High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written in June 2015 for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on June 7, 2015.
In this post, Woeser writes about a state-funded documentary, “The Third Pole” which can be watched on YouTube. Woeser also mentions the 1963 propaganda film “Serf” which she has written about before.
For more on Shen Weirong, look back to this post by Woeser from 2011 titled, “Who Are the Real Orientalists?”
“From Demonisation to ‘Shangri-La-isation’ or from ‘Serf’ to ‘Third Pole'”
The six-part documentary “The Third Pole” that was recently broadcast during prime time on CCTV’s international channel became extremely popular with Chinese audiences. The so-called Third Pole is referring to the “pole” that lies between the north and the south pole, namely the Tibetan Plateau. I decided to re-read the book “Searching for Shangri-La” published by the Chinese Tibetologist Shen Weirong in 2010. It criticises the West’s “Shangri-La complex” and “Shangri-La myth” as being nothing but mysterious “Orientalism”.
Professor Shen Weirong writes with deep conviction: “Shangri-La is a place that reeks of imperialism; it is a spiritual land fabricated by Westerners; it is not ours, not the Tibetan people’s land … treating Tibet and Shangri-La as one and the same thing is a typical Western notion … Tibet has been turned into Shangri-La by Western people, it has been turned into the kind of spiritual land that the world wants it to be. This is exactly why there has been such a Tibet hype in Western societies for so many year.”
Ok, so where then is “our” spiritual land that Professor Shen Weirong talks about? Evidently, “our” spiritual land is far far away from the Tibetan Plateau that Westerners call Shangri-La. Let us take the famous film “Serf” from 1963 as an example. The screenplay was written by scholars from the People’s Liberation Army that occupied Tibet and, to use the official wording, it unmasked “the most reactionary, darkest, cruelest, and most barbarous” “Old Tibet”; of course, many researchers have long pointed out that this film is an outright demonisation of Tibetan civilisation and a crude way of rewriting Tibetan history; it is a made-up story. It is a representative art work of the CCP’s propaganda machinery that “has had the most profound impacts on Chinese people’s perceptions of Tibet, and played an important part in the role that China assumes as the ‘liberator’ of Tibet”.
In popular Chinese films about Tibet today, however, the same Tibetan Plateau, the same soil, and the same traditional Buddhist religion and civilisation have been entirely stripped off its demonisation coat and instead beautified as a land of purity, or in other words, it has become Shangri-La. According to state media, the documentary “The Third Pole” “depicts the beautiful ecology and auspicious life of the Tibetan Plateau by telling almost 40 different stories, with nature serving as the background and the people as the centre. It reflects the continuation of traditional Tibetan culture and life as well as the preservation of the natural environment.”
Professor Shen Weirong believes that the West’s craze for Tibet “is a classic example of Western ‘Orientalism’. Westerners’ view of Tibetan reality has nothing to do with the substance of Tibet … they think that it is a place of wisdom, of mercy, that it is non-violent, and without any dog-eat-dog mentality; Tibetans are green and peaceful, without social hierarchies, the rich and the poor, men and women are all equal and there is no exploitation or suppression”. But it is exactly these things that Tibet and Tibetans are portrayed as in “The Third Pole”; the documentary creates an image of Tibet that is even more “Shangri-La” than “Shangri-La”. This image is exactly the opposite from how Tibet was portrayed in the film “Serf” over 50 years ago. In “The Third Pole”, traditional Tibetan Buddhism is depicted as benevolent; in “Serf” it is depicted as evil. It seems that the two come from completely different areas and have no relation at all. The former is praised as outstanding, while the latter just as rubbish that needs to be thoroughly eliminated.
In actual fact, this six-part documentary is by the government. It was written and produced for the State Council Information Department and filmed by the international channel of CCTV and by Beijing Five Star Cultural Media Co., Ltd. It is said that the US-based National Geographic bought the rights of the documentary and broadcast it on its global web channel. So I wonder whether this is what Professor Shen Weirong criticises with regards to labelling Gyalthang County (Dechen Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province) as “Shangri-La” in his book “Searching for Shangri-La”? He writes: “…this is an act of selling out one’s own traditional culture. It is a form of internal orientalism, trying to please the West, and trying to fabricate an oriental image that follows Western imaginations.”
“The Third Pole” is clearly not just trying to please the West. Every single story was carefully designed and cleverly tailored to cover up the truth. For example, there is one story about how in 2014, according to the traditions of the year of the horse, Tibetans go on pilgrimage to Gang Rinpoche (Mt. Kailash); they freely circumambulate the holy mountain and prostrate to then happily return to their secular lives. This story conveys the message that Tibetan traditions have remained untouched and are continuing undisturbed and that all Tibetans enjoy religious freedom. This could not be any further from actual reality. Not only were large numbers of Tibetans forbidden to follow their wish to circumambulate the sacred mountain in 2014 – they were not granted the special frontier pass that was required – even today, most Tibetans are obstructed to go; only Chinese people enjoy this privilege. “The Third Pole” evidently does not mention this at all; on the contrary, in order to cover up the truth and widespread reality, it creates a fake reality that shows the exact opposite. The director of the documentary revealed in an interview that “for the scenes at Gang Rinpoche, we obtained the only filming permit worldwide”. Of course, a documentary commissioned by the State Council’s Information Office will always be able to gain special permissions; that is nothing to be proud of.
The scenes shown in “The Third Pole” do indeed draw people into the wonderful world of “Shangri-La”; but this 2015 documentary and the 1963 film “Serf” are in fact merely two sides of the same coin. The producer is one and the same power and the differences can easily be justified: “The Third Pole” has turned into a happy “heaven on earth” thanks to the “liberation” of “Tibetan serfs” by the CCP. It is the same logic that the “Chinese Dream” propaganda posters found in Lhasa’s old town that was destroyed in 1959 or in the ruins of Shideling convey: “China is strong because of the Communist Party”.
Moreover, “Serf” has by no means disappeared; it continues to be shown on various occasions to brainwash Chinese and mould their image of Tibet. Even more thought-provoking is the fact that over the past years, the evening news shown within the Tibet Autonomous Region always includes a two-minute piece “comparing the old and the new” and “juxtaposing past misery in opposition to the happy present”; this programme is about denouncing the “old Tibet” and thanking the “new Tibet” and is thus a continuation of “Serf”. Taken together, these evening snippets are actually a lot longer than the six episodes of “The Third Pole”; each episode is 46 minutes long, so the entire piece only adds up to a bit more than four hours. In the end, however, the demonisation in “Serf” and other similar formats and the “Shangri-la-isation” in “The Third Pole” are merely two different methods that serve one and the same goal.