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Preserving Lhasa’s history (part two)

Lhasa is developing fast, but the city’s architecture and traditions are at risk. In the concluding segment of a two-part article, Liu Jianqiang reports on the residents trying to conserve this unique urban environment.

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Karma arrived in Lhasa in the winter of 1986, cold and hungry after a 10-day journey on the back of an open truck. His first act was to complete a circuit around the Jokhang Temple, weeping as he prostrated himself. Karma then worshipped in the temple – something all Tibetans aspire to do.

Karma stayed in Lhasa, and is now one of Tibet's most successful businessmen. Pilgrims like Karma, who end up staying in Lhasa, form a part of Lhasa's growing population. But a bigger spur to Lhasa's growth has been the increase in governmental, industrial and commercial activity. An elderly Tibetan told me that in 1950, there were so few Han households that he could name them all. Nowadays, you can take 10 taxis in Lhasa, and eight or nine of the drivers will be from the mainly Han Chinese province of Sichuan.

On a mid-May afternoon I stood on a road running between the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple. In 10 minutes, over 100 people passed me by, but not one was wearing traditional Tibetan clothes. Some of those passers-by were Tibetan, but it was as if they had abandoned their dress and their culture.

Lhasa has already abandoned enough. When Karma first arrived, almost all traditional Tibetan buildings – religious and secular alike -- were still intact. Two decades later, only one-third of the traditional-style secular buildings still stand.

“Lhasa's personality is changing,” said Dawa Tsering, head of WWF’s Lhasa office. He told me that Lhasa’s architecture should represent the city’s unique cultural values, but local tradition is being ignored. Lhasa is being developed in the same way as Beijing or Shanghai, as part of a quest for modernisation.

Tsering admitted that tradition could not always be completely retained. For instance, traditional Tibetan buildings tend to lack light and space. But this is no reason to abandon them entirely – a redesigned interior which still retains the external appearance could make Tibetan buildings suitable for modern living.

A Tibetan sociologist, who declined to be named, said that the demise of Lhasa’s traditional architecture can be put down to the sources of investment in the city. Most funding comes from Chinese investors in faraway provinces. For instance, Jiangsu Road was built with money from eastern China’s Jiangsu province, whereas the Lhasa People's Hospital was paid for by Jiangsu province, Beijing municipality and the Ministry of Health. Provincial and government support for infrastructure construction is no bad thing, but it's difficult to ensure it will produce Tibetan-style buildings.

The sociologist added that in the past two decades, failures in urban planning have lead to the excessive outward expansion of the city. In 1992, Lhasa relaxed its restrictions on private construction, leading to a building boom fuelled by property developers. Many residents relocated to the outskirts of the city. A new district arose to the west of Lhasa, devoid of any Tibetan characteristics. Many Tibetans from outside Lhasa moved into the city, buying and building houses. And although these buildings do have some Tibetan characteristics, they lack any overall planning or proper sewage treatment facilities.

Over recent decades, Lhasa has been marching towards “modernisation”. According to the city government's website, average per capita housing space has risen from 7 square metres in 1959 to 25 square metres today. Government investment has brought infrastructure construction and has funded the preservation of the Potala Palace and Lhasa’s temples. But the city has grown too rapidly, leaving sewerage, roads, electricity and telecommunications infrastructure struggling to keep up. Lhasa has recently built an up-to-date solid waste treatment plant, but there is still no such facility for sewage – which is discharged raw into the Lhasa River, known as the mother of the Tibetan civilisation. 

There are also issues with the ethnic layout of the city. A survey by Peking University found that Han and Tibetan populations keep to their own districts, limiting interaction between the two groups. This segregation also affects children, who are likely to attend schools close to their own homes. Tibetan residents in the old city tend not to have Han friends or neighbours, Han people are often ill-informed about Tibetans.

Lhasa has already expanded as far as it can, so these issues will have to be resolved within the current city limits. And bringing two populations together is not as simple as adding Tibetan features to buildings. The real challenge is how a traditional culture can survive in the modern world. Karma says that the biggest threat to Tibetan culture is not the influx of Han Chinese – it's globalisation. Businesses from Lhasa and elsewhere are turning this holy city into a marketplace. The Potala Palace and many of Lhasa’s temples have become commercialised and monks are being tempted back to a secular life. Tibetans have put away their traditional clothes, and money has become paramount as young farmers and nomads leave the land for the city lights. 

People like Karma have started trying to save the city’s culture, not by rejecting Lhasa’s commercialisation, but trying to make it work for Tibetan culture, not against it.

