Monday, March 31, 2008

Cinematic Misrepresentation: Kundun

(This review was written shortly after the film Kundun appeared in 1997. I have used parts of it for my earlier post on the Origins of Tibetan Separatism. However, because of the continuing unrest over the issue of Tibet, and the misplaced belief in the absence of violence in Tibetan traditional culture, I have decided to post it here.)


Kundun (1997) begins with a very selective reading of history, and gets little better as the film unfolds.

“The Tibetans have practised non-violence for a thousand years”, we are assured in an introductory note. What? No private armies employed by serf-owners to maintain their ruling position over the serfs? No punishments such as the gouging out of eyes, cutting out of tongues, amputations of limbs? No legions of armed monks engaging in periodic battles between monasteries over control of land and interpretations of scripture? No standing armies to carry out incursions into neighbouring territory or to guard against encroachment by neighbours and, later (1904 in particular) by Britain?

The philosophy of non-violence may be a central tenet of Tibetan Buddhism, but violence has indeed been practised there in the course of the last thousand years. Monks will not kill an animal for meat but they will eat the meat of an animal killed by the outcast butchers whose violence against the animals makes the meat available for consumption.

Kundun opens with the search for the soul boy or reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (left) who had died in 1933. In 1934, the Kashag, Tibet’s local authority, sent search parties to Qinghai, Xikang and southern Tibet. Three such children were initially identified, but the Regent, Radreng, who was opposed to British interference in Tibet’s affairs, based his selection partly on the fact of the soul boy’s family having lived in close proximity to Han Chinese territory, and reported to the Guomindang (KMT) Government of Chiang Kai-shek on all stages of the soul boy’s formal preparation for confirmation as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. From the point of view of film as a visual medium, one can perhaps understand why slow pans of Moroccan hills are preferable to going into detail of intrigues within the Kashag but this can not be excused when omissions of detail create false interpretations of history.

Radreng is shown embroiled in a minor controversy over whether or not he should receive extra rewards for having discovered the soul boy. This follows the gratuitous insertion of a scene showing him inhaling snuff, a detail unlikely to ender him to audiences. We then see him arrested and jailed. A little later he is reported as having “died” in custody.

The omissions here are enormous. Radreng was probably no angel: in 1934 he had confiscated the property and gouged the eyes out of Lungshar, the pro-British Kashag Defence Secretary. He had dismissed from office others he had considered pro-British and prevented the British from opening schools in Tibet. A clique, backed by Britain, thus formed against him. Radreng, even after his arrest in 1947, remained in favour of close ties with China. He told his captors: “Religiously and geographically, China and Tibet are inseparable.” His arrest prompted much fighting between armed monks from monasteries loyal to Radreng, and the Kashag troops in Lhasa. Many lives were lost and the situation was turning critical. Fearing the consequences of Radreng being set free by insurgents, the pro-British element murdered radreng on May 7, 1947. This incident allowed the separatist elements within the Kashag to hold power and to be in a position to wean the young Dalai away from Radreng’s influence.
The Radreng Incident was a crucial turning point in the orientation of the local Tibetan authority, the Kashag. It now began to pursue a separatist position with the encouragement of the British in India, and of US agents like Lowell Thomas who lived for a while in Lhasa as a representative for CBS. The makers of Kundun deliberately refrain from drawing out the significance of the Radreng Incident because they do not want to show Tibet as ever having accepted or preferred its status as a local authority under the jurisdiction of the central government of China. Nor do they want to openly admit to the methods used to impose a change of direction. They were, after all, hardly “non-violent”!

Another startling omission is any reference to the Banqen Erdeni (or Panchen Lama). The Dalai Lama is not the sole religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Historically, there have been two Supreme Living Buddhas in Tibet, the Dalai being one, and the Banqen the other. In their various reincarnations they have sometimes been in conflict; for the most part their cooperation has had the effect of a balancing act and has prevented the creation of vacuums during periods of succession following the death of either the one or the other.

The Tenth Banqen, until his death a few years ago, represented that trend within Tibetan Buddhism that preferred local autonomy within China to the separatism of an imperialist-backed, Western-dependent “independence”.

