THE MYTH OF SHANGRI-LA: TIBET, TRAVEL WRITING AND THE WESTERN CREATION OF SACRED LANDSCAPE
by Peter Bishop
Lost Horizon, by James Hilton
Table of Contents
The concept of sacred place has been important in religious studies but has usually been applied to sites that are either traditional, such as in Australian Aboriginal culture, or well established, as for example in Classical Greece. Such sacred sites are therefore presented as somewhat static, as fixed and complete. By tracing the images evoked in the encounter between Tibet and travelers from Europe, Russia and America, but especially from Britain, this study aims to examine the phenomenology of a sacred place in the process of its creation, fulfillment and subsequent decline. It explores the differences between a geographical location, a sacred place and a utopia. The study is especially concerned with the relationship between the interior phenomenology of a sacred place and the wider context outside its boundaries. It is therefore less of a historical narrative than an in-depth analysis of the inner meanings that Tibet came to hold directly for a considerable number of Westerners and also indirectly for their cultures as a whole.
A way of reading the texts of travel and exploration is developed. It sees them as psychological documents, as statements of a psychology of extraversion, which reveal significant aspects both of the fantasy-making processes of a culture and of its unconscious. In addition it explores the complex relationship between geography, imagination and spirituality.
While the study is methodologically based in archetypal psychology, it also draws widely from such disciplines as humanistic geography and French deconstructionism in an attempt to situate the travel texts within a series of broad psychological and social contexts. It is therefore an attempt to develop an imaginal approach to cultural analysis, one that traces the movement and transformation of images whilst simultaneously leading them back to their root-metaphors. The study is unique in that it presents one complete tradition of travel writing. As such it throws light on the development of the wider genre of travel writing itself, and its place in the complexities of Western spirituality.
The primary texts are those written by explorers and travelers both in Tibet and also around its borders -- in the Himalayas and in Central Asia -- between 1773 and 1959. These years have been selected because they mark the boundary between the first British visitor to Tibet in modern times and the final exile of Tibet's spiritual and secular ruler, the Dalai Lama. Whilst travelers from many Western nations journeyed to Tibet during this period, relations between Tibet and the Western world were dominated by the British. This was primarily due to their presence as imperialists in India and the Himalayan region. It is therefore this relationship which serves as a focus for the study. All the primary texts have been published in English. This is less of a restriction than it would first appear to be, for travelers and explorers to Tibet formed a fairly cohesive international community, one which shared interest and familiarity, if not friendship. They were certainly familiar with each other's work. This fact, together with the British government's vested interest in the region, ensured that most accounts were soon translated into English.
Tibet is revealed in these texts as an imaginal complexity rather than a unity -- a conclusion that is perhaps widely applicable to sacred sites. There were many 'Tibets': historically, as the wider social and psychological contexts altered, and as the place itself acquired its own imaginative momentum; and synchronically, as through each traveler was expressed a very particular archetypal style of fantasy. At certain, limited moments, such imaginal diversity assumed a common coherence -- usually under pressure from institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society, or from the more diffuse promptings of a collective need, or from the coherence of Tibet itself, its genius loci; but the place was always a site of contending fantasies. This study shows that the interior phenomenology of Tibet as a sacred place was never sharply delineated and isolated from the demands of the outside world -- indeed that the two spaces continually interpenetrated each other -- and that the threshold of a sacred place is a significant region in its own right, one that expresses imaginal depth and tension. A sacred place is in a continual state of process.
The creation of Tibet is located within the wider struggle by Europeans to redefine both global geography and their own place within it. The emergence of a geopolitical imagination and a mythology of imperialism are seen as crucial to Western fantasies of Tibet. By tracing the recent history of Western perceptions of Himalayan, Central Asian and Tibetan landscape, this study reveals the late-nineteenth-century development of a radically new aesthetic appreciation of wilderness regions. The crucial struggle between empirical observation and imaginative interpretation is identified and documented. The development of a wilderness aesthetic is traced to a series of separate imaginative moves: for example, a shift of emphasis away from landscape forms and an increased awareness of light and color; Darwin's theory, which drew all the landscapes of the world into a common schema; then Ruskin's achievement in laying the basis for a kind of natural morality of landscape; and finally, the sense that many Westerners had of belonging to such distant places.
A close imagistic reading of the texts makes it clear that Tibet has provided many in the West with a sense of historical continuity -- whether through associations with archaic ancestors, or with Ancient Egypt, or with some primal occult wisdom. Tibetan religion, culture and geography were intertwined and virtually inseparable in Western fantasies until the first half of the twentieth century. Then, under the increasing sense of threat to the perceived isolation and purity of Tibet, there was a separation between fantasy and geographical place. 'Shangri-La' marks the final movement of Tibet from a geographically grounded sacred place to a placeless utopia.
Greater Tibet and Surrounding Countries in 1900
The Physical Features of Greater Tibet in 1900