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Can the Culture of Tibet Still Be Saved?

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It's not easy to wipe out a culture. Huge forces must be brought to bear with such a powerful assault that survival is almost impossible. Sometimes a natural disaster is the culprit.

  • Approximately 65.5 million years ago, an asteroid collided with the earth in the area of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, creating the Chicxulub Crater and triggering a mass extinction. Although man was not yet present on earth, the impact had a huge effect on the course of evolution and has long been credited with contributing to the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
  • In 79 A.D., the eruption of Italy's Mount Vesuvius buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under volcanic ash.
  • In 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and its resulting tsunami had the opposite effect.

    According to Wikipedia:

    The water washed away centuries of sand from some of the ruins of a 1,200-year-old lost city at Mahabalipuram on the south coast of India. The site, containing such notable structures as a half-buried granite lion near a 7th century Mahablipuram temple and a relic depicting an elephant, is part of what archaeologists believe to be an ancient port city that was swallowed by the sea hundreds of years ago.

  • In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, forcing many people to evacuate (some never returned) and effectively destroying part of the city's rich cultural history.

Sometimes a military assault by one nation upon another has a major effect in eliminating the weaker nation's culture.

  • During a visit to Alexandria, Egypt, in 48 BCE, Caesar's forces are reputed to have burned the city's famous library. In 391, on the order of Theodosius, all pagan buildings (including the library) were destroyed. The Serapeum was destroyed by either a crowd of Christians or Roman soldiers.
  • Spain's colonization of Mexico in 1521 marked the beginning of the downfall of the Toltec, Aztec, Olmec, Mayan, Zapotec, and Teotihuacan cultures.
  • When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the National Museum of Iraq (which contained precious relics from ancient Mesopotamian history) was looted and suffered terrible losses. On April 10 and 12, the Iraq National Library and Archive was burned and looted.

Diseases that attack the immune system can have a surprising effect in wiping out a culture:

  • The Spanish conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizarro during the 16th century introduced diseases from Europe (most notably smallpox) to the Incan Empire. Within 70 years, 93% of the Incan population had died.
  • Following the arrival of British explorer James Cook, native Hawaiians were exposed to smallpox, influenza, and measles (nearly 20% of Hawaii's population succumbed to measles in the 1850s).
  • The rapid spread of the HIV virus in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in the early deaths of many talented gay men, causing some to wonder if an entire generation of creativity had been lost. By 2007, more than 33 million people worldwide were suffering from the disease.

Sometimes genocide and religion are the culprits:

  • Many Native American tribes saw their indigenous cultures destroyed by "the Great White Father."
  • The religious missionaries who arrived in the Hawaiian Islands during the 19th century had a severely negative impact on native Hawaiian culture.
  • Starting in 1821, anti-Jewish pogroms took place during the Russian Empire (particularly during the period from 1881-1884). A second, more brutal wave of progroms occurred between 1903-1906.
  • Beginning in April of 1915, Turkey embarked on the Armenian genocide in an effort to destroy the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.
  • In World War II, Hitler's forces did their best to exterminate the Jews. Book burnings and the mass slaughter of more than six million Jews led to the destruction of a great deal of Yiddish culture (Aaron Lansky's amazing book -- Outwitting History -- tells of his struggles to save more than a million Yiddish books, how he established the National Yiddish Book Center and, thanks to emerging digital technology, was able to restore the collections of Yiddish literature to many European libraries, synagogues, and Jewish communities).
  • Built in 507 and 554, the Buddhas of Bamyan in the Hazarajat region of Afghanistan were dynamited and destroyed by the Taliban in March of 2001.

Two new documentaries show the cultural impact of Communist China's efforts to suppress and destroy the culture of Tibet. Each is fascinating in its own right. Together, they make a powerful statement about the importance of one's cultural identity.

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Many people think of Tibet as a small country somewhere in Central Asia. But, in truth, it's about the size of Western Europe. Often referred to as the roof of the world (Tibet is home to Mt. Everest and the Himalayas), its average elevation is about 16,000 feet or three miles above sea level.

The Tibetan Empire was founded in the 7th century. As an independent nation, Tibet's laws were completely unrelated to any other country's. Over a period of 700 years, religion and literature migrated into Tibet as scholars who had been sent to India to master Sanskrit then translated Buddhist texts and works of Indian literature into the Tibetan language.

A British expedition invaded Tibet's borders in 1904 and, in 1910, China's Qing government deposed the Dalai Lama. Following the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the government of the 14th Dalai Lama fled to northern India, settling in Dharmsala. From then until the leaders of China's cultural revolution were ousted from power in 1980, Communist China tried to destroy as much of Tibet's culture as possible.