The makers of Kundun, having obscured the political significance of the Radreng Incident, obviously had no place for the added complication of a Supreme Living Buddha who espoused the unity of a China comprising Han, Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchu and Hui and Uighur (both Muslim) nationalities, among others of the more than 50 ethnic groups that constitute modern China. Far better for director Scorcese to create a “rapture in pictures” (Time) than to get bogged down in details that aren’t going to bother the average cinema-goer in the West, but which are central to an appreciation of the Tibetan issue.

Whilst ignoring historical detail likely to undermine the case for Tibetan separatism, Scorcese makes use of character dialogue to establish the “fact” of Chinese bastardry on a grand scale. They are accused of “trying to rewrite history”; a few minutes later, it’s “Your Holiness, the Chinese have invaded”.

Did the Chinese “invade” Tibet? In 1950, the Chinese PLA advanced into a largely Tibetan-populated area which Chiang Kai-shek, caught up in civil war, had been unable to control. This area, Chamdo, was not at that time a part of Tibet; at the end of the Qing Dynasty it had been incorporated into Sikang Province, which in turn would be incorporated by the new Communist Government into Sichuan Province.
One of the Kaloons, or senior officials of Tibet, the serf-owner Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, was dispatched at the head of the Tibetan army[1] to block the advance of the PLA. The Tibetan landowners’ response to the advancing revolutionary forces was no different to that of the warlords of large landowners anywhere else in China. Tibetan theocracy was a system of feudal privilege and it panicked at the advance of the revolutionary PLA. When the two armies confronted each other in Chamdo, the Tibetans were defeated.

Ngapoi was treated well by the PLA: this was quite consistent with their treatment of KMT generals who had been captured in battle or who had changed sides. It gave him the confidence to report in full to the Dalai Lama his observations of the behaviour of the PLA towards the Tibetans in Chamdo. The Dalai was at that time in Yadung, near the Indian border, and was being tempted with American and British arms and money to lead a fight against the “Reds”. With the PLA making no effort to push beyond Chamdo, and with Ngapoi’s first-hand accounts of their policies towards the ethnic minorities, the Dalai appointed Ngapoi to lead a delegation to Beijing to negotiate an Agreement with the new Chinese Government.

Kundun shows the Dalai’s shock at the news of the signing of the 17 Point Agreement on the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. He reels physically at the blow it delivers. Fact or fiction? Would he not have known what it meant to seek an agreement with Beijing when all Chinese Governments since the Yuan Dynasty had regarded Tibet as part of Chinese territory? Would he not have canvassed the options with the man he appointed as his personal representative? Why endorse the May 23, 1951 Agreement in his personal messages to Chairman Mao if it was so shocking and distasteful?

Unfortunately for Mr Scorcese and many of the Dalai’s supporters in the West, China did not “invade” Tibet in 1950. It advanced only to Chamdo in Sikang Province and then halted for eight months whilst an Agreement was negotiated with properly authorized Tibetan representatives. Subsequently endorsed by the Dalai Lama, the 17 Point Agreement on the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet was the basis on which China peacefully resumed sovereignty over Tibet. Tibet was guaranteed local autonomy as were other parts of China where non-Han minorities were dominant.

If the reference to “rewriting history” is not sufficient to revive Cold War anti-Red myopia, a further bit of not so subtle character dialogue is inserted. A na├»ve Dalai, still vacillating in his attitude towards the Chinese, remarks “We’ve managed the Chinese for many years”, only to be told “These are not the Chinese we have known – they’re Communists!” This avoids a double purpose: it reinforces anti-communism, but avoids alienating the Taiwan authorities who had feted by the Dalai’s elder brother as early as 1952 and in whom the Dalai sees an anti-Beijing political ally[1].

Even the Dalai’s brother is utilized for political point-scoring against the Chinese. He is the film’s vehicle for the Dalai’s own explanation of his co-operation with the Chinese in their resumption of sovereignty over Tibet. They were pretending to be nice at first, and the Dalai genuinely believed that he could work with them, but they soon “bullied people and burnt homes”. Other allegations, later in the film, are that the Chinese “forced children to kill their parents and forced nuns and monks to fornicate”[2].

