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August 5, 2011

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The spread of Tibetan culture

AS the country celebrates the 60th anniversary of Tibet's liberation, experts look at how globalization is changing the mountainous region and the way its people think. Zhou Zhou and Wang Aihua report.

With a strip of calico tightly fastened over his head and a Tibetan broadsword at his waist, Alusong enjoys the prestige of being the last tribal chieftain on the world's highest plateau.

In a Himalayan village bordering India, the 67-year-old man talked with bitter-sweetness about the rapidly changing life of his tribe over the past six decades.

In the Lhasa, the region's capital, about 900 kilometers north of Alusong's Deng tribal village, Vice President Xi Jinping led a gigantic celebration of Tibet's peaceful liberation 60 years ago.

"For the past six decades, the ancient and magical land of Tibet has experienced earthshaking changes," Xi said on Tuesday as he addressed thousands of Tibetans in front of Lhasa's iconic Potala Palace.

Two years after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the central government signed an agreement for the peaceful liberation of Tibet.

Over the past three decades, as China has risen to become the world's second-largest economy with huge economic vitality and global clout, Tibet has also become more connected to the rest of the world. As a result, Tibet's unique culture is being challenged by modernity.

Deng's tribe is an example. Some 1,400 members of the tribe live in Tibet while another 20,000 reside in India.

The memory of rumbling bellies due to food shortages is long gone, but Alusong sometimes grumbles about the fading of tribal culture, despite a general improvement in rural livelihood.

"Fewer people speak our Deng language," says Alusong, who paradoxically wants his own son to have a good command of both Mandarin Chinese and English.

"I don't expect him to inherit my tribal position, I'd rather he attend graduate school before finding a job as a government employee," the chieftain says.

More than 90 percent of the autonomous region's nearly 3 million people are Tibetans. They speak Tibetan and strictly adhere to their Tibetan Buddhist faith. Nevertheless, most Tibetans understand that proficiency in Mandarin Chinese and English will help secure decent jobs for the next generation.

Sotri, a 27-year-old Tibetan wearing a black DKNY T-shirt and white Nike sneakers, didn't pay much attention to the festivities in town. Sitting in a downtown Lhasa cafe, he shared video clips with his friends on a MacBook, which he had taken out of an oversized backpack festooned with Louis Vuitton logos.

In his self-produced video, Sotri and his buddies danced hip-hop in the streets, doing somersaults, handstand-turns and all sorts of glitzy stunts.

Young fashion lovers in Tibet create a contrast with Buddhist worshippers in traditional costumes. Wearing loose-fitting robes, some pious Tibetans may prostrate themselves for hundreds of kilometers as part of a pilgrimage to Jokhang Temple. The journey may take months or even years.

Even as Sotri and his Tibetan peers don't bat an eyelash over Range Rovers and Western-style coffee shops in their homeland, Tibetan cuisine and Tibetan Buddhist meditation courses are spreading from Atlanta to Zurich.

Late this month daily flights will also begin operating between Lhasa and Katmandu, capital of Nepal. More routes linking Lhasa to the rest of the world are expected in the near future.

The boldest drive to connect Tibet to the rest of the world, however, was the construction of the highland transcontinental railway, which was finished in 2006. It cost US$5.1 billion and traverses vast permafrost on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

In the first half of 2011, 1.22 million tourists arrived in Lhasa by train, a 42.1 percent year-on-year increase. The 3,753-kilometer trip from Beijing to Lhasa takes only 44 hours, while a bus trip takes almost a week.

Although some people have ecological and environmental concerns about the railway, few doubt easier transportation will bring economic and social benefit to Tibet.

It was not the same picture when the central government decided to build mountain roads to Lhasa from adjacent provinces back in the 1950s.

Alusong says his parents worried that new roads might attract more thieves to the holy land.

Even with railroads and highways, however, some of the back country in Tibet is still unwelcoming.

Xie Xuanwang, a businessman from the prosperous coastal province of Zhejiang, tried to find fortune in some remote Tibetan townships. "After braving my way to my destination," Xie says, "I simply wanted to cry over the area's primitiveness."

He found nowhere to stay at night, no flush toilets and no water for washing.

By Tibetan standards, Lhasa is a really big city, with 500,000 residents.

A few kilometers away from the Potala Palace, tourists were checking into the St Regis Resort Lhasa, the first high-end hotel in Tibet, which opened to the public on May 30. The 162-room luxury hotel was designed by Jean-Michel Gathy, the designer of the One & Only Reethi-Rah Resort in the Maldives.

Gathy tried to blend local culture into his work. One wall in the courtyard is painted in lama red. But to avoid a direct religious connection, the red wall was covered with surreal grid lines.

Seeking a balance between heritage and modernity is a tough issue not only for Gathy, but also for modern Tibetans.

Just as American scholar Samuel Huntington wrote in his book, "The Clash of Civilizations," "the processes of economic modernization and social changes throughout the world are separating people from longstanding local identities."

Ngawang Dondrop is the first trained doctor in Western medicine in Shannan Prefecture, where the originator of Tibetan characters, Thonmi Sambhota, was born.

"While Tibetan medicine has begun to gain popularity in other parts of China and the world, its application in Tibet keeps decreasing," says Ngawang.

Jin Wei, author of the book "Tibet: Assistance and Development" and a scholar who teaches at the Party School of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, mentions one missed target against the backdrop of rapid economic growth.

"The idea of gross national happiness pursued in Bhutan deserves our close attention, especially for Buddhist Tibet," Jin says.

"Good protection of cultural diversity is also an indicator of good governance," Jin says.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka among its World Heritage Sites, while epic Gesar singing and Tibetan Opera have been placed on the list of intangible cultural heritage.

Kunsang Yangzom loves hip-hop but chose to study Tibetan opera at Tibet University, together with 17 classmates.

Founded in the 14th century, Tibetan Opera was on the brink of being lost as audiences lost interest.

It was usually staged during the annual Shoton Festival.

Kunsang says she is trying to fuse Tibetan musical elements to hip-hop tunes and make fusion shows.

Tibet is located at the crossroads of diverse civilizations, including those from ancient India and Persia. Old Tibet used to be a melting pot in the heart of Eurasia.

Lhasa has a mosque, which was built in the 10th century when Islam swept Eurasia. It is near Barkhor Street, opposite Jokhang Temple.

Yala, imam of the mosque, says, "All Muslims visiting Lhasa come to the mosque. The recitation of the Koran is unique in Lhasa as it is filled with Buddhist chanting."

Tibetan culture is also going global. ZAMAA, a local livestock guild in Gannan exports 5,000 yak soft-nap scarves every year to France, at prices comparable to products by Hermes or Louis Vuitton.

In the view of Alai, a Tibetan novelist, globalization might help the spread of Tibetan culture.

"I have readers well beyond China," Alai says. "I'm working to have more."

The 51-year-old novelist won China's top literary award in 2000 with his 1998 work, "The Dust Settles." It chronicles the waning days of the once-powerful Tibetan chieftains and the rough, extraordinary life of serfs in the 1940s.

The English edition of his novel was later published by Boston-based Mariner Books in 2003 under the title "Red Poppies," making Alai a member of an elite group of Chinese authors whose works have been translated and sold abroad.

"Globalization is an irresistible trend that no area can block, neither the area itself nor any external forces," Alai says. "It's unfair to exclude Tibet from this process."

Alusong treasures the Deng ethnic identity, but feels uncomfortable when members of his ancient clan are observed like rare human specimens.

"We may change our silver cups to mugs," the nostalgic chieftain says. "But any cup would still contain the same buttered tea."


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