Woeser has often written about the changes in Lhasa over the years and in particular her 2013 appeal, “Our Lhasa is on the Verge of Destruction! Please, Save Lhasa!” prompted international action.
The “Ancient Barkhor” – Part 1
The “Lhasa Old Town Preservation Project” was completed in the summer of 2013. This project was not simply about labelling the area around Jokhang Temple, including the Barkhor and its surrounding streets and alleys, the “ancient Barkhor”; it was not simply about forcing out all of the many street vendors that traditionally occupied the area; it was not even just about relocating the residents that had lived in the courtyards along the roads, which were then transformed into memorial sites. Once you pass through the “security check”, pass by the many military police and enter the Barkhor, you know that this is a place created by the state, it represents the state; it is a commercialised area full of migrants and its history has once more been rewritten to suit the state ideology; this, for instance, manifests itself through the metaphor of “minority-isation” of the original Tibetan residents.
The history of the Barkhor is originally very long. In an essay that I wrote ten years ago, I stated: “When the Jokhang temple was constructed a long time ago, the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, Songtsen Gampo, brought the Princesses of Tara to live at this lakeside whose banks were covered in auspicious snow and where one could hear the sound of water all day long. Stone houses looking like fortresses as shown on the murals today as well as tents became the building prototypes around the Barkhor. Many houses looking like the sacred mandara flower were built and precious Buddhist statues enshrined within them. Tibetan people flooded in and settled around the temple; houses were built with the Barkhor serving as the centre of religious and secular life: the smell of smoking chimneys and burning incense, petty bargaining and generous sacrifice, house chores and religious duties all coexisted, were indeed inseparable…”
Based on writings and photos by foreign visitors before 1950, I described the Barkhor in the following way: “There were merchants selling silk, pearls, household appliances, tea leaves, and even horses and mules; there were also many craftsmen like tailors, carpenters, painters, carpet weavers, gold and silver smiths, and wood and metal craftsmen; and there were also farmers who came from the surrounding countryside and wanted to trade agricultural products for other products. It is precisely these people who turned this unregulated circular path into this bustling, yet marvellous place. There were also many travelling monks with their alms bowls who were piously continuing their pilgrimage, while happily chanting. Finally, there were also homeless beggars, criminals as well as blacksmiths, butchers and sky-burial masters who were looked down upon by the majority of people.
This is why “the Barkhor is not only a street for Buddhists, it is also a representation and the epitome of Tibetan life and society.” As a prayer path, it was heavily influenced by and revolved around Siddhartha Gautama and the devotion and loyalty to him. But the Barkhor and the Jokhang also relied on the liveliness of the area, on its function as a place for people to live. So apart from its sacred meaning, the Barkhor has also always had a secular meaning; every night, the local Lhasa Nangma music groups would circle around the Barkhor in a clockwise direction and performs its songs. The Barkhor used to be full of folk customs which were practiced over all four seasons and became stronger as time went by. All of this is inseparable from Tibetan identity and the Tibetan worldview.
Today, in the eyes of Tibetans, the Barkhor is still considered as a prayer path circulating around the Jokhang Temple and they still walk around it, circle over circle, in a clockwise direction, sometimes pausing to prostrate; they still gather in front of the gate of the Jokhang Temple to prostrate; the crowds often extend onto the stone floor surrounding the lamp pavilion. And yet, since the “Ancient Barkhor” has already become a popular tourist spot, Tibetans now merely serve as an exotic background, attracting the gaze of novelty-seeking tourists. The predominantly Chinese tourists use their cameras to take photos of Tibetans from all possible angles. Often, they are intrusive to the point that they hold their cameras directly in front of the faces of Tibetans, completely ignorant as to whether the respective person is practicing Buddhism or whether he or she wants to be photographed or not.
The “Ancient Barkhor” has in actual fact already become a segregated place between “us” here and “you” over there.
“The sun is slowly rising on the horizon, the incense smoke continues to gracefully suffuse the gate of the Jokhang Temple. At the Barkhor, every day is the same; today is no different from yesterday, there has not been any change: those praying go to pray; those wandering around keep wandering; those doing business keep selling their products (only the characters doing these things often change)…” This is also from the essay that I wrote about ten years ago. But in reality, it is not at all like this. Ever since 1950 all the way until today, the Barkhor has had to face many revolutions and has long become fragmented.
