Lhasa: Streets with Memories 
by Robert Barnett.
Columbia, 219 pp., £16, March 2006, 0 231 13680 3
Show More
Show More

If the Dalai Lama ever makes it back to Lhasa, as excited press reports have suggested he might, he won’t recognise the place. The city that he left in 1959 had fewer than 30,000 inhabitants; it is now six times the size. In 1951 it covered one square mile; now it sprawls over twenty. The original city – a warren of low-rise Tibetan houses with their distinctive tapering shape, proof against earthquakes; their double brick walls, proof against Tibet’s winters; and their austere white façades decorated with black-painted window frames and enlivened by fluttering pelmets – has largely been bulldozed. The remnants are now known as the Tibetan city, a small island in the sea of the new Chinese city.

Every spring, the Dalai Lama used to move to the Norbulingka, his summer palace, from his gloomy winter quarters in the towering Potala Palace. The procession was a celebrated early summer ride along a rural road. Now the Norbulingka lies in a dreary inner suburb, surrounded by uninspired functional architecture. The road to it is lined with shops and karaoke bars.

The village of Shöl, beneath the Potala, where one of the Dalai Lama’s more colourful predecessors used to drink and write poems to beautiful bar girls, has been flattened to create a vast open plaza, nicknamed by Lhasa’s inhabitants ‘Tibet’s Tiananmen Square’. And the Potala’s pre-eminence on the skyline is now challenged by the 13 storeys of the Public Security Bureau headquarters. The 18th-century medical school that used to sit on Iron Hill, near the Potala, was reduced to rubble by Chinese mortar fire during the 1959 uprising; most of the buildings of the great monasteries have been demolished; and the Tibetan character of the city has almost disappeared as it has been surrounded and overlaid by successive Chinese visions of the modern.

Robert Barnett’s experience of Lhasa does not go back as far as the Dalai Lama’s memory: he first visited in 1987, as a tourist on a not very profound search for enlightenment. He never got to the cave where he had planned a week of meditation. Instead, on his first day in the city, he found himself witnessing the first major protest against Chinese rule to take place in the presence of foreigners. The security forces responded brutally. Protesters who had been shot or beaten up were unable to get medical treatment. The few foreigners there, including Barnett, tried to help: he is unsparing in his assessment of the futility – and incompetence – of their efforts.

He returned to London and founded the Tibet Information Network, an organisation that provided, until its recent collapse, a steady flow of carefully checked information. Now he teaches at Columbia University, returning to Lhasa regularly as an academic. (In the interests of full disclosure: I have known him for many years and admire both his expertise and his commitment.) Barnett may not have seen Lhasa in the 1940s or 1950s, the last decades in which the Dalai Lama’s state could be said still to exist, though already under Chinese occupation, but for that period – and earlier – his scholarship compensates for his lack of direct experience. He emerges in these pages as a perceptive and sympathetic observer of a city that has often been described, but rarely understood, by Westerners since they first began to trickle through in the 18th century.

The motives of Western visitors have been at best mixed, and not many had an appetite for a nuanced story. A few were able to take up residence, among them the Jesuit Desideri, who wrote about Lhasa in the early 18th century, and, in the 20th century, Sir Charles Bell and Hugh Richardson, British scholars and diplomats who both spoke Tibetan, and two Austrian mountaineers, Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, who landed there for several years after escaping from British internment in India during World War Two. For most visitors, though, as Barnett observes, contact with Lhasa’s inhabitants was slight, the language barrier was high and, in modern times, the political risks for Tibetans have been extreme. Outsiders can look but not hear, and even in looking, they tend to distort. Tibet has suffered more than most places from the projection of Western desires and fantasy: the image of Shangri-la, derived from James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, stands for a way of seeing in which Tibet and its people play little part.