Some of the characterizations of the Chinese make one want to cringe at their crudity. It is like the 1950’s revisited. I remember an early primary school library book which, alongside a photo of Mao, had a caption that read “In China everyone wears the same clothes, but Chairman Mao’s are made from better cloth”. The intention was to show the “hypocrisy” behind Communist professions of equality for all. Scorcese adopts the same crudities: General Tan, the senior PLA representative in Lhasa, is embarrassed by references to his gold watch that have been heard in popular street songs. Mao’s black patent leather shoes shine in close-up. It is childish film-making, blatantly intended to manipulate the desired response from the audience. Mao is condescending and doesn’t listen, and so it goes on.

In accordance with its guarantees on local autonomy for Tibet, the central government refused to interfere with the social system there until the incitement of a rebellion in 1959 by the upper strata of Tibetan society. These people, serf-owners and the heads of some of the monasteries, had frustrated every effort at gradual reform initiated by the Tibetans themselves, and feared the growing popularity of measures adopted in areas outside of Tibet: land reform, public education, health services and restrictions on the recruitment of young children into religious orders.

With the suppression of their rebellion came the collapse of the local Government in Tibet and the abandonment of Tibet by the Dalai Lama. A Preparatory Committee for the Establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region had been formed in 1956 under the chairmanship of the Dalai Lama. The Banqen Lama now became the “Acting Chairman of the Preparatory Committee pending the Dalai Lama’s return”, and he, together with Ngapoi and other progressive Tibetans, began the introduction of long overdue reforms which had been continually blocked by the Kashag.
The old society of Tibet, left in place by the central government until the collapse of the Kashag, was so indefensible, so cruel and so backward that Scorcese has the departing Dalai Lama bemoaning that “The saddest thing is we were about to change”.

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful scriptwriter for works of fiction.





(Secret Tibet, a 1943 Nazi film depicting the work in Tibet of three Nazi scientists, including Dr Bruno Berger, mentioned in Note 1 below. Hitler believed that the remoteness and inaccessibility of Tibet had protected the "racial purity" of the Tibetan people, and wanted to use the "scientific" studies of Berger and others to prove his theories on race. The Nazi swastika is a religious symbol of Buddhism and is found at Buddhist sites throughout India and China, including Tibet.)




[1] The Dalai went on his first ever visit to Taiwan in 1997, hoping to win Taiwan “independence” activists to the cause of Tibetan “independence”. The central government has therefore insisted that the Dalai must acknowledge Taiwan as a aprt of China before any talks with him begin. Asiaweek reported (Sept. 11, 1988) that this “certainly seems to have put the Dalai Lama in a tight spot.”

[2] Incitement to violence by Tibetan separatists is not a topic dealt with by Kundun. The CIA for many years after the Dalai left Tibet, trained Tibetans in exile as saboteurs and murderers, and parachuted them into Tibet. Tseten Norbu, President of the Tibetan Youth Council, said in a recent interview that “Within our policy guidelines we can choose both violent and non-violent programs.” Jamyang Norbu, one of the Tibetan terrorists trained by the CIA tells overseas audiences that “not all Tibetans are the Dalai Lama and that I’ve met lamas who tell their followers that killing one Chinese is the karmic equivalent of building a thousand stupas”. (Quotes from “Fires of Frustration”, Asiaweek, Sept. 11, 1988.)

[1] There had always been an armed presence in Tibet, often based around the more powerful monasteries, to protect their interests in local wars and to maintain the cruel serf-owning system of Tibetan theocracy. In the anti-British war of 1904, the Tibetan forces fought with distinction. Feted by the Nazis in the lead-up to WW2, the Tibetan ruling class further strengthened the local army. Nazi officer Dr Bruno Berger, then in the Tibetan town of Shigatse, observed with approval the developments taking place. “For a better protection of the country and to maintain their sovereignty, the Government set up a modern army of 10,000 men, whose training could be admired even by us in Shigatse. Everything was obviously done with diplomatic skill to preserve their independence. Even our having been invited was probably due to the Tibetan’s aim to establish a firm contact with the rising ‘German Reich’, which might contribute to the support of their status of independence.” (From Berger’s “Memoirs” on the Dalai Lama’s official website: http://www.tibet.com/Status/bruno.html .) The Nazi Berger’s references to “autonomy” and “independence” should be treated with caution: his memoirs were written after US imperialism had identified Tibetan “independence” as a means of destabilising New China; the terms did not exist in the Tibetan lexicon or were poorly defined at the best at the time Berger was there, according to George Patterson, a translator for the Americans in their dealings with the Dalai clique in the fifties and sixties.

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