Khruschev: "You have no contact even now with the population of Tibet."
Mao: "We have a different understanding of this issue."
Khruschev: "Of course."
The stereotypical setting of The Shangri-La and the subject of a popular political cause.
For centuries, Tibet was a Buddhist theocracy ruled by a duo known as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Erdeni, both the Tibetans believed to be the Reincarnation of great Lamas from the early 1700s. From the era of Kublai Khan until the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Tibet was under some level of control by Imperial China and the Mongols. Disagreements over how much control tend to center around what political axe the speaker wants to grind. In any case, the chaos of the Xinhai Revolution allowed Tibet to slip out of Chinese control and achieve de facto independence in 1912. During the period between 1911-1949, Tibet is largely closed to outsiders, with the exception of the British based in India. It is during this period in which a romanticized depiction of Tibet, as a land of Buddhist mysticism, became widespread in works of popular culture, such as "Lost Horizon".
In 1950, Tenzin Gyatso became the 14th and current (and possibly last) Dalai Lama. That same year, with the Soviets handing Xinjiang over to Red China and the People's Liberation Army crushing the last Guomindang holdouts in Qinghai and Inner Mongolia, Mao Zedong decided Tibet needed to be "liberated" from "imperialist forces". Even though it was essentially independent, Tibet had the potential to become a security problem if it fell under increased Indian or Soviet influence and the PRC had no desire to be forced to play a diplomatic game with them over a state that could be annexed fairly easily. The PRC then proceeded to use Maoist Marxist-Leninism to save Tibet from theocratic feudalism. For most of the 1950s, the Dalai Lama cooperated with China's new communist rulers, but he fled Tibet during a 1959 rebellion against Chinese rule. He arrived in India, where he established a Government in Exile and is based there to this day. The Dalai Lama has since become an international celebrity and met with various world leaders. For the first twenty years of his exile, the Dalai Lama argued in favor of Tibetan independence, but he has since moderated his position to favoring greater Tibetan autonomy within China.
There is considerable debate whether there will be another Dalai Lama after the current one dies. He claims that he will not reincarnate in Tibet unless it is free. The Chinese government claims that it has the authority to select the next Dalai Lama since the Republic of China (Taiwan) does not offer to oversee the process and the reincarnation of the Panchen Erdeni is stable. That the Chinese government claims to be able to control whether the Dalai Lama will reincarnate will come off as Insane Troll Logic to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism.
It's also worth noting that Tibet has a complicated history with the Kuomintang government, which ruled mainland China from 1911 until 1949, and still exist as an electoral party in Taiwan today. The two sides fought a border war between 1930-1932, in which the Ma clique, a group of Hui Muslim warlords allied with the KMT, drove the 13th Dalai Lama out the neighboring Qinghai province. Following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, the KMT retreated to Taiwan, but nevertheless, they occupied China's seat in the United Nations until 1971. Up until the 2000s, the KMT government claimed Tibet, as well as Mongolia and the rest of Communist China, as part of the Republic of China.
On a related note, while popular media often portrays the Tibetans as peaceful Buddhists, it should noted that the Tibetans were historically known for their warlike nomadic horse culture prior to the introduction to Buddhism in the region note . At one point, the Tibetans even had an empire that rivaled the Tang dynasty and even temporarily occupied the Tang capital at one point (which is modern day Xian). Much of their warlike nomadic culture slowly died down once Buddhism was introduced in the region, but some of the Tibetan past nomadic lifestyle is still seen today in some areas (as there are many Tibetan nomads who still practice archery and horseback riding as sports). The Tibetan Mastiff is held in high regards by Tibetans.
- The pro-Tibet view: The dominant view in western countries, it casts the Dalai Lama as the wise old sage and the People's Republic of China as The Empire. It argues that the PRC illegally annexed a de facto independent country and has been an oppressive, exploitative imperialist power destroying their people's culture and being generally rather nasty to their people ever since. However, this view tend to romanticize feudal Tibet as a peaceful land of mysticism, and tend to overlook the fact that the majority of Tibetans were illiterate and often subject to torture by the aristocrats who owned most of the land.
