MM- Your master studies terminated with a thesis on Tibet. I think most of the times people care about this region of China just because Mr. clown Richard Gere has been there and Brad Pitt acted in the movie “Seven Years in Tibet”. Can you give us your honest opinion on the current matters, and maybe some insights from the Beijing perspective?
I recently published an article connected to my master thesis on the Italian review “Quaderni Asiatici” (“Asian Notebooks”). In particular the topic of my thesis was the social and economic development of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) during the last thirty years (1976-2006). A few days ago two authors of China Files published a book in Italy titled “Brand Tibet”.
Even if to talk about Tibet is not easy at all (for historical and political reasons) I think that nowadays in many Western countries the Tibetan culture and people is more than “idealized”, in the sense that it does not really fit with the reality. First of all, this image of a peaceful people victim of Chinese imperialism and violent army is an old idea. Today the situation in Tibet is completely different. People like the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government in exile in Northern India have not been in China for decades and they probably have no idea of the real feelings of the inhabitants of the TAR. Young people in Tibet live in conditions not so different from the teenagers in the rest of China or Europe. A city like Lhasa is full of commercial activities, shopping centers, there is a well developed tourism industry, bars, karaoke and so on. I could say that is not easy to find traces of the traditional heritage and religious life of the “historical Tibet”. Of course there are reasons for the Tibetan community to be unhappy and unsatisfied but this regards economic aspects and not ideological or political ones: we can’t forget that today most of the people living in the TAR are Chinese migrants and people of different ethnicities. There are many reasons to blame the Chinese government, but to be honest we cannot deny that in the last thirty years it invested huge amounts of money for the development of the area, in terms of infrastructures, education, communications and so on. The biggest problem is that the revenues of these investments are shared more between Tibetan officials and Chinese migrants than directly between Tibetan monks or nomads.
Last but not least, it is of course important not to forget all the matters concerning the preservation of Tibetan culture and language, promoting more autonomy of administration and freedom in the life style. But to support the idea of a “Free Tibet” or the idea that Tibetans are poor and peaceful religious nomads victim of the Chinese imperialism and communist dictatorship is an awful mistake. Let’s do not forget that for the best part of its history and until 1951 Tibet has been a theocratic regime ruled by the Buddhist clergy, with a slave system not so different from that used by other countries during the European Middle Ages.
MM- Following the same lines of the previous question, I think Xinjiang is an infinitely more interesting region of China to explore and study. I know you’ve been there (I’m jealous since that’s first in my “want to go” list of places), can you tell me something about it? It fascinates me how a Muslim minority can be incorporated in the Chinese monster-topography…
I have not studied much about Xinjiang (or Chinese Turkestan), but what I can tell you is what I have seen during my trip there and what I heard talking with specialists of Central Asian studies. To be honest, from an anthropological point of view, Xinjiang fascinated me much more than Tibet.
First of all, as an Italian living in Beijing I find Xinjiang food so familiar in the taste (just think about their bread, they way they cook pasta or use tomatoes). But food is only an aspect. We are similar even in physical features (compared with Chinese, of course!): many of my Italian friends have been called “Xinjiangese” from other Chinese friends. Moreover, many social habits are closer to the Mediterranean culture than to the Chinese. Even if many Muslims live there, they grow grapes and produce one of the best wines in China.
But to see and feel that, you have to visit the more western part of the region, the one closer to Afghanistan. In fact there are so many Chinese migrants in the eastern part or the region capital city Urumqi that sometime it is hard to feel some pure Muslim culture. From this point of view, the city of Kashgar is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen and I strongly recommend visiting it whenever you will have the opportunity to go.
Truly speaking, China has been a religious melting-pot since centuries, with different religious beliefs and philosophies coming from India, Middle East and Mediterranean countries. This is to say that Muslims have been living in China for really long time (especially in the central-western and western part of the country) and, a part from all, they are not only well integrated but an important part of Chinese history, culture and society.
MM- Is Chinese culture somewhat changing? Can you feel it under the skin of the metropolis, or what is left is just a bunch of consumers piling up stashes of money to buy new SUVs, converting the most diverse civilization in the world in the new America?
This is a question which is not easy to answer at all. I do not want to bother your readers with questions like “what is a culture?”, “what is Chinese culture?”, “what is globalization?” and so on, but I truly think the answer is just behind these questions.
What I can tell you is that China, understood as a country of billions of inhabitants and thousands of years culture, is changing and it is changing really fast. No need to say that nothing is motionless and even China has been always changing (and the meaning of “China” has been changing as well), as an historical process. But probably its society and habits have never been changing so fast in both cities and rural areas.
Chinese people know this, but I think that at the same time they can not do much to resist or avoid that. From one side, they are trying to take advantage from this, and on the other side, they are trying to understand “what the hell is going on!”. Chinese culture is changing and many things are going to be forgotten or lost forever, but talking from a more practical and grassroots point of view I would argue that a Chinese teenager in Beijing is not losing much more than a coetaneous in a western country: he goes to drink coffee at Starbucks or eats at Pizza Hut, plays football with friends or dresses western fashion style clothes, while the western teenager is watching Chinese cartoons, easting Chinese noodles or praying for Buddha. Globalization does not mean “westernization” after all, and I think that mutual knowledge in different cultures and the loss of one culture’s elements is nowadays unavoidable.
About “consuming” and spending the whole day seeking money, it is sad to say that in my opinion it is becoming the “new global religion”. Not so “new”, probably.
MM- What about the enormous amount of gay population in China? I think it’s a pretty interesting phenomenon.
As a student of gender and sex studies in China, I am interested in the gay community in Beijing of course. I know some of them and bars they use to meet up. Last year I published an article about a “gay park” here in Beijing on an Italian newspaper. Homosexuals have recently “officially” gained attention and small victories if we think that a few years ago to be homosexual was a kind of “forbidden” thing or considered a mental disease.
Today there are more and more organizations working for the rights of the gay community. And lots of bars and shops, of course. No need to say that the reality and the freedom a gay can live in cities like Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong is enormously different from other urban or rural areas. To be homosexual in China is still a “big problem”, because according to the Confucian ethics and Chinese tradition, one of the most shameful things is dying without marrying and having children: it means to have not respect for parents and ancestors, something like a “moral crime”. From this point of view, a funny anecdote that I heard from a gay student about homosexuals in China is: “In most of the western countries gay couples can not marry. In China we can: we marry a person of the other sex only to have a child and in this way hiding our identity of homosexuals and live our life freely from discriminations and prejudices”. Well, he is right, after all.
Ok Daniele, thank you very much for your time and patience, I wish you had fun and that people will start reading your blogs more and more!! You deserve!!