One of the key aims of the recent project to create the “Ancient Barkhor” was to get rid of the more than 2600 street vendors, many of which were Tibetans, mainly from the Kham are that is known for its excellent entrepreneurs. On the surface, it was about giving the market a rejuvenated appearance in accordance with current requirements; it was about unifying and beautifying the place to make it look more orderly and pleasing. As a result, the traditional street vendors along the prayer path were all moved to a specially constructed “Barkhor Department Store”, situated in the north-eastern corner of old Lhasa where the Chengguan District government used to have its seat. But driving out the vendors from the Barkhor is also a matter of collective memory.
The new “Ancient Barkhor” is just like an enormous shopping mall. Low-end entrepreneurs are driven out, while Han and Hui merchants are invited to open high-end restaurants and the like; another gigantic mall opened shortly after, equally a product of the close cooperation between private business and local state agents. It mainly sells all kinds of fake Tibetan handicraft articles, banners and so on. As a result, local Tibetans feel alienated from the Barkhor. Shops run by Tibetans are hardly seen. Hui traders pretending to be Tibetans from Qinghai and Han pretending to be half Tibetan trick tourists into buying old pearls and precious stones at skyrocketing prices; of course, all of the products are cheap counterfeits. The place brims over with tourists from all across China, it is a daily drama of cheating and being cheated by mutual consent.
The new “Ancient Barkhor” is one big tourist spot only catering to visitors. Similar things have happened to the old towns of Lijiang and Shangri-la. This is a tourist spot with “Chinese characteristics” that merely uses old Tibetan houses as the background; in the foreground we find huge banners propagating the “Chinese dream”, rows of red lanterns, more street signs in Chinese than in Tibetan, and massive inflatable plastic columns or golden lions thrashing in front of shopping centres, showing off the tackiness of China’s newly rich. Plus, every single higher building must have a five-starred blood red flag on its top. Once, a sniper was positioned on a rooftop opposite the Jokhang Temple. For some reason, the Chinese flag was hung upside down for an entire day. This was noticed by some people who took photos and uploaded them online. These snipers who have been positioned on many Tibetans rooftops since March 2008 appear in full uniform, but under special circumstances, they change their outfits, wearing sports gear or casual clothing. These special circumstances refer, for instance, to important diplomats or foreign media that are granted permission to visit Lhasa.
In fact, last summer I noticed that the hundreds of security cameras around the Barkhor were all turned into Tibetan-style surveillance cameras. The real cameras were put into round boxes that resemble Tibetan prayer wheels on which the six-syllabled Sanskrit mantra “Om mani padme hum” is engraved; so most people think that these are just religious items, completely unaware that, in fact, “big brother” is always watching you.
Under the umbrella of old housing renovation, the Tibetan-style buildings along the Barkhor were demolished so as to restore them, they were repainted, given a strange and alien-looking appearance. Lhasa’s old town embodies thousands of years of history and as an ancient political, cultural, and most importantly, religious centre, it holds a myriad of detailed information, like any other old city on this planet. This city’s basic colour is dark and discreet, just like the parapet walls on the rooftops of grand Buddhist halls; just like the black window frames and white walls of ordinary houses. And yet, when repainting the facades, they used extremely bright colours that resemble the Tibetan houses found in the border regions of Kham. It is a little bit like turning a graceful, elegant, and polite beauty from Lhasa into a vigorous, shrewish and bold woman from Kham.
Lhasa netizens commented on Weibo: “Lhasa’s old town has lost its sincere and profound sacredness and has instead been given a facade resembling a border town that is void of any splendour.” “The newly decorated mansions are just nondescript Shangri-la-like places.” “If those advocating ‘repair the old like the old’ don’t know about the kind of ‘old’ of Lhasa’s old town, there would have been many photos out there; it would have been easy to find them and carry out preservation accordingly. But now, this half-real, half-fake spectacle is depriving Lhasa of its essence.”
Lhasa has lost its unique style. But those oblivious to the old style will think that this new outlook is actually Lhasa’s original and unique style. This restoration work clearly caters to tourists and not to the families who have lived here for generations. The place looks Tibetan, but it is really just a an appearance, a facade and in essence a form of colonialism: they used reinforced concrete, glass tiles and construction teams consisting of people from all across China to restructure Lhasa’s old houses.
