November 17, 2005

Shangri-La and Dogpatch

The discussion in the comments to the Turtledove on Rails post below led me to thinking, via a roundabout chain of thought, of the issue of geostrategic viewpoints. One of our Anglosphere legacies is that merely because the bulk of the material written on a particular country or area in English comes from a particular source colors our thinking about it far into the future. The combination of Britain's interests in Hong Kong and the historical American missionary involvement in China have led us to see East Asia largely from the Chinese perspective. Thus, we don't have any problem with the idea that Taiwan is fundamentally part of China -- historically, our problem was whether Taiwan belonged to Mao's China or China belonged to Chiang's Republic. We have had a hard time seeing East Asia from the Japanese perspective, in which Taiwan seemed to be a natural southward extension from Kyushu and Okinawa.

However, we view Tibet fundamentally from Indian eyes, a legacy of the fact that our first knowledge of it comes from British Imperial sources, going back to Younghusband's expedition and before. The British saw it as the Indians had, as a mysterious and saintly land of mystics, whose writing and religion were derived from Indian sources, hidden behind the Himalayas, and reachable only through an extraordinarily arduous journey through the world's most impressive mountains.

The Chinese, however, saw it as the even poorer land behind the poorest provinces of Han China proper, reachable through a difficult but not extraordinary journey in which things just got a little poorer, a little dirtier, and a little less properly Chinese day by day. They saw Tibet basically as inhabited by poorer and more ignorant cousins, with bizarre and rather unsavory religious practices, sort of the way we view backcountry snake-handling fundamentalists.

In short, for Indians, and by extension the Anglosphere, Tibet was Shangri-La; to the Chinese, it was Dogpatch. The Chinese tend to view the Western fascination with Tibetan religion and the Daili Lama the way we would view some backwoods snake-handling preacher who inexplicably was heralded as a deeply wise and holy man in some other part of the world. It's so inexplicable to them that the whole business seems like some transparently ridiculous anti-Chinese plot dreamed up by the encircling imperialists.

Bismark famously said that the principal fact of the Twentieth Century was the fact that the USA spoke English. Hitler should have paid more attention to him. So the principal fact of the Twenty-first Century may be the fact that India (or at least an important part of it) speaks English. As in the case of the way we see Tibet, this fact may have a million small and subtle ramifications, any of which may end up being critically important one of these decades.

Posted by James C. Bennett at November 17, 2005 06:44 PM

Worth noting too that the Dalai Lama was educated in English, which made it possible for him to find refuge in India, and prominence in an English-speaking world.

Posted by: James McCormick at November 17, 2005 10:03 PM

If India can get solidly on the path to economic development, and if India can get a good political and military alliance with the USA going, then the world will be a much more secure and happy place. As you note, the Anglophone commonality which Bismarck saw made an eventual Anglo-American alliance seem inevitable. An Indo-Anglospheric alliance is somewhat less "inevitable", but many trends and tendencies push toward it, and we do see the world in very similar ways -- at least as compared to China. We are seeing the foundations being laid for Indian takeoff and Indian integration into the Anglosphere defense network. Fingers crossed that these processes continue.

Posted by: Lex at November 17, 2005 11:06 PM

I am not sure the Chinese saw Tibet as Dogpatch. They just saw it as part of the Middle Kingdom. Part of China that had no right to be autonomous.

I am quoting badly remembered reading here - but I believe the Tibetans are ethnically different from the Chinese. I have been to Western Tibet, and they don't look Chinese. The first thing the Chinese did was send in tens of thousands of Chinese "settlers" to try to dilute the Tibetan ethnicity.

Again, they resented the power of the Dalai Lama, which is why they created their own Dalai Lama in Beijing, in the hopes of him somehow gathering a following in Tibet. What a laugh! But just because the Chinese are usually very clever doesn't mean they aren't occasionally very stupid and thick-headed.

The invasion was territorial in my opinion. And they wanted to defuse the power of the Dalai Lama, as the Chinese have always been intolerant of rivals (not that he was one). What they didn't count on was that India would not only allow the Dalai Lama to establish a settlement in Dharamsala to preserve his tradition, but the world would take to him as well - keeping his cause afloat for decades longer than the Chinese had counted on. In fact, every time they read of the Dalai Lama meeting Prince Charles or a powerful American or French or German political figure, they must cringe.

Posted by: Verity at November 19, 2005 09:29 AM

Verity, the Chinese have always been big on language, and Tibetan and Chinese are both part of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic group. It seems more distant from Chinese to us because it's written in an alphabet ultimately derived from Indian sources, rather than in Chinese characters.

The Chinese have traditionally seen the world from the perspective that China is the Middle Kingdom; i.e., in the center of everything, and the rest of the world is seen as concentric circles of tributary states and barbarians who are decreasingly illuminated by Chinese civilization. Tibet was seen as in the second circle out, so it was still a sort of distant, poorer relation.

The focus of my post was that their feel of Tibet is greatly different than ours, and that ours is ultimately derived from the Indian perception of the matter. Although the Crown is long gone from New Delhi, we still see from that viewpoint. This has consequences, for bettter or for worse.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 19, 2005 12:07 PM

Jim, Yes, I noted in my post that the Chinese see everything from the perspective of the Middle Kingdom. But I think they had felt uneasy about Tibet for a long time because the figure of the Dalai Lama is very powerful and they don't like rivals. (As it happens, they were right to feel uneasy, although they could never have predicted, in their nightmares, that the whole of the West would rise up to support this particular Dalai Lama.)

I certainly don't think they came in because China, a country at that time of 1bn poverty stricken peasants intended to "develop" Tibet up to their own level! The whole of China, let's not forget, was and, for the most part, still is, Dogpatch.

It was pride and the traditional Chinese desire to control.

I do take your point that we see Tibet from the Indian perspective, and the Younghusband and Heinreich Harrer perspective. We see it from a mystical perspective, whereas the Chinese just saw real estate.

Posted by: Verity at November 19, 2005 01:50 PM

I certainly don't think they came in because China, a country at that time of 1bn poverty stricken peasants intended to "develop" Tibet up to their own level! The whole of China, let's not forget, was and, for the most part, still is, Dogpatch.

Even by Chinese standards of wealth and poverty, they considered Tibet to be poor. As for intent to develop, of course it was for their benefit, not the Tibetans, but they still used "uplift" rhetoric to justify it. Read for example Han Suyin's Lhasa: Open City which includes some classic examples of the "Tibet as Dogpatch" mentality. The idea that Tibetans are "poor cousins" of the Chinese is aprt of the justification for their presence.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 20, 2005 11:19 AM

Han Suyin is a raving lefty.

Posted by: Verity at November 20, 2005 12:07 PM

Han Suyin is a raving lefty.

Right. She's been a complete lapdog for whatever clique is in Beijing at any given moment. That's why her work is useful as an insight into Chinese government attitudes, and into what they want the chinese people to believe.

I mean, we're not talking about actual realities here, we're talking about perceptions on various sides.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 20, 2005 07:41 PM

Another point, Jim, is that the Indians are not as sentimental about Tibet as we are. They gave the Dalai Lama refuge because religious tolerance is one of India's great traditions. But they're not particularly enchanted by Tibetan Buddhism, or Tibet.

Posted by: Verity at November 21, 2005 09:05 AM

Tibetans are quite distinct from Han Chinese and the langugaes are pretty distantly related, at a depth of perhaps 6,000 years,. That is almost the same depth as the break-up of Indo-European, so it compares maybe to the distance between English and Russian, or even English and Hindi. Tibetan and Chinese share some common vocabulary, but it takes historical linguistic training to see those similarities. The grammars are fundamentally different. Then add in the fact that Tibet's main outside cultural influences have ben from India rather than China, and you get soem idea of baseless Chinese claims to any kind of Tibetan-Chinese unity are, or that Tibet is merely a renegade piece of the Middle Kingdom.

The Emperor was conceived as the ruler of all humanity and summision was the prerequisite to being civiized, so Tibet is not some one off. Tibet sent tribute at various times and thus counts as a subordinate kingdom, but so have Korea and Thailand, and of course Vietnam was part of the empire for centuries, so the Chinese have all kinds of claims they can press. Their neighbors are hip to them, even if others aren't.

If we do see Tibet from an Indian perspective, at least we have a solid basis. Tibet has oriented on India for at least the last 1,000 years.

Posted by: Jim at November 22, 2005 05:15 PM

Again, the point of the post is not what objectivee reality is -- it's what the perceptions on the various sides of the issue are.

Although the postion of Tibet vis-a-vis China in Chinese eyes is not a one-off, I can think of no other peripheral area around China in which our viewpoint is so diametrically opposed to that of the Chinese. This is probably because our exposure to Tibet has been so limited. It probably drives the Chinese crazy -- "the Americans have no national interest whatsoever at stake in Tibet -- why do they care so much about it?"

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 23, 2005 10:35 AM
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