To look at a city’s details without feeling their associations, Barnett argues, is to misread it. To know a city as its inhabitants do, to read the collective and individual memories held in its streets and houses, is another matter entirely. So this is an account of Lhasa’s symbolic history as well as its material landscape, from its beginnings in the seventh century during the reign of Srongtsen Gampo, to the musical plastic mushrooms of today’s kitsch urbanisation. Barnett’s own encounters over the years are threaded through the narrative: the bungled attempts to secure medical attent-ion for the victims of Chinese guns in 1987; the furtive meetings with Tibetans whose motives and needs are often misread; the shock of realising that a Chinese friend’s apology for his country’s treatment of Lhasa was an apology for too little destruction (in his mind, renewal), not too much; a series of encounters with Tibetans who might be trying to say something that Barnett fails to understand. These episodes are told self-deprecatingly – a narrative of successive misperceptions, the consequences of which are understood only after it is too late. Foreigners, Barnett is telling us in the course of this extended self-criticism, can rarely get it right.

What they are failing to get right is a way of intervening between the colonist and the coloniser. In an aside, Barnett observes that the Chinese case over Tibet has more merit than is sometimes acknowledged, but his account of the city and the lives of its inhabitants under nearly fifty years of Chinese occupation is bleak. Tibet before 1950 was neither the spiritual paradise of Western fantasy nor the feudal hell of Chinese propaganda. It was at times violent, riven by factional power struggles and conflict between reactionary religious forces and a mixed bag of intellectuals for whom modernisation was not only inevitable but desirable. Against the intransigent conservatism of the powerful monasteries, many modernisers saw Tibet’s best hope as lying in Chinese intervention. Some lived to see the catastrophe that resulted.

When Peter Aufschnaiter surveyed Lhasa in 1948 he found that some 600 buildings housed an official population of around 30,000. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city’s historic buildings were first nationalised, then neglected. In the 1970s and 1980s, many were demolished. Yet, given what the Chinese have done to their own cities in the name of Communism and then of modernisation over the last fifty years, it would be hard to argue that Tibet was a special case in the wider Chinese drive to achieve the ugliest urban environment imaginable.

Is the destruction of Lhasa a greater tragedy than the devastation of Beijing? Both have suffered the despoliation of historic and religious buildings; the inhabitants of both have been traumatised by successive political upheavals; both were disfigured by ideas of the modern; in both we now find the utilitarian blockhouse, the rectangular grid of streets, the gigantic political plazas, suitable only for rallies; vernacular architecture and the intimacy of historic quarters have been erased, polluting factories have been built inside the city and kitschy reinterpretations of tradition have flourished. In both cities, many of the remaining historic buildings are now marooned in a tangle of highways: the Lama Temple in Beijing has a motorway on stilts a few feet from its back wall, and one wing, commandeered in the Cultural Revolution, still houses a factory; the sad surviving stumps of the old walls are glimpsed, like decaying molars, from new six-lane highways.

Again, in both cities, symbolic architecture has been appropriated and transformed. In Beijing, as Wu Hung describes in Remaking Beijing,* the creation of the vast square in front of Tiananmen – the southern gate to the Forbidden City and the place from which Mao Zedong read the proclamation of the founding of the People’s Republic of China – allowed the Communist Party to appropriate the symbolic power of the emperor and move it into the age of mass participation in political ritual.

Yet in Beijing, the Chinese – or rather, a fatal combination of Communist Party ideologues and capitalist entrepreneurs – have committed crimes against their own historic legacy. In Tibet, the violation was not willed but imposed. The destruction of Lhasa was part of the rewriting of the Tibetan story to fit the narrative of the conqueror. The gigantic square that was built over the demolished village of Shöl was created to mark the 30th anniversary of the declaration of the Tibet Autonomous Region, a political moment that formalised the reduction of Tibetan identity and history to a subset of Greater China. The square, built by Tibetan road gangs – men and women who broke the stone by hand – is a parade ground on which rituals of obedience to the Communist Party are enacted. It lies beneath the Potala and, from the square, the majestic symbol of the Dalai Lama’s temporal power is reduced to a backdrop for the new political theatre.

