[image description: the world’s largest prayer wheel, golden, over 80 feet tall. There are several Tibetans of all ages spinning it. The prayer wheel itself has traditional Tibetan designs on it, including the eight auspicious symbols. Above the eight auspicious symbols, there are images of human beings wrapping around the wheel, and they are under some Tibetan writing.]
Tibet: China’s Tourist Trap
According to this site, the world’s largest prayer wheel, towering at over 80 feet tall and lit up at night, was built in 2002 “for the sake of tourism” in Shangri-la county, located in what is the Kham province of Tibet.
It is, perhaps, the greatest and most heart-breaking example of Chinese oppression and manipulation of Tibet and Tibetan culture.
Banking on the myth of Shangri-la, the hidden-away, peaceful land full of mystical and exotic things and a happy, peaceful people, first described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” and further woven into the Western mind thanks to Frank Capra’s 1937 film, China hasn’t missed its opportunity to exploit the Tibetan people and Tibetan culture in order to bring tourism to China.
It’s hard for me to describe what I’m seeing here and what it means. This image has sat in my drafts for a few days and each time I sit down to try to parse through these emotions, I begin crying. This prayer wheel so aptly describes the extent to which China ruthlessly oppresses Tibetans while the Tibetan people have to stand aside and try to continue living under the communist party’s fist.
The prayer wheel was probably crafted by Tibetan artists to give it some authentic credit. The eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism are there, including the eternal knot, which is probably the most well-known of the eight symbols. There is Tibetan writing at the top that I can’t translate, but what concerns me the most are the images of the human beings that wrap themselves around the prayer wheel.
The human beings being part of the prayer wheel is China’s doing. It’s the mark of communism, the ultimate image of the proletariat. No, China would never create a piece of art for the benefit of Tibetans alone, and must exude their power over things created even for the sake of tourism. To Tibetans, this image clearly states: “Now you are one of us.”
The site I linked above claims that the prayer wheel has become “an authentic item” since Tibetan Buddhists have started climbing the hill to spin the prayer wheel, which can take ten people to spin it.
This is the predicament ordinary Tibetans living in Tibet must face: the corruption of their culture and their continued faith in spite of this. Quite often, news comes out of Tibet of individuals in monasteries and nunneries refusing to partake in traditional Tibetan Buddhist religious festival—not because they no longer believe, but because these brave men and women are doing what they can to stand up to the Chinese government. They’re saying that they will not put on “costume” and dance and sing and pray for the lovely tourists; that they are more than China’s tourist traps.
And sometimes, the Chinese government comes in and pays Tibetans to take part in religious festivals—to keep up appearances. If they refuse the bribe, they’re often threatened.
At the same time, the Chinese government also likes cracking down on religious festivals, especially when they think that these festivals will be a way for the Tibetans to conspire against the government. (And it’s not just the Tibetans—Christians and others also.)
His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama teaches that we must treat our enemy as one of our greatest teachers, for we have the opportunity to practice loving-compassion for them. In consecrating this prayer wheel, built for tourism, the Tibetans in the area have done just that—their prayers are not rendered faulty even if the object they use to worship has China’s bloody hands all over it.
Certainly, many of the prayers being spun out into the universe on this beautiful yet tragic prayer wheel just might be for an independent Tibet.
Oh, if only China knew.
Wow, I did not know this. Thank you for the informative post.