The Liberation of Tibet On the streets of Lhasa's New Town, noisy traffic, glassy shops and neon signs and all the best of brands: Bugatti, KFC. And smiling, helpful people wanting to speak English. Muffled shouts of soldiers marching in the barracks left and right and left and right. And many more of welcoming Han than grave Tibetans until New Town fades to narrow lanes and stalls and coloured flags that wave above the Jokhang Temple where the Monks chant loud above the megaphones of earnest tourist guides who try to summarise the Pratimoksha. Regal on its clouded heights the white Potola Palace, splendid as the days Younghusband pillaged -- as when revolutionary zealots vandalized its sacred treasures. Pilgrims in the street below prostrate themselves, fulfil the Kora, hand-boards rasping on the pavements. Minimarkets all agree that visitors must have Cornflakes, the bookshops offer histories of subjugations past. A sculpture in the central square proclaims the socioeconomic gains since first the People's Army wrought the Liberation of Tibet.
My thanks to Eamon Mag Uidhir, editor of the Dublin narrowsheet FLARE, for including this poem in the no. 15 issue. For full details of how to obtain the magazine, and to see videos of me and other contributors reading their work, please go to the Sunflower Sessions facebook site at http://www.facebook.com/TheSunflowerSessions and remember there are no monthly gatherings at the Lord Edward pub in Dublin at the moment due to the pandemic restrictions. We all hope it will resume its ‘last-Wednesday-of-the Month’ open-mic readings as soon as possible. Sorely missed.
I was all the more pleased that the poem was published because seeing it in print reassured me that the balance that I worked for between appreciation and criticism was successful. Appreciation of a wonderful place side-by-side with a dubious view of what the Chinese are doing there. There are a very few of my ‘political’ pieces about which I can say I got things right. It is so very easy to veer into the denunciatory, thereby forcing the poem to become overly polemical, which in turn tends to obscure its other content. viz., the magic of the experience. There definitely ARE aspects of Chinese government policy towards its ethnic minorities which deserve denunciation, such as its detention of people in high security camps (‘re-education camps’). But there is a time and a place for denunciation and anyway it is a task better suited to prose. This is not to argue that it is a ‘great poem’, just to say that it’s good to be contented that it approaches near to what still I feel about a wonder-full holiday I spent in an extraordinary place: Lhasa, in Tibet, and even with all my reservations about what is happening there. Writing is like that. You have to be content to get as near as possible to what you want to say and not be side-tracked into what you might think you ought to say.
My visit to Tibet (accompanied by wife Kathy) lasted 10 days, In our capacity as ‘Western tourists’, we stayed at a western-style hotel. Shortly after I arrived I was taken ill for a day or two because of the high altitude (Tibet is the highest region on Earth with an elevation of 16,000 ft) but a member of the hotel staff furnished an address in town where I could get oxygen treatment. Thank God (once again) for the kindness of strangers.
China has had an enormous influence of Tobet’s history and culture, and the not just in recent times. The country’s gigantic neighbour has long claimed it as part of its territory (as it does also with regard to Taiwan) . China regards western and central Tibet as an ‘Autonomous Region’ of the Chinese State, while the eastern parts are mostly ‘ethnic autonomous prefectures’ within other Chinese provinces. I am not sure what exactly China means by these these descriptions. Most probably whatever China wants them to mean. My short visit gave me the impression that The People’s Republic is very much in control of everything in Tibet and the history books (published by the People’s Republic of China) on sale in Lhasa’s bookshops underline all the good things that have been done for Tibet since the takeover in 1951
Naturally, more than a pinch of salt is necessary when dealing with communist literature extolling the virtues of its actions (or capitalist literature for that matter) but there’s no doubt that the ordinary peasant-farmers had a hard time of it in past ages. Any changes in the previous feudal life of Tibet’s ordinary people in times past cannot but be welcomed. There is also the Chinese State’s desire to repair the damage done by the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ under Chairman Mao (1966-1976), which might be better described as’ The Cultural Vandalism’. Repairs were still ongoing at the Potola Palace in Lhasa when I visited, such was the enormous damage done to its treasures by the revolutionary zealots of The Great Leader.
A cynical view would be that the Chinese are attending to Lhasa so assiduously because they intend to turn it into a valuable tourist destination, a project that will become more a reality when the high-speed train link from Beijing to Lhasa is completed. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on this tourist-industry strategy since the idea of making money by getting people to come to an area of interest is not neglected by our own government. Think of the bus-loads arriving in the car-park for the Cliffs of Moher ‘experience’. My poem tries to convey how the ‘modern’ Lhasa has been appended onto the old in such a way as to provide visitors with all the necessary mod-cons in one area while at the same time allowing them to immerse themselves in ancient culture in the ‘old’ town.
So it is that I am, as our American cousins say, ‘conflicted’. I have read many articles written about how ancient cultures are diluted — even destroyed — by the ravages of tourism. These articles are written by, well, tourists like myself, often masquerading under other titles (explorers, travellers, news correspondents, writers) but all contributing to the levelling effect of globalisation. Perhaps will come the day (soon?) that there will be little to distinguish any one culture from another on our entire planet. The process that television started, and that the internet and mobile phone continus, is gathering pace. And the getting placed on UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage’ list has already proved the ruin of some places, formerly unique but not unique any more. ‘Invasive tourism’ is a serious problem for the local people. Anytime I see an advert for ‘a beautiful, unspoiled, out-of -the-way’ venue, I know that it won’t be unspoiled and out-of-the-way for very much longer.
But back to Lhasa. The sights, sounds and colours of the city will never leave my memory. The pilgrims prostrating themselves before the temples; the beautiful decorations of those temples; the prayer flags fluttering in the surrounding countryside; the rows and rows of monks in the Jokhang Temple sitting in the lotus position … And of course the modern hotel I stayed in and the new shops where I could buy my Cornflakes. OK, OK, yes, I know. But I don’t pretend I was anything other than just another tourist.
The Pratimoksha mentioned in the poem is a list of rules governing the behaviour of Buddhist monastics. The Younghusband mentioned is the Sir Francis Younghusband who commanded a British expeditionary force which invaded Tibet in 1903-4 equipped with rifles and machine-guns and made short work of the disorganised resisting forces wielding hoes, swords and flintlocks; much like the Italians did with the Ethiopians in their invasion of 1935. Younghusband’s was only one in a long series of invasions and takeovers. Discontent and unrest continues in Tibet to this day, though much subdued under Chinese control. Every day of my visit in Lhasa I could clearly hear the soldiers drilling (very) loudly in the barracks. So could everybody else. It was very reassuring, if you were Chinese.
Below are some more photos and after that a video of me reading the poem. Don’t mind my being pictured upside down at the beginning: it’s my usual mental state. Just click and everything will be fine (would that real life were so easy to adjust!).
As they say these days … enjoy!