Tibet is one of the world's last ancient civilizations, with a highly developed classical religion, styles of dress, spoken language, written script, poetry, and specialized forms of painting and music. Unlike Chinese, the Tibetan language is alphabetical (rather than pictorial). Because the valleys of the great Tibetan plateau are where most of the country's population is concentrated (and where China's population has been migrating), much of Tibet's culture remains intact only in the high regions above the plateau or in Tibetan enclaves in India (like Dharmsala).

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Ngawang Choephel (Photo by: Jayd Cardina)

Directed by former Tibetan political prisoner, Ngawang Choephel (who now lives in New York City), Tibet In Song demonstrates how Tibetan folk music and culture were suppressed by the Chinese government starting in the 1950s. Much of the documentary celebrates the culture's working songs, songs about family, and songs about the beauty of the land. In 1995 Choephel was arrested, sentenced to 18 years in prison, and branded as a spy simply for trying to record the songs heard in the film (his release from prison became an international cause).

While Choephel's work concentrated on preserving Tibet's musical heritage, much more was under attack by the Chinese government. Mao Tse-Tung's philosophy was that the way to change the loyalty of Tibetans was through song. As a result, public loudspeakers started airing Chinese music. Chinese performers were brought to Tibet to change the music heard by Tibetan children. Today, when asked to sing a song, many adults will sing Chinese music because they no longer know any Tibetan songs.

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The contrast between Choephel's wholesome curiosity about his musical heritage and the brutality many Tibetans suffered for their refusal to sing Chinese songs is appalling. Those who have always been curious about the cultures of foreign civilizations will be shocked to see how seriously Tibetan culture was undermined and corrupted by the Chinese (in one scene, two elderly women are warned by a Chinese policeman to stop singing in the street before they get into trouble).

While there is much sorrow to be found in Choephel's documentary as Tibetans mourn the loss of their culture, the sheer beauty of the Tibetan landscape quietly asserts itself with a strange kind of geologic defiance throughout Tibet In Song. Here's the trailer:

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If you've already seen Rick Ray's excellent 2006 documentary, 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, you probably won't want to miss Journey From Zanskar. Written and directed by Frederick Marx, and narrated by Richard Gere, the film stars Tibetan monk Geshe Lobsang Dhamchoe and includes a special appearance by the Dalai Lama.

While Tibet in Song deals with vanishing aspects of Tibetan culture, Journey From Zanskar is focused on on a very different mission. Zanskar is the last remaining original Tibetan Buddhist society with a continuous untainted lineage dating back thousands of years.

The Dalai Lama has spoken out about the importance of protecting the remaining Tibetan cultures. Whereas the public schools in Zanskar have taught children how to speak Urdu, Hindi, and English, they have not taught them the Tibetan language, history, or culture.

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Geshe Labsong Dhamchoe

In Journey From Zanskar, two monks from the 1,000-year-old Stongde monastery have promised the Dalai Lama they will do whatever they can to provide an education for some of the poorest children in Zanskar. When the school they have built at the monastery is completed, its curriculum will be designed to combine the best of modern Western education with Tibetan Buddhism (the monks have also been building a museum to house relics dating back 8,000 years and a guesthouse to accommodate tourists).

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To understand the challenges they face, it's important to look at Zanskar's geography. Located in northwest India, Zanskar was once considered a part of Tibet. The Indian government "closed" Zanskar to the world until 1974. When it was reopened, the Zanskaris found themselves living in the Muslim-dominated states of Jammu and Kashmir.

Located only miles from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the sealed Tibetan border, Zanskaris find themselves stuck between the region of Ladakh to the East and China to the West. The only road leading into the 2,000-foot high Zanskar valley is controlled by the embattled northern town of Kargil. The best traveled route out of Zanskar is a trail leading over the 17,500-foot high Shinku Pass.

Journey From Zanskar follows two Tibetan monks as they attempt to take poor children (ages 4-12) from their homes in one of the most isolated places in the world and enroll them in a Buddhist school in Manali, India. The monks carefully select the brightest, most capable children, who must then be separated from their fathers and mothers, grandparents and friends.

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Leading the children on foot and horseback, the monks embark on a dangerous five-day trek. When they are less than 300 vertical feet from the Shinku pass, their yaks and horses refuse to go further, forcing them to turn back. One adult suffers from altitude sickness, another from snow blindness as they return to their starting point in Padum. Eventually, the children are transported by bus and jeep to Manali, where their heads are shaved and one of them enjoys the first hot shower he has ever had in his life. Later, they are brought to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama, who joyously welcomes them.

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Marx's documentary is a testament to the struggles of the Zanskari people to survive -- and their willingness to part with their children in the hope that the next generation can get an education that will lead to a better life. Americans who have taken their educational system for granted will find Journey from Zanskar a sobering reminder of how lucky they are and how much they have at their fingertips.

In Journey from Zanskar, the frigid beauty of the Tibetan landscape vies with the optimism of Geshe Lobsang Dhamchoe and his fellow monks as they struggle to improve the lives of a dozen Tibetan children. Here's the trailer.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape.