Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

1.4. The image of the "Other" in the contacts of Europe, Asia, Africa and America
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Agata S. Nalborczyk (Warsaw)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

A collective portrait of the Tibetan people. Polish example of "modern mythology" (1)

Emilia Sulek (Poland, Warsaw)


Tibet is one of those spots on the face of the Earth that for years has been and still is able to attract vivid intellectual discourse, broad and deep academic study, scholarly research and field trips from the West. Its image has been shaped for centuries by travel accounts written by numerous Western explorers. Along with the Tibetan diaspora that began in 1959, a new perception of Tibet has taken roots throughout the world, and the influence of the mass media seems to be the main factor in creating this new image.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet resulted in a significant Tibetan exodus. It gave the Western world a chance to get closer to the Tibetans. A large number of Tibetan refugees settled in Europe and in the United States. They engaged in various activities disseminating Tibetan culture among the Westerners. There is a small Tibetan refugee community in Poland, too. Its members are very active in all the events promoting the heritage of their native country. Courses of the Tibetan language at Warsaw University are very popular among students of different departments. More and more books about Tibet are being published.

In recent years the way Western people perceive Tibet has been a frequent object of interest to many scholars from both Western countries and Asia, Tibet included.(2)

Their work inspired me to investigate the creation of an image of Tibet and the Tibetan people in Poland, a country where the Buddhist movement is quite new and the attractiveness of Tibet is not so well established as in Western Europe or in the United States. My purpose is to draw a comprehensive picture of popular views on Tibetan people by Polish authors and researchers. The paper is based on interviews(3) with Polish Buddhists, demonstrators against the Chinese occupation of Tibet and on popular accounts of Tibet found in Polish books, newspapers and periodicals.

The popular image of Tibet is built on two main elements: religion and landscape. These two features dominate in all descriptions of this country and its inhabitants. Asked what her first immediate association with Tibet is, one of the respondents enumerated: "monasteries, mountains, lamaism and... the Chinese occupation". Another respondent - asked how she imagines Tibet - said: "I see some brown monks against a background of brown mountains next to some brown huts". As one can expect, mountains and religion play an important role also in answering the question of what kind of people the Tibetans are. Indeed, attributes ascribed to the Tibetans are explained either by the influence of the unique environment of the Tibetan Plateau or by Tibetan Buddhism. A statement from a travel magazine is a typical example: "Nature and religion are the two factors that shape a Tibetan's way of life, his thinking and consciousness" (Zgorzelska 2000: 40).

Stereotypes of Tibetans as a nation are frequently built on the opposition of a kind-hearted and warm personality of the people contrasted with the harsh geographical conditions of their country. We find a typical example of such a play of oppositions in the popular image of Tibet in a Polish traveller's opinion: "Nomads living in such an inhospitable climate are kind, gentle and friendly" (Seczykowska 2000: 98). All the respondents stressed that the unique natural environment of Tibet is the element that definitely shapes the Tibetan character, because "mountains are not the easiest place to live, and living there shapes one's patience and a great power of resistance", as one of the respondents explained. Living there makes the Tibetans "even-tempered and more firm than the rest of the world". Many of these attributes are ascribed not only to the Tibetans living in Tibet itself, but also to refugees staying outside their motherland. A peculiar example of a way of imagining the Tibetans is a statement made by a young student of Russian literature who said: "they neither make rows, nor gamble, nor drink alcohol. They have such virtues that are above our understanding, such as lack of a need to shout or drink alcohol". Last but not least, the Tibetans are people of Asia, and "frankness and simple-heartedness of these people are most striking in contacts with the Tibetans - and more general - with the people of the East" - one of the respondents explained.

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyaco, a Nobel Prize for Peace winner in 1989, is well known in many countries for his attempts to disseminate non-violent ways of solving world problems. He is an example of a political leader who encourages his people to apply strategies other than the use of armed forces in their struggle for independence. The Dalai Lama's teachings on non-violence largely contributed to his nation's fame of being a non-violent and peace-loving country. Also in Poland a concept of the Tibetans as people who love peace is a very important part of the popular image of Tibet. "They try to do everything in a pacifist way" a respondent said. And another one wondered: "They are not warlike people. Maybe they repudiate violence and armed struggle is not their aim, the same as in Gandhi's case". One of the respondents said about reasons that stop the Tibetans from fighting or planning terrorist acts against the Chinese: "Well, they are weaker for sure, but... if they don't have such a tradition, don't have weapons, they probably wouldn't know how to do it".(4) "I can't imagine such a thing as a Tibetan army" - another person said. Yet, the respondents do not see this "Tibetan pacifism" as a political strategy but rather as a reflection of the inherent nature of this nation. The word "nature" reappears in many interviews, where we hear that "this is a part of their nature", a result of "some kind of internal defencelessness", and that it "reflects their nature, it is related to religion, Buddhism, philosophy of life, compassion...".

A Tibetan living in Poland asked about the Tibetans' attitude to an armed fighting said: "many Tibetans want to fight against the Chinese, but they also know that fighting against them does not bring any result for their struggle. You just think about the population of China and Tibet. The number of all Tibetan people is about the same as the population of the city of Shanghai". I have just indicated the fact that my interviewees have a much more idealised image of the reasons preventing the Tibetans from undertaking an armed struggle or planning terrorist acts against the Chinese. Examining the course of the Tibetan history we discover that this "pacifist way" preached by the 14th Dalai Lama is a new idea in the culture of this country (Sperling 2001: 318-319). Although one may doubt whether it is a good way of preserving national identity, we find opinions expressed in different kinds of popular publications and among various reports on Tibet that "[a]ltruism permeates the philosophy of the Tibetan people" (Sliwka 1988: 29). Such opinions play an active role in shaping a popular image of Tibet and the Tibetans as people who love peace.

"Ecology" is a word that has gained great popularity in recent years. We frequently find the attribute "ecological" in modern literature on Tibet (Huber 1997: 103-119). The tendency to depict the Tibetans as an ecologically aware nation can also be seen in the material I gathered during my research in Poland. All my interviewees agreed that the Tibetans' attitude to the environment is "very good" and that they respect life more than other nations do. A statement by a student from the Indian studies department learning the Tibetan language is a good example here. He said that killing animals in Tibet is "restricted by very detailed regulations, so that there is no killing without any reason and killing for sport is forbidden. For example, we have hunting for the sole sake of sport, but the Tibetans kill only as many animals as they need for food to survive". Another person confessed: "I can't imagine a Tibetan chasing a goat with a gun. They don't enjoy doing it". The Tibetans are often considered to be reluctant also to exploit mineral resources, as they "treat the earth as a holy one" (Kalmus 1999: 20) so "they shouldn't dig it too much", as one of the respondents put it. The other reason could be "a different kind of mentality", as another respondent expressed it: the Tibetans "had such a kind of mentality that they didn't need iron for swords or armour. Maybe they have other values; maybe gold is not something of a big value in Tibet?".

Why have the Tibetans been so sensitive to the destruction of the natural environment? How was it possible to develop such an awareness of the ecological need to preserve the environment long before industrialisation, while only the rapidly growing devastation of the natural environment gave rise to it in the minds of the Western intellectuals? These two questions were the most interesting ones in the interviews. As one of the respondents explained, such an "ecological" attitude is typical of the life of the close-to-nature nomads, because "nomadic people do not exploit the environment as we do. First, because they don't have such possibilities, second, if they had such possibilities, they could have controlled themselves better than, I don't know, our civilisation of consumption. The nomadic people, who live by nature's generosity, are more concerned to preserve it from destruction" - he said. That this "ecological" concern can be explained by the influence of Buddhism and that it makes the Tibetans very different from the Westerners is seen in a statement by a student of philosophy, who said that in Tibet "there is no European or Western paradigm which consists of exploiting the environment. There is a Buddhist or Tibetan one based on coexistence with nature on equal terms". Imagining nations of the non-industrialised world as living close to the nature and consistently taking special care of it is a popular trend in Western society. As the Tibetans are the only example of such a nation for almost all of my respondents, they are therefore attributed with such an "ecological consciousness" as an exclusively Tibetan feature. It is sharply contrasted with the rest of the world that is thought to be "ecologically barbarian".