Karma answers the phone in English, but keeps his hair in Tibetan-style braids and often wears Tibetan clothing. Most importantly, he retains his kind heart, his honesty and his Buddhist faith.

Karma is working to establish the first five-star hotel in Lhasa. In talks with the chief executive of a major international hotel chain, he requested that the proposed hotel should keep to traditional Tibetan designs, and that it should face the Potala. The American executive sneered: “Our guests want to stay in a hotel, not your Potala Palace.” But Karma retorted: “Guests will come from around the world to see Tibetan traditions – not your hotel.”

Whether this city remains sacred will be determined by people like Karma, and whether the government will adopt the same attitudes to tradition, faith and modernisation that he holds. 


The author: Liu Jianqiang,born in 1969, is a senior reporter with Southern Weekend and has a long-standing interest in environmental issues.

Homepage photo by Kees & Sarah

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匿名 | Anonymous



Lhasa's urbanization needs a special plan

Lhasa is the most special city in China, and its urban plan needs its own characteristics, not like most other cities in China without organization, and followed by a vicious cycle of 'construct to dismantle and dismantle to construct'. Even in a normal case, a city cannot afford to do these, even more so for Lhasa. The quality of the article is very high--it is logical and sensible. China indeed still has many well-qualified writers.

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匿名 | Anonymous




As ever more people from inland China go to Tibet, Tibet is becoming ever more Sinified, to the extent that it has changed into a city like any other in inland China. Now that people are also coming by train, this assimilation process will probably progress even faster. Ultimately, what's at stake is not Lhasa's urbanization, but rather its loss of individuality.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


身为一个在北京求学的藏民, 察觉到自己的家乡那令人心痛的改变。 我们的文化与语言将面临灭绝的危机。

A culture at risk of extinction

As a young Tibetan studying in Beijing, i observed the heart-breaking change of my hometown. Our culture and language are in danger of extinction.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Environmental risks of urbanisation

Lhasa's urbanisation does not only bring risks to the culture, but also can lead to urgent environmental problems. This is a very beautiful and fragile place, Lhasa's ability to resist environmental destruction is less pronounced than cities in the rest of China.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Romanticising traditional societies

There is always a lot of hypocrisy regarding the preservation of traditional native societies. The complainants are always from some citified bourgeois outsider with a plane ticket out who decries the destruction of village lifestyles. What every villager wants is a regular income, a good selection of food from the supermarket not from his backyard garden patch, warm clothes, a warm house, schooling for his children, a TV set, a motorcycle, the stuff of a comfortable modern life. To get these he needs a regular paying job that doesn't require backbreaking work in the fields. That means modernization. Let these city types live the life of a villager for a week and he/she will quit romaticizing about village life and be thankful that modernization has at last arrived.

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匿名 | Anonymous


回应上一篇评论--你为什么说拉萨是一个村庄?作者指出, 拉萨是一个历史悠久的大城市,它有很多不同的发展现代化的选择道路。可是它现在走的路在生态方面和社会方面都不可行。我不想说拉萨不能或者不应该有可持续的现代化发展。如你所说的,大家都要现代化,但是现代性有不同的方式。-SL

Lhasa is no village

In response to the comment above - what makes you describe Lhasa as a village? As the writer points out, Lhasa is a big city with a long history, with many different modernisation trajectories open to it. But the path being taken is ecologically and socially unsound. This is not to suggest it cannot or should not modernise sustainably. As you say, everyone wants to modernise, but there's more than one modernity available. -SL

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Question to the last author

Your opinion is quite insightful. Lhasa needs to adopt a sustainable path of modernisation and development. But if, as you say, Lhasa's development trajectory is not working, what would you suggest for a model of Lhasa's modernisation? -HY

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


HY,谢谢你的评论。“现代化”的实现不应该只有一个预定的模式。人们能够自由选择他们所喜爱的那些方面,先前的现代化类型可以作为先例而不是必须遵循的模式。比如刘鉴强提到的建筑学上的例子,现代建筑并非必须是玻璃和钢铁的。它们也可以使用当地的材料来建筑,它们能更小些和更节约能源,而且仍然可以像我们希望的那样“现代”。 -SL

Sustainable modernity

Thanks for your comment HY. "Modernisation" does not just have one pre-determined model it must follow. People are free to choose the aspects they like, and previous modernisation patterns should act as test cases, rather than models that must be followed. For instance in architecture, as Jianqiang Liu discusses, modern buildings do not have to be glass and steel. They can also be built of local materials, they can be smaller and less energy-intensive, but still be as 'modern' as we want them to be. -SL