Preserving Lhasa’s history (part two)

Lhasa is developing fast, but the city’s architecture and traditions are at risk. In the concluding segment of a two-part article, Liu Jianqiang reports on the residents trying to conserve this unique urban environment.

Karma arrived in Lhasa in the winter of 1986, cold and hungry after a 10-day journey on the back of an open truck. His first act was to complete a circuit around the Jokhang Temple, weeping as he prostrated himself. Karma then worshipped in the temple – something all Tibetans aspire to do.

Karma stayed in Lhasa, and is now one of Tibet’s most successful businessmen. Pilgrims like Karma, who end up staying in Lhasa, form a part of Lhasa’s growing population. But a bigger spur to Lhasa’s growth has been the increase in governmental, industrial and commercial activity. An elderly Tibetan told me that in 1950, there were so few Han households that he could name them all. Nowadays, you can take 10 taxis in Lhasa, and eight or nine of the drivers will be from the mainly Han Chinese province of Sichuan.

On a mid-May afternoon I stood on a road running between the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple. In 10 minutes, over 100 people passed me by, but not one was wearing traditional Tibetan clothes. Some of those passers-by were Tibetan, but it was as if they had abandoned their dress and their culture.

Lhasa has already abandoned enough. When Karma first arrived, almost all traditional Tibetan buildings – religious and secular alike — were still intact. Two decades later, only one-third of the traditional-style secular buildings still stand.

“Lhasa’s personality is changing,” said Dawa Tsering, head of WWF’s Lhasa office. He told me that Lhasa’s architecture should represent the city’s unique cultural values, but local tradition is being ignored. Lhasa is being developed in the same way as Beijing or Shanghai, as part of a quest for modernisation.

Tsering admitted that tradition could not always be completely retained. For instance, traditional Tibetan buildings tend to lack light and space. But this is no reason to abandon them entirely – a redesigned interior which still retains the external appearance could make Tibetan buildings suitable for modern living.

A Tibetan sociologist, who declined to be named, said that the demise of Lhasa’s traditional architecture can be put down to the sources of investment in the city. Most funding comes from Chinese investors in faraway provinces. For instance, Jiangsu Road was built with money from eastern China’s Jiangsu province, whereas the Lhasa People’s Hospital was paid for by Jiangsu province, Beijing municipality and the Ministry of Health. Provincial and government support for infrastructure construction is no bad thing, but it’s difficult to ensure it will produce Tibetan-style buildings.

The sociologist added that in the past two decades, failures in urban planning have lead to the excessive outward expansion of the city. In 1992, Lhasa relaxed its restrictions on private construction, leading to a building boom fuelled by property developers. Many residents relocated to the outskirts of the city. A new district arose to the west of Lhasa, devoid of any Tibetan characteristics. Many Tibetans from outside Lhasa moved into the city, buying and building houses. And although these buildings do have some Tibetan characteristics, they lack any overall planning or proper sewage treatment facilities.

Over recent decades, Lhasa has been marching towards “modernisation”. According to the city government’s website, average per capita housing space has risen from 7 square metres in 1959 to 25 square metres today. Government investment has brought infrastructure construction and has funded the preservation of the Potala Palace and Lhasa’s temples. But the city has grown too rapidly, leaving sewerage, roads, electricity and telecommunications infrastructure struggling to keep up. Lhasa has recently built an up-to-date solid waste treatment plant, but there is still no such facility for sewage – which is discharged raw into the Lhasa River, known as the mother of the Tibetan civilisation. 

There are also issues with the ethnic layout of the city. A survey by Peking University found that Han and Tibetan populations keep to their own districts, limiting interaction between the two groups. This segregation also affects children, who are likely to attend schools close to their own homes. Tibetan residents in the old city tend not to have Han friends or neighbours, Han people are often ill-informed about Tibetans.

Lhasa has already expanded as far as it can, so these issues will have to be resolved within the current city limits. And bringing two populations together is not as simple as adding Tibetan features to buildings. The real challenge is how a traditional culture can survive in the modern world. Karma says that the biggest threat to Tibetan culture is not the influx of Han Chinese – it’s globalisation. Businesses from Lhasa and elsewhere are turning this holy city into a marketplace. The Potala Palace and many of Lhasa’s temples have become commercialised and monks are being tempted back to a secular life. Tibetans have put away their traditional clothes, and money has become paramount as young farmers and nomads leave the land for the city lights. 

People like Karma have started trying to save the city’s culture, not by rejecting Lhasa’s commercialisation, but trying to make it work for Tibetan culture, not against it.

Karma answers the phone in English, but keeps his hair in Tibetan-style braids and often wears Tibetan clothing. Most importantly, he retains his kind heart, his honesty and his Buddhist faith.

Karma is working to establish the first five-star hotel in Lhasa. In talks with the chief executive of a major international hotel chain, he requested that the proposed hotel should keep to traditional Tibetan designs, and that it should face the Potala. The American executive sneered: “Our guests want to stay in a hotel, not your Potala Palace.” But Karma retorted: “Guests will come from around the world to see Tibetan traditions – not your hotel.”

Whether this city remains sacred will be determined by people like Karma, and whether the government will adopt the same attitudes to tradition, faith and modernisation that he holds. 


The author: Liu Jianqiang,born in 1969, is a senior reporter with Southern Weekend and has a long-standing interest in environmental issues.

Homepage photo by Kees & Sarah