Although Buddhism has its followers all over Asia and in the history of its origins and development Tibetans were not the first nation to adopt it, my respondents could not point to other Buddhist countries than Tibet, Japan and - what seems to be most interesting - India. Many Polish Buddhists do not feel a need to use the adjective "Tibetan" in reference to their religious tenets, as if it were obvious that Buddhism comes from Tibet. "Buddhism is really old there" - one of the respondents said. For some of my interviewees being a Tibetan seems to be synonymous with being a Buddhist: "Buddhism has permeated Tibetan culture so much that Tibetan and Buddhist are synonyms". Tibetans as followers of this "really old" Buddhism are often thought to be the most religious people in the world, tolerant and devoid of hypocritical bigotry which, in opinion of many respondents, is typical of religious life in Poland. While in Poland religion seems to be more "for showing off" - as one of the respondents put it - in Tibet it is different, and Tibetan Buddhism is thought to be a religion of people who really believe. The Tibetans are often said to experience religion in a deeper way that other nations. "Their life was... religion" - a respondent said. Another one confessed: "I think religion is the essence of their life. I think they truly, truly believe in it and it's important for them. (...) They experience it in a deeper way".

The exceptional Tibetan religiosity is seen in the daily life of this nation. In a widely read Polish daily journal we read that "Tibetans' life was inseparable from Buddhism" (Czopek 2001: 17). This opinion is popular also among some of the respondents, who stress that religious practices are the main activities of the Tibetans' daily life. A respondent said: religion "influenced Tibetans' life, their holidays, all their customs, tradition, literature, art". We read in a travel magazine that in Tibet "prayer is a remedy for everything. Reciting mantras never stops, because there are mantras for every occasion: eating, working and relieving nature" (Sliwka 1988: 29). "It's typical of Asia, not only of Tibet I think - a respondent explained - that there is no such a difference between spirituality and normal life". Another statement shows that Tibet is imagined as a land of religion. A respondent, asked about the status of women in Tibet, confessed: "Well, frankly speaking, I have no idea. Thinking about Tibet, I didn't think about women at all. (...) Actually I thought about monks only". And if somebody can imagine lay people there, too, these lay people are thought to focus on religious practices almost as much as real monks. Lay people in Tibet are "concentrated on meditations" - a respondent said and a Polish traveler to Tibet wrote: "[a Tibetan] looks inwardly, prays, meditates and feels happy" (Sliwka 1988: 29).

Descriptions of a typical Tibetan's character stand not only in contrast to the climate or the environment of the Plateau, but also in contrast to the "people of the West". All of my respondents stressed the differences between life in Tibet and that in the West. None of them knew any Tibetans personally, but nevertheless they imagined them as quiet, even-tempered and having fewer needs than Westerners. The Tibetans are said to live a "simple life with limited needs and limited consumption". "They don't accumulate things; they content themselves with what is indispensable. They live in accordance with Buddha's teaching, giving up wealth" (Seczykowska 2000: 98), we read in a popular travel magazine. A Polish Buddhist confessed: "What I like in them is that they can be happy though they are poor". The possibility of being happy in spite of poverty and lack of modern commodities is explained in another interview: it is possible thanks to an "aspiration for authenticity, watching one's preferences, one's nature" that is said to be a typical feature of the Tibetan culture. It is clear for my respondents that such a kind of happiness is absent in the West, where everybody wants to make more and more money, getting into a trap of materialism. Our "materialist" way of life doesn't bring happiness, so poor but happy Tibetans can become an example to follow.

As we have seen, the Tibetans being imagined as an ideal type of the "people of the East" are frequently contrasted to the Westerners. However, one can find an opinion that they are the exception also among its Asian neighbours. In the eyes of those few respondents who have visited China, India or Nepal, the Tibetans differ considerably from the other nations of Asia. They are considered to be better that the Chinese, who are thought of as being "morally and culturally degenerate, greedy and they cheat others", as a student of social sciences who had stayed in China for one year said. We find another example in a statement by a Polish Buddhist, who after visiting Nepal complained of the obtrusive Hindu people. While a Hindu "talks all the time, accosts you, tries to sell you something and disturbs you", a Tibetan behaves in a different way, he or she "keeps his/her own distance, but is nice", a respondent explained. Last but not least, the Tibetan people are also renowned for their hospitality (they are said to be happy to serve tea to a foreigner even "in the middle of the night", as we read in a travel magazine (Wyszynski 2000: 100), and as highlanders they are said to be open and independent.

