seda), in the north of Kandze.

Wang Huigui, who works for an international company in Beijing, is an example of this new breed of traveler. Wang, who calls himself a "lao lu" - seasoned traveler - travels solo and has been to Sichuan's Tibetan region five times, and Tibet proper four times. "I come every year to these areas. I like taking pictures," Wang says atop an ancient Tibetan tower in the town of Zhong Lu, a less-traveled village about 20 minutes drive from Jiaju. "I'm very interested in China's minorities - their history, their culture, their language." [Source: Mitch Moxley, Asia Times, October 29, 2010]

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."

Han Chinese Tibet Lovers Views on the Dalai Lama

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.

Tibetan Drifters

Increasingly Tibet is attracting Chinese hippies and dropouts and Lhasa has sort of become China’s answer to Goa. Some Chinese have even adopted Tibetan names. One Chinese hippie told the Washington Post, “In Beijing, in Shanghai, it’s all about materialism...But here, its different. There’s a different culture and different values and I think we can learn from it.” One tourist slogan aimed at Chinese tourist reads: “Take a Trip to the Holy Land.”

The fascination with Tibet has led to the coining of a new term, zang piao ("Tibet drifter"), which describes someone who leaves urban life to temporarily hang out in Tibet in search of their own Shangri-la. Zang piao can be compared to those young Westerners who flock to India in search of spiritual meaning. [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

However, for Beijing-based Tibetan writer-poet and activist Tsering Woeser, Han admirers of Tibet - particularly the zang piao - lack even a basic understanding of her culture. In a piece she wrote in 2011 for Radio Free Asia, translated by London-based Tibet blog High Peaks Pure Earth, she says: "As for the currently quite popular Tibet drifters' and those middle-class inland people who call Tibet aspiritual home' ... those people are in fact quite unfamiliar with the suffering Tibetans endure; perhaps they are even totally oblivious to suffering.

"I have encountered those 'Tibet drifters' sitting at the main entrance of Jokhang Temple [Lhasa's main temple] laughing, giggling and snuggling up to each other. Cigarettes dangle from their lips; they drink beer and sunbathe while watching Tibetans prostrating ... they also go and prostrate a few times as if it was just some kind of game, just some type of popular amusement."

Channeling Chinese Love of Tibet Into a Force for More Freedom in Tibet

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.”

Modern Mandarin-Speaking Tibetans

Describing his Tibetan taxi driver in Xining near the Dalai Lama’s birthplace in Qinghai Province, Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Jigme wore green cargo shorts and a black T-shirt with a mug of Guinness silk-screened on the front. He was an enthusiastic travel companion. His father was a traditional Tibetan opera musician who had received two years of schooling before going to work. When his father was growing up, he would walk seven days from his home town to Xining, the provincial capital. Jigme now makes the same trip three or four times a day in his Volkswagen Santana. A Hollywood buff, he was eager to talk about his favorites: “King Kong,” “Lord of the Rings,” Mr. Bean. Most of all, he said, “I like American cowboys. The way they ride around on horses, with hats, it reminds me a lot of Tibetans.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

“Jigme spoke good Mandarin. The central government has worked hard to promote the use of standard Mandarin in ethnic regions like this, and a banner beside the train station in Xining reminded people to ‘standardize the Language and Script.” Jigme was married to an accountant, and they had a three-year-old daughter. I asked if they planned to enroll her in a school that taught in Chinese or in Tibetan. “My daughter will go to a Chinese school,” Jigme said. “That’s the best idea if she wants to get a job anywhere outside the Tibetan parts of the world.”

When Osnos asked him how the Han Chinese and the Tibetans were getting along, he said, “In some ways, the Communist Party has been good to us. It has fed us and made sure we have a roof over our heads. And, where it does things right, we should acknowledge that.” After a pause, he added, “But Tibetans want their own country. That’s a fact. I graduated from a Chinese school. I can’t read Tibetan.” But even though he didn’t know the town of Takster was the birthplace of the Dalai Lama when he visited the Dalai Lama’s house he asked if he could pray inside the threshold, where he “fell to his knees and press his forehead to the cobblestones.”

Image Sources:

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 March 2012

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