When Gyalthang became Shangri-La: a critical reading

© 2012 Dlo08

(Background on how to read the post: [as can be seen in the comments section w/ few edits]

My post attempts to look at Hillman’s “academic” paper (who Journalists and the likes turn to as “experts”) to deconstruct how his narrative on Tibet supports China’s version of Tibet as not an “occupied territory.”

It argues for the importance of the current and past history of Gyalthang (an example of History 2s) in order to counter China’s history of Tibet (History 1), which is legitimized by academics such as Hillman who’s writing supports claims by China, and further recolonize Tibetans in other scholarly or print works on Tibet.

The idea was to try to deconstruct one piece, Hillmans, to reflect a larger trend in the academic and print media community at large, and specifically on Tibet, in how their discourse/ narratives/ writings justify China’s colonial occupation and other existing forms of imperialisms and colonialisms in the world.

I was trying to engage Hillman’s article to go deeper into HOW he comes to assume Tibet as “China’s Tibet.” In other words, I tried to analyze his writing to try to understand how he takes Tibet as part of China as a given, and reproduces that assumption through his own work, by examining things such as, assumptions on the geographic boundaries of China on Tibet as a given, reflection on Gyalthangs economy from China’s point of view (developing and modernizing the Tibetans) rather then examining these development from the local point of view.)

On July 30th, 2010, Ben Hillman–a Senior Lecturer at the Crawford School of public policy, Australian National University–wrote an article called “China’s many Tibets: Diqing as a model for ‘development with Tibetan characteristics?’” (2010). He details the economic success, through the government-funded tourist industry, of Shangri-La, a Tibetan town in Kham, as a model that the Chinese authorities can follow for “China’s many other Tibets”. However, in his eager attempt to support his argument for Shangri-La as a successful model, Hillman fails to acknowledge China’s historical role in that region, the popular resistance that occurred before and during the time period he covers, or further analysis of local involvement in the tourist industry.

In this post, I will closely scrutinize Hillman’s work with a postcolonial critique. My analysis will attempt to fill in the historical silences his analysis lacks to counter his flat representation of Shangri-La, which, I argue, further contributes in reproducing the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC)–and therefore, popular global understanding–popular narrative of itself as developing Tibet for the better. Also, the lack of description on the experiences of the local people of Shangri-La, I argue, reproduces the flawed assertion of universal mono-historical-narratives (Chakrabarty, 2008[2000]) and conceals the existence of continuing colonialisms (Stoler & McGranahan, 2007).

Woman wearing traditional Gyalthang dress in Gyalthang-Shanri La, Kham

Woman wearing traditional Gyalthang dress in Gyalthang-Shanri La, Kham

Whenever I hear or see the word Gyalthang, now called Shangri-La, I am instantly reminded of my late grandfather. He passed away over a decade ago in India. However, before his death, he had the opportunity to return to his birthplace and hometown of Gyalthang, Kham. Upon his return from Gyalthang, Kham back to India, he had asked me to become a doctor, so that I could go back to Gyalthang in the future to help my extended family and the local Tibetan community. My memory of Gyalthang is steeped in the few stories my grandfather told me when I was little about its beautiful landscape. Gyalthang, in my grandfather’s memory was geographically located in Kham, Tibet. His memory of Gyalthang as being in Tibet was imprinted as a given in how I have always placed Kham geographically.

My grandfather’s memory of his homeland, along with other forms of local memories and perspective, reflects what Chakrabarty calls “History 2(s)” (2008[2000]:66-65). Chakrabarty describes History 2(s) (reflecting multiple histories and experiences; the idea of “local/non-western/Batang/Gyalthang/Ngari-history”) as different ways of being that are “antecedents to [modern European concepts of] capital,” what Marx would call “precapital” (non-European native systems of exchange before as not “capital.”) (Ch2). He argues that History 2s counter (European) universal notions of History, called History 1, which is the base for the past “that is internal to the structure of being of capital,” (ways of being understood only in economic terms) (66) whose “epistemological claims are [also] taken to have moral implications” (imperial-colonial claims to moralizing-civilizing missions that often take form in development projects.) (Keane, 2007:10).

In other words, History 1 supports the mono hegemonic historical narrative that places the past and the present in an evolutionary model (i.e. primitive-developing-developed) with (European notions of) “capital” as its prerequisite. Chakrabarty argues, “History 2 is better thought of as a category charged with the function of constantly interrupting the totalizing thrust of History 1” (2008[2000]:66).

For the purpose of this post, I argue that the PRC’s narrative on Tibet, and Hillman’s article, fits the category of History 1. Hillman’s analysis, as echoed by the PRC, lacks local experiences of the time frame he writes about (History 2). To demonstrate this further, I deconstruct Hillman’s article and critically engage the histories of local experiences he leaves out.

In Hillman’s introduction, he begins by placing Tibetans—who live in the Kham region—outside the geographic boundary he, and China, identify as “Tibet.” He writes, “[j]ust over half of China’s ethnic Tibetans live outside [Tibet Autonomous Region] in territories that have been incorporated into the Chinese province of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan” (2010:269). Right away, Hillman geographically places “half of China’s ethnic Tibetans” outside of Tibet. He also fails to expand on what he refers to as “incorporated.” Hillman continues by highlighting Diqing (Dechen) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (DTAP) in Yunnan, where Gyalthang/Shangri-La is located, and says it was established as such in 1957, but again fails to explain why DTAP had to be “established” (272).