Although the popularity of Tibet together with the number of Polish followers of Tibetan Buddhism is still growing, the popular knowledge of Tibet in Poland remains relatively poor. The ideas presented in this paper are obviously only partly true, and they form a one-sided picture of the Tibetans. The respondents attribute many ideal qualities to the Tibetan people, depriving them of human nature at the same time. In a popular Polish discourse on the Tibetans we repeatedly encounter terms like "people of the East" or "people of the West". These two terms, being used in different contexts depending on the intention of a speaker, appear to be notoriously vague, especially if we consider the meaninglessness of such broad terms as "the East" and "the West". The statements made by my respondents and quoted in the paper fit Edward W. Said's theory of Orientalism as a system built of ideas independent of any references to the "real" East (1991: 19). These statements are independent of references to both geography of Asia and history of the Tibetan people and culture. They are also independent of references to time. It is often unclear whether they refer to the past or to the present Tibet, to the Tibetans in Tibet itself or also to the Tibetan refugees living in different parts of the world. It is also interesting to notice that though most of my respondents have not met any Tibetans personally, they willingly answered all my questions (even those about sexual life in Tibet) trying to tell me what kind of people the Tibetans really are. All statements cited above give an impression that the Tibetans are more subjects of the respondents' imagination than real people. It is a vivid example of a phenomenon of creating a "modern mythology", of which the Tibetans are no doubt a part of great importance.

© Emilia Sulek (Poland, Warsaw)


(1) This article is based on one of the chapters of the author's M.A. thesis, "Tibet. An account of an imagined country", written in 2001 at the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Warsaw University, Poland.

(2) See, for example, Bishop (1989, 1993), Lopez Jr (1997), Korom (1997) and papers by participants of the seminar "Mythos Tibet", held in Bonn in 1996 (Dodin & Räther 2001).

(3) The fieldwork was conducted in Warsaw in 2000-2001.

(4) On "how to do it" see Jamyang Norbu (s.a.: 186-196) or Richardson (1986).


Bishop, Peter. 1989. The Myth of Shangri-La. Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape. London, The Athlone Press.

Bishop, Peter. 1993. Dreams of Power. Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Imagination. London. The Athlone Press.

Czopek, Katarzyna. 2001. "Zaglada Tybetu - rozwój à la Pekin", Rzeczpospolita - Magazyn, 14 (April 6), pp. 16-20.

Dodin, Thierry & Heinz Räther (eds.) 2001. Imagining Tibet. Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies. Boston, Wisdom Publications.

Huber, Toni. 1997. "Green Tibetans: A Brief Social History", In Tibetan Culture in the Diaspora. Papers Presented at a Panel of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995. (Ed.) Frank J. Korom, Wien, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, pp. 103-119.

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Korom, Frank J. (ed.) 1997. Constructing Tibetan Culture. Contemporary Perspectives. Quebec, World Heritage Press.

Lopez, Donald S. Jr 1994. "New Age Orientalism. The Case of Tibet", Tricycle. The Buddhist Review, Spring, pp. 37-43.

Lopez, Donald S. Jr 1997. Prisoners of Shangri-La. Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

McLagan, Meg. 1997. "Mystical Visions in Manhattan", In Tibetan Culture in the Diaspora. Papers Presented at a Panel of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995. (Ed.) Frank J. Korom, Wien, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, pp. 69-89.

Norbu, Jamyang. 1994. "The Tibetan Resistance Movement and the Role of the CIA", In Resistance and Reform in Tibet. (Eds.) Robert Barnett & Shirin Akiner, London, Hurst & Co, pp. 186-196.

Richardson, Hugh. 1986. Adventures of a Tibetan Fighting Monk. Bangkok, The Tamarind Press.

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Seczykowska, Elzbieta. 2000. "U stóp maslanego oltarza", Voyage, 1, pp. 96-103.

Shakya, Tsering. 1994. "Introduction: The Development of Modern Tibetan Studies", In Resistance and Reform in Tibet. (Eds.) Robert Barnett & Shirin Akiner, London, Hurst & Co, pp. 1-14.

Sperling, Elliot. 2001. "Orientalism and Aspects of Violence in the Tibetan Tradition", In Imagining Tibet. Perceptions, Projections and Phantasies. (Eds.) Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, Boston: Wisdom Publications, pp. 317-329.

Sliwka, Marek. 1988. "Nieprzetarte szlaki w Królestwach Himalajów", Poznaj Swiat, 8, pp. 26-29.

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Zgorzelska, Maria. 2000. "Bon", Poznaj Swiat, 8, pp. 40-41.

1.4. The image of the "Other" in the contacts of Europe, Asia, Africa and America

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Stanislaw Grodz (Catholic University of Lublin, Poland): The Ascending Converges. The unifying aspect of religious faith in the encounter between a French Protestant scientist and a Fulbe Muslim researcher. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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