Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Signs of Shangri-la

Left Turn, Shangri-la
I spent too much time in Shangri-la, to tell the truth. Not that even a single day there could not have pushed some serious cynicism buttons. As it is, I’m left saddened and a little angry, emotions that should never happen in what is after all supposed to be such a perfect place. For now I’m going to limit myself to the signs that are there for everyone to see, even if I’m not sure everyone can read them. And yes, to answer that questioning look on your face, that goes for myself, too. Although my knowledge of Mandarin and Chinese characters was doubling every day I was there, I still have a very long way to go. So let’s forget the Chinese inscriptions temporarily and see if the Tibetan signs have something to tell.

Dream of Shambhala Inn.  Keep dreaming.
In my first example of a sign actually seen and photographed in Shangri-la, Tibetanists will immediately sense something deeply amiss. Whoever put the Tibetan letters on this sign had not the remotest idea how Tibetan letters work, or how they might go together to make meanings. As a result, we get this impossible word-trash that I will try to transcribe into Wylie transcription for you: sad bbe phyi rting bang mid bku be r.mar. Can a root-letter ba ever have a prescript ba? Can a root-letter ma ever have a prescript ra? No, these can never ever happen for any reason. I’ll be first to admit that this might have something to do with the Chinese characters on the sign (if you can, do tell us what you see there), but it has nothing to do with the English "Dream of Shambhala Inn" or with any meaningful Tibetan expression. 

Not every sign is so bad. Some are even in perfect Tibetan. In examples like the following, the Tibetan might be flawless even while the English version is what you ought to expect to get when you dump Chinese into Google Translate, as should clearly never be done.

Possession of exotic decoration sector lover
The Tibetan reads Gangs-ljongs Dga'-rogs-kyi Mdzes-rgyan. I would translate it as Snow Land's Lover-Beautifying Ornaments. I see nothing in the Tibetan that would provoke possession, exotic or sector.

The instant oldness gets old on you after a very short while.
It's a construct constantly under construction.

Key to the problem is that Shangri-la is always busy newly expanding its supposed “Old Town,” as this tourism-object is called also in Lijiang and Dali further south. And just like the use of Naxi characters in Lijiang, the use of Tibetan letters in Shangri-la sign-painting is a signifier that indicates where you are, in case you had doubts (thereby removing them, it would seem). ‘Look, you’re in Ethnic Vacation-land! You really are!’ it is saying, when all the while the vast majority of the shop- and inn-keepers are Han Chinese doing their daily best to entertain Han Chinese (they make up @90% of the tourists). If people take the bait, no need to push it. Cash cows should never be kicked.

The Tibetan added on to those Shangri-la signs is filled with a lot more silence[s] than its presence in them would suggest. For one thing: The real Old Town of Gyeltang (རྒྱལ་ཐང་ being the real Tibetan name of Shangri-la) isn’t even in the Old Town. You can see what little remains of the earlier settlement in this overly busy photo I took from the side of Turtle Hill. Pay attention to the foreground, and not the distant rainbow, or you will get a totally wrong idea here. That rainbow is not (I repeat not!) the liberated array of purified kleshic energies let alone a divine promise to never again try to destroy the human race that it might elsewhere stand for, but the unadorned, clueless pig does indeed symbolize human befuddlement (moha) at what looks like, but is not, a fork in the road on your way down the hill to an Old Town that has hardly a thing in it more than a hundred years old. That sentence was too long, but I guess you can tell I’m getting carried away. So stop reading and look at the picture. Double-click on it to enlarge it if you want.

Take a left at the fork if you want to collide with an actual fragment the truly old Old Town and
do not pass beyond the pig of ignorance.
That temple that gleams far too fiercely in the sun from the application of way too much gold paint? By now you may not be as surprised as I was to find out that the dazzling monument you see here (in the picture just below) is just an empty shell. It contains nothing. I had to go see the nothingness for myself by fighting my way through a barricade made of prayer flags. No, as sure as I was born, nothing goes on in it. It’s empty. This overly showy building is purely for show. Get the picture?

A sign that can be seen through
(into a scarcely passable street that puts a serious drag on the imposing surrealism)

A mirror for desires never fulfilled, and very likely not fillable, let alone refillable.
Seen on the way out of the airport in Shangri-la
(note the green exit sign indicating the direction of escape).

