The Landscape of Lhasa, Tibet

By Hussey, Antonia | Focus, Spring 1992 | Go to article overview

The Landscape of Lhasa, Tibet


Hussey, Antonia, Focus


Tibet is breathtaking -- literally and figuratively. At an altitude of over 12,000 feet, the air is rarified, fine and clear. At 15,000 feet on the Chang Thang plain, travelers have reported being able to see a nomad ten miles away. The clarity of the light in Tibet is startling, especially when contrasted with the murky haze produced by burning coal and other pollutants in the majority of China's provinces. Tibet is indeed a special place, at the top of the world, a landscape of light and shadow dancing over towering mountains, gravel plains and lush green valleys.

For centuries Tibet was a mysterious place isolated from its neighbors by soaring mountains: the Karakoram and the Kailas to the west; the Kunlun to the north; the Tanglha to the northeast; and, of course, to the south the mighty Himalayas. The great rivers of Asia, Huang Ho, Chiang Jiang, Salween, Mekong, Indus, and the Brahmaputra, spring from the high mountains and plateaus of this unique part of the world. Until 1950, Tibet was a place where time had stood still; it was a tenth-century land. The three sects of Buddhism, Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajarayana, diffused from India, took root in Tibet, and gradually the spiritual and physical landscape of Tibetan Buddhism was created, embellished, and solidified. Tibet was inhabited by nomads, traders, serfs, nobles, monks, gods, demons, and spirits. This was a country with a forbidden city - Lhasa - set in a magnificent watery vale, a city on top of the world that by the 15th century had become the spiritual heart and soul and the geographic center of the nation.

Today Tibet is not mysterious; it has been wrenched from the tenth century to the twentieth in less than thirty years and can be reached daily by air from Chengdu. Lhasa is no longer the mysterious forbidden city; today, all routes to and in Tibet lead to Lhasa. The distinctive landscape of this ancient theocratic state with its Buddhist traditions and institutions has been shattered and replaced with the utilitarian socialist landscape of China and renamed Xizang. Yet, the Tibetan culture endures, and a few remnants of former splendor remain in the vale of Lhasa.

Background: How Po la became Xizang

The Tibetan name for their country is Po la and their relationship with China has been sometimes turbulent, sometimes peaceful, but long; relations extend back to the sixth century. The previous era of Chinese influence in Tibet ended with the 1911 uprising against the Chinese in Lhasa. Although the Chinese Republic continued to claim all of the territories established by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), they were too weak to enforce their claims, and from 1912 until 1950 Tibet enjoyed full independence.

In 1950 the new Communist government of China decided to liberate, according to its view, what were the oppressed and exploited Tibetans and reunite them with the "great motherland". From Sichuan, the People's Liberation Army invaded eastern Tibet. With their superior strength, they easily took control of Chamdo and subsequently, with only the rugged terrain as their primary obstacle, marched toward Lhasa. China immediately began dismantling Tibet in order to institute reforms and economic improvement consistent with processes of change underway in China.

Between 1951 and 1959 the first phase of a socialist transformation of Tibet was begun, primarily in the vale of Lhasa. Tibet's feudal society was dismantled; lands owned by the nobility and monasteries were taken and religious institutions closed. In addition, China began a program of indoctrination which aimed at replacing Buddhist spiritual values and social customs with Mao and marxism. The results of the first phase of the socialist transformation were disastrous, and the Tibetans lost faith in the good will of China. Among Tibetans, general discontent and resistance to indoctrination grew, and by 1956 guerrilla activities against the Chinese had begun. …

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