- The pro-PRC view: The "official" view of the Chinese government as well as many Chinese nationalists. This view casts the Dalai Lama as a deposed third-world dictator trying to get back his personal fiefdom. It argues that, since Tibet was incorporated into two Mongol and one Chinese Empires starting 800 years ago and was only de facto independent for the century before its (re-)conquest by Red China, it is as much part of China as Britanny is part of France or the Czech Republic is a part of Germany.note It also points out that PRC rule has brought economic development and improved Tibetan living standards. Of course, claims of heavy-handed repression of all dissent and destruction of Tibetan culture are generally denied - or deemed to be 'the price of modernity'.
- The third option view: This view argues that while Tibet was a backwards, medieval theocracy dominated by one pan-Chinese and two Mongol Empires and thus shared a certain amount of high-culture with the Chinese nations, like the Mongolians its people were quite distinct from those of most of China's various peoples and the PRC has also been an oppressive imperialist power of the kind it used to condemn so strongly. This view usually calls for Tibet to remain part of Chinese out of pragmatism, but calls for wider political reform in China, with greater respect to the rights and self determination of the Tibetans. Many Chinese dissidents, as well as Dalai Lama himself, hold this view.
- The other third option is that independent Tibet was a small and incredibly underdeveloped country with some serious problems that the PRC has alleviated somewhat by being a remarkably oppressive and unpleasant imperialist power... but that changes to Tibet's Government in Exile mean it'd be rather nicer at running the country than either the PRC or the pre-PRC Tibetan aristocracy (e.g. the Dalai Lama recommending the removal of his position as head of state). Since the current Dalai Lama called for a "middle way" approach in regards to Tibet's sovereignty, many younger Tibetans in Dharamshala tend to hold this view and calls for an independent Tibet.
Tibet in popular culture
- Lost Horizon, which is the Trope Namer for The Shangri-La (it means "Shang Mountain Pass" in Tibetan).
- Seven Years in Tibet (1997) (Jean-Jacques Annaud, who directed Seven Years in Tibet initially Banned in China but Annaud has since had his ban lifted). It stars Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer.
- Kundun by Martin Scorsese, featuring a cast of non-professional Tibetans, a biopic of the Dalai Lama. Both Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathison are banned to China to this day. Although in the pro-Tibet camp, Kundun does portray the Chinese as Well Intentioned Extremists though the cameo of Mao Zedong as an Affably Evil dictator touched on one too many taboo.
- The Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode "Holier Than Thou" argues against the pro-Tibet view.
- 2012 features a Tibetan family who manages to get on one of the Arks, but an old monk decides to stay behind.
- Chen Ai Luo Ding (After the Dust Settles): A novel written by a Tibetan author based on his family's accounts before the revolution, about a secluded Tibetian village/citadel encountering early 20th century technologies, culture, and opium. A great hit in China.
- Xizang Mimi (A Secret In Tibet)
- Sky Burial The story of a Chinese army nurse searching for her missing doctor husband, while along the way befriending a Tibetian family and a noble woman on the run.
- The Brave Fighter of Legend Da-Garn had Hawk Saber debuting in one of its cave and was later revisited.
- Fushigi Yuugi features the Sairou Empire, which is an Expy of Tibet. Its primary deity is Byakko, the White Tiger, although it does seem to have practitioners of both Hinduism and Buddhism in it, and it is notable for accepting these other religions, instead of insisting that people worship Byakko.
- Tintin in Tibet takes the hero to the region in search of his old friend Chang Chong-chen who has gone missing after his plane crashed in the mountains.
- The Secret of the Swordfish is about a World War III waged by a militarily overpowered Tibet; while this country is nominally Tibet in the story, it actually looks more like an expy of both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It has been written before the Chinese invasion.
- Uncharted 2: Among Thieves's ends in Tibet with the lost city of Shambala finally being found. Notably, a good chunk of the finale takes place in a small village where authentic Tibetan is spoken by the people there.
The Tibetan flag