Lecture | Are We Still Prisoners of Shangri-la? Orientalism, Internal Orientalism and the Internalization of Orientalism

Lecture Information:

Speaker: Shen Weirong (沈卫荣)

Host: Lu Yang (陆扬)

Theme: Are We Still Prisoners of Shangri-la? Orientalism, Internal Orientalism and the Internalization of Orientalism

Time: 19:00 – 20:30

Date: December 11 (Wednesday), 2019

Venue: Room B101, Second Gymnasium, Yenching Academy, Peking University

Language: English


Shangri-la was originally a colonialist utopia created by James Hilton in his best-seller novel Lost Horizon in 1933. It was a place of imagination, hidden away in a region no one had previously known about and that no one could find except by accident. However, across the last three decades, Shangri-la was gradually adopted as a synonym for Tibet and transformed into a post-modern utopia, or rather a spiritual supermarket in the western world. As Shangri-la, Tibet symbolizes everything good that we currently long for, such as environmental protection, non-violence, human rights, spiritual enlightenment, equality of men and women, etc.. Accordingly, our great enthusiasm for Tibet provides little benefit to the real Tibet; in truth, we are merely fighting for an imagined utopia outside of time and space. Thus, we are all prisoners of Shangri-la.

In 2001, the Chinese government announced that the precise location of Shangri-la was in Zhongdian County, Yunnan. Since then, the Sino-Tibetan borderlands in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai, and the Tibet autonomous region have been the sites of numerous state projects of tourism development and nature conservation. In the meantime, thousands and millions of Han Chinese people have become entranced by Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. They consider Tibet as the last pure land on earth and seek spiritual purification and enlightenment by following Tibetan lamas and making pilgrimages to Tibet. Although Tibet is physically easy accessible nowadays, it has become more spiritual than ever to Han Chinese. These individuals are not only prisoners of Shangri-la themselves, but also make great effort to turn this colonist utopiain to reality.

The Tibetan people did not play any part in the creation of Shangri-la, a Christian theocratic and colonist utopia. The Tibetans once considered their own snow land as a pure land blessed by Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and sought a means of reaching Shambhala, a hidden heaven reserved only for realized Buddhist practitioners. Now, however, in the age of globalization, they have begun to embrace the myth of Shangri-la and internalize all the great qualities of this imagined utopia of western orientalism for the sake of constructing and performing the identity of Tibet and Tibetan religious traditions. Hence, Tibetans are inventing their traditions based on the myth of Shangri-la and thereby becoming prisoners of Shangri-la.


Shen Weirong is a Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study of Humanism and Social Sciences in Tsinghua University, China. His research focuses on Tibetan Buddhist history and the history of the spread of Tibetan tantric Buddhism in Central Eurasia and China from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. He received his Ph.D for Central Asian Philology at Bonn University, Bonn, with his dissertation Leben und historische Bedeutung des ersten Dalai Lama dGe ’dun grub pa dpal bzang po (1391-1474)--- Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der dGe lugs pa-Schule und der Institution der Dalai Lama (Monumenta Serica Monograph Series XLIX, P. 1-476, ISBN 3-8050-0469-9, Styler Verlag, Institut Monometa Serica, St. Augustin, Germany, 2002). His recent publications include Philological Studies of Tibetan Buddhism and History (Shanghaiguji chubanshe, 2010); Imaging Tibet (Beijing Normal University Press, 2015); Text and History: The Making of Tibetan Buddhist Historical Narratives and the Construction of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Studies (Peking University Press, and China Tibetology Publishing House, 2015).

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