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Tuesday, August 15, 2000, updated at 16:00(GMT+8)

Different Cultures Live Side by Side

We were imagining an exotically alien picture while being tossed about in a bouncing vehicle on the dirt road to the Namyi Lhoba Autonomous Township.

In our imagination, the community of Lhoba in southeast Tibet's Mainling County, like a lonely isle in a sea of Tibetans, presents plenty of visually striking images that distinguish itself from a Tibetan context.

Even our photographer, Yang Shizhong, who developed an allergy to body-numbing rides on poorly-maintained dirt roads, did not utter a word of complaint.

A yearning for eye-opening discoveries overpowered his usual desire for comfort.

But our fantasies were shattered as the real picture of Lhoba life unfolded before our eyes after we approached the village of Cezhao.

There was an intense feeling that we had been cheated by our guidebook. What we saw did not agree with the book.

Contrary to our guidebook, villagers no longer make traditional stoneware. Few people weave bamboo containers. Bow and arrows, the standard tool of Lhoba hunters, lie idle as makeshift wall decorations.

Family houses are, without exception, combinations of Han and Tibetan styles - while fancily carved and painted door and window decorations emit an air of Tibet, the sloping roofs are common in South China.

Most disappointing to Yang was our failure to find a villager dressed in traditional Lhoba costume.

There was only one complete set of the traditional Lhoba costume in the area, said Dagyug, head of the township. We did not have the opportunity to see the costume because it was currently on display at an exhibition of traditional costumes of ethnic groups in Kunming, capital of Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

Wearing a Tibetan-style pelt hat, Dagyug said it is no longer possible to tell Lhobas and Tibetans apart from the way they dress.

The villagers we came across were all in Tibetan dress, common in the region.

Lhoba's traditional costume is too complex and inconvenient for daily wear, Dagyug said.

Though Lhobas do have their own spoken language, they write in Tibetan. Everyone we met in Cezhao spoke fluent Tibetan.

Though Dagyug managed to name two things that differentiate Tibetan and Lhoba foods, he acknowledged that tsampa, the most representative of all Tibetan foods, is just as important on Lhoba dinner tables.

The locals told us that weddings and burials are the most prominent distinctions between Lhoba and Tibetan customs.

Days passed after that "unworthy trip," as Yang called it. We overcame the initial disappointment and were beginning to come to terms with reality.

We were but a group of curious outsiders hunting for novelty. We cared more about how different the Lhobas are from ourselves and others we know, than what is best for their real life.

While we lamented their "loss" of traditions, they retain a strong sense of ethnic identity.

Just like the Lhasa Muslims, called "Tibetan Muslims" locally, who have adopted most Tibetan food and speak Tibetan, Lhobas made their choices of their own free will.

They would not, and are not obliged to, change their decisions about their own life according to our tastes. They are the best judges of what to do and what not to do.

"You may call this Tibetanization if you want," said Dagyug. "For us it is not. Still we are Lhobas."

This reminds me of the rampant rumours in the West about the "Hanization" of Tibet.

Han's equal status with Tibetan as an official language in Tibet, the presence of Han people in Tibetan cities, the appearance of so-called Han-style buildings, and even the popularity of Han food are quoted as proof of an effort to Hanize Tibet.

Such a case does not appear weird to me because I myself had the experience of being considered "Americanized."

"You look so American," an American friend of mine told me during a study tour of India.

When I inquired about the ground of his judgment, he pointed to my Levi's jeans and Rayban sunglasses.

If that logic held, I assumed, many Americans were no longer American because they consume products from around the world.

I do hold an American degree. I do like American fashions by Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.I do enjoy Hollywood movies. But that never compromised my Chineseness. It never will.

By the same token, China's unconcealed eagerness for Western technologies and management know-how is not equivalent to a desire to Westernize.

The proposal of a "market economy with Chinese characteristics" is a manifesto of self-consciousness.

However popular the McDonald's and NBA are here, China is still China. Otherwise, why should American China-bashers cry against "Chinese nationalism?"

While racking their brains to pull China onto the track of "Westernization," however, some in the West are cursing the growing intimacy between the Han and Tibetan of the same Chinese nation.

There are no traditions set in stone as long as a nation lives on.

Like individuals, each ethnic group has its own advantages and disadvantages. It is a matter of course that different ethnic groups learn from others' strong points and offset their own weakness through long-term co-existence.

The ethnic Han Chinese have absorbed the fine traditions of many other ethnic groups and incorporated them into its own during the long course of history.

As the largest ethnic group in China, the Han people have an obligation to help the country's other 55 ethnic groups.

Despite epoch-making leaps forward since 1951, Tibet needs substantial outside assistance to get rid of poverty.

But the Dalai Lama and his followers in the West cite existent signs of poverty in Tibet as evidence of the Han people's sin of "marginalizing" Tibet in the country's economic rejuvenation process.

In that case, they should have welcomed Tibet's being helped to eradicate poverty. But the central government's Tibet aid programmes, worked out according to Tibetans' needs and with their involvement, are vilified as attempts to implement "cultural genocide."

Though I am personally concerned about the dilution of Tibetan characteristics in urban planning in Tibetan cities, I am sure that is not the result of what the Dalai Lama calls "cultural genocide."

Traditional Tibetan building styles are no longer popular because of cost considerations, I learned from a Lhasa-based Tibetan expert on building designing.

Tibetan-style houses cost considerably more than common ones if they have the same modern functions.

My designer friend also noticed that what Westerners call Han-style buildings in Lhasa are actually what is transplanted from the West and introduced to Tibet.

So it is "Westernization" rather than "Hanization" if you want to stick a label on it.

Eating Tibetan tsampa and wearing Tibetan robes have not "Tibetanized" the Lhobas.

Sipping Coca Cola and seeing Hollywood blockbusters have not "Americanized" the Chinese.

Living in non-Tibetan apartments and going to Sichuan restaurants will not de-Tibetanize Tibetans, either.

They still eat tsampa, drink butter tea and pay homage to Buddha as their ancestors did.

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We were imagining an exotically alien picture while being tossed about in a bouncing vehicle on the dirt road to the Namyi Lhoba Autonomous Township.

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