Do I recommend going there to see for yourself? No, absolutely not. Take my advice, save up your money and find a real destination. Better yet, enjoy a night at the movies. Otherwise you risk finding new and unintended meaning in Don Lopez’s by now famous book title.

§  §  §

Read these!

Definitely read this one essay by Ben Hillman, to start with, since today’s photo essay would be less likely to make more sense than it would otherwise. I know, I did just say what I said and I won’t take it back. Just go off right away to find Hillman’s “Shangri-la: Rebuilding a Myth.” It’s available online. Very entertaining as well as well written, I must add. And it tells truths you would hardly expect to be told. I recommend this illustrated version, or this one for printing. (But note that there is no verifiably early Tibetan spelling for Shangrila, none whatsoever.  “Zhang-ri-la” should not be made to exist.)

Evelyn Bingaman, “Are There Any Naxi Left in Lijiang? An Exploration of Naxi Ethnicity in the Era of Tourism,” paper presented at the 2012 Harvard East Asia Society Student Conference.  Available online.  

Claes Corlin, “A Tibetan Enclave in Yunnan: Land, Kinship and Inheritance in Gyethang," contained in:  Martin Brauen & Per Kvaerne, eds., Tibetan Studies Presented at the Seminar of Young Tibetologists, Zurich, June 26 - July 1, 1977, Völkerkundemuseum, Universität Zürich (Zurich 1978), pp. 75-89. The book has become such a rarity, it ought to be reprinted by some enterprising Indian book company, or at least put up on the internet as a PDF. Gyeltang is subject of yet another article by the same author.  I list this article here primarily as a proof, to those who might think otherwise, that there did exist real Tibetan life in Gyeltang decades before 2001 and its official rebranding as "Shangri-la." Note, too, that 2001 was three whole years after the publication of Don Lopez’s book Prisoners of Shangri-la, so it should come as no surprise to find nothing there about the place in northern Yunnan of which we speak.

Andrew Fischer, “Urban Faultlines in Shangri-La.”  Go here.

Ben Hillman, “Paradise under Construction: Minorities, Myths and Modernity in Northwest Yunnan."  Look here.  Notice this paragraph on p. 19:
“Another example of local state intervention in the representation of local Tibetan culture was the 2002 ordinance that required all hotels, restaurants and shops to ensure that their signs were in the Tibetan script as well as in Chinese. This resulted in some very tortured Tibetan language appearing on shop fronts. Much of the early Tibetan script was a hasty transliteration of Chinese that literate Tibetans were unable to read. Because Tibetan literacy skills were in short supply, some shops ended up with comical Tibetan names. One skin beauty treatment clinic misspelled the word for ‘beauty’ to tragically present itself as a ‘leprosy’ clinic.* Such stories serve as a reminder that the enforced use of the Tibetan script on the signs was directed at an external rather than a local Tibetan audience.”   (* My note:  Evidently they put on the sign མཛེ་ instead of མཛེས་.)
Mark Jenkins, “Searching for Shangri-la.”  Look here.

Åshild Kolås, Tourism and Tibetan Culture in Transition: A Place Called Shangrila, Routledge (London 2008). I plan to read this book when I can find an affordable used copy. Given the explosive growth of Yunnan's tourism development I suspect it will already be somewhat dated. Still, to judge from some sections I could read from the Google books version, it looks quite good. My order is in the mail.

Christine Kwon, “Reading the Signs: Language Policy and Change in Post-PRC Tibet,” Columbia East Asia Review, pp. 5-27. Available on internet. See this statement that rings very true on p. 14:
“The commercial role of Tibetan in tourism, as a textual signifier of the so-called “exotic” appeal of Tibetan culture, may be emphasized as a tool of advertising, a branded symbol whose graphs become images used to promote tourism both in China proper and abroad. This symbolization of the exoticness of the Tibetan language places it in a role benefiting non-Tibetans.”
Peter Schwieger, renowned Tibetologist of Bonn, wrote this intriguing title: “Dynamic of Shangri-La or Turning the Prayer Wheel for the Protection of the Multiethnic Society,” contained in: Jean-Luc Achard, ed., Études tibétaines en l'honneur d'Anne Chayet, Librairie Droz (Geneva 2010), pp. 269-278. Apparently bundles of Beijing development cash went into a giant Wheel full of millions of Mani Mantras. These Mani Mantras are for the invocation of the Bodhisattva Chenrezi whose earthly reflex is, as you know, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Perhaps Beijing officials are generating unimaginable oceans-worth of Buddhist merit for their patronage of this Wheel, thereby demonstrating their unswerving support for His Holiness, or just cynically using religious devotion for their own political purposes. It just depends on which way you spin it, huh...

