“While of enormous historical significance, [Kumbum Monastery] today seems to have been relegated to museum status by Beijing… If the thought of being led around a Tibetan monastery by a Chinese tour guide dressed in fake Tibetan clothes makes you wince, then spend your time at Labrang Monastery instead.”
-Lonely Planet: China, 10th Edition, May 2007.
In recent years Kumbum has acquired a bad reputation for being more of a tourist trap than a monastery. It wasn’t always so; for centuries this monastery perched on the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau was considered one of the greatest Tibetan monasteries. It was built on the spot where Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, was born, and over the centuries it has been a key point of contact between Tibetans and Mongolians. Arjia Rinpoche, the abbot of Kumbum, writes in his autobiography of having been raised by “a family of 4,000 monks” during his childhood in the 1950s. Today most estimates of the monk population vary from 300 to 400. Kumbum is a prime example of a place that has been transformed to serve the Chinese tourism industry instead of the Tibetans who created it.
A set of three recent pictures shared by Tibetans on the Chinese social media site Weibo reflect how poorly Tibetan language and culture are faring in the monastery. The first is of Kumbum’s front gate, which greets visitors as they arrive:
Three characters written in gold paint above the entrance read “Ta’er Si,” the Chinese name for Kumbum. While travelers in Tibet may notice that Tibetan script is frequently reduced to a nearly illegible size on road signs and tourist attractions, in this case the Tibetan name isn’t even presented. Perhaps that’s for the best, though, as the next picture from Kumbum shows Tibetan mangled beyond comprehension:
This sign for a Tibetan carpet store features large Chinese characters on top written in a faux-Tibetan font. Beneath them, in far smaller size, is a series of Tibetan letters. They’ve been formatted improperly, with vowels and subscribed letters appearing next to the consonants, instead of above or below them. I enquired with a Tibetan colleague about the meaning of the sentence and was told that, formatting errors aside, the individual words presented don’t add up to any kind of meaningful sentence.
A third picture shows a menu printed on a sign outside of a nearby restaurant:
The Tibetan script on the top identifies the restaurant as “Tsongkha’s Tibetan Restaurant,” and at first glance the menu appears to be bilingual. Looking closely, however, we can see that these languages aren’t being implemented equally. While the white Chinese characters name dishes served by the restaurant, the yellow Tibetan script merely gives a phonetic transliteration of the Chinese name. Thus, the fresh noodle dish called “la mian” by the Chinese is rendered as “la men” by the Tibetan subtitle, instead of an appropriate Tibetan translation like “thukpa.” The Chinese “dao xiao mian” are called “do sho man,” and “mian pian” come out as “men pen.” Just as the Lonely Planet guide mentioned Chinese tour guides dressing up in fake Tibetan clothes, here we see Chinese characters dressed up in fake Tibetan words.
Images like this support the suggestion that Kumbum has become a place primarily for Chinese, not Tibetans. Some statistics help explain how this happened. According to the 2012 numbers (in Chinese), Kumbum received 1.6 million tourists (roughly 4,300 each day) and earned a total of 269 million yuan in revenue over the course of the year. Even the world-famous Potala Palace in Lhasa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, only received 1 million visitors in 2012. Kumbum is far more accessible than many other Tibetan sites thanks to the nearby presence of Xining, a largely Chinese city already popular with vacationers and well-connected to the Chinese rail and air travel systems. As Tibetan and Mongolian monks and pilgrims have given way to Chinese tourists over the last few decades, it isn’t surprising that Kumbum itself has been hollowed out and transformed from a place of great religious and cultural significance to a place for making money in a Tibetan-themed environment. In the former arrangement Tibetan religion, culture, and language are the heart of Kumbum, while in the latter the mere trappings of each will suffice to ensure a continued flow of tourism revenue.
Tibetans in the areas around Kumbum have risen up in defense of their culture and language repeatedly in recent years, with student protests in defense of the Tibetan language in Rebkong and Chabcha and a celebration of the Tibetan language in Golog on International Mother Language Day 2013. But these protests frequently trigger responses from police organs tasked with “maintaining stability,” and influential Tibetans run the risk of getting pressured, detained or worse after standing up to Chinese authorities. Arjia Rinpoche, the abbot of Kumbum, has been living in exile for over a decade after political pressure from Beijing to support Chinese policies forced him to flee the country. His absence leaves Kumbum all the more vulnerable to being reshaped by the growing domestic Chinese tourism market.
This process has played out in different places across Tibet over recent years. A 2006 article in the Journal of International Tibetan Studies by Toni Huber entitled “The Skor lam and the Long March” details how Shar Dungri, a holy mountain in eastern Tibet, was “effectively lost to Tibetans” while simultaneously being given a new identity by Chinese authorities. Where thousands of Tibetans used to circumambulate the mountain each year, today the pilgrim route is “completely defunct.” The domestic tourism market has largely taken their place, with over a million visitors in the first six months of 2013 alone (in Chinese). These visitors may not even be aware of the significance Shar Dungri holds for Tibetans, because Chinese authorities promote the mountain in terms of comparatively recent Chinese religious interests and a brief visit by soldiers on the Long March, which the author of the paper alleges never even happened.
These dynamics are particularly troubling as China seeks to further develop Tibet for domestic tourism. ICT recently reported on the opening of an enormous historical drama in Lhasa named Wencheng Gongzhu which required 120 million dollars of investment and years of planning. Performances will be given 180 times each year, with ticket prices and amenities aimed at high-end tourists from China. Here, too, Tibetans seem to have been written out of the script in favor of Chinese. The namesake of the drama, performed in this ancient Tibetan holy city, isn’t a Tibetan. Instead the star is Princess Wencheng, a Chinese princess who married the seventh-century Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Damai.com, the official ticket vendor for Wencheng Gongzhu, says the play is performed in Mandarin Chinese, not Tibetan. Last week Tibetan blogger Woeser wrote that a new official narrative on Princess Wencheng has begun to credit her with inventing the quintessentially Tibetan greeting “tashi delek,” thangka paintings, and more.
If this process of appropriation can claim a great monastery, a holy mountain, daily greetings, and art, what is safe? The protagonist in Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden’s new movie “Old Dog” ends up having to hang his faithful Tibetan mastiff after he finds himself unable to protect it from purchasers and thieves motivated by growing demand for the dogs in Chinese cities. The killing works as an allegory for a Tibetan trying to reassert control over his culture, even at the cost of destroying it, rather than allowing China to swallow it whole. Real life doesn’t need to be that dramatic, but the price Tibetans pay as Chinese-led tourist development claims pieces of their cultural heritage does need to be acknowledged.
* ICT is publishing a major new report on tourism in Tibet in September. Advance copies will be available to press prior to publication.