Diqing (Dechen) Tibet Autonomous Prefecture

Diqing (Dechen) Tibet Autonomous Prefecture

Hillman’s unwillingness to question when these territories became “incorporated” or when specific locations were “established” makes it clear that he does not question China’s geographical notion and narrative of Tibet, History 1. Foucault warns against rejecting these notions automatically, before fully interrogating them. Instead, he advises that “the tranquility with which [these notions] are accepted must be disturbed” (1994[1966]:30).

To disturb Hillman’s notion of Tibet (and the general Chinese population), and specifically, Gyalthang, I ask the following question: What was happening around this time period that territories where Tibetans lived were being “incorporated” into other Chinese provinces while places such as DTAP were being “established”? To engage this question I turn to histories that reflect local experiences of what took place, History 2(s).

The PRC did not come to power until 1949; by 1950 the People’s Liberation Army (PLR) had entered the regions identified by locals as Kham and Amdo, and were “incorporated” into greater China (McGranahan, 2010:45). It was also around this time that locals such as my grandfather, in these areas, clearly identified and aligned themselves with the government in Lhasa under the Dalai Lama’s administration (38), despite disagreements with the Tibetan administrations in Lhasa in previous decades. Prior to and after the “establishment” of DTAP in 1957, Gyalthang fought violent uprisings against the Chinese—whom they saw as intruders when they realized they were being “incorporated”—as early as 1952 (67) with continued resistance from the attacks brought on by the Cultural Revolution (Kolas, 2008:270) and into the mid-90s. In fact, Hillman points out “[a]s many other Tibetan areas, Diqing was a ‘closed’ area due to central government concerns over political and social stability in ethnic minority border regions” (272). Although he does not explain why central government had “concerns,” he states, “outsiders were not permitted to travel there without permission” (272). With the following information, one is able to interpret that there was a power struggle between local Tibetans and PLA troops that reflect the “concerns” Hillman mentions.

However, it is not physically possible to move whole provinces. How then, did Kham and Amdo become part of greater China? Here, again, I am reminded of Foucault’s question regarding the constructiveness of things (1994[1966]:30). How, for example, did Hillman (and others who takes these newly constructed geographical boundaries as a given) come to identify places in Amdo and Kham as, and existing within the context of, China’s Yunnan, Qinghai, and Sichuan?

One way geographical identities can be transformed is through the construction and employment of what Ann Stoler calls “Colonial categories” (2002). According to Stoler, “the power of categories rests in their capacity to impose the realities they ostensibly only describe…classification here is not a benign cultural act but a potential political one” (8). The only way to construct Amdo and Kham’s landscape as China, and not Tibet, was to impose new categories that situated Amdo and Kham within greater China. The Chinese colonial administration was able to achieve this through the process of mapping, naming, and renaming of Tibetan places (Tsomu, 2012). “Mapping,” according to Kolas “is one of the most important methods utilized by states in their efforts to reconstruct ‘place’ according to the spatial scale of state territory” (2002:268). The classification, controlled and maintained by the Chinese colonial administrative and military practices, of Amdo and Kham—towns, villages, and cities—as Qinghai, Yunnan, and Sichuan is how China geographically reconstructs these two Tibetan provinces as being part of greater China and “‘displacing’ indigenous [Tibetan] constructions and ‘replacing’ them with [Sinicized] state constructions” (268).

Hillman’s silence on the history of resistance, History 2(s), surrounding the time period he covered in Gyalthang, denies the local experiences and memories of resistance. His silence also masks and justifies China’s colonial past and present, History 1, in that region. This, I further argue, supports the reproduction of universalized narratives (the concept of grand narratives that homogenize histories; “world history/Asian/Western/Chinese/Indain/Tibetan-History”), History 1, and justifies present existing colonialisms (Stoler & McGranahan 2007).

While Hillman does not acknowledge China’s historical role in the construction of Kham and Amdo as greater China, he does, however, acknowledge the “violent protests [that] erupted across,” what he calls, “Tibetan China” in March 2008 (276). Yet, to support his argument, that the socio-economic-political stability of Shangri-La is due to its government-funded developmental success, Hillman states, “[t]ellingly…no major social unrest [in March 2008] was recorded in Diqing” (276). But there were, in fact, several protests that took place in Gyalthang County. It was considered “major” enough by the Chinese authorities to deploy over 10,000 Chinese military troops to the region, and was closed off and put under heavy surveillance along with other neighboring counties (TCHRD, 2008:53 & 68). This was despite Gyalthang’s “skyrocket[ing]” tourist economy in 2007 (2010:274). The uprising across Tibet, including Gyalthang, demonstrate that despite History 1’s attempt “to subjugate or destroy the multiple possibilities that belong to History 2… [t]here is nothing, however, to guarantee that the subordination of History 2s to the logic of capital would ever be complete” (65).