Tibet was once a Central Asian military power, with the capacity to harass and, on occasion, occupy cities on the western fringes of China. But Barnett argues that the memory of that power is not the source, for Tibetans, of the legitimacy of their national claim: this derives, rather, from a unique identity rooted in the spiritual traditions that superseded it.

In the province of Qinghai, the Dalai Lama’s birthplace, there was recently erected a white statue of Wencheng, a Tang dynasty Chinese princess. It’s on a colossal scale, similar in intent and aesthetic to the now vanished totems once erected to Mao Zedong. It is meant to be visible for miles around and to dominate the landscape, dwarfing all other human artefacts and even many natural features, a modern monument to the Chinese claim to the historic domination of Tibet. In 641, Wencheng was sent to Qinghai to be one of the two main wives of the powerful Tibetan king and founder of Lhasa, Srongtsen Gampo. For the Chinese, the marriage was a milestone in Tibet’s progress: Wencheng is represented as the bringer of civilisation to the barbarians. In her capacious luggage she packed writing implements and the technology for wine, silk and ink-making; in her capable mind she carried instructions on the way to practise agriculture. Under her benevolent tutelage, the Tibetans advanced a little along the road of progress, just as, in a later era, the benign and generous Chinese Communist Party was to bring Tibet along the path, first of socialism and then of market-led development.

To the Tibetans, Wencheng symbolises something quite different. In early paintings, the king is flanked by both Wencheng and his Nepalese wife – a man at the centre of his world, able to exert his power both east to China and south to Nepal. In the Tibetan account, Wencheng helped the king subdue the water demons that ruled the site of his new capital, and enabled the construction of the temples that were to be the city’s heart. If the Chinese, in the most recent rewriting of history, see Wencheng as a figure who nudged Tibet along the road that would eventually lead to the advanced condition of socialism, for the Tibetans, she contributed to the construction of a spiritual polity, at the centre of which was the king. For the spiritual instruction that came to be at the heart of the state, Tibet looked to India rather than China.

The contest over the way state power is legitimised continues: it was reprised during the 1990s in the struggle between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government over who was to recognise the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Beijing claimed the Chinese emperor had a historic right to nominate ‘local leaders’; the Dalai Lama claimed the right to recognise the reincarnation of a fellow bodhisattva. The Chinese won but it was a hollow victory: their candidate is perceived as the ‘Chinese Panchen’ and therefore illegitimate.

The idea that the colonist’s is a civilising mission is not unique to China. But perhaps it would have been less damaging and confusing in Tibet if the country’s new rulers had been more certain of their own story. It was Tibet’s misfortune to be occupied by a power that was itself gripped by a succession of violent transformations. The scars on the city of Lhasa tell two stories: that of China’s relationship with Tibet, and that of China’s struggle with itself.

At first, the CCP tried to erase the power and symbols of Buddhism in the name of atheist socialism. By 1962, 90 per cent of Tibet’s monasteries and temples had been destroyed. Later, there was a limited tolerance for religious practice as Beijing turned to the pursuit of economic development. By the 1980s, economic modernisation was the new ambition for Tibet, and tourism the new magic formula. In 1984, Beijing announced 43 new capital construction projects, including the Lhasa Hotel, the People’s Hospital and a bus terminal. The buildings on the west side of the Jokhang, the holiest temple in Tibet, were torn down to create a shopping plaza. Each year since has brought fresh waves of demolition. Now, few of Lhasa’s traditional houses, even in the old city, remain, and the original Lhasa has shrunk to an exotic enclave.

In 1995, the Chinese government decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ‘granting’ of autonomy to central Tibet. Sixty-two more construction projects, including the new Potala Palace Square, were launched, and advertising billboards appeared for the first time. How do Tibetans now react when they look at Potala Square? In August 1999, Barnett writes,

a part-time builder called Tashi Tsering produced the meaning of the square by offering an explicit contradiction: he climbed the flagpole at its centre and pulled down the Chinese flag. He took his own life in prison six months later. His friend, who ran the orphanage near Lhalu where he sometimes worked, was given a life sentence. The orphanage director’s wife received a ten-year sentence; the cook, the accountant, the maths teacher and the children’s nannies spent one, two or three years in prison.

