West's Shangri-la fantasy creates "Virtual Tibet"

Beijing - When Herge's Adventures of Tintin spread from Belgium across Europe in the 1960s, Tintin's fictional travels in Tibet featured in one of the most popular strip-cartoon stories.

So influential was Tintin in Tibet that in June 2006 it won the International Campaign for Tibet's Light of Truth award, presented by the Dalai Lama, for its "significant contribution to the public understanding of Tibet."

"For many, Herge's depiction of Tibet was their introduction to the awe-inspiring landscape and culture of Tibet," the campaign's Tsering Jampa said at the time.

Forty years after Tintin first inspired the curiosity of young Europeans, the Western fascination is as strong as ever with Tibet and its rich Buddhist culture, which has survived mostly intact despite the ravages of Chinese troops and zealous Communist Party officials since the 1950s.

Tintin in Tibet is now a film and a computer game, and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are thriving in many Western nations.

"More than any other land, Tibet has provided ... an exciting target for a corpus of romantic transferences and has continuously fired the imagination of Western escape artists," US-based China scholar Orville Schell wrote in his book Virtual Tibet.

Hollywood has captured the magic and mystery in films such as Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet, which starred Brad Pitt, and Martin Scorsese's biopic of the Dalai Lama, Kundun.

Actor Richard Gere, a friend of the Dalai Lama, is perhaps the best known of Hollywood's Tibet fans.

Action star Steven Seagal reportedly believes he is a tulku, or reincarnated lama, of a similar level to the Dalai Lama.

Last year, actress Sharon Stone appeared to suggest that the devastating earthquake in China's south-western province of Sichuan might be linked to the government's bad karma earned by its repression of Tibetans.

Many Western politicians also treat the Dalai Lama with the utmost respect, provoking frequent rebukes from China's ruling Communist Party.

In October 2007, former US president George W Bush put his arm around the Dalai Lama and led him by the hand to the podium to receive the congressional Gold Medal, the highest US civilian honour.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are among other leaders who have risked diplomatic ties with China for high-profile meetings with the Tibetan Buddhist leader.

Tibetans inside and outside China usually welcome the interest in their culture and the support for the Dalai Lama - a phenomenon that has been heightened ahead of the 50th anniversaries of the March 10, 1959, start of the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule and the March 17, 1959, flight of the Dalai Lama into exile in India.

At the Rongwo Buddhist monastery in China's Qinghai province recently, Tibetan monks showed two photographs of the Dalai Lama on their mobile phone.

In the two pictures, the Dalai Lama was at meetings with new US President Barack Obama before his November election and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"It gives me hope to know that these foreigners are supporting the Dalai Lama," one of the Rongwo monks said.

"I have more hope and strength when I see these photographs, and I hope that Tibetans can find a peaceful solution," the monk said.

But the growing Western interest in Tibet has met a backlash in China.

After protests in support of Tibetan independence during several international legs of the torch relay for last year's Beijing Olympics, the wrath of nationalistic young Chinese turned on Western politicians, celebrities and media.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama, Gere, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Icelandic singer Bjork, the BBC and CNN were some of the top names on the patriots' hit lists.

Obama and Clinton backed the Dalai Lama in their campaign speeches, and Pelosi has met with him numerous times, including a year ago at his home in Dharamsala, India, while Bjork shouted her support for Tibet at the end of a concert in Shanghai.

There are also strong signs of a popular Chinese cultural and ideological movement to "reclaim" Tibet from the West.

As interest grows among China's affluent middle-class, Buddhists, tourists and adventurers have already created another "virtual Tibet" that is broadly shaped by the government's telling of the story of Himalayan region.

The government created the tourist city of Shangri-la in the south-western province of Yunnan in 2002 after competition between several rival towns with Tibetan traditions.

The towns all claimed to be the mythical earthly paradise depicted in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser, who lives in Beijing under heavy police surveillance, admitted that some Westerners overromanticize Tibet but saw much of the interest from Chinese as patronizing.

"Chinese scholars often talk about the 'Orientalism' of the West towards China," Woeser said.

"But to Tibetans, Chinese have more Orientalism towards Tibet and take the worst part of Orientalism: demonization," she said.

Woeser said she felt the new fashion for Tibet in China was "like the feeling towards a pet." (dpa)

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