Since 2012, the local authorities have started using the imperial and feudalistic term “moat” in official documents and public notices: security checkpoints of different ranks are referred to as “moats”. This shows that the way in which the authorities are governing the city is not even remotely about the people. They have turned Lhasa into a kind of isolated zone, blocked off from the rest of Tibet; it is no longer the holy homeland of the Tibetan people. The term “moat” is a metaphor that stands for soldiers, police, plainclothes, and spies. They have created a wall that is a great deal more effective and violent than the infamous Chinese internet “firewall”.
This costly “protection work” appears to be directed at protecting and disseminating Tibetan culture. But in actual fact, Tibetan culture is simply forced into an “existing and fixed framework”. Tibetan culture, customs and history are always subordinate to “Chinese values”, they will never be naturally expressed or lived; on the contrary, they are always represented by those in power. And now Lhasa is being turned into a theme park; it is “Lhasa’s happiest” theme park, built exclusively for Chinese tourists, a theme park whose central theme, as manifesting itself through alien decorations and ornamentations, is essentially “Chinese”.
Simultaneously, many local Tibetans have been resettled and places of everyday life are used for other purposes; they have been politicised. The two newly built commemorative museums are such examples. One is the “Former Site of the Yamen for the Qing Government Minister Stationed in Tibet” and the other one is the “Gendun Chonpel Memorial Hall”. Both serve as examples of how the regime rewrites history. In the latter case they did so in blunt way, whereas the former one does so a little more implicitly. All the Qing Ministers stationed in Tibet are portrayed as having contributed to and sacrificed themselves for the unification of the Chinese people. Gendun Chonpel who died of an illness in 1951 is moulded into someone who was pursuing a different level “patriotism”; but of course, this “love for one’s country” is referring to a love for the “new China”.
Today’s techniques to fabricate history are already very advanced, making use of modern technology, including photos, animations, or videos, to “restore” any kinds of “required” scenarios. From this we learn that progress manifests itself through the current political structure, the current system, just as the “Chinese Dream” propaganda poster conveys: “Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China”.
Actually, we should really suggest those who have the power to construct these stories to also include and draw special attention to the outstanding achievements of the CCP ministers stationed in Tibet since 1951, after Tibet was “liberated”. How can one forget or neglect these monarchic and feudalistic ministers? They surely performed much better than their dynastic predecessors (whom the Party has indeed always despised and looked down upon)! Surely, today’s ministers are better “at defending the unity of the ancestral land, at defending the borders of the ancestral land, at promoting the advancement of Tibetan society”! Or could it be that Gendun Chonpel who was once thrown into prison in the “old Tibet” as well as all the former feudal ministers stationed in Tibet have been rediscovered as members of the Communist Party? This would indeed be the only way to prove the consistent and unbroken “love for the country” over several generations; they trundle out stories about Qing Ministers and Gendun Chonpel to justify and rationalise the occupation of Tibet. This is clearly the goal, but it certainly leaves us wondering…
Simply think about how many new “bases for patriotic education” have appeared in Lhasa since “redevelopment”. Official media praise the popularity of “red tourism”, stating that “many places are creating ‘red tourism’ for economic development, with former residences of CCP cadres being turned into important tourists sites by local governments.” Lhasa and other Tibetan regions have no such former residences of Party officials, but “red tourism” is nevertheless promoted. Of course, it is done so as to generate economic capital, but even more importantly, it is done to spread a certain ideology and ultimately, to come a step closer to an even more comprehensive form of colonialism.
The “old city of Barkhor” is a tourist site and a commercial centre, and it is a concealed “base for patriotic education”. In the process of recent cleverly carried out transformations, local history, local stories, and collective memories have been erased. The American scholar Susan Buck-Morss says: Aesthetics can solve problems that politics cannot. Her ideas can be perfectly applied to explain the situation in Lhasa. The different commemoration halls, museums and theatres exist to create a fake past in order to manufacture a coherent and unified historical narrative; they reduce human identity to a tourist spot and turn the whole of Tibet into a theme park.
Many years ago, I composed an essay titled “Those Ruins, Those Old Houses” in which I wrote: “Our public spaces have been rebuilt, just like that. Our city has been redesigned, just like that. Our collective memory has been rewritten, just like that. It seems that what is done cannot be reversed, ‘not with a loud bang, but with a whimper’–you! can you hear it?” This has already become reality today.
This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)