orville schell
Schell is a well-known expert on China and the author of eight books  on that country including, In the People's Republic,Watch Out for the Foreign Guest, and Discos and Democracy.   In 1994, he travelled to Tibet as a tourist and  reported on the country's troubled relationship with China for FRONTLINE's  documentary, Red Flag Over Tibet.

interview
q:  What is it about Tibet and Tibetan culture that holds such an allure for the West?

schell:  I think the West trapped as it is in its own post-industrial culture really misses the idea that there is some place apart from all the getting and the earning and the commerce where there's a different currency - a spiritual currency. And so I think Tibet has become the place, or one of the places on which we've projected the notion that there are enclaves sort of wilderness areas that are set apart, that we can imagine is sacred. This place is a spiritual destiny where other imperatives of life are at work and this is very important to us and the more we become enamored of our own materialist commercial culture the more we like to imagine that there are these other refuges still existing just in case we want to at some point in our life repair to them.

q:  What was your own romantic notion about this land?

a:  Well I grew up as a child reading the great Swedish explorer of Central Asia who struggled to get to Lhasa repeatedly and failed. And Heinrich Harrer who finally got there in the mid-40s and there was a whole pantheon of these figures. They were like salmon heading upstream to some spawning ground against enormous adversity. It was very exciting. I mean this was the stuff from which sort of turn of the century mid-century adventure was born.

Now why did they want to go there? It's, it's a fascinating question. There's something about Westerners that always wants to be where they're not wanted and this is the history of exploration from Portugal, Spain England around the world. It's a very western notion, sort of promethean energy that wants to overcome enormous adversity and go the ends of the world, test oneself, get where you're not wanted or get where it's difficult to go and I think that's the story of Tibet and it was the story really of my sort of early fascination with this very remote and inaccessible place.

q:  What is it that crystallized Tibet as a kind of Shangri-La in the eyes of many people in the West?

a:  When "Lost Horizon" came out in 1936-37, Europe was on the edge of a nightmare. It was being consumed by the Nazi holocaust. And there's a tremendous urge for people to believe that somewhere there was a place where sense prevails, where civilized behavior was respected. And as you recall "Lost Horizon" was about basically this Oxford don whose plane crashes in the mountain valley somewhere in the Himalayas and here's this place where they play ....the harpsichord at night and there's Buddhist lamas and you don't grow old, where food is there for the wanting, it's spectacularly beautiful isolated cutoff and humane. So that was the myth, the kind of post-World War I, pre-World War II fear that Europe was going to be engulfed in this nightmare, in this projection.

"Lost Horizon" represented an eye in the storm.... for all western people.

Q: Another film is coming out called "Seven Years in Tibet." Where are we now in our romantic notions of Tibet? What is this film going to do?

a:  I think this new film, "Seven Years in Tibet" is a reincarnation of our old yearning to know that some place is apart that is based on humane principles, on elaborate and exciting ritual that is not merged with the industrial world outside and of course Tibet in the 40s when this film takes place was such a place. Its culture was intact, the Chinese had not invaded, the outside world had not been able to gain access to it, only these two mountain climbers managed to insinuate themselves into its midst and it's the dream of the last moment when a piece of the world was still apart from the homogenized outside world.

q:  What's the role of the Dalai Lama in this fantasy called Tibet?

a:  Well the Dalai Lama is really the living symbol of Tibet. He is the quote, God King, much mystery surrounds him even though he likes to eschew this mysteriousness. He's also a very compelling person, a very estimable in certain respects very lovable man. It's a great paradox-- while most countries have a boundary, an international country but no great leader, Tibet has a great leader but in fact no country.

q:  And what is it that captivates people about the Dalai Lama?

a:  Well people have always been fascinated with the idea of the Dalai Lama. This person who's somehow believed to have mystical powers. Who wouldn't meet with anybody, who was inaccessible. Who certainly wasn't pandering after attention and publicity who was aloof. And I think the paradox of the Dalai Lama's current global travels is in a certain sense some of the qualities that were most compelling about him - his aloofness - now tend to be threatened by his availability.

q:  But what is it that's special about him?