Chris Taylor, “Shangri-la in Flames.” I forgot to mention the fire.

§  §  §

Addendum (October 3, 2016):

I just noticed this uncannily similar piece, dated May 13, 2016, at The Perfumed Skull page: “Signs of Sinicization: Katia Buffetrille on Road Signs and Cultural Erasure in Tibet.” Much recommended.

Half hidden behind Prayer Flags, this one quite correctly reads,
in translation,
"Western Style Fast Food," in the not-so likely event some Tibetans
were to slip into the Old Town for a quick bite

§ § §

One last question for the Tibeto-intelligentsia: Where in the world did the Tibetan name སེམས་ཀྱི་ཉི་ཟླ་ (Sem-gi Nyida, or ‘Sun-Moon of Mind’) come from? It's been sanctified by its appearance in Wikipedia, as I noticed just now, but isn't it an attempt to find a Tibetan way of squeezing some kind of meaningful sense out of the Chinese way of pronouncing Shangri-la, i.e. Xianggelila? Ch. Xianggelila > Tib. Semgi Nyida? I remember I saw this name in Tibetan script on signs along the way to Gyeltang, as well as here and there in Gyeltang town itself. I think Ben Hillman discussed this in his article "Paradise under Construction" (he did; look here), but I'm not sure if the problem is easily solved. If it is truly the case that the Chinese version of Hilton's made-up Tibetan-sounding name would be the basis of a newly made-up Tibetan name that could then be used to prove that the place is indeed Hilton's made-up place... but yeah, why not? At this point, I could believe practically anything if it were to follow such self-nullifying yet oddly self-justifying logic. Feeling stultified much?

James Hilton, Lost Horizon (1933): A 1962 version of the cover

ENDNOTE: I ought to apologize for its overall depressing content. However, this particular Tibeto-logic blog has had the distinction of being reblogged by the famed Philadelphian Professor of Sinology and editor of the Sino-Platonic Papers Victor Mair. So for more entertaining instruction along the same lines, go there now. And do not neglect to read the comments there by so many illustrious Tibetologists. I do get the sneaking suspicion they might be afraid of risking their reputations by commenting here in Tibeto-logic!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Magic Water?

“The water is taken from the Divine Spring of Qudanima summit, 5128 metres high by the northern slope of Himalaya. For the past 1200 years, the water is valued highly as sweet dew for all ills. With 17 trace elements required by human beings upon the test by the state, the water is an ideal health beverage and the purist magic water from the highest spring of the world.”

A couple of decades ago I was visiting Tibet on a tourist visa. Me and my partner lost each other in one of those huge temple buildings in Drepung Monastery. I admit it may have been my fault. I was getting a little bored — well, maybe bored is not quite the word — until I discovered in an upstairs chamber a glass display-case full of pages from scriptural texts produced with fantastic artistry. Some even resembled the famous nine-jewel Kanjur. Fascinated by what I was seeing, I lost track of time. It was only much later in the day I discovered that she had been adopted by a Tibetan family insisting she join them for a picnic.

So we were, in any case, unexpectedly separated. As the Indian literati have known throughout their history, there is no love more romantic, and therefore worth writing about, than love in separation. I decided to go down and wait at the main entrance, knowing she would appear there eventually. I sat awhile and had a soda at the entrance shop and chatted with the shopkeeper. It wasn't long before he revealed to me that he was in fact a monk. In Tibet in those days, at least, monks were allowed to fill such positions involving monetary exchange, but were not allowed to wear their robes while performing them. Even monks who study at the university  or at the traditional medical college have to go to classes in lay clothing. As always, when you get into a conversation of more than a few minutes with Tibetans in Tibet, it inevitably comes around to the subject of Tibetan unhappiness with the situation they find themselves in. 

After some time I thought I should be closer to the entranceway to make sure of observing my partner's exit, so I excused myself from the friendly monk and his predictable dissatisfactions and sat down on a wooden railing that marked the edge of the parking lot. A whole Tibetan family — mom, dad and three young kids — came to sit down on the railing just a few feet away. I was sipping from a bottle of water I'd bought from the monk-in-disguise when the dad asked to see it. I passed it over, he looked at it with some curiosity and then passed it back, trying to stifle a chuckle. Then he asked me to read the label for him. I started reading the English and the man started laughing, but when I read the few words of Tibetan, Pögi Lhachu Chöten Nyima (བོད་ཀྱི་ལྷ་ཆུ་མཆོད་རྟེན་ཉི་མ་), his laughter accelerated until it got seriously hysterical with the whole family joining in the merriment.

All I could do was smile the kind of a cowed smile you smile when you have no real clue what the laughter is all about, although I suspected (as we tend to) that it was directed at me. Was my Tibetan pronunciation all that funny? That might seem likely. Now, with the wisdom that only comes with hindsight (a specialty of mine, I must admit), I believe it was laughter with a certain element of nervousness in it, or behind it. 

At the time I didn’t know that Chorten Nyima, a holy site close to Sikkim, was a place where people are advised to go and bathe. Its waters are capable, they say, of purifying that most heinous crime of incest. The water they would have bathed in was the water I was drinking. My partner never showed up, so I eventually got into a van destined for downtown Lhasa. I made a new friend with the young man collecting the fares. We outlive our traumas and we learn. We learn from our mistakes. We try to do better. We have to.

Go to this link (a very slow PRC link, I’m afraid even impossible to access, so you may have to do a search for “Tibetan mineral water hot in market”) that has the following photos:

The incest taboo is quite strong everywhere in the world with the possible exception of old Persia, where it was especially known to occur among royalty and to some degree recognized and even approved of (the experts have often wavered on this issue, but their recent publications seem to be swinging back in the direction of actual incest taking place). As if wired into the brain, humans seem to have always been aware that it is a danger genetically. There are cultures where first-cousin marriage is approved of, but in these cases, the genetic problems like congenital deafness, low IQ and the like are well known. By all accounts, Tibetans abhor incest, and cousin marriage is not approved of. Tibetans are shocked to hear about (relatively high, but declining over the last century) Chinese acceptance of cousin marriage, but then Chinese themselves find Tibet’s polyandrous unions quite unbelievable, especially the rarer form in which father and son share the same wife (Prince Peter's book, p. 465 ff.).

Read these:

Liu Hongqiao, “China’s Bottled Water Industry to Exploit Tibetan Plateau.” Find it here.

Katia Buffetrille, “Pèlerinage et inceste: le cas de mChod rten nyi ma,” contained in: Anne-Marie Blondeau, ed., Tibetan Mountain Deities, Their Cults and Representations, Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Wien 1998), vol. 6, pp. 19-42.

Katia Buffetrille, “Pilgrimage and Incest: The Case of Mchod rten Nyi ma,” Bulletin of Tibetology (Spring 2004), pp. 5-38. You can access a PDF of it here or here.

Katia Buffetrille, Chapitre III. Tibet méridional. mChod rten nyi ma, contained in: Katia Buffetrille, Pélerins, lamas et visionnaires: Sources orales et écrites sur les pélerinages tibétains, Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien (Vienna 2000), pp. 201-225. 
This has Tibetan texts and French translations of two guidebooks to the holy place. One of them does explicitly mention sibling incest as a sin that appears in degenerate times, a sin that would normally result in rebirth in the lowest of hells, that can nevertheless be cleansed by the nectarous springs of Chorten Nyima:  སྙིགས་དུས་སྤུན་ཟླ་མི་སྲིང་འཇོལ་བའི་ལྟས་༔ དེ་དུས་ས་བཅུད་ཉམས་པའི་རླུང་གི་ཁ་ཤོར་ཏེ༔  རྡོ་རྗེ་དམྱལ་བར་འགྲོ་བར་གདོན་མི་ཟ༔
Alexandra David-Neel, in her famous book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Dover (NY 1971), first published in French in 1929, describes (on pp. 64-68) her visit to Chorten Nyima, but without any reference to the pilgrimage practices that take place there. There is even a black-and-white photograph of the Gonpa.

Keith Dowman has something concise to say about the place, “There are also specific power place destinations that guarantee absolution for particular sins. Chorten Nyima, near the Sikkim border, for instance, is the destination of those who must expiate the sin of incest.”

Martin Boord, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Hidden Land of Sikkim Proclaimed as a Treasure by Rig 'dzin Rgod kyi ldem 'phru can,” Bulletin of Tibetology, vol. 4, no. 1 (2003), pp. 31-53.  
At p. 32:  “...Chorten Nyima. This name also refers to a mountain range of 14 peaks, to the highest peak along the range, to the general area and to a particular monastery. Chorten Nyima is an extremely active pilgrimage centre, with up to 100 pilgrims or more arriving from Tibet per day, and there is a retreat hermitage for one dozen or so nuns to the west. The three cliff-top stûpas mentioned in the text are the pilgrims’ focal point, but of almost equal importance are the three sky-burial sites and the medicinal springs renowned for their eight attributes of pure water, which are now bottled and marketed in Tibet as ‘Chorten Nyima Mineral Water.’ ” And on p. 33: “Popular folklore cites Chorten Nyima as the destination for all those who need to be purified of the sin of incest.”
Jonathan A. Silk, Riven by Lust: Incest and Schism in Indian Buddhist Legend and Historiography, University of Hawai'i Press (Honolulu 2009).

H.R.H. Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, A Study of Polyandry, Mouton & Co. (The Hague 1963).  See especially pp. 454-456 for the relevant discussion.  It appears that incestuous unions faced considerable disapproval from society in the Tibetan past, even if as far as I have been able to discover there were no legal sanctions against it. When Prince Peter was measuring Tibetan heads, as was a style in anthropology in his day, he interviewed a Nyingmapa Lama, abbot of a temple he calls Chöten Nyingma Gompa (giving the Tibetan as མཆོད་རྟེན་སྙིང་མ་དགོན་པ་). Although a little different from the spelling we are used to seeing, མཆོད་རྟེན་ཉི་མ་, he clearly does means Chorten Nyima, since he describes it as a monastery on a lake of the same name just beyond the northern boundary of Sikkim in Tibet. Let me quote it a bit:

“It appeared that he was the abbot of the monastery at Chöten Nyingma, and that the latter was a very special one in Tibet, because the waters of the lake had the property of being able to wash away the sin of incest. Anyone having had sexual relations with somebody within the prohibited degree of consanguinity could be purified of the pollution by making a pilgrimage to Chöten Nyingma Tso (lake) where, after having plunged in its waters, he or she would make an offering to the monastery. The abbot who I had met would, in exchange, deliver a certificate that the person was now absolved of all sin, and the petitioner could go home satisfied and appeased. It appeared that the principal source of revenue of this particular monastery came from this trade in certificates and that this was the reason for the prosperous appearance of the Incarnation whom I had just met.”

A note on words:  Modern English doesn’t seem to have a special word for the product of inbreeding, unlike the Hebrew Bible’s word mamzer, although even there mamzer doesn't always have that meaning; sometimes it just means the more generic bastard. Prince Peter discusses the problem a little, but as far as I think I know, the term for a child of incest is nal-gyi bu or just nal-bu, and occasionally na-le. But I've noticed some dictionaries shying away from that meaning, making it to be just the child of an illicit affair, a bastard, or even stranger still an orphan (a kind of confusion that ought to never happen!). With the spelling mnal-bu, I've even found it defined as specifically the child born to sibling parents. The mnal is certainly related to mnol, a word for the grave pollution that results from such unions. This kind of social pollution requires some serious purificatory rituals. If you were interested, I would point you in the direction of these ritual texts.


Passing through Beijing Airport not so long ago, I noticed a new product that looked like this:

If the abstract glacial imagery didn’t strike you immediately, here is another side of the same bottle:

I imagine, certainly mistakenly, that they intended the analogy with “Arab Spring.”  It was slightly salty and even a bit musty tasting, which could mean it really was mineral water after all. Still, I’d take the Evian over it any day. 

And to add it in for good measure, in the same airport shop I saw this do-it-yourself model kit for sale. 

 I’m sure you can recognize what it is meant to be.  If not, another clue:

You, too, could have a Potala to call your own.  Just stay away from that bastardly bathwater.

Postscript - September 10, 2016

It’s of interest to learn that the form of the Magic Water label changed over time. We might have been even more ill informed about its evolution if Elliot Sperling had not generously offered this alternative example from his personal collection. Here you see it, but notice that the words "Mchod-rten Nyi-ma" are found there in rather small cursive letters in yellow centered inside the green band at the top. The big letters are large, red Chinese ones, of course. This gives a hint to the marketing target.

Click twice to enlarge

Finally, for a re-blog, see Jichang Lulu's blog entry dated October 1, 2016: Kalendis Octobribus.

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