Tintin in the Land of Snow: Tibet, China, and the West


Ah, Tibet.  Land of the high plateau, the monstrous snowy peaks, the lofty lamaseries, and the mysterious Yeti.  When I was a child, I devoured the Tintin books.  The story of how Tintin and Captain Haddock bravely rescue the Chinese boy Chang after Tintin has a premonitional dream of his friend surviving a plane wreckage somewhere in the mountains of Tibet—what an epic tale!  Who could forget the surly Nepalese porter, the wonderfully humane Abbot who harbours Tintin and the Captain after their near death, the levitating seer, the heroic struggle and refusal to abandon their Chinese friend despite all the dangers, and of course, the loveable and misunderstood Yeti?

Chang is the same boy whom Tintin befriended on his first journey to China in 1932, when he traveled to Shanghai and became involved in a heroic underground adventure, encountering opium smugglers, evil Western imperialists, and of course, the nefarious Japanese.  At the time, Japan had staged an invasion of Manchuria, and soon after that, in an attempt to divert attention from the puppet government they were building in that region, they launched a brutal war targeting the Zhabei district of Shanghai—the very same district that I am living in today as I write this piece.  This was the first major aerial bombing of a civilian population in the 20th century, and set a precedent for the “total wars” that have wracked our world since.

Today, as the world watches the Olympic torch on its global journey, all eyes turn on China, and on that mysterious region that the world calls Tibet.  China calls this region Xizang or “Western Storehouse,” suggesting a longstanding relationship to the Chinese motherland.  Which of course it has.  Nobody can deny that Tibet and China have been involved with each other for centuries.  It’s been a tumultuous relationship all right.  Back in the Tang (c. 600-900), in the days of the poets Du Fu and Li Bai and the Fragrant Concubine Yang Guifei, yak-riding Tibetan warriors plagued the western Chinese borderlands.  In the early Qing (1644-1912), the Dalai Lama became very good friends with the Zunghar Mongols and their leader Galdan, who spent quite some time in Lhasa learning the ways of monkhood.  From the early 1700s, the Qing had troops stationed in Lhasa and exerted an influence over generations of Dalai Lamas.  By the mid-1700s, Qianlong’s troops had extinguished the Zunghar threat, slaughtered tens of thousands of Zunghar Mongols, and began to incorporate the region known as Xinjiang (“New Territories”) into the Qing state.

Now, centuries later, China finds itself in a difficult relationship with the DL.  Exiled since ’59, His Grace has tried to represent his people, but he has had great trouble gaining the ear of the PRC government or the sympathy of the Chinese people.  But not so the Western press.  

Today, as prayer flags fly over the sacred peaks of Tibet, the Chinese flag flutters across the globe as thousands of Chinese “demonstrators” rush to support the journey of the torch making its way through the national capitals of the world.  On the streets of Paris, Canberra, Seoul, they rub up against supporters of Tibet—some advocating freedom, others fairness.  But China will not be denied its glory!  Tibet is ours, whether you like it or not!  So goes the rhetoric.

I say, fair dinkum, my Chinese friends.  Decry the “Western media” all you like.  Distortions of China in the Western press?  Old story.  Tibet?  Yours for sure.  But if you truly wish to open your wonderful home to the global village for inspection (and thanks for the hospitality by the way) don’t be surprised if some people notice the dust you’ve swept under the rug in the corner of your western storehouse.