More than any other ethnic consanguinuity within the PRC, the Tibetan “race” (minzu) has remained the People’s Republic’s most significant “other” since that erstwhile kingdom was first invaded by the PLA in 1950.
As with all such relationships, the “otherness” is bivalent. For Han Chinese soldiers and party politicians, the lamaist herds peoples and their Gelugpa religion have since 1950 been seen as a backward (“feudal”) concatenation. needing Han Chinese instruction from the most primary levels on up: schooling, hygiene, and medical (including vetenary) modernization and animal husbandry have been subjected to drastic interventions, conducted always by non-Tibetans. Claims are made that the population’s supposed increase to 5.4 million within the TAR (from 2.7 million in 1950) reflect these basic improvements gifted to the population under Chinese rule. Of course, from the Tibetan point of view this is “othering” is a negative and racist key.
What has gone less noticed is the vaguely articulated but clearly increasing respect, even awe, that has come to pervade the Chinese cultural world, keyed to the search for the un-adulterated (yuanshi) as an antidote to the global homogenization that has come near to removing the “Chineseness” from China. The chief medium in which this has come to be communicated is still a public, government controlled one: that of the “cultural travel” serial, linked of course to tourist promotion. And, with (travel-adventure) as the subject, the reassessive eye focuses on Tibet’s periphery where overland travel amidst Himalayan scenery supplies the sense of adventure and risk, and not on the great monastic centers or their archaic or esoteric rites, which in any case are visible only through adulterated reperformance. But there IS one subject now very much in the camera’s eye that combines the grandeur of highland travel or journey with religious devotion: the religious pilgrimage or 朝圣, mainly to Lhasa from very far off parts of the plateau.