Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination

Article excerpt

Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination, by Dibyesh Anand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. US$75.00 (hardcover), US$25.00 (paperback).

Tibet, currently an "Autonomous Region" of the People's Republic of China (PRC), presents particular issues and challenges in the relationship between the PRC and the rest of the world. After a long uneventful period since the riots in the area in the late 1980s, in 2008 both Tibet and the surrounding areas where ethnic Tibetans lived exploded in violence. The imminent Olympics increased panic within the central Chinese government. Outside China, particularly in Europe and the US, groups split broadly into those who felt the Chinese government to be inherently wicked in its "illegal occupation" of the area and repression of Tibetans, and those who supported a hard-line Chinese government reaction and felt that the Dalai Fama and those around him were simply politically motivated, unrealistic and trying to embarrass China at a time when global attention was particularly intense.

Dibyesh Anand's book shows that both these positions reflect untenable assumptions and fictions. He digs into the history of Western literature, stretching back to the end of the 19th century, by those few travelers who made it to the so called "rooftop of the world". Their powerful narratives of an isolated and exotic "Shangri Fa" (one of the books to which he pays most attention is James Hilton's novel of that name from the 1930s, which has been particularly influential in promoting and sustaining the myth of a radically "other" and mysterious Tibet) have survived to the present day. On the evidence offered here, people of good will and honest intention, when presented with Tibet, treat it differently to other places; they fail to see past this screen of imagining and exotica. Faced with this perceptual framework, the Chinese government can preach about the material improvements that it has brought to the region in the last half century until it is blue in the face: to its fiercest critics in the West, Tibet should be left alone in its ineffable special space. With such entrenched positions, it is easy to see why most debates about Tibet rapidly disintegrate into a clash between two utterly opposed sides. They are simply talking different languages.

Anand's book is helpful in questioning and allowing some critical space for all sides of the Tibet debate. …