Tuesday, August 8, 2000

Book review: Virtual Tibet by Orville Schell

In a way, what Jonathan Spence did with The Chan’s Great Continent, Orville Schell has done with Virtual Tibet. Both study how the West glamorizes, idealizes, disparages, and criticizes China, nearly always from a narrow western frame of reference, blinded by its own bias and ignorance. Chan’s is a scholarly compilation of how the West saw China throughout history. Schell deals with how the West sees Tibet in a less scholarly but more personal way. Schell interweaves West’s early contacts with Tibet with his foray into the Hollywood fascination with and idealization of Tibet.

Virtual Tibet is anecdotal and fun to read. In walking the impartial line of a journalist, Schell is careful to recount his observations without the intermixing of his opinions. However, his droll descriptions never cease to entertain. For instance, he voiced nary a nasty comment on the carrying-on of the kung-fu actor, Steven Seagal and his fixation with Dalai Lama. Still, after reading his encounter with Seagal, the reader comes away with a new appreciation of what a Hollywood megalomanic lout is all about.

From Schell’s book I learned that the word “pundit” came from the Anglicization of “pandit,” a Hindi term. Pandit or pundit meaning a person of knowledge was applied to native Indians trained by the British to spy in Tibet starting from the turn of the 19th century. It seemed that for decades, the voracious British colonial government coveted Tibet and needed detailed maps of the region. Official surveys headed by white explorers were out of the question and the solution was to resort to employing Indian nationals that could sneak into Tibet. Before reading this book, I often wondered why I hold a vague disdain for pundits. Now I know.

By the time Lost Horizon was written in 1933 and introduced the concept of Shangri-La, a hidden paradise, Tibet had already been established as the exotic destination of choice for overactive adventurers and farout mystics. Tibetan monks were attributed with awesome magical powers including ability to fly, read people’s minds, perform miraculous cures and endure subzero temperatures. According to Schell, “the Tibet of filth, ferocity, arcane religious practices, grinding poverty, barren wastes, inhospitable weather, serfdom, disease and theocratic absolutism vanished from public consciousness.”

“Shangri-La is a distillation of a borrowed piece of Tibetan mythology overlaid with a Western dream of dreams that was two centuries in the making.” Look past the Hollywood gloss on the modern Tibet of the West, and one concludes that Schell’s observation still holds.

Reviews in brief

A Victor’s Reflections and other Tales for China’s Timeless Wisdom for Leaders by Michael C. Tang is an absolute joy to read and own. The author has managed to reduce classic stories of China’s sages, military strategists, wise rulers, clever advisors and child prodigies into highly readable and entertaining short stories. When he tries to draw lessons from these classics to modern day situations, he was less successful. But, if your grandchildren ever ask you to explain “what is Chinese culture,” you will want to read this book first. Better yet, give this book to your grandchildren.

I had been looking forward to reading The Yamato Dynasty by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave ever since I saw the book in Asia and then found out that the publication in the West was months later. This book claims to contain the secret history of Japan’s imperial family, the billions of gold stashed away and the secret deals made with General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. Unfortunately I found the book disorganized, rambling and not well written, falling short of the reputation the authors earned from their previous efforts. However, this book is a valuable reference that goes a long way to explaining the complicity of the U.S. government in overlooking war crimes committed by Japan.

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