A huge, gold-painted statue of two yaks, monumental and hideous, was erected at a crossroads near the square, in an attempt, Barnett suggests, to offer Tibetans an alternative to the usual religious symbols. It is a bureaucrat’s vision of local colour; among Tibetans, the yaks rapidly became the object of political jokes.

In the late 1990s, concrete was superseded by glass and steel, as political architecture gave way to commercial. Cheap loans for construction projects facilitated the transformation of Lhasa into a city of nightclubs and ‘hairdressing salons’, where, as in similar establishments in Beijing, dressing hair runs a poor second to other diversions.

Since 2000, Lhasa’s Tibetan middle classes, newly affluent as a result of government salary rises, have begun to build homes in a variant of the traditional architecture. By 2003, replicas of houses that had been demolished a decade earlier were being built in new housing parks, while in the public sphere, planners launched yet another makeover of the old city – one that has produced a themed pastiche. The remaking of Lhasa has produced increasingly strange results. In one of the world’s most mountainous countries, the authorities made a concrete replica of a mountain, 120 feet high, to celebrate the ‘Everest-high’ achievement of 50 years of ‘liberation’.

Along Yuthok Lam, Lhasa’s first official ‘market street’ and the showcase of Tibet’s progress towards marketisation and modernisation,

twenty-foot-high decorative illuminated bollards flash different colours in sequence. Ornamental abstract Chinese sculptures in stainless steel, resembling curled-up dragons, mark the entrance to the thoroughfare. On the sidewalk, plastic mushrooms painted red with white spots, the size of a stone horse-mounting block or an upturned trash can, have been placed at regular intervals. When their wiring was still in working order, they played pop music every time a pedestrian walked by.

Lhasa had become a destination fit for mass Chinese tourism, a city whose apparent prosperity disconcerted Westerners locked into their own perceptions of poverty and political oppression. Today’s visitors see a Tibetan version of the rapid development that has overtaken the cities of inland China. They find familiar accents among the Han Chinese immigrants, encouraged to move to Tibet by government subsidies, who may already outnumber Tibetans and certainly dominate business and trade. They can buy goods imported from China in bright new shopping malls; they can find Hong Kong martial-arts films and dubbed action movies starring Sylvester Stallone in the new cinemas; they can watch small families of Tibetan nomads dodging the traffic, come to town on pilgrimage like messengers from another time and place. ‘Tibetan characteristics’ in architecture are no longer suppressed but celebrated. Such touches are no longer dangerous signals, just one cultural reference among many in the postmodern soup.

There are different rules, though, for the people. Living for months at a time at Tibet University in Lhasa, Barnett discovered that Tibetan monks and nuns are prohibited from entering the campus, though Protestant missionaries are allowed to proselytise unhindered. Daily life is uneventful, but occasionally he finds hidden connections with the violent past: a blind old man who spent twenty years in prison, a middle-aged woman in a factory who tells him that the Chinese are ruining Tibet, a senior official whose cultural project has just been closed down.

When they first occupied Tibet, the Chinese built roads to connect Lhasa to metropolitan China. Now, the railway line to Lhasa has been completed. Integration and Chinese colonisation are likely to speed up. Whatever may survive of the Lhasa remembered and mapped here, Barnett has helped us to understand what has already been lost. In the course of a visit to a senior Chinese cadre whom he is teaching English, Barnett realises that his pupil is half Tibetan, though she doesn’t speak Tibetan, eat Tibetan food or wear Tibetan clothes. ‘The pure breed lives only in the imagination and finally migrates in pursuit of dreams,’ he writes. ‘The hybrid buys shares in nightclubs, reads books in foreign languages and adapts. The one enchants, the other discards outward charms. With her the future lies.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences