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.

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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.

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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!


  1. I just can't resist.

    My favorite part in this story is the one about the temple. I must say that your quill unfurled and flourished well this day. Well done, old bean.

    Ever regards.

  2. Dear S.P.,

    It worries me this problem of yours. You know, the one where you can't resist things. But then you are Tibeto-logic's best and longest lasting supporter. Sometimes I even think you may be the only reader. So I guess I can abide being called an old bean, but only by you. I do hope it isn't an allusion to any digestive problems that may be occasioned by beans, if you know what I mean.

    Meanwhile, did you notice that the bloglist and two large sections of external links in some way or another got deleted from the sidebar? I'm not ruling out a hacking attack (and I don't mean coughing), but I'm not sure I should exclude it, either, since I have no idea how it happened. It's just as well, I guess. They were getting very long, and now I can build new ones. I'm, as always,

    Yours, D.

  3. What a treat to read! I guess the unintentional embodiment of stong pa nyid in the hollow structure of a temple really sums up the absurdity of the place.

    Could the sign read "梦旅香巴拉客栈"? I'm not sure whether there is a thing such as 梦旅 ("dream voyage"; sounds like Tang/Song poetry), but apart from that it seems to match quite well - "Dream xyz Shambhala Guesthouse".

    Then it is a nice extra twist that this sign doesn't use the official place name of Shangri-la, but instead the mythological Shambhala, linking it closer to the Kalacakra etc., no?

    Kind regards from a so far silent reader (yes, more than one person reads these),

  4. From what I've read, there are local people, including Tibetans, who believe that the use of Shambhala would would have been more appropriate than Shangri-la. The former has a tradition going back a millennium at least, while the latter was invented by an Inji named James Hilton who never came close to Gyeltang, even in his wildest imagination. The Russian Taoist work cooperative promoter of Lijiang Peter Goullart has some words at the very end of his book Forgotten Kingdom that he added just before publication in 1955 and after Hilton's book had appeared:

    "I had always dreamed of finding and living in that beatiful place, shut off from the world by its great mountains, which years later James Hilton conceived in his novel Lost Horizon. His hero found his 'Shangri La' by accident. I found mine, by design and perseverance, in Likiang."

    So in 1955 at least, Likiang was the place that earned the term Shangri-la, I guess. Thanks for writing, and reading. Yours, -D

  5. The Short Person :)Wednesday, December 28, 2016

    Every time I read through this post, I never fail to compare it to L. Austin Waddell's observations of Tibet. And so, that is why you, too, are an "old bean!"

  6. Dear Short Person, I hope you don't mean I'm a waddler. I may be getting up there, but I'm not there yet. And I always thought that Old Bean was from an old Cary Grant movie from the 40's. What was it called, "Suspicion"? I'm glad Frederick wrote a comment, since I sometimes suspect you, S.P., are the only one who cares. Much appreciation, as always, Yours, D.


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