Hillman’s attempt to attach little importance to the significance of the 2008 uprising across Tibet and in Gyalthang County once again ignores the actual lived experiences and aspirations of individual Tibetans who risk their safety to protest against the state whom they still view as foreign and unwanted. I would further argue that the act of public protest against the state for its unwanted status by Tibetans in Gyalthang and elsewhere is a performative act of reclaiming the Tibetan space back from the Chinese authorities that occupy that space.

The postcolonial critique, that History 1 (those in power; Colonizer)—mononarratives that produce and reproduce those power dynamics—makes sense of History 2 (the subjugated, Colonized, operating under History 1’s power) through its own epistemological lens (History 1/Colonizer/ “Modern” notions of agency, capital, development, etc.) and dominates History 2 structurally (socio-economic-cultural-systemic control). Although Hillman does not engage with this critique, the local experience of resistance against Chinese attempts to control their ways of being demonstrates the struggle between History 1 and 2. During the Cultural Revolution, Gyalthang experienced, along with the rest of Tibet and China, the purging of the “old culture” and witnessed the destruction of its sacred monasteries (Kolas, 2008:268). PRC, operating on the Marxist notion of being, could not make sense of the “old culture(s)” and considered these ways of being, History 2, as irrelevant, and caused the destruction (materially and psychologically) of indigenous Tibetan notions of the sacred.

By the mid-90s, the local authorities in Gyalthang transformed it into Shangri-La (Hillman, 2010:270). This success is due to the efficient marketing of Gyalthang as the actual Shangri-La of Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” (272)(for more on the image of Shangri-La, see Lopez, 1999). It is not surprising to learn that the popular tourist locations in Shangri-La happen to be the sacred spaces that Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims had visited even before the introduction of its marketing (273). Interestingly, the meaning of sacred structures, such as monasteries, viewed as irrelevant and potentially spaces of resistance during the Cultural Revolution is transformed, at least partially, in Gyalthang’s Shangri-La.

The colonial PRC’s logic—rooted in the Eurocentric Marxist notion of “production”—partially transforms monasteries from its local Tibetan context (its meaning and functions) to places that can produce material “capital” (in the Marxist sense). In Gyalthang, sacred spaces are marketed as the main attraction for foreign tourists and it has contributed to the economic success of Gyalthang. The sacred, in this context, has found an economic function for the communist/colonial logic, relevant enough for it to be considered for investment—government aid in the reconstruction of monasteries in Gyalthang (274). The reason why I emphasize the “partial-ness” of this transformation is to highlight that “History 2, may be under the institutional domination of the logic of capital and exist in proximate relationship to it, but they also do not belong to the ‘life process’ of capital. They enable the human bearer of labor power to enact other ways of being in the world—other than, that is, being the bearer of labor power” (2008[2000]:66).

Gandan Sumtseling Monastery

Gandan Sumtseling Monastery

In “Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La,” Kolas takes a different approach to the success of Gyalthang than Hillman to explore how Tibetans at both official and local levels are taking advantage of Gyalthang’s success to take back and reclaim “Tibetan spaces” (2008). Despite the existence of political resistance by Tibetans that reject China’s colonial presence in Gyalthang, there are Tibetans who do work within the colonial system to try to transform it to their favor—Bhabha’s mimic men come to mind (1994[1984]). Kolas argues—in line with Keane’s emphasis on local forms of agency (2007)—that local Tibetans are aware of the polarizing images of themselves as the exotic and/or backwards (Said 1978. Trouillot 1991) in popular imagination of non-Tibetans. However, as Kolas’s work shows, they are able to utilize and market the exotic image of themselves, Shangri-La, to structurally benefit and empower their community.

Colonial policies at the local level affect communities differently (Steimmetz, 2007). Gyalthang serves as a good example for how “native policies” can be influenced at a local level (271) and used as an agent of empowerment. While I acknowledge the local capacity by Tibetans to assert agency within the colonial system to empower at a local level—debunking the assumption that the colonized are not active agents in their subjectivity—Gyalthang, and Tibet at large, is nonetheless colonized. I argue that efforts in Gyalthang that operate within the colonial policies should not be viewed as collaborating with the colonial authorities, but rather, as Bhabha notes, mimics (the refined and assimilated) who understand and use the limited roles given to them to empower and–or become a threat to the colonial authorities (the current Lhakar movement being a prime example).

In conclusion, my postcolonial critique of Hillman’s analysis on Gyalthang 1) emphasizes that it has not historically identified itself  as “China’s Tibet,” and 2) is reclaiming its indigenous space as Tibetan through its successful tourist economy. In addition, I hope my argument, with Gyalthang serving as my casestudy, highlights the importance of histories, History 2, that are often silenced by sweeping homogenizing generalizations by History 1, which contribute to constructed truths that oftentimes champion imperial and colonial interests. Gyalthang, in my grandfather’s memory, looks different from the present Shangri-La; however, Hillman’s partial portrayal of this present version of Gyalthang does not acknowledge the local experience of the tourist economy which, when examined at a closer range, diverges from the official Chinese narrative on Shangri-La and Tibet at large.


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