a:  I think because he is somebody who really doesn't want anything for himself. He's not after anything. He doesn't want wealth, fame, power he does project a feeling of really being interested in the welfare of his country and other people. And I think this is a very enticing sort of a person in the world in which we Westerners live where everybody is after something.

q:  What is so special about Tibet that's worth saving?

a:  Well I think if you want to know why we care about Tibet, I think the analogy that most immediately comes to mind is in a way an endangered species. I mean why do we care about some specie that may disappear, it's just one less animal? I think if you do believe that the world should have a diversity, a pluralism and that is reassuring particularly as the global culture and global media turn everything into a kind of a sameness, then Tibet becomes extremely important. But I think also to that dimension which has existed for a hundred years because Tibet has been so other, it has always had a sort of a spiritual gross national product rather than an economic one. And it's been added a new dimension and that's the dimension of the little guy getting kicked around by the big guy, trying to invade Tibet, occupying Tibet, and this is very compelling to Americans who always fancied themselves on the side of the victim of the person who is unjustly being abused by the bully. So this is a new dimension, which has made Tibet even more compelling than it was when it was just this isolated unreceptive strange land up in the mountains.

q:  Do you care in personal terms about Tibet?

a:  It is curious, I think people become involved in Tibet almost in spite of themselves and there is something both about his Holiness, the Dalai Lama and I think about Tibetans in general, which is extraordinarily winsome and captivating. There's a kind of a sweetness and a decency - one doesn't want to engage in kind of gross over generalizations... I think Tibet have a certain element that we miss in our own culture, in our own society where we're busy, we're tense and nervous, sort of angry, on the go. Tibetans seem more lackadaisical, they have wonderful sense of humor, they're never in a big hurry and I think this is very appealing to us. It's the other side of us that we miss in our own culture.

q:  What are the films in the Hollywood pipeline, and what do you think the impact of these films is going to be?

a:  Well there's a whole host of films. There's "Seven Years in Tibet "with Brad Pitt, there's Martin Scorsese's "Kundun." Steven Seagal has got an action pick about the CIA aiding Tibetan guerrillas. There's a film called the "Buddha" from Brooklyn about a hairdresser who's a reincarnate Lama. There's another low-budget feature film called "Tibet." There's a great convergence now of films on Tibet that I think are going to really jump the firewall and make Tibet more than just a policy question but a popular culture phenomenon.

....You get a whole other kind of a dimension to the phenomenon and Hollywood I think is more powerful than the United States government and the United States military in terms of its ability to create awareness of issues. So this is no small matter, this arrival of Hollywood on the Tibet scene.

q:  Why now?

a:  I think all of this attention in Hollywood has been generated partially by the Dalai Lama who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, has traveled more has done teachings, has appeared on television and I think in a certain sense has won the hearts of a lot of people including I might add many people in Hollywood. There's a great fascination in Hollywood, not only with Tibet but with Tibetan Buddhism. I mean these sort of crazed Hollywood executives and stars whose lives have been put in a centrifuge. And they've been spun almost to oblivion or trying to find some balance. They're trying to find a place for their spirit to reside to cultivate that side of themselves and Tibetan Buddhism is very interesting to many of them.

q:  And why Tibet ? As opposed to East Timor or Bosnia, Chechyna....?

a:  Well Tibet in our imagination is a place that's enormously colorful, the ritual is enormously interesting. It's a profound civilization. One of the last ancient cultures that still survives in this world. It is also one of the great traditions, Tibetan Buddhism. So in a certain sense it is the black hole of the most dense kind of spiritual matter in the world left today.

q:  What is the story these films will be telling people that they may hear for the first time?

a:  Well, I think these films are one, going to show us the way Tibetan culture was before the fall, before the Chinese occupation and the cultural revolution dealt it such a devastating blow. In that sense it's going to reel everybody's consciousness back half a century and so they'll imagine Tibet to be now as it used to be.

On the other hand it's going to interject this element of the Chinese occupation. The People's Liberation Army which people are now familiar with because of the Tiananmen Square massacre, going into Tibet in the 50s and essentially occupying this society -- in a way that is more than a little reminiscent of a colonial power.



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